In CoPhi today we return to The Dream of Reason. (What an apt title at this strange moment in our country’s history, when the drowsy absence of commitment to reason, fact, and truth in the new administration feels increasingly and disorientingly somnambulistic. Gerald Ford’s “long national nightmare” has a sequel. It’s been said before…
It’s very tempting, to just nod off and request a wake-up call when it’s safe and sane out there again. But as Lord Russell said, that’s a form of slumber to conjure monsters. We’ve got to keep our eyes open. Fight the power, for the planet
. Sapere aude
. Make the world safe again for the dreamers
It does in fact feel a bit like retreating into an ancient dreamscape, to take up the topic of preSocratic Milesians and Pythagoreans at a moment when every time we look up we discover the jarring rollback of another hard-won milestone of progress, on healthcare, the environment, gender equality, the 1st amendment…
But we must remind ourselves, those old first philosophers were modeling the very activity we must emulate now more than ever: throwing off convention, defying false authority, standing up to face the facts and seek the truth. They didn’t know they were pre-anything, but went ahead and invented the best method of fact-finding and whistleblowing we’ve yet hit upon. They were our first, if not our best, naturalists (physici), and they were smarter than popularly believed.
Thales may or may not have fallen in a well or monopolized the olive presses, but his claim about the ubiquity of H2O, “intimately connected with life” and flowing wherever life has managed to sustain and replicate itself, was not crazy at all. “In order to refute him we have to reason with him,” as opposed I suppose to just stating the facts and telling the truth on him. (Or “giving him hell,” as Harry Truman had it.)
If Thales was a reductionist and precursor of Occam and Thoreau (“simplify, simplify”), Anaximander “exemplified an additional and equally fundamental” scientific impulse, to peek behind the veil of appearances to discover the world’s real generative machinery. He thought it was something determinative of all the oppositions we encounter in phenomena (hot-cold, wet-dry, red-blue) but itself indeterminate and without “observable qualities of its own.” He called it apeiron.
What an odd duck was Pythagoras, with his numbers mysticism and belief in reincarnation and antipathy for beans and love for the inaudible celestial “music of the spheres.” Study numbers, geometry, astronomy, and music, he instructed, and you’ll grasp ultimate order in the cosmos.
Young Bertrand Russell had a Pythagorean and Platonic phase (as indeed did Plato), alleging our “highest good” in the mind’s spectral “union with the universe.” He later rethought that commitment, but in The Conquest of Happiness Old Russell still spoke of conjoining our respective destinies with the great “stream of life” that both antedates and succeeds our brief groundtime on Earth. Rising above petty day-to-day worries to contemplate eternity does in fact allow a bit of it to rub off on us, to lift us up. For a time.
Russell had another rethink, another “retreat from Pythagoras, ultimately giving up the rationalist “feeling that intellect is superior to sense.” No. Intellect and sense have to collaborate, for ideas, sensations, and perceptions to come together and sound the alarm, to get us up and doing. Sleep then can be the restorative it’s supposed to be, not an escape from responsible engagement with monsters and tweeters and oblivious fabulators who would trap us in their own terrible needs.
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