John Ralston Saul is a village explainer. In On Equilibrium, his fifth book that tells us how to think and get along in the world, he commits the prophet's usual sins: he says things that are not only unpleasant but also obvious; he talks at the little people from a certain height; he needlessly subdivides the characteristics of his subject (our minds); he does go on. And he wakes us up. Saul writes competent, lay political philosophy that presumes we have read or will read some good books. In listing "qualities" that we share and that, when we're ticking correctly, are balanced in us, he stands in a long and honourable line of those who anatomize the intelligence. Common Sense, Ethics, Imagination, Intuition, Memory, and Reason get one chapter each, in that order. It's best to read the book straight through, because most of the references linking the qualities are retrospective.
Saul's a bourgeois liberal with a generous soul and a quiver of historical arrows. Though he admires many feisty NGOs, he points out how, in North America, like pacifist labour unions before World War I, they limit their own effect on government policy by fastidiously staying just outside conventional politics. He writes, "[G]etting elected is the ultimate way to ensure that society will act ethically...." And shows how to exercise ethical muscle (no pain, no gain), using examples of public behaviour. We can easily define ethics politically, though we may just as easily consider imagination or intuition personal. But Saul's not peddling pop psychology. Relentlessly hip, he starts his argument in the world we know from books, TV, or newspapers, showing many of the ways the common good is diminished when imagination or intuition are curbed by the powerful, who are spooked by these capacities in us and who crave certainty and control.
This lucid work by an uncompromised public intellectual is valuable for several reasons: it may inspire us to read other writers it cites admiringly (Saul's a big fan of Vico); it invites clear thought about useful abstractions (democracy, citizenship, the common good); with fierce wit and much wisdom it defines and attacks corporatism, the calamitous utilitarian spirit of many contemporary governments and businesses; and it stands up proudly to be accounted Canadian. --Ted Whittaker [via]