Monday, May 17, 2010

The Notion of Progress

Paul Kristeller, in an essay on the history of aesthetics, writes that philosophers and other thinkers did not problematize the sensuous reception of works of art before the 18th century. I think something similar can be said about men's reactions to works of nature, whether they were perceived as beautiful or as catastrophic.

In pre-modern times, the natural world was the place in which people lived and labored. If they "enjoyed" nature -- for instance, a sunny day in spring after a long, harsh winter -- it was as a respite from the challenge of living and working in a tough world. Life was more or less regulated by natural rhythms, except perhaps in the case of scholars like Faust, who inhabited dusky, damp chambers.

The discoveries of science in the 17th century led some men to reflect on the world around them in a new way, both the natural world and the larger cosmos. They speculated about "nature," which differed from the speculations of earlier thinkers, both ancient and of medieval thinkers, for whom the natural world was an imperfect realm under heaven. Their reflections were limited, for there was simply no way they could peer into nature's workings. No instruments, no telescopes, and all their experimentation seems to us today like nothing more than hocus pocus.

Medieval philosophy was much ridiculed, especially in the 18th century, for such lucubrations as the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. People were smart in earlier ages, but, outside of agriculture and weaponry, knowledge had little practical application. Goethe's Faust, though a "doctor," laments that his cures have caused as much harm as good. The scene of Faust in his study in the opening of Goethe's play highlights the seeming futility of the medieval scholar's desire for knowledge.

The scientific discoveries of the 17th century, however, had worldly relevance. If the discoverers themselves -- Galileo, Descartes -- limited their view to their scientific fields, other men were quick to see the possibility of application in the real world. The discovery of the circulation of the blood, for instance, promised the possibility of action and of change. If men had earlier endured the natural world, now they saw its imperfections and resolved no longer to suffer or endure them, but to change the world.

The notion of progress in human affairs seems to have taken hold by the end of the 17th century. The scientific discoveries of the 17th century led to what Alexander Koyré (From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe) has called a "radical spiritual revolution," including the jettisoning of the Christian concern with one's eternal life and its replacement by "the secularization of consciousness" and preoccupation with this life and the present world. Of course, Descartes and Galileo had no such purpose; they were both good Christian men, as were Copernicus and Kepler.

But the rejection of the scientific authority of the past was soon transformed by men of letters into a rejection of the cultural and artistic achievements of the past. A first phase in this was the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns on which I have been posting.

The sublime -- I am getting there! -- is part of this opening phase. And isn't the photo of the Andromeda Island Nebula sublime?


Zentrist said...

Lament: we've made such incredible progress in the natural sciences...but little to match, it seems, in the moral sphere. (Witness the 20th century.) Therefore the word "innovation" is one I was trained to be skeptical about! Progress, reform, "innovation": Starting with World War I, history has shown these terms to be very problematical, at best. And yet, in many ways, we still believe; some of us still are "true believers" in a "social justice" sense...I have mixed feelings about all that!

Zentrist said...

At 38, Rousseau wrote an essay, partly on "progress," that won him a nice prize and considerable fame. But he knew well some of the criticisms that Nietzsche, starting in the 1880s, would aim at him: for example, that such progress in the cities brings "decadence." The meaning of this term, Decadence, has evolved by the time we get to Nietzsche (for him it is the very socialism that Rousseau ironically championed). The tensions, as such, within Rousseau and Nietzsche are very similar; but the specific content has changed along with that very history of which both were so prophetically conscious. Rousseau would probably bristle at the charge that he is an anarchist at heart. But anarchy and socialism are pretty much synonyms--for Nietzsche. I'm realizing this once again, in places, in "Twilight of the Idols." Today, in increasing alarm, we witness more "progress." That is, more of the fruits of the concept of "getting something for nothing," a statist idea par excellence. The so-called "Greek Tragedy" we are seeing on TV seems to be but a foreshadowing. And professors Roubini and Volcker, just to name two pillars, continue to sound the alarms, to no avail.

Goethe Girl said...

Great comments both. I intend to keep pursuing this subject, so stay tuned!