Planet Earth

History as intellectual hydrography

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanDec 23, 2012 2:26 PM


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One of the great aspects of owning a Kindle has been that I have been able to load it with cheap copies of "classics."* As it happens I had physical copies of many of these works, but often it became difficult to keep track of various books in even my modest personal library. Generally scientific references were placed prominently, and I made use of them often, and so always was able to mark exactly where they were. But when it came to Nicomachean Ethics or The Critique of Pure Reason, I would proactively seek them on only rare occasions. Now with a compact and well organized personal digital library I find that I revisit the ancients much more often to engage with them in dialogue. Here I recall what Niccolò Machiavelli once asserted: When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.

Meghna River I am far too much a Whig in instinct to agree with this sentiment without reservation. When I trudge through the extended diatribe that is City of God I cannot help but scoff at St. Augustine's screed, 1,600 years on. And yet this contempt instills in me a sense of deep humility, for surely generations future will look toward our own orthodoxies and sneer and laugh. We are all embedded in our own presuppositions, and the ecology of ideas which nourish our prejudices, for good or ill. It is as if we are an element of a broad and powerful river, flowing through familiar territory. If you asked a stream of the river to describe its place in the context of the whole, it would be at a loss, because the river is one, and as a category is indivisible. But step back, rise up, and you can see the topography and the overall course of the flow, from headwaters down to the floodplain. Similarly, ideas have history, and people have history, even if they are not aware of that history as it flows past them. Human cognition is such that there is a strong bias to imagine that we are idealized rationality machines, who derive our own positions by force of our free will. But the reality is that much of our cognition is socially and historically contingent. This does not mean that beliefs are arbitrary, but, they are flexible and strongly shaded by context. The folly of the most brilliant of ancients brings home to us the reality that pure force of mental acuity can not break free of the shackles of history. What follies do we adhere to? What positions are we "evolving" toward at this very moment? During a typical day my own interactions are with young people of a very precise and specific technical bent. There is no lack of cognitive processing power, but when conversation drifts away from areas of deep technical fluency, then St. Augustine begins to strike me as a man of objective ahistorical clarity. The technics of the modern age are humans who sustain our civilization, but they often lack background or interest in the human past, or a more expansive view of the present. There is a very definite poverty of imagination in regards to the range of human opinion, and a conceit that the shape of the world is as precisely defined as the arc of planetary motions. Whereas before I had held to the position that a minimal level of liberal classical education was critical in tying together the higher orders of a social system through a common set of narratives and frames, today I believe that a canon is essential to allow people at any given moment to see that human experience is broad, and that we are all creatures in a specific time and place. I cannot help but wonder if the occasional outbursts of extreme relativism which issue out of the academy may simply be a function of the inability of narrowly trained moderns to comprehend that one can hold onto one's values and views, while at the same time appreciating differences of perspective. It may be to difficult to withhold ill will across the chasms of contemporary partisanship, but surely one must acknowledge Aristotle's brilliance and his folly! * You may wonder why I would pay even a nominal fee when these are public domain. My personal experience is that a minimal amount of commentary and attention to formatting is worth a few dollars.

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