April 13, 2015

In the Hall of the Philosopher King

"You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners. Like ourselves, I replied." — Plato, The Republic

How determined are we by the age in which we live? Are we all merely swept along by the current of our particular times or is it possible to mount our will against the swell and truly be an "individual"?

All epochs have a Zeitgeist, a certain “spirit of the time,” which determines the intellectual, artistic, rhetorical and fashion trends of that society. And if one wishes to have a career within said society, one must be unabashedly timely in order to be “relevant.” In other words, one must accept the prevailing forms of taste, or its not likely that anyone will care what you are doing—at least not the mass of society.

So who—or what—determines the “taste” which is deemed acceptable in any given age?

In the modern world, there have been two general theories that attempt to explain this: the Geist, or spirit, usually associated with the 19th century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; and the so-called Great Man Theory, popularized by Hegel’s contemporary, the Englishman Thomas Carlyle. (Then, of course, there is also the idea that nothing determines it, that it is "just one damn thing after another." But we will leave that theory aside for now.)

In this grand Hegelian sense, the Zeitgeist is an overarching "World Spirit" directing History toward a time where “the real is rational and the rational is real.” Essentially, History is progressing towards a predetermined "end," and one’s time and place in History is dictated by this movement towards the goal of universally accepted rationalism—Science and Enlightenment. The political persuasion we call "Progressivism" today is based on this conception of History, and what it means to be "on the wrong side of History." The "right side" is to be actively advocating and working to expand rights and privileges for an ever greater swath of humanity, with the end goal being some sort of universal radical egalitarianism. And one who is engaged in this work must necessarily base all their judgments on "Science" and "Reason" instead of tradition and prejudice.

The Great Man Theory, in contrast, says that History is determined by the actions of powerful individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill, use their talents to determine the course of history—individuals such as Napoleon or Jesus or Attila the Hun. Basically, through the strength of their will and character, the times in which they live do not shape them, they shape the times. This theory, however, tended to fall out of favor after World War II, when the actions of “Great Men” such as Hitler or Mussolini revealed the amoral implications of holding certain individuals so high above the mass of humanity. And more recently, works such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States have attempted to further show the perverse effects of this belief.

I, however, propose a way to synthesize these two seemingly contradictory theories that also neuters some of their more unseemly results.

In Plato’s Republic, there is a famous section known as The Allegory of the Cave. In it, Socrates tells a story of individuals trapped in a cave, restrained by chains, with their heads fastened permanently forward toward a wall. Upon the surface of this wall dancing shadows are projected, which the inmates believe is "reality." They are told that these shadows are the gods and the heroes they must believe in, which are the foundations for the myths and values of their particular society. Because it is all they have ever seen, the prisoners believe what they are told and mistrust anyone who says differently. However at the top of a steep incline there is an exit from this cave, outside which shines the sun and the Truth of reality. When one escapes from this prison, they realize that what they experienced in the cave was mere appearance, and what they see now is the unchanging Truth that underlies reality. They become en-lightened.

The Cave in this analogy is the Zeitgeist, the norms of ones time and place within History. Seeing this “reality” for what it truly is is the goal of Philosophy. You become a Great Man or Woman by interacting with the timeless Truth discovered outside your particular Cave, in order to have a more realistic perspective on it. However, this wisdom is useless if you are then unable to adapt and express it within the taste of the times. It is a synthesis of these of the two theories—the Zeitgeist and Great Man—that both empowers us and humbles us. It shows us the timelessness of Truth—that it is not just whatever we make up and will it to be—and the necessity of being timely; that we are both "creative" and determined.

As Nietzsche, so aptly declared in the prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we “Moderns” believe that formerly, all the world was mad. Yet, a book written 2500 years ago seems to have a clearer insight into the nature of reality than any psychological, sociological, anthropological, or other modern social science text. The fact that we are so resistant today to the wisdom that can be found in the past is only the most conspicuous of our maladies.  

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