Transcendental Humors

4 December 2015


Portrait of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) by Daniel Dumonstier, around 1578.

Portrait of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) by Daniel Dumonstier, around 1578.

In the last of his essays, essay XIII of Book III, “Of Experience,” Montaigne wrote:

“The mind has not willingly other hours enough wherein to do its business, without disassociating itself from the body, in that little space it must have for its necessity. They would put themselves out of themselves, and escape from being men. It is folly; instead of transforming themselves into angels, they transform themselves into beasts; instead of elevating, they lay themselves lower. These transcendental humours affright me, like high and inaccessible places; and nothing is hard for me to digest in the life of Socrates but his ecstasies and communication with demons; nothing so human in Plato as that for which they say he was called divine; and of our sciences, those seem to be the most terrestrial and low that are highest mounted; and I find nothing so humble and mortal in the life of Alexander as his fancies about his immortalisation.”

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Essays, Book III, “Of Experience”

In writing of “transcendental humors” Montaigne has brilliantly co-opted the medieval physiology of “humors” and gone beyond it even while employing a language that his readers would have immediately recognized. In this passage Montaigne has managed to transcend his era even while employing the language and the concepts of his time.

In medieval western medicine it was believed that the body possessed four “vital humors” including blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. This was not only a medical idea, but also a psychological idea, as differences in temperament were ascribed to an excess or deficiency of a given humor. We retain traces of these ideas in our language, as when we describe an individual as “sanguine” or “phlegmatic.” These humors were human, all-too-human. This may sound a bit strange, but if the medieval imagination had comprised the possibility other beings on other worlds, it seems likely that such an imagination would have posited other, alien humors that would have determined both the physical constitution and mental temperament of these other beings, and speculation on the character of ETI would have taken the form of suggesting what other kinds of humors there might possibly be.

It is possible that we, too, may be able to transcend the limits of our time even while continuing to employ the familiar linguistic and conceptual infrastructure that is as deeply embedded in contemporary history as Montaigne’s linguistic and conceptual infrastructure was deeply embedded in the thought of his time. It is an uncommon insight, but not an impossible insight, that throws away the ladder after having climbed up the same.

Perhaps this passage from Montaigne so appeals to me because it is so similar to my own way of thought. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote (in section 572):

Biology of religion.–The more human, all-too-human a given phenomenon, the more certain it is to be called sacred or holy.

It almost sounds as though I am purposefully paraphrasing Montaigne, but when I wrote this I was not familiar with the passage from Montaigne quoted above.

One might well be accused of a “category error” to study religion in terms of biology, though in recent years this has become much more common, as quite a number of books on the evolutionary psychology of religion have appeared, though we can see above the idea is already present in Montaigne, and it occurs throughout Nietzsche, even if it is not as explicit there as we would hope, and Nietzsche lacked the detailed scientific background that would have made it possible for him to fully appreciate, and to fully develop, the idea.

We are now getting to the point at which such ideas can be formulated explicitly and given clear and unambiguous scientific content. But our linguistic and conceptual infrastructure, while it provides the basis of the possibility of our intellectual development and progress, remains limited, and moments of great insight are necessary to transcend the prejudices of our age and to begin to comprehend the ideas that, some hundreds of years from now, our descendants will be able to formulate in an explicit way.

Perhaps it is better for us at the present time that we cannot yet formulate our most elusive ideas explicitly. I am reminded of a passage from H. P. Lovecraft that I recently quoted in The Cosmos Primeval:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu,” first paragraph

Lovecraft was half right, but he (like many others) failed to see, or refused to acknowledge (perhaps in Lovecraft it follows from a matter of principle), the possibility of progress in knowledge. While it is true that some go mad and some flee, while others exist on the cusp and madness and sanity, still others are able to look squarely at terrifying vistas of reality and to stare into the face of Medusa without turning to stone.

We are always engaged in the business of slowly and painstakingly assembling dissociated bits of knowledge into a larger and more comprehensive scheme, even if we are not aware that our thirst for comprehension and clarity (which thirst must certainly be accounted among the transcendental humors) is pushing us toward a revelation for which we are not prepared. Most this occurs on an historical scale of time, so that the frightening outlines of the world to come is only discerned dimly by us, and, as Lovecraft implied, this may be a mercy. But every once in a while, under the influence of especially strong transcendental humors, we may find ourselves suddenly face-to-face with the Medusa, quite unexpectedly. Such moments are definitive.

I have often quoted a passage from Kurt Gödel (most recently in Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress) about the possibility of progress in knowledge:

“Turing… gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”

“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306.

Without any intention of belittling Gödel, it is perhaps worthwhile to note in this context that Gödel himself lived on the verge of madness, and that his mental health deteriorated to the point that he essentially starved himself to death, like some western equivalent of an Indian Yogi (or, if you prefer, a starving Buddha, representations of which always have the same haunted eyes that one sees in the photographs of the logician). One can imagine Montaigne transported into another place or time, writing essays on Gödel or a starving Buddha, neither of which he ever encountered, but each of which I think would have piqued his interest, as they represent those transcendental humors that have both plagued humanity with self-imposed ascetic rigors and which have equally advanced civilization in the most unexpected ways.

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