Monday, May 28, 2007

Stamping on the Shoulders of Giants

C.S. Lewis once wrote that it is one of history's misfortunes that the great minds of one age always despise those of the age immediately preceeding their own. Petrarch enjoyed a few laughs at the expense of the Medieval period (the term "Dark Ages" was his brainchild), Voltaire took a few potshots at the age of religious turmoil which produced The Thirty Years' War, and Blake corrected Voltaire after the fact. I don't know that anyone bothered to correct Blake. Lunatics are difficult in that respect.

One commonality here, perhaps obvious, but worthy of mention, is that all of the above examples occur in what is termed for the sake of convenience the Modern Age. Prior to this, there isn't any discernable precedent for granting the badge of enlightenment to one's own era and adopting an air of condesention toward one's predecessors. Examining the succeeding layers of the Modern Age, we find that not only does it grind down harshly on the periods it succeeds, but that the same friction exists between its own substrata. The exemplars of Romanticism were as much at odds with their Augustan forbears as both were with the superstitions of the Middle Ages. I would submit as a likely cause the belief that the ascending arc purported to terminate in the perfection of humankind grows ever steeper, allowing its self-appointed prophets to stamp with increasing ease on the shoulders of the giants below them. Sadly, the upward path to that Paradisal Nowhere never materializes into anything but a continuation of itself, just as any arc never attains to zero. But its points have slowly grown aware of their relative elavation, and used it as an excuse to feed on their ancestors.

The damage attendant on this epochal parricide amounts to more than disrespect; if it were only that, I woudn't bother with any of this. I don't have any problem with the rejection of a particular tradition or periodical bias, and certainly have no attachment to tradition for its own sake; the latter fidelity can't help but be grossly sentimental, and while a tradition accepted on the strength of its own recommendation goes far in teaching motions, it fails to teach matter. But the problem of impertinence still remains. What perpetuates it-a blindly optimistic view of our own position aside- is a latent understanding that history is naturally at war with itself; one age presses against the next, its predecessor trampled underfoot, and the engine grinds massively and messily on. This type of thinking errs by inviting too much of a personalized view of the movements of history at the expense of the living personalities we most associate with them; we see Alexander forced into his conquests by the necessity of Hellenization, and by two centuries' preparation for a world dominated by Western, and not by Oriental ideals, rather than driven on by his own sublime ego. Alexander becomes a pawn moved only by so much Mechanism, as do the rest of the Outstanding. The same Mechanism finds Rome in brick and leaves her in marble, and then opens her gates to the Goths four centuries later. The Historical Mechanism cannot satisfy itself with any of its apparent conclusions, and sweeps all of them aside, and in accordance with nature, fills the abhorent vacuum with whatever it pleases.
We don't need to account for personalities or passions anymore, but only motions, pressures, colisions and collapses; this pattern, since the earliest origins of the universe has been the only pattern, and it is liable to stay that way, until the collective energy behind it resolves itself into whatever Utopia our more refined impulses proclaim as the necessary and final result.

That any sort of egotism should proceed from as inhumane a view of history as the one above is astonishing in the uttermost. The individual is no longer a factor, but the age which the individual inhabits certainly is, and possibly even the centerpiece. The individual no longer cares about any succesful application of his own will, but is content to be a part of the motion definitive of his age-its "Movement." The individual in question ceases to function as an individual, and begins to do so as a private citizen, dutifully making donations and signing ballots as his Movement demands. He doesn't expect any triumphs of his own, but only the triumph of his time, and that in its triumph some of its reflective glory might fall on him, who faithfully wore the right color ribbons. It doesn't take long for his expectancy to become impatience, and for impatience to become envy-envy of the individuals that achieved by their own capacity what he waited for his precious Movement to achieve for him. Soon enough, the spectator has grown as conceited as the figure on the stage; this is the only way in which arrogance today distinguishes itself from arrogance in any other frame in history; it has simply grown tired of pretending to be humble.

Such is my diagnosis, and to tell the truth, no real corrective measure comes to mind. We enjoy our vantage point more than it merits, and are not likely to surrender our ego when admonished of the vanity of our position; Seneca and Aurelius offered similar warnings, but no one ever paid attention. If anything humbles us, it will probably not be our own motives, newly purified. Nonetheless, I am confident that we will eventually realize, though due less to our own docile nature than by the approach of calamity, that the contempt we hold towards the art of gauging the Self and the extent of its perimeters, and that our overwillingness to delegate this function to some uninterested superintendent, will be channeled into a more realistic appraisal of our position in the greater order of things. This new estimation inflicts a sudden sobriety upon us; it gives us pause, and makes us consider that our star is no longer in its ascendancy. But whatever else it strips away, it leaves us at least the minimal trappings of Personality and of Will. We each of us admit our limitations, we take the first step down from the pedestal, and soon find ourselves face to face with those historical predecessors whom we previously only knew how to laugh at for not having been born as lately as ourselves.

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