|"THE SEEKERS "|
October 26, 1998
David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages writer
Daniel Boorstin, author of "The Seekers, The Story of Man's Continuing
Quest to Understand This World."
| DAVID GERGEN: Dan, your new book, "The Seekers," completes
a trilogy - three books that you've been working on for a long time, the
first one about the creators - the first one about the discoverers, the
next one about the creators, and now the seekers. What was this project
DANIEL BOORSTIN, Author, "The Seekers:" Well, you may know that before that I wrote another trilogy, and I spent about 30 years on it, and then having reached the end of that trilogy was pretty well received. That was the Americans.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
DANIEL BOORSTIN: The Colonial experience, the national experience, and the Democratic experience - decided they wanted to move on - de-provincialize myself - reach out to the world. And so consulting with Ruth, who is my inspiration and my intellectual companion and my editor -
DAVID GERGEN: And your wife.
DANIEL BOORSTIN: And my wife too, luckily so - I decided that I'll try to write about the world, about human fulfillment from the western point of view, and that's what I've spent - I look back - it doesn't seem that long at all, but now it's been a quarter century that I've been doing this, these three volumes.
DAVID GERGEN: Tell us about the seekers. Who are they?
DANIEL BOORSTIN: Well, the seekers are people in search of meaning. They are - I would say that the story as a whole moves from the search for the why to the search for the how.
DAVID GERGEN: That's the story from the -
DANIEL BOORSTIN: Beginning with Job and ending with Einstein. That's a pretty wide sweep.
DAVID GERGEN: That is a wide sweep.
DANIEL BOORSTIN: And one I enjoyed very much. So the seeker then is a person who wants to know the why. And that's something that I've enjoyed exploring to see why that's the case. In fact, another theme was - which is explored in the book - is the - is expressed in Cervantes motto, which I use as the motto of this book, "The road is always better than the end." And that means that it's the seeking that brings us together, that fulfills us, and it's the finding, the people who think they have found the final answer, who are the menace to our humanity really, because I think there is no final answer. And that's why my models - my ideals, I suppose, are Voltaire, the Great French historian and philosopher, and William James, William James, who invented the phrase "stream of consciousness" and who objected to what people thought of as the block universe. He didn't think the universe was something that was all frozen and could be taken apart but, rather, it was always flowing, and that flow is - is why I like to try to write about. That's what the historian is concerned with.
DAVID GERGEN: Did Aristotle have the greatest influence of the seekers?
DANIEL BOORSTIN: Well, I think he probably did. He had a great influence. Of course, I wouldn't - I don't like these ranking of people greatest and near great and so on, because the - humanity is such a varied and elusive and subtle thing that we can't characterize it in that way. But I must say I admire Aristotle, despite the fact that he became the subject of a dogma in the Middle Ages. I admire his appeal to common sense and experience. His academy was a place where people collected information about their world and then came to conclusions about constitutions and government and things like that. So it's that seeking spirit that I - that I admire, and a theme of the book which emerges, as you know, is that we - these people all began seeking meaning, seeking the meaning, but we end in our age in finding meaning in the seeking.
DAVID GERGEN: Why are some ages - why do they flower with great thought and great discoverers, great creators?
DANIEL BOORSTIN: Well, that's a mystery, I would say. Einstein observed that there's nothing greater in the world than the mystery of things. That is what give us our interest in the science and the arts. And I think that is also what appeals to me as a historian, not - not finding answers or simple solutions, including that simplistic question you've just put to me, which I don't particularly like. I don't think there is an answer to that. And I think people who come up with the answers are being wiser than they ought to pretend to be.
DAVID GERGEN: But, how then does one encourage a culture to have that pursuit, these kinds of pursuits? Some cultures one feels must have been more exciting to live in than others. How does one encourage their own culture to reach -
DANIEL BOORSTIN: You encouraged it by awakening people to their own possibilities, to the possibilities, the endless possibilities of humanity that can never be rigidly defined, and that - when you awaken people to their possibilities, to their infinite possibilities, then you're on the way toward understanding, but that's always a reason. And I think that we have - the way I think of it is very much as Einstein did when he said that God is subtle but not malicious, and that he would not have made a rational man if he hadn't also made an intelligible universe.
DAVID GERGEN: Let me ask you one final question. You've now worked for a long time on the Americans -
DANIEL BOORSTIN: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: -- and then a long time on the development of world civilization. Where does America fit into the story of world civilization?
DANIEL BOORSTIN: Well, if I knew all about world civilization, I could answer that question. You're pretending to be - want me to pretend to be wiser than I really am, but I think the - what I find exciting about the - about the story of America - the history of America is the open-endedness, the fact that when our continent appeared on the consciousness of Western Europeans, that they called it a new world, it had no right to be here. There was no place for it on the map. And that - that's a sense of the outrageousness of the new and the experiment. That is what I find most enticing about - about American history and American civilization. It's the reaching out, bringing together the people of the world so they can reach out in ways they never could elsewhere.
DAVID GERGEN: Dan Boorstin, thank you very much.
DANIEL BOORSTIN: Thank you.