Western Civilization at the Crossroads – II
At first glance, Vichian paradoxical thinking (the both/and) seems to defy the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction (the either/or). The various rationalists and mysologists of our era often parade as classical thinkers above the fray of the existential vicissitudes of the “unwashed masses” with their common sense, beyond the clouds, on Olympus; they present us with an isolated reason that gives no ground to the poetical and the pure intuitive promptitude of the mind as a mode of reasoning (as even a Plato did with his myths…despite his protestations against poetry). They seem to have no inkling whatsoever that such an operation is dangerous, sterile at best. How so? Because it can conveniently prove anything with its complete impartiality, it can in fact choose any hypothesis to work from and then say “nothing personal,” I am presenting you with reality.
That is why madmen’s arguments are so unassailable on the level of logic; it is their pride and joy. Hitler for one was proud of his talent for presenting logical iron-clad, unassailable arguments. It would appear that the more vigorously logic prosecutes its own internal pursuit, the greater is the danger of its turning away from direct experience and fact. Its arguments may be perfect, but it is a narrow and circular perfection; that of the snake eating its own tail. The rationalists who defend an absolute idealism are using the madman’s detailed reasoning; no contradictions or exceptions intrude into this perfect circle, because direct experience of different levels of reality is not taken as its own test. Logical consistency is more important to rationalists than the immediate reality of fact. They may even deny that if they bang their head hard enough against a tree it will bleed. At that point, to disprove their point, all one can do is in fact bang their head against a tree.
The above begs the question: why cannot reason meet its own test? Vico teaches us that it is not because the intellect is a useless tool, far from it. In fact he comes to its defense when he insists that pure reason is irrational reason, i.e., the use of an instrument against its proper aim. The mind is constructive, as those medieval thinkers well understood when they called logic an art as well as a science. Syllogisms are pieces of architecture; the mind must take the materials for this manufacturing process from life, through man’s entire perceptive apparatus. When reason takes upon itself the task of entire discovery and construction, it makes discovery impossible. That is the point where mythology is confused for children’s fairy tales superseded by full-fledged reason, in fact, for this rationalistic mind-set, to call a story a myth is equivalent to calling it a lie. They would even expunge myths from Plato’s philosophy.
A sculptor who wants all the credit for his work is a bit vain if he only jealous of his rivals or teachers (recognize the type?), or his predecessors, and will inevitably end up in the futility of re-inventing the wheel. But if he is jealous of the marble and refuses any help from it, no statue will ever receive his proud care. This applies to the mind as well. When pure reason asserts that it will accept nothing which it cannot justify on its own terms, it proceeds to destroy itself. If Vico had taught us nothing but this he would have been a great European philosopher.
Descartes, on the other hand, wrote “Cogito ergo sum,” beginning his journey in the chamber of his own intellect, literally in a closet. Because he did not look out from that closet but at it, his journey never got under way; and the man is still sitting inside a narrow room cogitating on cogitation. If we are only because we think, then logically we are what we think, and all things are what we think or do not think them. Indeed, the lunatic is God for whom thinking and doing are one and the same. The difference is that God is sane the lunatic is insane. Rationalism’s attack on faith becomes also an attack on reason. The more astute rationalists (such as Leo Strauss, to mention one) will of course make a nice dichotomy between the two, even asserting that the reasoning in Plato’s Euthyphro is not a natural theology.
But there are different degree of exhaustion by which a rationalist will re-invent the wheel. Another is pure volition which usually will take Nietzschean-existential forms, but because this was merely an escape from Cartesian intellection, it remained a reflection of it, opposed only as things are when reversed in a mirror. Rationalism is the ally of all unreason. In his motion of mere escape from reason, Nietzsche had to deny all perceptive tests and fixed norms of facts; but this takes away the point of the will, the grip and exclusion, the creative and destructive choices. It is a Dionysian worship of will, simple ecstasy and expenditure in the void leading to nihilism. It gives the will no goal, it carries the will nowhere: pure self-destruction. Dionysius is after all the god of dissolution.
Vico teaches us that there is a higher dialectic: not that of the mind with mind but of mind with fact (the particular and the contingent) where men remember once again, via the poetical, that conclusions are made to follow but not to be. This is the fallacy of those who transfer the rules of the mind to external processes discerning necessity where there is none. Because the sun comes up every morning the mind assumes that it must do so. But repetition is not proof of necessity and it merely dulls our sense of wonder with which philosophy began. As St. Augustine aptly points out, the birth of any baby is more miraculous than the resurrection of Lazarus. To discern that the mind must first admit that it is not dealing with a fact that it did not invent but simply found. This is the wonder of being, of pure existence. When the mind so admits, then sanity returns.
In conclusion, Western Civilization as a whole needs to heed Vico who is the culmination of Humanism and return to its origins. Is it time to think paradoxically: of the new as the old and of the old as the new: novantiqua. It is time to go back to the future. Time is fast running out.