Thursday, June 26, 2014

The "Class" - An Abstract Writeup - Hour 2

2 A. Science vs. Politics vs. Arts

2 A I. Before all three, there was religion - To this very day, religion’s effect upon the world is third only to death and family. Its effect upon us is more consequential to us even than sex. Sex provides momentary ecstasy, whereas the ecstasy of religion can last lifetimes and motivate people to heal and kill millions, or to build everlasting monuments to the glory of their god and destroy others. We cannot control death, but we can control our attitude toward it, and religion still gives billions the ability to believe that they can transcend death. As Egon Friedell, a no longer much read but fine historian, alleges, there is no more crucial aspect of each human’s makeup than a person’s attitude towards God. To this day, the plurality of the world’s population believes in monotheism. And the echoes of monotheistic mindset continue to this very day and will beyond long past when every living person is no longer alive. If there is one god who creates the heaven and the earth, there is therefore only one source from which all things flow. The King, or Emperor, or Lord, derives his authority as David and Saul did, from divine right. Just as the Pope’s was, the sovereign’s word is the word of God transmuted upon Earth. Science is only important as it explains God’s creation, and an insistence on no scientific exploration seemed perfectly satisfactory for nearly a millenium of Europeans. Art is only important as it reflects the glory of God, and the vast majority of medieval Europeans contented themselves with the anonymous chants and iconography of the church, endlessly evolving folk songs, bards who declaimed their poems, violent passion plays and puppet shows. Life was divided into sanctity and sin. Monotheism made servility possible, the recognition of moral behavior and the absolution for its transgressions.

2 A II. Aquinas/Dante-Erasmus/Luther-Galileo/Shakespeare-Newton/Milton- In all four of these combinations of ‘nearish’ contemporaries, the former insists upon more rarefied levels of understanding, the latter on bringing greater levels of understanding to the public. They are not men who define their age, but they are representative of the progress that was made. Through them, we see the thread that shows how much progress was being made in bringing greater learning and understanding to Europe. This dual approach to increasing the world’s knowledge is ultimately what brings the world out of what we call its Middle Age.  

2 A II a Aquinas/Dante - Thomas Aquinas is considered the great theologian/philosopher of the Gothic Age (though he came slightly after it and in many ways signified its ending). He is important for many reasons, including the fact that he codified so much of Church doctrine about virtuous behavior. But perhaps his greatest contribution was to re-insist upon reading ancient, pre-monotheistic, classics, particularly of Aristotle.

Dante, the great Italian poet, still the greatest poet of all in many people’s estimation, brought the world the first great written European literary work for nearly a millenium in a vernacular language. Many of the great poems of the Middle Ages: Beowulf, Sir Gawain, the Nibelungenlied, the Song of Roland, were obviously meant to be declaimed, not read, and an editor put together a literary version of it after many generations of the stories being passed down. Until Dante, European literature, European intellectual discourse, was still conducted in Latin. By writing out the Divine Comedy in Italian, Dante meant for his poetry to be read as well as declaimed in the language which people spoke in the streets.

2 A II b. Erasmus/Luther - Erasmus of Rotterdam was perhaps the first priest of real eminence to criticize the Catholic Church for its fallibility and not be branded a heretic for doing so. In the era of the Protestant Reformation, he was the greatest proponent of compromise and rationalism, and only fanatical in the anti-fanaticism which he pleaded with both the Papacy and the Lutherans to maintain.

Luther, Erasmus’s younger contemporary and most important debating partner, had two great contributions to thought. The first was his belief that priests needn’t serve as intercessors between worshipers and God. His belief in ‘salvation by faith alone’ was the most fundamental doctrine of the Protestant Reformation. His second was his translation of The Bible into German. The Bible had been translated into other languages before, but as Dante brought high secular literature to the layman, Luther brought the sacred directly to him.

2 A ii c. Galileo/Shakespeare - Galileo, like Luther, had a two-fold important contribution to history. Firstly, by discovering four moons around Jupiter, he proved, definitively, that the entire Universe does not revolve around the Earth. Secondly, he directly contradicted church doctrine, and published a scathing indictment of Church simplemindedness when it came to science, all the while under the Pope’s sponsorship, and even if he was forced to recant, he lived to tell the tale. His courage, and his success, motivated many curious people to follow their thoughts in the centuries that followed.

If Galileo made us finally examine the science of the heavens, Shakespeare, his exact contemporary, made us finally examine the science of us - what makes humans human? What motivates us to act as we do? There are plenty of supernatural forces in Shakespeare, but for the first time perhaps ever, Shakespeare, and literary rough contemporaries like Cervantes and Montaigne, gave us the choice to be indifferent to the supernatural. Man was the primary focus of humanity, not God.

2 A II d. Newton/Milton - Newton, as we earlier established, was the point of no return. Here, finally, is the thinker who provided an explanation for creation that operated independently of biblical myth. After Newton, we were definitively on the track toward a more scientific, empirical understanding of the world. The industrial revolution was around the corner, as were the revolutions in biology and the humanities.

As important as Milton was as a polemicist and republican, his main contribution to us is Paradise Lost, which is, in some ways, a recognition of the ways which God has failed humanity, and most outrageously, did so through the personage of Satan, who is portrayed almost sympathetically. His epic poem was, in his words, an attempt to ‘justify the ways of God to Man.’ And in doing so, he made it possible for people to question God’s ultimate benevolence.  

2 B. 1859 The Dawning of the Age of… - We have briefly covered an enormous amount of material, and are finally out of the age in which monotheism is the most progressive possible explanation for why the world is what it is. We are at what Germans might call the Zero-Hour of a new age. What does this age look like?

2 B I. Darwin: The Scientific Dawn - The science world of Galileo and even Newton is static and unchanging. The laws of the universe are universal. But by Lamarck and Darwin, there is a recognition that the world is always dynamic and shifting, which in turn paves the way for the world of Einstein and Heissenberg, in which dynamism and change are the very state of existence.

2 B II. Marx: The Political Dawn - In Hobbes and Machiavelli, the state justifies its power through the chaos that would unleash in its absence. Then come liberal theorists like Locke and Voltaire who believe that greater freedom for individuals will result in greater order. Then come utilitarians like Bentham and Mill who believe in greater freedom for a greater number of individuals leads to their pursuit of the greater good, which then leads to Marx, who believes that there is no freedom unless all men are free. From Marx comes the new absolutism - which curiously resembles the old. Instead of the perfect Kingdom of Christendom or Allah’s perfect Caliphate, Man, instead of God, stands at the center of the world, and the Earth is his paradise. But without time to fully explore the implications of a world in which serving one’s fellow man is the goal of politics rather than serving God, this Godless world falls back on old models. In Marxism’s first incarnation, he paved the way for the great “atheist theocracies” of the twentieth century, not only the left-wing totalitarian states of Russia and China, but also the right-wing ones of Germany and even Japan to a certain extent. To reward of forming this paradise is so great that, in Mao’s words, it is perfectly justifiable to kill half of humanity so that the other half might live in paradise.

2 B II a. After the Soviet Union? - But what comes after the atheist theocracies? Is there a capitalist version of Communist dictatorship, as China attempts, which will supply the needs of the individual that so satisfies its citizens that protest against it is unnecessary? More relevantly, and more possibly, will the new communitarian visions of anarcho-libertarian socialism and communism turn out the same way as the old visions of socialism, communism and anarchism? Or will such ideas bring about a better, more benevolent world in which people’s needs are met far more often? Just as it took democratic ideas two thousand years to resurrect themselves as legitimate, is it possible that Communist ideals will eventually reveal themselves to be the best possible world, even if it similarly takes millennia to germinate before indisputably proving the most progressive idea for the world?

2 B III. Wagner: The Artistic Dawn - Wagner didn’t like much the realism of contemporary theater or literature and worried that music after Beethoven would ossify into more modest ambitions. He wanted a theater that more resembled Shakespeare and Greek Drama - in which all the arts were synthesized. And he wanted a literature like the classical and medieval epics of the Greeks and Nordic peoples, in which heroic men transcended human concerns to become more extraordinary beings. From Wagner’s music dramas, like Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, The Ring of the Nibelung, and Parsifal, comes the conception of the ‘total art work’ in which all the arts are subservient to a unified conception - which in turn prefigures the entire idea of the Movies. From the germ of Tristan und Isolde comes the idea that music need not conform to a key, but can delay its endlessly, belying our expectations and increasing the tension the music inspires in us exponentially. Before Wagner, there was, even in the age of Beethoven and Byron, still a nagging sense that ‘the artist’ only exists to serve God and the State, and that personal art was, in some sense, a sin against all good sense and established order. Even Beethoven and Byron conformed to the traditional rules of their arts, even if they bended those rules enormously. But Wagner broke the rules of all the arts to create a new art, which sought nothing more than to emulate the great art of old. After Wagner, the artist is definitively not a man who serves authority but the man who was served. No longer did art require a purpose or a goal, art could mean whatever the artist or listener desired it to mean. All movies, all modern art, all postmodern art, shares him as their most important ancestor.

2 B III a. After the Death of the Author - In 1967, a critic named Roland Barthes published a work called ‘The Death of the Author’ in which he argued that artist and creator are independent entities, and once the work was written, the author’s intentions is irrelevant because the work belongs to the public. It is hard to deny his point in the age of movies and television and popular music, few creations of which can be attributed to a sole author. The arts are consumed by a public far larger than any Michelangelo or Shakespeare could dream of reaching, and in manners beyond even their imaginations. Who, ultimately, is the author of a movie or a music album? Does anyone have property over artistic work anymore, and if not, then is the artist any less subservient to public taste than artists were in the ages when they served of God and the State?

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