As time and my academic career have progressed, I've moved further and further away from the poststructuralism that I embraced in the late years of my undergraduate education, a philosophy that I think is ultimately nihilistic. My Great Books project has instead made me into a humanist (although I'm a humanist heavily informed by Existentialism, a philosophy that is at its base considerably less nihilistic, despite the nihilism of some of its practitioners). I believe in literature and in its power to change both the individual and society. I believe the canon has something to teach us, despite its much-criticized exclusion of women and racial minorities; and I sometimes wonder what critical and cultural theorists think the purpose of literature is.
The most important lesson we can learn from the humanities, as best I can tell, involves man's contingency, our position somewhere other than the center of the universe. This is the great lesson of the Greeks, of course, particularly the playwrights. It goes without saying that terrible things happen to tragic heroes, things beyond human control, things inflicted upon us by the capricious gods who stand in for a cold and uncaring natural world. Sometimes, as is the case in Oedipus Rex, these things happen as a sort of punishment. But often they happen for no real reason. Such is the case in many or most of Euripides' plays. Heracles kills his family even though he is a national hero, and he does so because Zeus cheated on Hera. Hippolytus may have strayed from the Golden Mean in terms of abstinence, but he probably doesn't deserve to die; he dies because of the actions of his stepmother, and there's no bringing him back from the dead.
Where the playwrights are negative, Plato is more positive. His Republic is a detailed breakdown of how society should work (although he recognizes that it's never actually going to work that way). The Republic is built upon a very detailed system of social strata. Famously, everyone's talents and abilities will be clearly delineated sometime in early childhood, and every citizen will be assigned a particular role, be it Guardian or Gold or Silver or whatnot. The important thing here is not which group you're put in; it's your ability to accept your lot in life:
We said that if any child of a Guardian is a poor specimen, it must be degraded to the other classes, while any child in the other classes who is worth it must be promoted to the rank of Guardian. By this it was implied that all the other citizens ought individually to devote their full energy to the one particular job for which they are naturally suited. In that way the integrity and unity both of the individual and the state will be preserved. (423d)Plato is often misunderstood. He is a tyrant, it is true, and his Republic is essentially a caste system with little (but not zero) chance for advancement. But he posits such a system not merely out of nationalism. The State is probably more important than the individual, but The Republic's caste system is meant to benefit the individual as well. When a citizen submits to his role in the State, he makes himself whole somehow. And his role is not arbitrarily assigned. It is based on his talents and abilities--it is presumably decided based on what will be best for both the individual and the State.
Aristotle suggests something similar in On Rhetoric. Happiness--which does not carry the modern connotation of emotional fulfillment, but rather the Good or the True--is to a large extent dependent upon contingencies. He makes a list of the components of happiness:
good birth, numerous friendships, worthy friendships, wealth, good children, numerous children, a good old age, as well as the virtues of the body (such as health, beauty, strength, physical stature, athletic prowess), reputation, honor, good luck, virtue. (I.v.4, 1360b)Some of these components, it is true, are in our control; but many of them are not. If happiness is at least partially and perhaps largely out of our hands, we must recognize this fact. And recognition of one's relatively helplessness is submission to it.
In his wonderful The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr sets forth two guiding philosophies of the Western world: the Christian and the Classical. He suggests that they are at least partially incompatible but they were merged in the Medieval Church and in the secular and religious Renaissance. The point of this merger is the mutual recognition of
The obvious fact . . . that man is a child of nature, subject to its vicissitudes, compelled by its necessities, driven by its impulses, and confined within the brevity of the years which nature permits its aried organic form, allowing them some, but too much latitude. The other less obvious fact is that man is a spirit who stands outside of nature, life, himself, his reason and the world.Even man's transcendence, however, involves contingency to some extent because it involves alienation, the essential characteristic of man and one that sets him apart from God, the world, other men, and himself. What could better demonstrate man's subjugation to his fate?
In the second post of this series, I will examine the biblical attitude toward man's position in the universe; in the third, I will examine where we went wrong. Stay tuned.