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The barbarism of the intellect: 1/2
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-06-22 10:26:33
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The attempt to divorce mythos (the imaginative) from logos (the rational) is as old as Plato’s Republic. The risk of that intellectual operation is that one ends up in rationalism, what Vico dubs “the barbarism of the intellect," pure reason rationalizing what ought never to be rationalized. C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces is a fine example of Vico’s poetic philosophy that keeps the two friendly to each other without forcing one to become the handmaiden of the other.

“How can the gods meet us face-to-face till we have faces?”

The Tolkien trilogy “Lord of the Rings” has already grossed Hollywood more than a billion dollars. Were one to stand outside the theater and poll people exiting from the movie, in regard to the other fine scholarly books that Tolkien wrote as professor of ancient Nordic languages at Oxford University, I suspect that precious few would be able to mention even one. The same would probably apply to Tolkien’s friend and colleague at Oxford, C.S. Lewis.

Many have read his The Chronicles of Narnia, few know his other inspiring books harmoniously joining literature to philosophy, mythos to logos. It is an intriguing phenomenon, this of the popularity (the exoterism) of narrative myths and the unpopularity (the esoterism) of abstract rational treatises. I’d like to explore it through the analysis of a novel by C.S. Lewis, which is really an ancient myth with a universal archetype: Till We Have Faces.

The phenomenon above described is not modern. It is in fact as old as Plato’s controversy against Homer in The Republic; or Roman Stoicism and Epicureanism. Few are aware that Seneca was also a fine poet and wrote Latin tragedies in verse. It was he who “inspired” that “wannabe poet” named Nero who was jealous of his own lyre, one of the mad emperors of the Roman Empire. One of Seneca’s tragedies, Oedipus, has even been translated and successfully staged in modern times. In the Renaissance his poetic tragedies were much better known than his Stoic philosophy.

In Fellini’s film Satyricon there is a scene where we see a Greek poet reciting beautiful poetry in Greek who at a certain point gets pelted with food by the Roman bacchantes. One wonders if those decadent Romans were pelting a poet banished by Plato or if they would have accorded the same welcome to a Plato or an Aristotle. Be that as it may, I’d like to explore the phenomenon by taking a look first at what passes for a plausible explanation of this intriguing phenomenon, one that I would dub esoteric, because it is usually put forward by those modern neo-Platonists and rationalists who consider philosophy the province of the few and the intellectual elites.

The argument goes like this: most people are incapable of hard, serious thinking. This is because they are genetically not programmed for it (the Forrest Gump type strangely associated by some of my European friends with Americans in general…) or don’t have the time for it, or they are too lazy to bother with it; most people are pragmatic and make due with pragmatic reason, the cunning street reason of an Ulysses (what Whitehead calls practical reason), they do not need the reason of a Plato (what Whitehead calls speculative reason).

Moreover, most people need to make a living and lack the time and the leisure needed for such esoteric activity; they are the “ilioti” of the times of Plato: they work so that people like Plato can have the leisure to think for them in the academy, cogitating on the cogito, be it the ivory tower or a closet. This of course begs the question: what happens to the many, those that Marx called the proletariat, and the aristocratic elites of Europe called “the unwashed masses?" How are they to cultivate their mind, assuming they have one? Well, let’s see, for them there is the poetical with which to sugar-coat the bitter pill of pure unadulterated reason. Within this line of thought, it stands to reason that the metaphor dealing with particulars is to be considered inferior to the abstract concept dealing with the universal.

Enter Descartes in the 17th century to inform us via his Discourse on Method that in fact these humanistic modes of thought associated with the poetical and the metaphorical are nothing but an inferior kind of reasoning to be discarded for geometrical abstract thinking; it is inferior because associated with the mind-set of a child who uses imagination in lieu of reason. Children and semi-idiots like Forrest Gump imagine fairy tales, men on the other hand reason and device philosophical rationalistic schemes and ideologies galore. To entertain the simpletons, the intellectual elites may once in a while, noblesse oblige, even throw in a myth or two as an illustrative point to help the feeble minded, as in fact Plato does in some of his dialogues.

Lucretius, who wrote De Rerum Natura, would probably explain the phenomenon that way. He wrote his masterpiece of Latin verse, still studied today by classicists for its sheer aesthetic beauty, merely to sugar coat the bitter pill of atheism for the masses: the fear of the gods, or religion, which enslaves men to idolatry, superstition and ignorance to be relinquished by the rational mind. Not too dissimilar from the premise of modern rationalists such as Voltaire many centuries later. Now, Plato would see a definite problem with such a posture, as we read in The Republic.

For him, De Rerum Natura, despite its aesthetic beauty, would still be bad poetry. Why so? Because it is the kind of poetry that does not praise the gods and does not exalt the heroes. Lucretius, "gotch you!" To exile you go. You are a subversive of the established order in the republic; the beauty of your poetry, its form, makes it all the more deceptive and alluring to those who cannot think; it sugar-coats a pernicious content. So Plato gets busy, and as a philosopher-king that he is, he legislates laws which would swiftly banish Lucretius or any other “bad poet” from the polis, and if he will not obey the laws, then capital punishment is the final solution, because evil needs to be excised from the purity of the body politic.

Evil is anything that threatens the common good. If it all sounds rather Puritanical, it is. All Puritans are Platonists: at any time they may in good conscience kill your material body to save your spiritual soul imprisoned in the body and they would rather hear "soul of Christ" in church rather then "body of Christ". Moreover, within Platonism, the beautiful, which is to say poetry, literature, painting, music or any other poetical enterprise must relegate itself to its proper place: to be a handmaiden to philosophy.

At this point one is tempted to ask the question: would Plato tolerate aesthetically inferior poetry as long as it serves the purposes of the body politic and the common good? Of course Plato was no Stalin but his conception of the role of the poetical begins to echo that approved in the former Soviet Union only some twenty years ago. There, fine poets such as Boris Pasternak could only be published abroad; his Doctor Zhivago, for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, had to be published in Italian in Milan. Idem for Alexander Solzhenitsyn who was first imprisoned and then banished from the Garden of Eden called the Soviet Union and ended up in idyllic Vermont, USA.

One begins to wonder if indeed the failure of the praxis at Syracuse of Plato’s political abstractions indicates something wrong with his philosophy just as the failure of the praxis of Heidegger’s existential philosophy within that other garden of Eden, the Nazi Wagnerian mythological kingdom of the Neibelung Nordic sagas, may also indicate something wrong with his theoretical scheme of reality.

In light of what we have argued so far, what is one to make of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ reverting to mythological narrative as a strategy to re-introduce the poetical and the transcendental into a Western culture mired in the positivistic, the rational, the scientific, the overtly material and the merely immanent; a culture in love with its rationality and efficient push-button technological solutions and pill-popping fix-alls. Which of course begs the question: are they also what Plato would define as “bad poets” trying to fool the unwashed masses by making more palatable their more esoteric scholarly works, while Hollywood laughs all the way to the bank? Here too, there is much to ponder.

In any case, I would argue that such is not the case with either of the two scholars since they did not conceive poetry/reason as a duality of sort. Rather they saw them as a unity, in a Vichian sense. That explains in part the popularity (the exoterism) of their narrative. Without repeating here what I have already previously written on Vico’s poetic philosophy for Ovi attempting to show how unique such philosophy is within the body of Western thought, let me merely remind the reader that the uniqueness of Vico lies in his consummate ability (the “ingenium’) to bring together the poetical and the rational by tracing the development of human reasoning from cave man in the era of the gods, to that of the heroes, all the way to the full-fledged reason of Plato and then showing how this repeats itself cyclically without destroying a purpose apparent in cosmological and human history.


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Sand2007-06-22 16:26:57
(I have had to divide this appreciation as the server would not swallow the whole thing in one piece)

No, I said to myself. Don’t do this. NO!
I tried to deal with this dusty mentality before and, as with all dusty things, they should be gone over with a vacuum cleaner and then sorted out. But, usually, with Paparella, when all the dust is sucked into the bag nothing but a clean surface remains.

But then the title was provocative. “Barbarism of the intellect.” Can intellects be barbaric? Was I misinterpreting the title? Paparella has this way with terminology to lead it into verbal Mobius strips and Klein bottles, where the thing has only one surface and one edge or the inside and the outside are one and the same. Riemann surfaces should, of course, be topologically four dimensional but…

HMPH! I was complicating things. Of course. The word was Barbarism. It referred to that French elephant in a children’s book, Barbar. THAT’S how it involves myth. It’s elephantal, my dear Watson! But, but, no. Something more elusive is involved.

Back to the text. Divorcing the rational from the poetic is apparently disastrous. To put it forthrightly, it fucks up the logic. Two plus two equals four is purely crass.
One must say:

When dealing with two
Before you are through
You must do something new
For with doubling
There’s troubling
To finish the chore,
Voila´ it is four!
Hmm. Does that make it less brutal? A matter of taste, it seems to me. Are they friendlier without becoming mutual handmaidens? (Is lesbianism involved?)

Well – “How can the gods meet us face-to-face ‘til we have faces” ?
My problem, of course, is not a lack of faces but a lack of gods. I see lots of faces every day but nary a god. The halo, I suppose, has gone the way of the buggy whip so how do you know one is there? The legends speak of gods transforming themselves into swans and bulls and golden showers. I wonder if a god-bull has gone through the slaughterhouse and ended up as frozen hamburger patties. Perhaps there is a god (or a fragment of one) in my fridge right now! Must I lower my head every time I pass a McDonalds. (Or locally, a Hessburger)?

It seems that the masses, unwashed or otherwise, are totally ignorant of the authorship of Tolkien’s ring series (which one national critic described as a children’s fairy tale that had gotten out of hand) and it is a pretty sure thing that you will not overhear any moviegoer chatting in an ancient Nordic language, no matter how appreciative he or she might be to the wild display of flying blood, guts, and various body parts both human and fantastic that demonstrates the solid join of logic and poetry.

A mention is made of the ruler Nero the unpoet who was adept with a lyre. Mad, he was, like a local ruler today. also adept as a liar. The more things change…

It seems the modern neo-Platonists and rationalists, devoid of poetry, are rather snotty. They do seem pretty skillful at unifying the technological and scientific world so that we have TV and movies and radio and the internet and all that other nonsense that permits the run of the mill poet to earn a living writing screenplays and even a poem or two that the whole world hears in an instant. I am not sure how well bathed the poets are these days but I have a hunch that those guys in “On the Road” were not too regular in the shower or even in the sauna.

Sand2007-06-22 16:28:47
One must not, of course, judge a man by his body odor or even his flatulence no matter how consequential that might be to global warming.. Of course, the great popularity of TV reality shows merely demonstrates the profundity of the general pragmatic intellect. Electing G.W.Bush once was merely a matter of national panic and probably a drunken Supreme Court. The second election of this amazingly total incompetent indicates clearly the precise level of intelligence of the average voter.

Now here’s a delicious sentence:” Within this line of thought, it stands to reason that the metaphor dealing with particulars is to be considered inferior to the abstract concept dealing with the universal.” A verbal Mobius strip if I ever saw one. I could spend the entire Midsummer Holiday toying with it and still find enough mystery to last well into Christmas.

Next it is evaluated that most children are more or less idiots. My personal experience indicates that children are extremely astute in asking very basic and cogent questions on the basis of the information they have up to that point in their life. Of course, an overeducated academic end product frequently finds that children ask very disturbing questions outside the realm of its dogmatic borders that clearly questions the inconsistencies of many standard accepted beliefs so it is very comforting to brush off these questions as mere childishness and declare them unanswerable so they may be left unanswered. As much as I might disagree with some of Plato’s discourses it never crossed my perception that he had gathered about him crowds of idiots so that, like any massive bowling ball he could knock them over like a triangle of susceptible ten pins. He did not habituate, as does the conversationalists in Paparella’s imaginary encounters, the cloudy cuckoo heights of Mount Olympus, but stood solidly in the Agora where he could confront and question many of the accepted beliefs of his day.

Atheism may be a bitter pill for people like Paparella but it is a proper prescription for society that is in such need of a strong laxative for clearing the shit from a system so constipated with the sickeningly sweet but corrosive effects of imaginary beings. Plato might have been so conditioned to a frozen intestinal tract that he could not imagine the delights of regular mental bowel movements to promote intellectual vigor but if he had the intellect for which he is credited and the information which is readily available today there is no doubt he would have dispensed with religious nonsense in short order,

One should note something about aesthetic beauty. It is a purely artificial standard. Anyone even peripherally acquainted with the beauties and delights of flowers, swift, sure, and delightful animal forms (including the human), the magnificent shapes and utilities of even the most insignificant insects, should be aware that no aesthetics whatsoever is involved in their structure. They are formed the way they are because they have made the most efficient and economical use of the materials of which they are constructed. And the sophistication of their forms and materials still retain many unsolved mysteries for our present technologies. It is only within the last few days that scientists have been able to reproduce the strength and flexibility of the black widow spider’s web and they have merely scratched the surface of nature’s secrets. And, to reiterate, aesthetics is totally irrelevant.

For one to speak abstractly of the arts, poetry, painting, sculpture, music and many modern extensions and make the broad assumption that it could embody within its motivation and execution no philosophy, that it could exist outside of philosophy, is to be totally ignorant of how these arts are conceived and manufactured. Plato or Stalin or Hitler, or any other social commander might have favored one particular line of philosophy to be embodied in art production, but to produce a work of art with no philosophical implications is an impossibility.
I have actively participated in a few of the arts and I am well acquainted with how they are conceived and produced and am personally acquainted with how deeply philosophy is embedded in their production. I have no evidence of this but I sincerely suspect that Paparella is no more than a simple and inexperienced bystander in the matter.

Frankly I find it ludicrous that somehow the Greek or Roman or Christian gods make the grade in Paparella’s mythology contest but that somehow Nordic deities are shut out. Powerful leaders in history who adhered to any of the mythologies do not seem to have restrained their brutal instincts to any measurable degree.
That Hollywood has incorporated Tolkien horror and brutality in a successful morality play to temporarily displace flaming automobile crashes with snarling demons and missile spitting helicopters with roaring flying dragons betokens to me about as little poetry as can be encapsulated in cruel nonsense. Of course the public, ever fascinated with thaumaturgy, scientific, mythological, or otherwise will flock to see the same old story dressed in flashy new costumes.

Since we have barely begun to discern whatever cave men produced physically and have only fragmentary residues of their tools and other accoutrements, to boldly state that someone has fathomed their human reasoning seems to be overstating an accomplishment into the realm of fantasy.

Stating that history is cyclical in no way demonstrates it.

It is Midsummer holiday here in Helsinki and very little to do so an hour spent diddling with a silly submission is as pleasant a way of killing time as any. Anyway, that’s my excuse.

Paparella2007-06-22 17:36:55
No suprises there: a charlatan simply cannot wait till the whole article is in to send in his pre-judgemts on anything he does not understnd or disagrees with which he deems pearls of wisdom. Cicero must be turning in his grave: o tempora o mores.It cuts a pretty ridiculous figure but a rationalist can even rationalize that in the closed of his mind cogitating on the cogito.

Paparella2007-06-22 17:57:15
Does he not understand or does he understand only too well?

Sand2007-06-22 17:59:57
Or does he understand that there is nothing to understand.

Paparella2007-06-22 18:49:44
If that be the case, why the animus that makes you reply to unfinished articles and stay awake at night? One has to wonder.

Sand2007-06-22 19:19:29
Since I live (I assume)about one third of the way around the world from you I may be awake in your night, but I assure you my sleep time is placid and regular.
I am disturbed by your writing because the ideas presented are not clearly presented, many ideas are merely referred to with no exposition, and many proposals are justified because some person you respect proposed them with little or no basis for me to judge that they are worthy of consideration. The concept that poetry should be totally welded to reason and vice-versa is put forth as a cure-all for the gross misuse of reason that totalitarian regimes use as the basis for their actions. My acquaintance with poetry has indicated that poetry comes in all sorts of acceptable and unacceptable varieties,rational,irrational, fantastic, amusing, sensual, nonsensical, amusing, touching, and surely a few more. What this has to do with myth or secular attitudes in their many varieties is not in the least made clear in your exposition.

Paparella2007-06-23 01:35:01
Here we go again; the poetic confused for poetry. The rationalist begins with a false assumption and then proceed to build his iron-clad argument. The problem with many of them is that they need to take some 101 courses in humanities and liberal arts.

Paparella2007-06-23 02:39:37
A short follow-up to get it off my chest as the subheading under comments encourages: I would be willing to wager that for most rationalists the picture accompanying the article means absolutely nothing, if they can even identify the two figures. But they are always read to cavalierly attack what they are ignorant of. It is fascinating and amusing at the same time to see them declare that "there is nothing to understnd" and then make such a fuss about the nothing that they have not understood. Not very rational. Ridiculous perhaps. Idem with the attacks on one's opponent reputation and character, what the Romans called argumentum ad hominen, the most distastful and reprehensible kind of argument, used by Catilina against Cicero. As Cicero would put it: o tempora, o mores. Perhaps Dostoyevsky and those Catholic children you used to play with in Brooklyn did have a point after all: for those who don't believe in a God anything is ultimately permitted.

Sand2007-06-23 05:53:00
Since you have never defined your basic terminology assumptions are the only tools possible so that our conversations remain tangential. Please give me a precise definition of poetic and how it differs from poetry. It would also help if you refrained from generalizing about me and speak to me directly and not to some theoretical class of "rationalists" which sets you foaming at the mouth. This third person address is a typical McCarthyite technique which absolves you of confronting me directly and is extremely insulting. I ad hominize you to verbally kick you in the pants to get a reaction. Otherwise you go off with your esoteric references and sly snide insults to anyone not making sense of the most unclear exposition of an idea I have ever encountered. It's a style favored by bureaucrats and academics who try to impress and confuse people who like to have things said openly and clearly in understandable language and it betrays a basic desire to impress without being understood.

Paparella2007-06-23 07:39:08
By all means, let us be direct: I wonder if you are aware of how insulting and disrepectful is your mode of communicating. Be that as it may, to understand the difference between poetics and poetry, you may wish to begin with The Poetics by Aristotle. Indeed there are two worlds out there: that of science and that of the humanities but they were not separate at the beginning. Had rationalists and secular humanists a more nuanced and authentic understanding of what Humanism is all about they would also know that somebody like Da Vinci did not consider science, religion and art as hermetically separate from each other, neither did the ancient Greeks; both Aristotle and Plato had a natural theology and they also did science and the whole was was based on reason understood as more than mere rationality with which to play chess with life, not on superstition as the secular humanist grinding their ax against religion misguidedly believe. Indeed change is necessary but not all that arrives at the end is progress. Some is regress leading to "the barbarism of the intellect" or an inability to retrace one's steps to orginis when rationality and imagination were complementary to each other. It is the barbarism leading to fanatical ideology, the gulags and the lagers. The gods eventually return however. As Santayana, an intelligent atheist but by no mean a rationalist put it: men change their religion or do away with religion but they do not do change the way they worship their gods. You need to reflect on that a bit more deeply or perhaps sleep on it. Dreams are very revealing sometimes.

Sand2007-06-23 08:36:58
Respect is earned by cogent and worthwhile output. Yours has been, so far, a mass of obscurity disguised as profundity and it adds up to an insult to the honest reader and has earned an answer in kind.
The concept of having gods without superstition and religion as you indicate Santayana proposed requires substantial explanation if it is even to be considered, much more accepted.

Sand2007-06-23 09:12:54
A review of Santayana's work reveals no reference to an acceptance of gods. He was concerned with the difficulties of reconciling spiritual with material values but was fully in accord with scientific pragmatism and the rejection of eternal values in his recognition that temporal experience supplies only temporary solutions to immediate problems which is the standard scientific method. And he accepted that spiritual reward was also a temporary condition dependent upon conscious acceptance of prevailing conditions with no religious implications or dealings with imaginary gods.

Paparella2007-06-23 09:54:25
Fascinating how you assume that other readers, like you, find my output obscure. And yet I was informed by an editor that the piece on Levinas was the most widely read in May. Obviously the problem lies elsewhere. As for Santayana, rather than a quick cursory and superficial look at Google, try his Three philosophical poets: Lucretius, Dante Goethe. My reccomendation for some boning up in the humanities and liberal arts stands.

Sand2007-06-23 10:34:59
Whatever the size of your local audience may be they either have not gained much insight from their perusal of your pieces or they found them not worth commenting on for I seem to be your only concerned correspondent ans surely not satisfactory to you.
Santayana in his piece about the three poets concludes that poets not acquainted with the full facts of nature like Lucretius or those concerned with the outer world to any extent like Dante can only produce imperfect, or at least, badly flawed work. And he concludes that no poet has yet appeared that can reconcile nature and art to a satisfactory degree. No gods are mentioned. Lucretius, apparently, was an atheist.

Sand2007-06-23 10:40:04
Sorry that was a bad transmission. Here is the correction.

Whatever the size of your local audience may be they either have not gained much insight from their perusal of your pieces or they found them not worth commenting on for I seem to be your only concerned correspondent and surely not satisfactory to you.
Santayana in his piece about the three poets concludes that poets not acquainted with the full facts of nature like Lucretius or those not concerned with the outer world to any extent like Dante can only produce imperfect, or at least, badly flawed work. And he concludes that no poet has yet appeared that can reconcile nature and art to a satisfactory degree. No gods are mentioned. Lucretius, apparently, was an atheist.

Paparella2007-06-23 11:03:58
Were you to actually read De Rerum Natura even in translation you'd soon discover that the purpose of the poem is to demolish the fear of the gods so that without that fear one can live a happy epicurean tranquil life cultivating one's garden. Up the alley of many atheists I suppose, however the point Santayana is making is that without the gods to react to there is no De Rerum natura either because there would be precious little imagination left. Lucretius, still needs the gods, albeit in a negative fashion. People change their religion but not the way they worship thier gods. The god of rationalists is rationality devoid of the poetic. I still reccomend you bone up in the humanities.

Paparella2007-06-23 11:25:50
On readership, fascinating how you speak for an audience whose vast majority you have certainly never met or talked to. No surprises there either. For a rationalist reality resides in his mind, or better in that computer of meat called brain, and if reality out there does not conform, so much the worse for reality. But we do have neverthless at least one comment on record on what the audience thinks of the volumninous comments under my "confusing" pieces and your "lucid" ones. That of Eva. She may have turned us off by now, but on the other hand she may still be enchanted by the "two boys" behind the mask jousting in the arena of the intellect, or of the brain as you might prefer. At least she did not call us two grumpy old men playing at jousting devoid with a brain and no heart as the tin man in Alice in Wonderland.

Sand2007-06-23 11:28:25
Your logic, of course, would say that the police need criminals and doctors need diseases and therefore we should all be happy that criminals and diseases exist. Another Mobius strip where the inside and the outside are confused.

Sand2007-06-23 11:33:24
I do not pretend to speak for your audience and apparently neither do they. Eva, of course, you hug to your breast like a beloved Barby doll. Today is a big holiday in Finland and everything is closed so what the hell. There's little else to do.

Sand2007-06-23 16:42:29
For someone fascinated by fantasy you have strangely put the Tin Man near Alice and, while he definitely is not in Kansas, he must be terribly confused by now. But, of course, you are expert in creating confusion.

Paparella2007-06-23 23:42:01
Junghian projection?

Sand2007-06-24 05:49:40
Ahaa! So it was Jung who removed the Tin Man from Oz and set him up in Wonderland! I thought you had the imagination to do that. Well, your lack of imagination has been a prime feature of our intercourse all along. I should have known.

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