Thursday, August 25, 2022

The first man (and woman) in the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns

 The Ancients, the Moderns, and all that jazz

Adam, the first man – and not my son, who bears the same name – has long been a subject of fascination. The story in Genesis of Adam and Eve and the Garden and the Snake and the Tree of Good and Evil has such a satisfying drive, like a beautiful dream; and like a dream, it seems to come to our waking senses to be somehow in fragments, lacking certain important connective moments.
Hobbes, in the Leviathan, uses a very interesting term to distinguish Adam in the first of a line of charismatic beings:
“From the very Creation, God not only reigned over all men Naturally by his might; but also had Peculiar Subjects, whom he commanded by a Voice, as one man speaketh to another. In which manner he Reigned over Adam, and gave him commandement to abstaine from the tree of cognizance of Good and Evill; which when he obeyed not, but tasting thereof, took upon him to be as God, judging between Good and Evill, not by his Creators commandement, but by his own sense, his punishment was a privation of the estate of Eternall life, wherein God had at first created him…”
The Peculiar Subjects are now called Leaders, Geniuses, or even, in the TED era of accelerated bourgeouis banality, Thought Leaders. Hobbes here is replaying the state of nature that Leviathan speculates about – the state of primal war – with paradise, in orthodox Anglican fashion, at the beginning. Hobbes seems to forget, though, that by the same property, i.e. being commanded by a voice, Eve was also a Peculiar Subject. This forgotten “aside” is typical of patriarchy, where the social logic that gives us masculine x does not give us feminine y because… well, we either forget about y or rationalize y away.
If history turns around Peculiar Subjects, it becomes an ultimately inscrutable affair, in as much as there seems to be no scrutable cause in God’s choice. For instance, he chooses Abraham. And out of Abraham’s descendants, he makes a Peculiar people, Israel, and he chooses certain persons among that Peculiar people, like Moses, or the prophets. For the English empiricists, history, then, can't be a science in any but the most bare bones way: a collection of facts, out of which we can speculate about causes but lack experimental apparatus to prove our hypotheses.
Having a Baconian interest in causes, this larger story causes Hobbes some difficulty. There are those who read Hobbes as an atheist, or at least theistically deist. In fact, there’s no reason to think Hobbes’ difficulty is unorthodox – without this historical difficulty, we subtract grace and faith from the world. We partake in the Peculiar Subject that is Jesus in communion. As Weber would put it, charisma is normalized in tradition.
If we look at Adam in the Early Modern British culture, he operates as a peculiar argument for the moderns as opposed to the ancients. Joseph Glanvill, who was the secretary of the Royal Society and on the side of the new learning, takes Adam’s fall (and Eve’s, though she isn’t mention) as an event in meta-physiology: not only do Adam’s descendants die, but they have to scrape by with their diminished sensorium:
“Adam needed no spectacles. The acuteness of his natural optics (if conjecture may have credit) showed him much of the celestial magnificence and bravery without a Galileo's tube: and 'tis most probable that his naked eyes could reach near as much of the upper world as we with all the advantages of Art. His sight could inform him whether the Loadstone doth attract by Atomical Effluviums. It may be he saw the motion of the blood and spirits through the transparent skin as we do the workings of those little industrious animals (bees) through a hive of glasse Sympathies and Antipathies were to him no occult qualities, &c."
Glanvill’s Scepsis Scientifica, where he made these claims, is prefaced by a defense of this interpretation of Adam. It is a highly wrought passage, the kind of prose that delighted moderns like James Joyce.
“But lest the ingenious rumble at my threshold, and take offence at
the seemingly disproportionate excess, which I ascribe to Adam's senses: I'll subjoin a
word to prevent the scruple. First then, for those that go the way of the allegoric, and
assert pre-existence; I'm secure enough from their dissatisfaction. For, that the
ethereal Adam could easily sense the most tender touches Upon his passive vehicle,
and so had a clear and full perception of objects, which we since plunged into the
grosser hyle are not at all, or but a little aware of; can be no doubt in their hypothesis.
Nor can there as great a difference be supposed between the senses of eighty, and
those of twenty, between the opticks of the blind bat and peripicacious eagle, as there
was between those pure uneclipsed sensations, and aide of our now-embodyed,
muddied sensitive. Now that the pr-existent Adam could so advantageously form his
vehicle, as to receive better information from the distant objects, than we by the most
helpful telescopes; will be no difficult admission to the friends of the allegory. So that
what may seem a mere hyperbolical, and fanciful display to the sons of the letter; to
the allegorists will be but a defective representation of literal realities.”
That time reversal – in which the ancients become young, and the moderns become old, by analogy to the human organism (with its own tender touches upon its passive vehicle – I am going to stifle the obvious dirty joke here, but surely this is referenced somewhere in Finnegan’s Wake), is a pattern that becomes central to the New Learning’s self image. Newton sees farther because he is seated on the shoulders of giants.
Bernard Bouvier de la Fontenelle, the great popularizer of the new learning, recounts the story of Hartsoecker in his Eloge to the Dutch scholar in 1725. This story makes a strong claim that Hartsoecker was the first to examine human sperm with a microscope. It is a story that brings together onanism and science, shame and discovery, in a truly Adamic flourish.
Hartsoecker was 18 when he built his first microscope, on a model he remembered from seeing Leeuwenhoek's. And he shut himself up in his room, for fear his father would find out what he was doing.
“ … [he was} the first for whom was unveiled the most unexpected spectacle in the world for physicians, even the most bold in speculation : these little animals up to now invisible, which were transformed into pleaop, which swam in prodigious qantities in the liquid appointed to carry them, only in those of males, which have the shape of tadpoles, with big heads and long tails, and lively movements. This strange novelty astonished the observer, who did not dare to speak of it. He even thought that what he saw might be some strange sickness, and he did not follow up on his observation. »
The enduring, fundamental narcissism of the human male! I could make the parallels - the hiding from the father, the shame - but I will leave that as an exercise for the reader. I am sure that if this story were abroad in the circles where Fontenelle moved, it was, perhaps, available to Jonathan Swift, who would have loved it – and drawn quite another conclusion than Fontenelle. Hartsoecker has a quality of mind that seems quite… Gulliverian.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

If you never have been tempted by a demon or a god


“At Pharai in Achaia [a  rite] was practised under the official patronage of Hermes, the market god. In front of the image is a hearth made of stone, with bronze lamps clamped to it with lead. He who would inquire of the god comes at evening and burns incense on the hearth, fills the lamp[s with oil, lights them, lays a coin of the country called a copper on the altar to the right of the image, and whispers his question, whatever it may be, into the ear of the god. Then he stops his ears and leaves the market-place, and when he is gone a little way outside he takes his hands from his ears, and whatever words he hears he regards as an oracle.” - William Halliday Greek Divination (1913)

Overhearing, eavesdropping – I have long thought that these are severely neglected topics in the philosophy of language and literary criticism.  In the Pharai example, the inquirer intentionally overhears. He or she intentionally appropriates the word spoken and applies it to the question asked. But of course that an utterance can be inhabited by a wholly other spirit than that in which it is spoken gives us an eery sense of how the gods operate in the world. There is a great deal of this in the modernist novel. To give just one example that occurs to me right now, this was the sort of thing Evelyn Waugh loved. In Black Mischief,  Basil Seal, making love to Prudence Samson, the daughter of the British envoy to Azania tells her she’s a grand girl and “I’d like to eat you up.” A phrase that the reader is not especially called upon to remember – it is all just lovey-dovey, innit?  Yet, in the final chapter, when Basil attends a dance of the Azanian tribe that has overthrown the Azanian emperor and captured his entourage, including Prudence, he  is treated to a feast at which he asks the headman where the white girl has gone, and the headman responds by rubbing his belly and saying “why here – you and I and the big chiefs have just eaten her.” 

This is the overheard word that is not overheard by the person who speaks it – it is rather commandeered. All of us have surely had those moments when, in the thick of some bad situation, we think back to something we have said without thinking that seems to point to the future mysteriously.

Such is the oracular power of words that are, so to speak, overheard by fate that I often, superstitiously, will knock on wood after making some decisive judgment, like, I am sure I don’t have COVID. What I am certain of has a tendency to vanish in the future. To leave the noise and voices of the market place and go “a little way outside” is the philosopher’s path – from Socrates to Descartes to Nietzsche – and it is only imperfectly imitated by the university. The philosopher, of course, wants to be a scientist, not a superstitious supplicant. Thus, no philosopher that I am aware of has written a tractate on eavesdropping, which is a pity – and a puzzle. Philosophy moved, at some mythical point,  from worshipping at the altar of Athena to worshipping at the altar of Hermes, who overhears and delights in being overheard. A trans deity.

And still a deity. The force of the oracular word has not been slain by the formula or set theory. On the contrary, one of the great evidences of social media is that some phrase, attached to a celebrated name – “said”, most often – is circulated over and over, to the evident satisfaction of the circulators. “God doesn’t play dice, said Einstein.” So, for instance,  we copy this and use it, often with illustrations, and it becomes a kind of evidence, and Einstein becomes a kind of oracle.

But what if the word overheard is not recognized by others as an oracle? What if charisma for me (remember, Weber’s image of charisma is exemplified in Jesus, the man who said: “I say unto you”; the man whose mission was, so to speak, captioned when, as described in Matthew 3:, And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased) is not for thee?  There is a saying for that: They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept.".

When we identify with the voice within we call it thinking. But what if we don’t identify, and the voice comes? Is it eavesdropping? Overhearing? An oracle? A daemon? Or schizophrenia? Myself, I think there is always a bit of schizophrenia, of another voice, lurking within, things "said" in the brain that we do not identify with, flashes in the brainpan, words that answer questions we did not know we were asking.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...