Reason in moderation

30 October 2009


theater masks

The Greeks believed that men could in heroic moments live as gods, with the sole exception being that they must some day die: immortality is the one thing denied them. Heroes are god-like in their moment of triumph, and gods can be as foolish as men in their weaknesses, but the gods are the immortals, and this exempts them from the most human experience of finitude: mortality.

We might similarly characterize the Greek attitude to reason: in his lucid intervals the mind of man is like unto the gods, embodying a heroism of the intellect. But man cannot sustain his reason beyond its proper span, any more than life can be preserved past mortal limits. Thus the life appropriate to man is that of the cultivation of proper limits and a prudent respect for the boundaries which he may not pass into the unlimited, the apeiron. Moderation is the watchword here. Human virtue, then, is a function of finitude, and folly the lure of the apeiron.

But to define man and his mind in terms of finitude is to acknowledge that the infinite looms over him as the ever present negation of all that he is: this is the pre-Freudian Verneinung, the Greek Verneinung that makes it inevitable that the infinite and the finite are logically defined in each terms of the negation of the other.

The ancients could no more escape from the infinite than they could tame it, domesticate it, submit it to the rigid reign of reason that made of their cities orderly monuments to the geometricizing intellect. Antiquity had not yet the depth of experience requisite to grasp the infinite with both hands. Classical man knew the infinite as madness, as enthusiasm, as ecstasy; he could not take it, and he could not leave it.

Classical man avoided the infinite as long as he was able, built his cities and his civilization, mastered the arts, dominated the world to the limits of his capacity, and then, when he could avoid it no longer, accepted his fate and grasped what he knew he was still not ready to face. He plunged into the infinite, and naked before it found in it chaos and power and ecstasy. It destroyed him, and he participated in his own destruction, like St. Teresa captivated by her divine pain, he embraced the principle of his own quietus and made of it a swan song. Reason in moderation begets madness.

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