Friday, April 24, 2015

Nietzsche: Living Unhistorically

Students of history face the same difficulty faced by students of religion when trying to communicate what their intellectual interests are about. Since I happen to stand in both camps, both my feet are put to the fire. The difficulty is that the subjects are peculiarly modern in a way that the study of the natural sciences are not and can never be, but the steadily increasing age of their subject matter gives the impression of their steadily increasing irrelevance.

Let us grant at the outset that modern scientific discoveries are also characteristically modern. Copernicus' heliocentrism, Galilean frames of reference, Newton's Three Laws of Motion and Law of Gravity, Lavoisier's Table of Elements, Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, Clerk Maxwell's Theory of Electromagnetism, Einstein's Theory of Relativity, and Bohr's Quantum Theory (the list could go on) all fit this bill. Neither the ancient nor the medieval mind was so observationally or technically inclined to have generated modern scientific discoveries of these orders.

This may be entirely true. My argument remains unchanged. Why? As long as human beings have recorded their thoughts on tablet, parchment, or paper, they have been interested in the physical world. They may have understood it on very different terms. They may have interpreted it as a creation of the gods, an illusion, or a source of moral order. They were nevertheless trying to understand order of the natural world: to measure distance and time; to understand the relation between the sun, moon, and stars to the ebb and flow of the tides or the changing seasons; to discern the tell-tale signs of new life, or illness, or death. The maintenance of human life depended on these sorts of knowledge.

However, what we call the liberal arts (and we might also include the social sciences here as well) are peculiarly modern in the sense that humanity's interest in its own self is peculiarly modern. Contemporary academic disciplines like history and religion, or economics and social studies for that mater, have no analogue in the pre-modern world. Nor does the plentiful and widely available popular literature on the same that you can pick up at Borders (for Americans) or Indigo (for Canadians). There are anticipations, yes. But nothing that approaches the level of sustained inquiry or critical reflection, not on just what is studied but also how these are studied, that we begin to see in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and the Americas.

The liberal arts are peculiarly modern in the second sense that their subject matter often is not modern at all. Take religion as an obvious example. It may seem that the study of religion is many centuries old because religious figures like the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ, and the Buddha lived many centuries ago.

But this is not strictly the case. The study of comparative religion, which acclimatizes us to making comparative statements like the one immediately above, is only a century and a half old. The basic non-anthropocentric assumptions of modern astronomy, by comparison, are at least five centuries old; modern physics, three and a half centuries old; modern chemistry, three centuries old; modern biology, two centuries old; and so on. Only particle physics, which shed its anthropocentric assumption of the impenetrability of the atom in the last century, can claim to be younger.

So, whence comes the instinctive assumption that the increasing age of a subject matter is inversely proportional to the relevance of the subject matter? Just so the reader doesn't pass this question over too quickly, pause for a moment to consider what is being asked. The question can be stated in simpler terms: why is it that the older something is, the less relevant it must be? Certainly we may grant that this is the case in the natural sciences, where the best information is usually drawn from the most recent studies. But does the same apply to the liberal arts?

Perhaps the most erudite reflection on this is found in Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (1874). The question implied in the title finds us in roughly the same territory that we have already covered. It asks: in what sense is knowledge of the past conducive to living well?

Nietzsche invites his readers: 'Consider the herd grazing before you.' Not exactly what we would consider a familiar place to begin. But okay; let's walk with him for a little while more.
Consider the herd grazing before you. These animals do not know what yesterday and today are but leap about, eat, rest, digest and leap again; and so from morning to night and from day to day, only briefly concerned with their pleasure and displeasure, enthralled by the moment and for that reason neither melancholy nor bored. It is hard for a man to see this, for he is proud of being human and not an animal and yet regards its happiness with envy because he wants nothing other than to live like the animal, neither bored nor in pain, yet wants it in vain because he does not want it like the animal. Man may well ask the animal: why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only look at me. The animal does want to answer and say: because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say--but then it already forgot this answer and remained silent: so that man could only wonder.
What to make of this...Nietzsche's discussion assumes an account of differences between human beings and animals that dates back at least as far as Aristotle, but is now largely discredited in the intellectual wake of the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. He assumes that human beings are rational or self-conscious, while animals are merely sensitive or conscious beings that react to the pain or pleasure induced by external stimuli. On this account, human beings possess memory and have emotion, whereas animals neither remember nor possess any emotion. The human ability to 'stand back' and reflect on themselves gives rise to existential discord. Animals are 'happy' in their comparative simplicity.

Whether or not this is a fair comparison is immaterial. We are interested in what Nietzsche thinks it says about human beings.

The problem that Nietzsche identifies is that human beings possess knowledge--even desires to know, in Aristotle's telling--but too much knowledge hinders action. This is a familiar trope. We encounter it in such turns of phrase as 'too much theory, not enough practice,' 'you can't just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk,' or, in its medieval iteration,  'too heavenly minded to be any worldly good,'

Nietzsche brought the charge against the 19th century German professoriate, who became enamoured with their historical methods. These men (for they were predominantly men) filled tomes and volumes with ever smaller smaller of the historical minutiae. But it was never clear what it all amounted to, or what wisdom was gained in the process. How did any of it help people live today? How did it help people govern today?

Nietzsche has his fingers on a genuine problem. The decision to act, to do this or not that or the other thing, eliminates the possibility of doing that and the other thing. That's just the way things are. A decision one moment sets the course of the action for the next. A series of decisions through successive moments establishes a habit or pattern, or commits a person to pursuing this goal and not that. More information is not always the answer. More information, in fact, may be part of the problem. Too much information can so burden a person that they are reduced to indecision. So, Nietzsche says, 'Consider the herd grazing before you.' Consider how blissful they are in their forgetfulness--their lack of knowledge. Look at them 'leap about, eat, rest, digest and leap again.'

Nietzsche's answer to our question about why the older something is, the less relevant it must be, is straight-forward enough. In order to act, person's must drastically curtail the amount of information deemed relevant to deciding their course of action. Really long historical perspectives are out of the question. They only clutter our head with useless information.

This is, of course, just a different version of the modern scientific conviction that the only actionable knowledge will be found in the most recent scientific study. People with a longer historical perspective--for example, who can list off major scientific discoveries over last five centuries, but who can't find their way around a laboratory--don't possess actionable knowledge.

This would also seem to throw into doubt whether the liberal arts can ever serve purely utilitarian purposes. Therein, it seems to me, also lies the rub. Only the longer historical perspective puts us in touch with what is quintessentially human in human beings. The much more shorter perspectives, which yield actionable knowledge, show us something other than, or less than, the whole of our humanity. Indeed, they must, in order to be actionable.

The problem of modernity is the problem posed by our memory and our history. By virtue of being modern, we have it, but we are not sure what to do with it. That leaves us, paradoxically, wanting to become like Nietzsche's herd; wishing desperately that we could, but knowing, deep down, that it is not even possible.

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