The Intellectual Sublime

14 May 2009


South America Map

I departed for my recent South American excursion saying in this forum that there was much yet to think about in regard to the ideas I had recently stumbled upon, especially in relation to Romero’s distinction between doctrinaire and inorganic democracy. I am happy to report that this excursion gave my much to think about in addition to what was already on my mind. I often have the unrealistic hope that I will have time to write during a vacation, but the stimulus of new experiences almost always overwhelms whatever ideas I happened to be working with upon my departure, thus giving a taste of the intellectual sublime.

To be overwhelmed by ideas is a pleasant circumstance for anyone who enjoys thinking. Nietzsche once wrote, in a draft of a preface for a book he never completed and never published, that it would be for those, “for whom thinking is a delight.” If you have experienced this, you know what I mean. If you haven’t experienced it, I can’t explain it. In any case, I preserved a portion of this flood of ideas in the notebook I kept with me, and some of this material I used in the posts I made from the road. The haciendas I visited — Zuleta and San Agustin de Callo — would be truly wonderful places to settle down and write, but my stay was much too short for the leisure necessary to composition of more than notes, sketches, and posts.

I am also typically overly ambitious in the reading material that I bring along on vacation, but this time I at least skimmed the books I brought along, and this is an important way to contribute to keeping the mind active. This is the way I read at home anyway — lots of short bites of lots of books, simply pillaging them for whatever ideas can be taken, without much concern for the edifice carefully constructed by the author. The experience of travel is frequently overwhelming for the senses, and it would be relatively easy to lose oneself entirely to this sort of purely sensory stimulation. It is thus important to stay in touch with the world of mind and ideas by reading, if only a paragraph of two, from a thoughtful book in order actively think one’s way through the day. And this is how one makes intellectual progress: thinking through each and every day, not as a matter of drudgery, but for the intrinsic excitement afforded by engagement with serious ideas.

Manuel Shapes front

One book that I took with me, recently purchased from Powell’s, was a rather obscure and not well known essay on the philosophy of history: Shapes of Philosophical History by Frank E. Manuel. The authored surveyed a number of philosophies of history he believed to be still relevant in his time (the book was based on the Harry Camp Lectures at Stanford University in 1964), and in a final chapter made an interesting speculative summary of his survey. Manuel maintained that, whatever the diversity evident among the philosophers and philosophers he considered — Augustine, Joachim, the renaissance, Kant, Perfectibilism during the Enlightenment, Hegel and Marx — that one can find in common that all of them, “are agreed that the next stage either must or is likely to entail a spiritualization of mankind and a movement away from the present absorption with power and instinctual existence.” (p. 159) Moreover, “The contemporary civilization of gigantism, sensation, and technics has exhausted its creative capabilities and a new ideational, mystical, or religious form is about to be born somewhere.” (p. 160)

Manuel Shapes back

After making this grandiose (if not histrionic) claim, Manuel cited the usual catalog of twentieth century horrors and his own skepticism against his hopeful summary, but then went on to say that, “I am reluctant to receive the witness of the heralds of the new spirit, and yet it is pouring in upon me from so many diverse sources and directions that I am on the point of surrendering my belief in the ordinary evidence of the senses.” (p. 162)

For my part, I think Manuel should rather have retained his reluctance and not have surrendered his belief in the ordinary evidence of the senses. While many do, in fact, surrender their skepticism as well as their belief in their senses, the credulous and unempirical conclusions that follow are not such as to inspire intellectual confidence.

In an early draft of my Variations on the Theme of Life, I included a remark that I cut out of the final version:

The reactionary elements of a community — be that community social, political, scientific, philosophical, or otherwise — view the first loosening of tradition that announces progress in thinking with such horror that these initial stirrings of change are declared to be an extreme which will soon be tempered with time. They believe themselves to be the serious men who have seen it all before, and they know that this youthful folly cannot last. But they are wrong. Worse and more of it is to come.

At present I cannot recall why I cut this out, perhaps there was simply no appropriate place for the remark in the completed text, but it still very much expresses my point of view. In the present context, in relation to Manuel’s Shapes of Philosophical History, it seems especially appropriate. Many, many people — simple men and philosophers alike — have looked to the crass materialism and vulgar commercialism of industrialized society and they have proclaimed vehemently that “This cannot last!”

Many of these pronouncements, from figures as diverse as Baudelaire and Marx, come from the nineteenth century. We now know, and know definitively, how much worse and more of it there was to come after the nineteenth century. We have the entire experience of the twentieth century as testimony to that fact. Now I will say to those who continue to say that capitalism, materialism, and crass commercialism cannot last, that a new age of the spirit must surely dawn soon (that is to say, the unmistakable proclamation of the Christian Millennium), and that history must soon unfold a great panorama of mind and idea before us, that, on the contrary, the intellectual consequences of industrialized society are not only here to stay, but that we should expect them to become even more prevalent, ever more widespread, and always more persistent in its blandishments.

I do not maintain that these snowballing consequences of industrialization constitute the “progress in thinking” to which I referred in the above quoted aphorism, but hopefully the reader will see the connection between what I said there and what I am now saying here, so that I don’t have to spell it all out.


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