“Today, we are witnessing the medical equivalent of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Moon Mission.”
he great Peloponnesian War began in 431 B.C., when Spartan armies invaded the Attic peninsula. The agrarian population fled to the great city of Athens, whose population soon tripled. In 430 B.C., plague broke out in Athens. Chaos and death followed. Thucydides speculated that the plague came from somewhere south of Egypt, but ancient Greeks knew nothing of the biological nature of the invisible force that was killing them:
“No other human art was of any avail; and as to supplications in temples, and inquiries of oracles, and the like, they were all useless; and at last men were overpowered by the calamity and gave them all up.”
The plague raged within the city for four years and debilitated Athens far more than the fearsome Spartan warriors outside its walls. Eventually, as much as half of Athens’ bloated population would perish before the plague disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived.
Parts and Wholes
Our current response to the Coronavirus pandemic could not be more different than that of ancient Athens’. Modern science does not deal with problems by means of “supplications in temples” nor with “inquiries of oracles.” Science attends to reality in a way quite different than religion and, in turn, generates its own kind of knowledge. Science deals with “facts,” as revealed by scientific methodologies.
Today’s pandemic is precisely the kind of problem modern science is best equipped to deal with. Modern science offers detailed and specific knowledge, and it prescribes a range of specific remedies and behaviors. Today, we are witnessing the medical equivalent of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Moon Mission. The analytic powers of science have been summoned, and armies of researchers and health workers—as disciplined as a hoplite phalanx—wage war upon a microscopic enemy.
The coronavirus is indeed a disease which can be known and controlled by science. Yet, simultaneously it is but one manifestation of powers and relationships which, unnamed and unacknowledged, lead “wild and clandestine” lives.
For over two hundred years, science has systematically displaced religion as our way of knowing reality. The science versus religion conflict, however, tends to miss a more elemental conflict. The significance of the dominance of modern science is not simply that it renders religion irrelevant when it comes to knowledge; science renders the human imagination irrelevant as a way of knowing reality.
Many of the most profound critiques of the rise of science in the early nineteenth century were not made by theologians—but by artists and poets. Goethe, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley and others—either explicitly or implicitly—address the rise of modern science. The great poets of the Romantic Age were not interested in protecting the prerogatives of the Church or of kings. Nor were they themselves necessarily hostile to the emergence of reason and science. What concerned them was that human reason (in general) and scientific methodologies (in particular) only presented a limited knowledge of reality
Percy Bysshe Shelley in his essay “A Defence of Poetry” describes “two classes of mental action…reason and imagination.” Science is a ritualized form of reason that tends to focus on the parts or pieces of reality, whereas the imagination deals with the relationships and the whole. Science is concerned with “analysis,” and the poetic imagination with “synthesis.” The imagination is capable of describing and revealing relationships by means of metaphors, myth, music, dance, stories, and images that are not amenable to scientific procedures.
Unlike the scientist, nature for the poet is not treated as some object outside of ourselves—but as part of who we are. The human imagination is “the principle within human beings” capable of adapting to the forces that envelop us. All of us—not just poets—have a capacity not only to analyze facts but to “harmonize” facts to generate meaningful wholes. This is precisely what we do all day every day.
Poets, dealing in images and metaphors, implicitly acknowledge the unknown and the limited nature of human knowledge. Understanding that all human-generated forms and ideas are limited is what Nietzsche called “the tragic insight.” The Greeks called defiance of the limited nature of human knowledge hubris
A work of art is a kind of description or analogue of how nature works—and who we are in relationship to nature. “Poets,” claims Shelley, “are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society.” What we call a religion itself began as a poetic event and may be the accumulation of a series of poetic events.
Religions are dynamic systems which, like a life form or any way of thinking, evolve over time. They are born, they grow, flourish and tend to become sclerotic and even decay. “Every epoch,” says Shelley, “under names more or less specious, has deified its errors.” Modern critics of religion seem to fixate on religions in their latter sclerotic forms with little acknowledgement of the whole complex process. Such critics are apparently unaware that their own thinking is subject to precisely the same processes and even the same hubris.
A Long Slow Coup d’ Etat
Science and art’s differing ways of attending to reality are, not surprisingly, reflected in the actual structure and functioning of the human brain. “The brain” says psychiatrist and neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist, “is a metaphor of the world.” The brain functions like the world functions. In his provocative book The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist documents how the left and right hemispheres of the brain tend to focus on different aspects of reality and, in turn, generate different kinds of knowledge.
McGilchrist stresses that real hemispherical differences exist but that both sides are quite interdependent, as they integrate two aspects of experiential reality. The left side is concerned with “things” (or human generated distinctions and abstractions), while the right hemisphere is concerned with the relations between things and is open to the whole. In our normal day to day activities, both sides tend to function simultaneously, more or less in harmony. McGilchrist generally affirms Shelley’s distinctions between reason and imagination: We live by harmonizing distinctions.
McGhichrist argues that the balance of part to whole radically shifts with the emergence of modern science. The left hemisphere’s focus on details comes to dominate as our common cultural way of interpreting reality. Science’s capacity to break the world down into its pieces predominates, with little concern for the right hemisphere’s capacity to look at the whole. This is a momentous shift in consciousness that virtually defines the modern world. Roberto Calasso describes this radical shift as “…a long and slow coup d’ edat by which the brain’s analogical pole [is] gradually supplanted by the digital pole.”
As science objectifies reality (today, we literally see the transformation of reality into digital information), a great coup d’état is set in motion. It is consummated when our consciousness is thoroughly adapted to this new reality.
The story of the modern world is very much a story of this coup d’ etat. The emergence of the modern world is both disturbing and exhilarating. Science subverts traditional forms and breaks the world into pieces, and this generates both alienation and liberation. As traditional forms dissolve, we lose a sense of wholeness and meaning though ultimately we are compensated with a sense of power over the elements of nature. Much of the art and literature of the past two centuries can be understood as manifestations of and commentary on our shifting consciousness.
Nietzsche not only observed the coup d’état in progress; he could see where it was heading. He well understood that the great changes were not political or even ideological but in the very nature of human consciousness. Nietzsche’s infamous pronouncement of the death of God has been routinely interpreted as a kind of achieved wisdom of modern man over naiveté and superstition. However, as Nietzsche himself suggests, I believe it more accurate to describe it as a “psychological state” of human beings incapable of transcendence, incapable of seeing wholes.
Nietzsche’s commonly used term “decadent” signifies not only a cultural breakdown but a psychological one. He characterizes “decadence in literature” as
“…life no longer animates the whole. Words become predominant and leap right out of the sentence…the sentences themselves trespass beyond their bounds, and obscure the sense of the whole page, and the page in its turn gains in vigor at the cost of the whole,—the whole is no longer a whole.”
Nietzsche is anticipating what would become postmodern literary criticism. A great work of art epitomizes the imagination’s highest powers of apprehending unity. But its presumed transcendent powers dissolve as the works are “interrogated,” “demystified,” and “deconstructed” by postmodern critics. A great work of art which once radiated all kinds of connections is torn apart, the author himself is declared dead and even the “end of metanarratives” proclaimed. Not only is the whole no longer a whole—it is denied as ever having even existed. Harold Bloom calls this approach to literature and art, “the School of Resentment.”
It is not without great irony that Nietzsche’s skepticism, which is to say, his ability to take things apart, would be appropriated by postmodern theorists. Nietzsche is indeed the greatest of modern skeptics, but he, ultimately, is all about wholeness and transcendence. Referring to himself as an “artistic Socrates,” he recognizes the need to apprehend reality as whole is as important as breaking it into pieces. Art critic Clement Greenberg once defined the word “kitsch” as “debased and academized simulacra”; postmodernism can be describe as kitsch Nietzsche.
Postmodern skepticism even presumes to challenge the modern world formed by science and reason. One of the great paradoxes of the triumph of science as knowledge is that the more the world is turned into an object, the more we think of ourselves as subjective beings. Postmodern hyper-emphasis on the subjective nature of reality is not so much a challenge to Enlightenment rationalism as it is its fulfillment. These seemingly conflicting ways of thinking are merely two manifestations of the incapacity to see wholes: manifestations of the atrophy of the imagination and the disjunction of the left and right sides of the brain. In both science and postmodern skepticism, the brain’s digital pole subjugates the analogical pole’s proclivity to make connections and apprehend unity. The scientific mind generates fragmentation; the postmodern mind adapts to and even celebrates fragmentation.
What we call postmodernism is emblematic of the fragmented thinking of modern secular man in general. The denial of (or the incapacity for) transcendence is precisely what characterizes Nietzsche’s “last man.” Abstracted from nature and history, the last man is smug, hypersensitive, and incapable of creativity. In Nietzsche’s vision of “the land of education,” he mocks those who mindlessly pride themselves on their lack of belief: “real are we entirely, and without belief or superstition.” It is precisely the educated who have most lost “faith in faith,” who have lost any sense of transcendence or unity. It is, then, in Academia, with all its expertise and isolated silos of knowledge, where we see the consummation of the coup d’ etat.
Society, like everything else, is more or less raw material, data generated by science, which can be molded into whatever we determine to be fair and just. All problems—social, environmental, personal—are to be treated essentially the same way as a viral pandemic.
We modern secular humans now pride ourselves on our education, our skepticism, our “critical thinking” and our “openness.” The inability to see connections is now celebrated as a kind of liberation from what appears to be the arbitrary authority of any claim to a transcendent whole. All social hierarchies, social mores, artistic conventions, and even geographic borders appear as arbitrary, naïve, or self-serving. Unhappily for the educated, the world is yet full of “true believers,” “rubes,” and “deplorables,” “clinging to their guns and religion.”
The coup d etat ushers in what Calasso calls the “Experimental Society.” We are now in what Calasso calls “post history” (or what Fukuyama calls “the end of history”), where the constitution of society is not a problem of the imagination but a purely theoretical problem. Modern society has been transformed into a vast laboratory where we conduct experiments on nature and on ourselves. Our great ideological conflicts largely consist of power struggles over who controls the laboratory and which experiments are run.
The Experimental Society knows no boundaries and perpetually replicates itself to envelop the whole globe. It is a metanarrative of no metanarratives, and, in the name of denouncing imperialism, it is the greatest imperial force the world has ever seen. Society, like everything else, is more or less raw material, data generated by science, which can be molded into whatever we determine to be fair and just. All problems—social, environmental, personal—are to be treated essentially the same way as a viral pandemic. The tragedy of life can be alleviated by a deus ex machina of technological wizardry or the intervention of beneficent experts. Suffering is just nature’s way of telling us we need better experiments.
If the brain is a metaphor of the world, then the world is a metaphor of the brain. With the rise of modern science, we make the world over in our image. The McGilchrist tell us that extreme hyperawareness of the pieces in individuals is called schizophrenia. The extreme hyperawareness of the pieces in a whole civilization we often call “Progress.”
Speaking of how the world works, Calasso writes:
“There are two movements:
- Everything is usable material…
- Everything is interrelated. Universal interdependence. Resonance. If you touch one element you affect all its kin…
We cannot do without either of these two movements, in any of their articulations…”
Calasso is again making a similar distinction as between the digital and analogical poles of consciousness. Clearly, confronting our current pandemic, we require the powers of science to address the coronavirus as if it is “usable material.” We want science to break the problem down into its fragments; we want to be able to control or even annihilate the virus. A viral pandemic is a problem of knowing the fragments and conducting effective experiments.
But how does the emergence of our current pandemic relate to the whole vast world we call the Global Economy? How does “a” relate to “b”? How does touching one element affect all the other elements?
“In the post-historical phase, only the action of a is generally recognized by society; b leads a wild and clandestine life, but radiates its power over everything.”
With our fragmented minds we are blind as to how “a” relates to “b.” The coronavirus is indeed a disease which can be known and controlled by science. Yet, simultaneously it is but one manifestation of powers and relationships which, unnamed and unacknowledged, lead “wild and clandestine” lives.
And how do we know these invisible powers even exist? Consider this: Someone touches a bat in Eastern China, and a whole global civilization is brought to its knees.
The Athenians never fully recovered from the plague, and the great Peloponnesian War dragged on for decades. In one great final attempt to extend its power, imperial Athens invaded distant Sicily. Overextended, unsure of purpose and led by corrupt and weak generals, Athens suffered a humiliating defeat. The end of Athens’ Golden Age was precipitated by a great act of cultural hubris
Hubris is the arrogance that you know more than you know. The hubris of modern science as knowledge is that it tends not even to know what it does not know. Breaking the world up into pieces can never give us knowledge of the whole. Scientific knowledge can be enfolded or guided by some vision of the whole, but it cannot—as science—generate that whole. The complete domination of the kind of thinking that allows us to overcome a great pandemic is, at the same time, the kind of thinking that ensures events like pandemics. The strength of science is simultaneously its weakness.
The whole is illimitable and, therefore, can never truly be known. Ultimately, its radiant powers can only be described by metaphor or analogy. We can eradicate a thousand viruses and still not know who we are in the universe. Addressing the emergence of modern science, the poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in his 1891 “Studies for the Physiology of Plants,”
“The seekers of knowledge may cross themselves and bless themselves against imagination as often as they wish—before they know it, they will have to call upon the imagination’s creative power for help”.
Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.