Society’s problem-solving skills prove past always binds present


There is in reality no better training of the intellect than assiduous reading of the works of great thinkers - past and present. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

The thoughts of great thinkers of the past appear to be guiding some of our judges in determining momentous public affairs issues, problems and challenges facing the country. 

The most memorable phrases they make when delivering judgments, are from great fictional writers, philosophers, and statesmen - from the classics - masterworks in literature, philosophy, government, history, religion and the natural sciences.

For example, what excited Kenyans most in the recent Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) was Court of Appeal Judge Patrick Kiage statement: “It matters not whether you curve Caesar as a dish fit for the gods, or hue him as a carcass fit for hounds, the cuts are mortal either way...’ 

The judges’ language was derived from William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. A conscientious Brutus wants Caesar killed without causing damage to his body and without killing Mark Anthony, Caesar’s closest ally.  

Some literature minded Kenyans quickly knew Justice Kiage had distilled this expression from Shakespeare. Another Judge who drew from the thoughts of great thinkers other than jurists was Justice Fatuma Sichale in her dissenting opinion. 

Casting doubts on the ideas that argued against the contemplated changes to the 2010 Constitution, Justice Sichale said: “What is good for one generation may not necessarily be good for the next; present and future generations should not be ruled by the dead hand of their ancestors.” 

The phrase ‘the dead hand of their ancestors’ is an offshoot of the basic idea in An American Revolutionist, Thomas Paine that the actions of previous generations shouldn’t unduly constrain current generations to make decisions about its safety and welfare. 

In The Rights of Man, Paine observes: “There never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the “end of time.” 

Sichale was in this statement raising a contrast between a flexible and rigid constitution. She naturally invoked words from the works of a political thinker who believed in the flexibility of laws and regulations. Applying Paine’s idea in managing change in public affairs, Sichale was in effect saying that what our predecessors did or envisaged should not unduly bind the hands of current generation of leaders in dealing with novel situations. 

Evidently, Justice Sichale’s allusion to the American political philosopher escaped most Kenyans. However, it was a reference which underscored, from an educational perspective, the point that the cultural and intellectual heritage of other countries and civilisations are very important in managing and coping with some of the policy situations and problems we face as a nation. 

Whether the present should bind or break from the past is not the thrust of this article. The point is that whatever the situation, the past provides insights, models or reference points in dealing with all manner of issues, situations and challenges institutions face. 

The cultural and intellectual heritage of mankind is relevant for human communities for three reasons. Firstly, a study or reading of the works of great thinkers teaches students how to think. There is in reality no better training of the intellect than assiduous reading of the works of great thinkers - past and present. The thinkers have wrestled with enduring philosophical problems—human conduct, political action, stability and change, order and freedom among others. 

Secondly, it is through reading their works that enables a person, regardless of age, race, profession and station in life, to develop superior conceptual, analytical and problem-solving skills. One learns the elements of reasoning, informal and formal logic, and how to argue with skill, judgement and wisdom. 

Thirdly, students invariably develop and become independent thinkers and communicators. You stop becoming anybody’s sheep. 

Fourthly, one gets acquainted with the nature and gravity of problems, conflicts that define society and the various ways mankind has invented to resolve them.  

In the final analysis, the work of leaders - in government and in the private sector - is to solve problems. Great works of art - fictional and nonfictional - is the place great leaders have had their education for this onerous task. 

Scripture says that there is nothing new under the sun. The situations, problems and challenges individuals and institutions face are in the essentials, similar.  Knowledge and understanding of the past give the current generation of leaders - opinion and policymakers - a frame of reference with which to understand and analyse present problems, situations, problems and challenges. The past provides conceptual frameworks that enrich experience and helps us to find locus and meaning. 

The usefulness of the cultural and intellectual heritage of mankind is not the preserve of lawyers and judges. It is equally important to the men and women who manage the legislative and executive branches of the government. It is no less important to those who manage private sector institutions.  

The intellectual and cultural heritage of mankind is very important in shaping a person’s frame of mind, attitudes and values. People fall back on their frames of mind, attitudes and values when confronted with new circumstances and new facts regardless of the nature and gravity of the circumstances and facts. 

It is the intellectual heritage that helps cultivate a person’s frames of mind, attitudes and values.  It helps to shape a person’s approach to situations, big or small.

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