I would like to begin this class with two thoughts. The first is very brief: that I would like you to think of this class as the true beginning of the class. The second is a quote from a very great historian whom nobody has ever heard of anymore, and not just in the hipster sense. I first heard the name Egon Friedell referenced by the great Australian TV critic (really), Clive James, who said in no uncertain terms that his Cultural History of the Modern Age is a neglected masterpiece. I tried to locate a copy in various places, but to no avail. It was only when browsing in the bargain shelf of Shakespeare and Co., Paris’s famous English language book store, that I found the first two volumes. I immediately started reading it in Paris and was stunned by what I found.
Friedell’s book is the inspiration of this class, a provider of much of its material, and we will be referring to him again and again as the class goes on. He was a Viennese intellectual from the era between the two world wars. As an intellectual, he was a complete amateur, having dropped out of university to become a cabaret singer. He was far better known in his own time as a performer and coffeehouse wit than as a pointy-headed intellectual. In the weeks, months, and years that follow, we’ll tell much more of his story. I would like to begin this class with a very long quote of his, and follow it up, paragraph by paragraph, by discussing parts of it. This comes from the introduction section of his book, A Cultural History of the Modern Age, which traces the cultural development of humanity from 1348, the year of the Black Plague, up to World War I.
“The aim of this book is to sketch an intellectual and moral picture-page, a spiritual costume-history of the last six centuries, showing at the same time the Platonic Idea of each age and the thought which inwardly inspired it and was its soul. This Thought of the Age is the organizing, the creative, and the only truth in each age, although in actuality it is seldom seen in the pure state; for what happens is that the prism of the age breaks it up into a many-coloured rainbow of symbols. Only now and then is the age so fortunate as to produce one great philosopher who reassembles the rays in the focus of his intellect.
The first question this brings up is: Is the thought and creation of the age the only true record of what an era leaves behind?
...Which leads us to a second question for anyone who believes otherwise: Why do some people, perhaps myself included, believe that thought and creation are the only ways to really capture the spirit of a time and place?
And this brings us to the real key of an age. We find it in those great men, those strange apparitions, that Carlyle called Heroes. They might equally well be called poets, if we did not one-sidedly regard a poet as a person who dabbled in pen and ink, but remembered that everything can be turned into poetry, given creative force and imagination; and that the great heroes and saints who have made poetry with their lives of deeds and sufferings stand actually higher than the poet of words. Carlyle was convinced that the form in which a great man appears is entirely immaterial. Let him be there, that is the main thing. “I confess, I have no notion of a truly great man that could not be all sorts of men…” … In history there are only two real wonders of the world: the Spirit of the Age, with its fabulous energies, and Genius, with its magical effect. The man of genius is the most complete absurdity, an absurdity because of his very normality. He is what all others should be: a perfect equation of aim and means, of task and accomplishment. He is so paradoxical as to do what no one else does: he fulfills his destiny.
I suppose I should state my agenda at the very beginning of this. I believe, very much, in the Great Man theory of History. But I do not believe in it the way that Carlyle does. According to Thomas Carlyle, whom I will explain without quoting, our whole lives are shaped by the parameters which heroic men, and until recently it sadly was almost always men, carve out for us. It is these heroic men which form where we are born, where we’re allowed to migrate to, whom we can marry, and what jobs we can take. According to this theory, there is no accounting for how men rose up from fortuitous circumstances to create the world as we now see it. They simply rose up from the ether like the proverbial phoenix, empowered by nothing but their own greatness. According to Carlyle, great men are not made, they are simply born.
As is the fashion of our day, I disagree with this formulation completely. I do believe that “great” men and women form the future which comes after them, but in every way are they they also formed by the circumstances which come before and during their lives. For every great man whom history has chosen, there might be another million who might have served equally well had history a different purpose. Herbert Spencer, an English historian and ally of Darwin, subjected Carlyle’s theory to a withering critique, and his point of view can be summed up in a sentence I agree with almost completely: "You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown.... Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” Aside from the rather uncomfortable position that one has to take into account the ‘race’ into which a person is born, which could mean that he believes only his race is capable of greatness, though I don’t think that’s what he meant, this is actually a very progressive sentiment for its time, and allows for the entirely correct notion that mediocre people might have been great if they fell into more fortuitous circumstances, and also for the possibility that should the circumstances of mediocre people change, they may yet rise to greatness. But as we will see in a minute, my belief in the ‘great man’ theory, and Egon Friedell’s, is at least a little closer to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s formation when he wrote this line: “In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts. They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
Now, Genius and the Age are in account with each other in a complicated way, not easy to decipher.
No kidding. Tolstoy devoted nearly the last hundred pages of War and Peace to demolishing this very concept of the Great Man. Fortunately, Friedell’s Great Man formulation is very different from Carlyle’s and nowhere near as simplistic.
An age which does not find its hero is a pathological case: its soul is underfed and suffers, so to say, from “chronic dyspnea.” But no sooner does it get its man, who gives utterance to all its needs, than fresh oxygen streams suddenly into its organism, the dyspnea disappears, the circulation is regulated, and it is well again. Geniuses are the two or three men in every age who can speak. (The rest are dumb, or stammerers.) Without these we should know nothing of past ages, for we should merely have hieroglyphics which confused and disappointed us. We need a key to this cipher. Gerhart Hauptmann once compared the poet with an aeolian harp, which vibrates to every lightest breeze. If we adopt this comparison we may say: at bottom every person is an instrument of this sort with sensitive strings, but in most cases the impact of events merely sets the strings aquiver; it is only from the poet that notes are produced for all to hear and understand.
In other words, as human beings, we are all part of the same organism as the great person, and we are the raw material through which those who possess greatness propel themselves to the extraordinariness of his or her achievement. And as members of the same society, we all contribute to the formation of a few people’s greatness. In every worthwhile field of endeavor, there will be hundreds of thousands of practitioners, each of whom can gather inspiration from any of the millions of people who affect what they see and hear, or what they read and with whom they interact. Of those hundreds of thousands, perhaps 70% will probably not advance the progress of what they do, and a good many of that quotient will hinder progress. But of the remaining 30%, perhaps 20% will do what they do quite competently. Perhaps another 5-7% will be quite good at what they do. Perhaps another 2 ¾% are truly excellent. And then we arrive at that final ¼% which are truly extraordinary and have a chance to fulfill the creative potential of a field of endeavor. And of that ¼ of a percentage, perhaps 3/16ths of them will never be recognized for what's truly extraordinary about their contributions. Of that last 1/16th, most of them will make minor but nevertheless important contributions to their field, but a handful of them will make major innovations which change the curvature of the Earth.
For a particular section of man’s spiritual history to be perpetuated in a lasting picture, it seems that one man only is necessary, but that one is indispensable. For the age of Enlightenment, a Socrates sufficed in Greece, a Voltaire in France, a Lessing in Germany; for the English Ranaissance, a Shakespeare; and for our own time a Nietzsche. In such men the whole age is objective as itself, as in an illuminating cross-section that everyone can grasp. The genius is no other than the concentrated formula, the compressed compendium, the easily handled clue -- brief, concise, intelligible, and comprehensive -- to the desires and achievements of all his contemporaries. He is the strong extract, the clear distillation, the pungent essence which they yield; it is of them he is made. Take it away, and nothing of him would be left; he would dissolve into air. The great man is entirely the creature of his age; and the greater he is, the more this is the case. This is our first thesis on the nature of genius.
Let’s take a minute to understand this meaning. The great man or woman, if they truly achieve greatness, functions like something between a seismograph and a stenographer, which records the undercurrents and tectonic shifts of a society. I don’t understand how this process works, and I don’t believe anybody does, but when you take a broad view of society, I don’t know how this cannot be the case. There is a German philosopher of history named Oswald Spengler, a hero of Friedell’s who will also come up again and again in this class. Spengler believes that everything about our civilizations is based upon an almost mystical spirit of the time. Society, like all of us, is a kind of living organism - at least in a metaphorical sense - and perhaps even more alive because it is made of so many living things. And just as we have life cycles, just as the moon and the earth have cycles of their own, civilizations have their own life cycles. And each civilization goes through its own spring, in which the energy and romance of being alive is completely new; followed by a summer, in which the comedy of having too many blessings is always evidence; followed by an autumn, in which we come face to face with the tragedy of losing all our blessings; followed by a winter, in which we are faced with the cruel irony of remembering when we were blessed and must live out whatever days we have left in a depleted, reduced state of being. Furthermore, Spengler believes that each civilization has its own markers of identity that transcend any one form of endeavor that become the mascots of each particular civilization. Let’s take, for example, what Spengler terms ‘Western Civilization,’ which, perhaps wrongly, is the civilization that we live in even today. He refers to the founding myth of this civilization as ‘Faustian.’ For those who don’t remember the Faustian myth, it is a myth of a middle-aged to elderly man who sells his soul to the devil for a few more decades in which he gets to experience all the wonders of the world. The Faust legend has been responsible, particularly in Spengler’s native Germany, for inspiring more great artists than perhaps any other story in human history. And perhaps the reason is because Faust is about humanity’s struggle to reach for the infinite possibilities of life. Spengler sees the Faust legend as the wellspring of our continual struggle toward technological and cultural advancement. He is so fanatical and totalizing about this theory that he believes that it extends even to the mathematics of each civilization. To Spengler, it is no coincidence that the West was the civilization, with its unlimited desire to grasp for the new, gifted the world with the idea of infinity. Just as it is no coincidence that the Buddhism-influenced Indians, with their concepts of renunciation and Nirvana, was the civilization which gifted the world the idea of Zero.
Many, many philosophers, including a few I deeply respect, think that Spengler’s theory is the most steaming variety of bullshit. But I think Spengler has at least tapped into something real, even if he never hit it on the head. Like many philosophers, his theories are two-dimensionally correct even if they never quite work the way true believers think they might in reality.
Question 1: If Spengler is correct, then where are we currently in the life cycle of our own civilization?
Question 2: Name some other philosophies of history which take a similar non-individualistic approach, declaring that we are bound by history’s whirlpool, from which we will, and can, never escape.
But who, then, are these contemporaries? Who makes them contemporaries, attaches them to a particular limited section of history, endows them with a specific world-feeling, a definite life-atmosphere -- in short, a style of their own? Who but “the poet’? It is he who moulds their vital form and cuts the block from which, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are all printed. He multiplies himself mysteriously and thousandfold. Others walk, stand, sit, think, hate, or love according to his directives. He alters our standard expressions of courtesy and our feeling for nature; our hairdressing, our religiousness, our punctuation, our erotic; that which is most sacred and that which is most trivial. His whole age is infected by him. He penetrates irresistibly into our blood, splits our molecules, and tyrannically creates new connections. We speak his language, use his idiom; and a casual phrase from his mouth becomes a unifying watchword which men call to one another in the night. Streets and woods, churches and ballrooms are peoled suddenly, none knows how, with innumerable miniature copies of Werther, Byron, Napoleon, Oblomov, Hjalmar. The meadows change their hue, trees and clouds take on new shapes, men’s looks, gestures, and voices a new accent. Women become bluestockings after Moliere’s recipe, or the lowest of the low according to Strindberg’s vision; broad-hipped and full-bosomed because Rubens at his lonely easel so willed it, slender and anemic because Rosetti and Burne-Jones carried this picture of them in their heads. It is not by any means correct that the artist depicts reality; on the contrary, it is reality that runs after him. It may seem a paradox, as Oscar Wilde says, but it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.
Aside from the obvious condescension to women, there is much truth in this. I believe, though I could be wrong, that Friedell was only referring to women’s fashion. But this formulation applies equally well to men, and I’m sure he would agree.
Question: Who are some contemporary examples of geniuses who have clearly changed the way we relate to the world so enormously that in some ways we can’t help but imitate their creations?
No one can resist these wizards. They give us wings and they cripple us, intoxicate us and sober us. All the remedies and toxins in the world are in their possession. Life springs up where they tread and everything becomes stronger and healthier, “finds itself.” This, indeed, is their greatest good deed: that they enable men to find and know themselves from the moment they come into contact with them. But they also bring sickness and death. They unloose tin many souls the latent foolishness that might otherwise have slept on forever. Also they stir up wars, revolutions, social earthquakes. They behead kings, prepare battlefields, sting nations to duels. A good-humored elderly gentleman named Socrates kills time with aphorisms; an equally good-humoured countryman of his named Plato makes a series of entertaining dialogues out of them; and libraries pile up and up, are burnt at the stake, are burnt as waste paper; new libraries are written and a hundred thousand heads and stomachs live on the name Plato. A high-flown journalist named Rousseau writes a couple of bizarre pamphlets, and for six years a highly gifted people tears itself to pieces. A stay-at-home scholar named Marx, indifferent to and ignored by society, writes a few fat volumes of unintelligible philosophy, and a gigantic empire alters its whole conditions of life from the base upward.
In short, the age is absolutely and entirely the creation of its great man. The more this is so, the greater it is, and the more completely and ripely will it fulfill its destiny.
The thesis of this entire class, however many more times it meets, and hopefully it will meet regularly for years hence, is that as society evolves faster and faster, there are more and more great men and women who define our time. Every era becomes much shorter as the world evolves, and requires a new kind of greatness that renders the greatness of just a few years before obsolete and incommensurate with the needs of our new era. And in order to keep grasping for that infinite, humanity needed to overthrow God at the universe’s center. And once we did, progress in technology and culture became exponentially faster. As the great Eric Hoffer points out, even George Washington would recognize more about Ancient Egypt than he ever would of our civilization.
Infinity was thought of well before Western Civilization as a concept, both Anaximander in Ancient Greece and whomever wrote India’s mathematical text, Surya Prajnapti, clearly came up with infinity two thousand years before any westerner did. But, so far as I can tell, it was only in the Seventeenth Century that infinity began to be actively used in mathematical equations. One might infer that a human thought of infinity because infinity was the definition of the monotheistic God - a God that is all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-being. And yet it is that vision of God, who created us in his own image, which made the striving after his properties inevitable. And as we advanced, it was inevitable that we ourselves would supplant him in our own imaginations. This class is the story of how it came to be.
Before we take a break, let’s play a little game. Let’s work backwards from every decade, from now stretching back unto the 1920’s. Let’s try to name the defining geniuses of every decade. Let’s come up with three names for each. A genius in politics, a genius in the arts, and a genius in science. Let’s at least see if we can do it.