Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Two Book Reviews

The Sleepwalkers. By Arthur Koestler -- "A history of man's changing vision of the universe." It is a fascinating look -- both biographical and philosophical-scientific -- at the history of astronomy amd especially at the fate and fortunes of heliocentric theory. First published in 1959, it makes a close companion to Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances (also published that year) which examines a similar set of circumstances (the rise of science) without so much biographical detail but with a deeper philosophical perspective of the evolution of consciousness.

It is interesting to see Koestler circling around the concept of the evolution of consciousness, but without quite hitting it. Barfield's account, on the other hand, leads quite naturally to it because he is intent upon exploring the concept of participation. Because Koestler lacks the concept of participation, he is not able to project himself into the ancient Greek mind without making it sound like a modern mind that has made a mistake. Thus he exhibits the tendency of modern commentators to "surreptiously substitute our own phenomena for those which [the Greeks] were in fact dealing with." (Barfield, p. 44.) Barfield stresses that the phenomena of the ancient Greeks were participated - that is, "It never would have occurred to an ancient Greek to doubt that the heavenly bodies and their spheres were in one way or another representations of divine beings." The perpetual dogma of Greek science was that the heavenly bodies move in perfect circles in uniform speed. Rather, it was no "dogma" but simply self-evident, in much of the same way that "evolution" has become self-evident to the modern mind. And there are as many inconsistencies with the notion of circular movement as there are with the idea of evolution, for which scientists are busy, then as now, with "saving the appearances." This, to Koestler, is an 'ominous phrase,' showing 'a split world reflected in the split mind.' But before the Scientific Revolution, it was simply a given that the heavenly worlds and the earthly world were wholly different and disjunct. It cannot therefore be framed in the modernist, post-psychiatric terminology of 'split-mindedness.'

Since we no longer view the world in this manner, it is unthinkable (to us) that the celestial and the terrestrial worlds would represent anything other than a common cosmological history.Our world view is unitary, but it is flat; the ancient view was disjunct, but it was marked by differentia of all kinds. One could say that the planets were personalities - this is an example of participated consciousness. But even as late as Copernicus, Koestler notes, ". . . gravity is the nostalgia of things to become spheres." The idea of moral perfection was perhaps the last to go in cosmology.

Because Koestler lacks the concept of participation, he can only speculate that the reason the ancient Greeks, who first came up with the heliocentric notion but then "turned their backs on it," was because of a deep-seated "fear of change." He blames Plato and Aristotle in particular for this state of affairs, saying that their views of the cosmos were motivated by "the craving for stability in a disintegrating culture." In this respect Koestler may be revealing the particular blind spot in his Jewish heritage -- a heritage which is characterized above all by a pronounced antipathy to participation -- otherwise known as paganism -- in all its forms. Koestler, though not hostile to the Christian Church, likewise shows an inability to understand the inspiration of Christianity in civilization in his descriptions of medieval life: "... emotions required a rigid system of conventional forms... chronic and insoluable mental conflicts... mass hysteria ... compulsive ritual.... etc."

I am reminded of a passage in John Murray Cuddihy's book, The Ordeal of Civility (also reviewed here; see next)in which he discusses the "value-package of Western civilization" -- that is, charity feudalized to chivalry, later animated to courtesy and finally modernized to civility. Cuddihy's book is a study of 19th century emancipation of the Jews, and he comments that this Western value-package was "the collective representation of Western culture that rubbed emerging Jewry the wrong way." Some of Koestler's pronouncements on the Middle Ages reveal this historic Jewish antipathy. His best pages come after his medieval commentary.

Koestler's portraits of Copernicus, Kepler, Tycho de Brahe and Galileo are richly drawn and profound. Although lacking full understanding of the medieval world, he is nonetheless in sympathy with its "mystic sap" which inspired Copernicus, Kepler and Tycho. It was Galileo who "...precipitated the divorce of science from faith," and with that divorce there began a new fragmentation of experience: science divorced from religion, religion from art, substance from form, matter from mind.

Where Koestler's Jewish heritage may prevent him from seeing the true dimensions of participation and imagination, it gives him, on the other hand, a deeper understanding of the moral gravitational sphere. Commenting on the paradox of intellectual advancement and "moral dwarfism," he says: "It may be thought unfair to judge a man's character by the standard of his intellectual achievements, but the great civilizations of the past did precisely this; the divorce of moral from intellectual values is itself a characteristic development of the last few centuries." [See note] This banishment of the moral - and the emotional, and the esthetic - aspects of life from thinking and science gives him the greatest anxiety for our future. "The basic novelty of our age is the combination of this sudden unique interest in physical power with an equally unprecedented spiritual ebb-tide."

This depth of understanding gives Koestler's account of science and scientists its moral gravity. Although he does not understand why the appearances need to be saved in terms of the moral, he does see how the ever-widening rift between science and moral consciousness is leading to ever more serious consequences fofr humanity and for the earth.

[Note: A later comment -- I would have thought that the ancient standard was the reverse of Koestler's dictum: one's intellectual achievement was judged by one's character, and not as the meritocratic-tending Koestler's dictum has it. Nevertheless, I do take his general point.]


John Murray Cuddihy, The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity. Basic Books, 1974.

John Murray Cuddihy's thesis is a study of the social tensions arising from the legal emancipation of the Jews in Europe. This emancipation was perhaps the most important consequence of the French Revolution. "The story of the exodus of Jews into Europe in the 19th century is a case study of culture shock," he writes, and it is the effect of that culture shock in the works of prominent Jewish intellectuals that Cuddihy traces in his book.

From the mid-1600's there was a movement from Eastern Europe and Poland of millions of Jews into Europe. They were essentially a people emerging from the Middle Ages, habituated to a theocratic and ethnocentric mode of life. They were to encounter, in the gentile non-kinship universalistic nation-state, a whole new system of manners and a code of what was considered proper to social and public behavior. The encounter of Jews with civil society became a whole intellectual apologetic. The hidden theme in all this, says Cuddihy, was the ordeal of civility -- that is, "... the ritually unconsummated social courtship of gentile and Jew ... the ideology of the Jewish intellectual was frequently a projection onto general, gentile culture of a forbidden ethnic self-criticism."

The tenor of Jewish intellectual activity can be characterized as an attempt to subvert or unmask the "hypocrisy of appearances." Freudian psychoanalysis, for instance, became a way to transform social conflicts into "cognitive problems." Thus Freud, writes Cuddihy "... the whole business of courtship and the sexual courtesies deriving from the feudal court are confronted... with the reality of an erect penis." The Freudian id became the moral equalizer legitimating Jewish-gentile equality as psychoanalysis became a countercultural adversary of the bourgeois-Christian ethos of civility and respectability -- the "Protestant Esthetic and Etiquette."

Likewise Marxism availaed to tear away the "bourgeois superstructure" to reveal the ugly reality of explotative economic relations beneath it. Marxism became a way to cover the deficit of Jewish social morality by generalizing it to capitalist society. Exposing economic relations in all their crudity - tearing away the "fig-leaf... of misleading appearances" -- would make society fit for the Jews rather than by looking into the question of how the Jews were to become fit for society.

Thus Cuddihy describes the intellectual atmosphere of 19th century Europe as comprised in large part of strategies of projection -- "an endless quest for euphemisms to describe the Jewish problem." Cuddihy describes the "ancient value-package" deriving from the concept of charity which became feudalized into chivalry which became secularized into courtesy which became modernized into civility as the collective representation of Western culture which "rubbed emerging Jewry the wrong way." The signal feature of this movement from charity to civility over the 2,000 year period is the distinction between the "person" and the "idea," culture and religion, faith and reason, private and public. That there could be a notion of truth and the value and dignity accorded to the search for it was highly dependent upon the maintenance of the civil realm, the public dimension -- the appearances, which discouraged the intrusion of the excessively personal, the crude, the obsessive, the antagonistic, the fanatic. The unwritten rules of civic participation undergirded the written political ones and made possible the continuation of the civis itself. This foundational fact was not understood by gentile society in the 19th century and is still little understood today.

I have often called the attention of my readers to Owen Barfield's book, Saving the Appearances, which I regard as essential to the understanding of the development of Western science. Western cultures were already embarked upon a long process of dissolving the "appearances" through a single-minded pursuit of empiricism, nominalism, reductionism, and materialism in science and philosophy. In the 19th century these processes already taking place in European culture encountered the emancipated Jewish intellectualism and the two movements collided in full force. After this collision, the two streams become almost impossible to disentangle.

The wreckage from this collision lies all around us today in the ruins of what were once hopefully denominated "Western civilization." Cuddihy's book discusses the Jewish contribution to this civilizational crisis, and by connecting the prominent themes of the Jewish intelligentsia to issues of Jewish emancipation, assimilation, and modernization, helps to fill in an important part of the picture.

This essay originally appeared on my "Sword in the Mouth" website - now no longer available. Original post date March 22, 2005, which I have retained, although I have slightly revised and edited the piece for inclusion today.
More on heliocentrism at my website Geocentrality - see link at left.
Essay on Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances was posted under the title "Thoughts and Things: Reviving Liber Naturalis," on Lila Rajiva's website.