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Cornel West: Hope Is Spiritual Armor Against Modern Society’s Spiritual Warfare

There is a spiritual war happening in the United States, and to be silent is to be complicit, says Dr. Cornel West. He takes his starting point at the elimination of arts programs under Reagan in the 1980s, and traces how that lack of spiritual nourishment has created a society of solitary nomads where once there was community. It has created consumers where once there were citizens. What must fill that emptiness is hope, West suggests—and hope not as a wistful wish for a better future, but as an enactment of a better future through action. Quoting from some of philosophy and music’s greatest thinkers and doers, West presents a lyrical lecture on the role of hope in the battle over the soul of Americans, and American democracy. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. For more from Dr. Cornel West, head to cornelwest.com.

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What does it mean to learn how to die in order to learn how to live? That’s platonic isn’t it? Philosophy itself is a meditation in preparation for death. Montaigne says the philosophizers learn how to die. Seneca says he or she who learns how to die unlearns slavery because art, paideia—deep education, not cheap schooling—deep education is about a critical self-examination of that which is inside of us that needs to die. The fears. The cowardice. The complacency. The conformity. The assumptions and pre-supposition, the prejudices and pre-judgments that we have that need to go. James Brown called it ‘give it up, turn it loose’. It needs to go. Just like falling in love. You fall in love with somebody, something has died in you.Anne Carson understands this well in her classic; something’s died in you. The egoism, the fear, the narcissism—I know a lot of people don’t undergo full-fledged death, but it’s an effort because you’re now entangled with a new self and that new self means you have been transformed and lo’ and behold you walk around with a smile on your face feeling good before Sappho’s bittersweet hits you.

But the connection of learning how to die and the saddest feature of our moment, in regards to Du Bois’s first question, is that so many young brothers and sisters of the younger generation find themselves so far removed from the best of their past, far removed from the best that has gone into the shaping and molding them, that all they have relation is market forces, market forces, market forces. Stimulation, titillation. They’re hungry for care and nurture, hungry for something deeper. That’s what the spiritual and moral awaking young people in the last five or ten years is all about. The hunger for what Ashford and Simpson called The Real Thing. And what is the real thing? Well, it’s something that is dynamic, you never get your hands on it, it’s intangible but it has everything to do with the ways in which love, the ways in which justice in motion generate hope, generate encouragement, generate a certain sense of enthusiasm for what is to come. Anticipation of the not-yet rooted in the ugly what-is. And Ernst Bloch and others talked about it in the classical philosophy of hope. The volumes on philosophy of hope.

And what was the response? Oh here comes hip-hop. Jesse Rose, Brother André, magnificent, why she laid it out to 25 years ago. You eliminate the art program? Okay we’re not going to produce anybody that sounds as good as Sarah Vaughan or Donny Hathaway anymore; some of them lucky to sing in tune, because they haven’t been taught well. They don’t have examples because they’re no longer in churches. If they aren’t in church where are they going to get it? They’re going to get it on the radio but lo’ and behold they can make more money, by not necessarily imitating the best. But they did anyways connect the best. That’s why they went to Sly Stone, that’s why they went to Curtis Mayfield, that’s why they went to George Clinton, that’s why they went to James Brown, they went to Aretha, they sampled it, they couldn’t play it anymore, there’s no instruments to learn how to play. So they had to sample it and use their orality and the genius of their language to keep the tradition alive. What happens when that is more and more stripped away? Then you’re going to have a Hobbesian war of all against all, which is in part a description of where our precious poor and working class youth of color and poor youth have to live every day, and there’s no serious discussion about it. Democratic Party, Republican Party. Thank God for Bernie Sanders but that’s another lecture too.

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