An epiphany (from the ancient Greek epiphaneia, "manifestation, striking appearance") is an experience of sudden and striking realization. Generally the term is used to describe breakthrough scientific, religious or philosophical discoveries, but it can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective. Epiphanies are studied by psychologists and other scholars, particularly those attempting to study the process of innovation.
Epiphanies are relatively rare occurrences and generally follow a process of significant thought about a problem. -- Wikipedia
In the comments following last weekend's blog post about militarism, I mentioned that I believe we'll see world peace in our lifetimes. Yes, real world peace -- not perfect, but enduring. And soon. And, yes, on planet Earth.
Why would I believe such a thing? Well, I guess any person's degree of optimism or pessimism must be rooted in that person's life experience, and I have observed many examples of sudden positive change since I was born. Here's one example that may appear trivial in light of the horrors of war, but it does provide a real illustration of the kind of rapid, sweeping cultural change I'm talking about.
When I worked at a bank in Manhattan in the early 1990s, I had to wear a suit and tie every day. This was the standard dress code for professional software developers in every corporate job sector. Some workplaces allowed developers to eschew the jacket and shiny shoes, but never the tie, the button-up shirt, the tailored slacks.
Like many of my co-workers, I deeply hated the dress code. I hated the conformity it symbolized; as software developers, we were supposed to be creative and original thinkers, and yet we all had to wear the same silly Brooks Brothers pajamas, white or pale blue shirts (no other colors allowed), absurd swaths of brightly colored fabrics dangling from our necks. I hated the symbolism of conformity, and I also hated the physical sensation of a tight collar around my neck. Most of all, I hated wearing a suit because a suit must be kept pristine, and this limited my movements during lunch hour, when I liked to take long walks and explore the city. You can't jump a fence in a suit. You can't sit on the grass in a park.
I used to complain about this to my co-workers, and I would always hear the same response. Don't bother thinking about it. The dress code will never change.
Then, in a sudden flash between the summer of 1995 and the end of that year, Manhattan suddenly threw off its dress code. It was an amazing, unplanned, inexplicable event. I was among the first to enjoy the change when I joined a new media venture at Time Warner. Everybody dressed up in the Time-Life Building, but my New Media department was located in a basement across the street, and since we were trying to prove that Time Warner could nurture a hip Silicon Alley startup (actually, we eventually proved that Time Warner couldn't, but we tried) we were actually instructed to not wear ties. I was pretty happy about this.
But the ripples of change were emerging from a deeper source, and spreading everywhere. All of Time Inc., I heard, was beginning a tradition of "casual Friday". In weird synchronicity, and to my utter shock and disbelief, I heard around the same time from a former co-worker that my old JP Morgan office was now instituting "casual Friday".
"No way," I said to my friend. "Do they even know what casual means down there?"
"No," he said. "It's going to be pretty awkward at first."
I'm sure it was, but before the year 1995 was over, casual Friday had become casual everyday, and this happened everywhere: Time Inc., JP Morgan, all of Wall Street, most corporate offices in Manhattan. The casual dress meme came from nowhere, and was championed by nobody (certainly not by Brooks Brothers) ... and yet it took over the city. Why?
It's called an epiphany. I have seen and experienced many epiphanies in my life, and I'm sure you have too. The signature feature of an epiphany is that, even though it may reflect a long process of agitation or preparation for change, it happens suddenly and naturally, and spreads rapidly by its own power. An epiphany creates itself, and contains its own logical justification. Most importantly, epiphanies have power. Once they occur, they can't be stopped.
An epiphany can be societal or individual. When I was a teenager, I was very shy and had trouble making friends. But when I was in 10th grade, I experienced a sudden realization that I didn't need to be shy anymore. That realization was the entire epiphany; there was no event that preceded it, no logical proof behind it, no evidence to support it. I don't need to be shy anymore. The idea simply justified itself, simply popped into my brain and made itself real. The fact that I had this epiphany didn't mean I would never feel socially awkward or alienated anymore -- but it did mean that I would no longer allow myself to be limited by this handicap. Maybe it's because I remember so vividly the positive impact this epiphany had on my life that I believe so strongly in the power of epiphany today.
We've been talking here on Litkicks about redemption. Epiphany is often the engine of redemption. Another term we've discussed here is satori. This word describes the intellectual apprehension that an epiphany is taking place.
Can we have a worldwide epiphany for peace? Sure we can, and we will, because peace is the better idea, and a better idea will always make itself known. An amazing epiphany for peace already occurred in Western Europe in 1945, when World War Two ended. This is an example worth paying close attention to.
Some might scoff that the end of a war is not an epiphany for peace, and this is true. There was no epiphany for peace in Western Europe after France and Germany and England and Austria tore each other to shreds in the First World War, or after the Franco-Prussian War, or after the Napoleonic Wars. Each of these earlier wars left violently passionate resentments in place that led to the war that followed. When these wars ended, the participants remained militarized, and hostilities simmered.
But when World War Two ended, somehow Western Europe found itself done with war. For the first time in 200 years, everybody knew that France and Germany would not fight each other again. All sides laid down their arms. Hostilities continued around the world, of course, in Asia, Russia, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, India, South America. But Western Europe, the central hotbed of nationalistic hatred and rampant militarism since the days of Napoleon, truly laid down its arms. The fact that this happened proves that a large-scale epiphany for peace is possible, and that its power can endure.
In the case of Western Europe in 1945, the epiphany was born of necessity. I think the whole planet is due for a similar epiphany today. This, too, is an epiphany of necessity.
It may happen quickly, but it won't happen easily. Many people gain various kinds of satisfaction or pleasure or profit from the militarization of society, and they will resist. However, Brooks Brothers couldn't stop the casual dress revolution, and I don't think the world's military-industrial complex will be able to stop the peace revolution, even though it will surely try.
A global epiphany for peace will also be resisted by an assortment of pessimists and doomsday preppers of all political persuasions, who will be disappointed to see the scary dream of global apocalypse vanish. Apocalypses, after all, are exciting and enticing things to dream about.
But the world can shake off that scary dream, and in fact we're probably ready to start shaking it off right now. Is this too much to hope for? I don't think so. Epiphanies are powerful things, once they get rolling.
So, when exactly does this world peace epiphany get rolling? I don't know, but I'll keep urging it along from my little blogger's perch here at Litkicks. A good first step, I think, would be for the nation in the world that spends six times as much as any other nation on weapons and soldiers to cut its defense budget.
The picture at the top of this page depicts a Bogoyavlenie, the annual Bulgarian celebration of the Christian Epiphany, during which people jump into icy water to rescue a cross, and then dance a horo.
This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: A Cartoon Epic of Bertrand Russell. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: What Militarism Does To Our Brains.