Friday, April 03, 2009

Even the Smallest Action

I’m back. I’ve learned not feel guilty when I take a hiatus from blogging, so I won’t apologize, but I will explain. First, I’ve been working on a few of my other goals, specifically remodeling one of those bathrooms. It’s good at times to get concrete, immediate tasks in your radar screen, but jobs like these become all consuming else they take too long. Second, my company is not immune from the economic crisis and good friends have been losing their jobs in the last few months. It’s not over yet, but hopefully will be soon. Third, there is so much in the news these days that is infuriating, I find myself not only struggling to keep up with the other things going on, but also quickly enraged. I’ve learned that while a rant is good for my own psyche, it makes for particularly poor writing quality and I am more keenly aware of my blogging efforts as efforts to communicate something rather than simply unload my frustration. So I’ve refrained from writing until I felt I could be a little be more controlled in what I wanted to say. In that sense, not writing is actually practicing better writing.

I’m almost finished reading The Aristotle Adventure, Burgess Laughlin’s great book detailing the historical fate of Aristotle’s philosophical ideas through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. For those who believe that ideas drive the course of history moreso than extraneous physical factors, and who know the fundamentality of Aristotle’s ideas about reason recognize that it was the rise of religious mysticism and the repression of the study of philosophical ideas that led to the destruction of the classical world and ushered in the aptly named Dark Ages. For a millennium, Aristotle’s ideas hung by a very thin thread until they were rediscovered by Christian scholastics in the twelfth century. The Aristotle Adventure recounts the route by which those ideas survived. It is a detailed account of the various scholars throughout the various cultures who preserved and transmitted those ideas. It started out to me as a somewhat encyclopedic account of these scholars, but somewhere in the middle it became for me a fascinating look at the mechanisms by which ideas are translated. By examining specific actions, and their results in the successful transmission of ideas, Burgess paints a picture of what is fundamentally necessary to advance ideas. Here are some big “take-away’s” for me.

1. Battle of Reason vs. Mysticism. This whole era is dominated fundamentally by a battle between advocate of religious mysticism (early Christians and Muslim) and advocates of reason, with mystics having the upper hand. Unlike the Hellenistic period, where free inquiry was generally accepted and which had a strong tradition of intellectual inquiry, the Dark Ages see advocates of reason generally suppressed and persecuted. Books were destroyed; philosophers were constantly being denounced as heretics. When reason itself is on the defensive, it becomes terribly difficult to keep an intellectual tradition going.

2. Value, i.e. human imparted meaning as a key to transmission. A book can molder on a shelf or in a cellar, the ideas it expresses languishing in the culture. It is only when people internalize and hold those ideas as a value and then act upon that value that ideas are disseminated. That is a powerful lesson to any advocate of reason today. Unless you know what ideas to value and then you act upon those values, nothing changes. Ideas don’t change the world. People acting on them do.

3. The value of books. This was a fascinating sideline to me. At this time, “books” were not mass produced, but rather generated as single volumes, often by the author himself. When you realize the value of the ideas contained within them, and that many times during this era that the transmission of ideas from one generation to the next relied upon a few texts surviving into the next generation, you get a sense of the value that scholars must have place on particular volumes. When you read of Spanish scholastics travelling to Babylon in the Arab world, in search of books (!) it makes you consider the ubiquitousness of ideas today, and the knowledge available within a few clicks on in a whole new light.

4. Role that even small actions play in advancing or preserving ideas. Sometimes the difference between the loss of ideas and their preservation consisted of nothing more than hiding volumes from those who would burn them, or maybe a copyist replicating a key text so that it would survive into the next generation for some scholar to find and make use of, or maybe simply teaching others the ideas so that they could pass them on as well. At times it did not matter if these persons even understood the ideas they were transmitting (although ultimately that is critical). Again another lesson of intellectual activists. There is plenty of work to do. And sometimes that work consists of even the littlest things.

I had a friend today express personal dissatisfaction with some of the things he was doing, searching for more “meaningful” objectives in his life. I look back upon the lessons of Burgess’s book, of the various factors required for success: valuing, understanding ideas, small steps in disseminating them. I look back at a millennium of struggle for reason, and then I think of my friend’s frustration. So here he is at a protest he led outside the G20 this week, a pro-capitalist protest in the face of all the anti-capitalist protests that abounded there. I think about the fact that he’s valuing ideas, disseminating those ideas, the right ideas, with an understanding of what he is saying. And I realize that he’s standing on the shoulders of giants, and yet in his own way, reaching just that little bit higher. Meaningless? Hardly. Thanks to Burgess for writing his book, and nice job, Rory.

“Anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today.” Ayn Rand.


Richard said...

Wow I was not aware Burgess had written a book. I thought it was just the name of his blog. Thanks for the tip off.

Ken said...

Thanks for this review.

Mr. Laughlin's book is in my "must read" stack. It's nice to have this preview of things to come....