By Charles Matthews

Saturday, May 7, 2011

22. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 465-496

Cultural History: Idealism (Benedetto Croce); Patterns of Repetition (Giambattista Vico, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler)

Benedetto Croce: History as Human Self-Knowledge

History, for Croce, as defined in this excerpt from the 1938 History as the Story of Liberty, is inescapable: "it is the act of comprehending and understanding induced by the requirements of practical life." It belongs among the social sciences because it "exists for the purpose of maintaining and developing the active and civilized life of human society." But one thing it isn't is a study of cause and effect:
Benedetto Croce in 1936
No one has yet succeeded in practice in relating a fragment of history by matching certain causes with their effects; though some have succeeded in adding to a narrative constructed by a different method (the spontaneous method proper to history), an improper causal terminology by way of "scientific" embellishment.
The historical sense is present in our daily lives, "even in the merest perception of the judging mind (if it did not judge there would not even be perception but merely blind and dumb sensation)." We know from experience that the stone in our path "will not fly away of its own accord at the sound of my approach." So "historical judgment" proceeds from our experience of things, and is "knowledge itself." It recognizes things in process.
In a paradisal state without work or struggle in which there were no obstacles to overcome, there could be no though, because every motive for thought would have disappeared; neither any real contemplation, because active and poetic contemplation contains in itself a world of practical struggles and of affections.
History is thus superior to philosophy; it is, in fact, the "sole and integral form of knowledge."
The conclusions of all modern philosophy, from Descartes and Vico and Kant and Hegel down to contemporary thinkers, are that thought is as active as action, that it is neither a copy nor a recipient for reality, nor therefore does it provide knowledge of reality by serving such purposes; on the contrary, its work consists in setting and solving problems, and not merely in passively receiving fragments of reality; finally, thought does not stand outside life but is its vital function.
Because we are "products of the past" and the past surrounds us, we cannot simply break from it. We must convert it into knowledge. "The writing of histories -- as Goethe once noted -- is one way of getting rid of the weight of the past. Historical thought transforms it into its own material and transfigures it into its object, and the writing of history liberates us from history." This process of liberation "is the eternal creator of history and itself the subject of every history."

Giambattista Vico: The Three Ages

Francesco Solimena, Portrait of Giambattista Vico, date unknown
The cyclical view of history introduced by Vico in The New Science (1744) continued to provoke thinkers and artists (such as Yeats and Joyce) into the twentieth century. Vico, who had a penchant for triads, cited the Egyptians as the origin for the concept of history as proceeding through "three ages; namely, the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men." But Vico also saw history as reflecting the course of an individual human life: "Men first feel necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance."

Returning to the triadic structure of gods, heroes and men, Vico traces the course of nations through "three kinds of natures," from which "arise three kinds of customs," which in turn produce "three kinds of natural laws," which give rise to "three kinds of civil states or commonwealths," distinguished by "three kinds of languages," "three kinds of jurisprudence," "three kinds of authority and three kinds of reason."

Vico elaborates on these various triads and finally arrives at the point where the cycle of the life of nations begins again.
Men mean to gratify their bestial lust and abandon their offspring, and they inaugurate the chastity of marriage from which the families arise. The fathers mean to exercise without restraint their paternal power over their clients, and they subject them to the civil powers from which the cities arise. The reigning order of nobles mean to abuse their lordly freedom over the plebeians, and they are obliged to submit to the laws which establish popular liberty. The free peoples mean to shake off the yoke of their laws, and they become subject to monarchs. The monarchs mean to strengthen their own positions by debasing their subjects with all the vices of dissoluteness, and they dispose them to endure slavery at the hands of stronger nations. The nations mean to dissolve themselves, and their remnants flee for safety to the wilderness, whence, like the phoenix, they rise again. 
Like Hegel, Vico resorts to the image of the phoenix for the course of nations. And also like Hegel, he sees a larger force at work in history: "That which did all this was mind, for men did it with intelligence; it was not fate, for they did it with choice; not chance, for the results of their always so acting are perpetually the same."

Friedrich Nietzsche: Eternal Recurrence

Nietzsche's prophet-mouthpiece Zarathustra, in these excerpts from 1883's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, advances a cyclical view of history as a consequence of the infinity of space and time. If something has happened, the probability is that it will happen again:
"Everything goes, everything returns; the wheel of existence rolls for ever. Everything dies, everything blossoms anew; the year of existence runs on for ever.

"Everything breaks, everything is joined anew; the same house of existence builds itself for ever. Everything departs, everything meets again; the ring of existence is true to itself for ever."
Zarathustra sees the desire to escape from the cycle as an essential human yearning. (As did Goethe, for example, who had Faust condemn himself with the words "Verweile doch, du bist so schön!" -- Stay a while, you are so beautiful.) But in a world of process, in which that which achieves perfection, like a ripe fruit, begins immediately to die, the only way this can be achieved is by "eternal recurrence." "All joy wants the eternity of all things, wants honey, wants dregs, wants intoxicated midnight, wants graves, wants the consolation of graveside tears, wants gilded sunsets." Only by maintaining an endless cycle of process, of birth and renewal -- that phoenix image again -- can joy be experienced.

Oswald Spengler: The Organic Logic of History

Oswald Spengler, date unknown
Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918) has had its own ups and downs since publication, but the central thesis, that "the West European-American" culture had reached its peak and, like all cultures before it, must accept the inevitability of its decline, still fascinates and infuriates. "The means whereby to understand living forms is Analogy," Spengler asserts -- and the assertion itself has been called into question.
Napoleon has hardly ever been discussed without a side-glance at Caesar and Alexander -- analogies of which, as we shall see, the first is morphologically quite inacceptable and the second is correct -- while Napoleon himself conceived of his situation as akin to Charlemagne's. 
Spengler himself questions the value of analogy here, dismissing one of Napoleon's analogies as false and one as true. But he continues to argue, "Analogies, in so far as they laid bare the organic structure of history, might be a blessing to historical thought. Their technique, developing under the influence of a comprehensive idea, would surely eventuate in inevitable conclusions and logical mastery."

The key word is "organic" -- history as organism, cultures and civilizations as organic entities. He purports to "distinguish (as to form, not substance) the organic from the mechanical." He wants to concentrate on "not what the historical facts which appear at this or that time are, per se, but what they signify, what they point to." In this way of looking at history, "even the humdrum facts of politics assume a symbolic and even a metaphysical character." He sees "world history as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvellous waxing and waning of organic forms."

There is also, in Spengler's view, a Hegelian "Spirit" at work in history: "A Culture is born in the moment when a great soul awakens out of the proto-spirituality .. of every-childish humanity.... It dies when this soul has actualized the full sum of its possibilities in the shape of peoples, languages, dogmas, arts, states, sciences, and reverts into the proto-soul." It remains alive as "an inner passionate struggle to maintain the Idea against the powers of Chaos."
The aim once attained -- the idea, the entire content of inner possibilities, fulfilled and made externally actual -- the Culture suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals, its force breaks down, and it becomes Civilization.... This -- the inward and outward fulfillment, the finality, that awaits every living Culture -- the the purport of the historic "declines," amongst them that decline of the Classical which we know so well and fully, and another decline, entirely comparable to it in course and duration, which will occupy the first centuries of the coming millennium but is heralded already and sensible in and around us to-day -- the decline of the West.
Hegel, too, speaks of this stasis once a culture or a nation achieves its goal, likening it to a watch that has been wound up and left to run down. "This Civilization," Spengler says, "is the inevitable destiny of the Culture.... Civilizations are the most external and artificial states of which a species of developed humanity is capable. They are a conclusion, the thing-become succeeding the thing becoming, death following life, rigidity following expansion."

This transition from Culture to Civilization, Spengler says, happened for the West in the nineteenth century. The vitality of growth culminated in the cities, the home of "the parasitical city dweller, traditionless, utterly matter-of-fact, reglionless, clever, unfruitful, deeply contemptuous of the countryman and especially that highest form of countryman, the country gentlemen." In the West, Paris and London led the way that is now being followed by Berlin and New York.
The world-city means cosmopolitanism in place of "home," cold matter-of-fact in place of reverence for tradition and age, scientific irreligion as a fossil representative of the older religion of the heart, "society" in place of the state, natural instead of hard-earned rights.
And in consequence of this development comes "Imperialism ... Civilization unadulterated."

Spengler urges us to recognize that "we have to reckon with the hard cold facts of a late life, to which the parallel is to be found not in Pericles's Athens but in Caesar's Rome. Of great painting or great music there can no longer be, for Western people, any question. Their architectural possibilities have been exhausted these hundred years." He hopes "that men of the new generation may be moved by this book to devote themselves to technics instead of lyrics, the sea instead of the paintbrush, and politics instead of epistemology."

No comments:

Post a Comment