An Introduction To The Online Philosophy Seminar
Olavo de Carvalho • March 2008
I am going to provide you with an outline of the general program of the Philosophy Seminar, a course which will last for approximately five years. Keep in mind that this program, which I will delineate here in a rather vague manner, may be changed later, should that be necessary because of the performance of the students or should any other circumstance so require.
The general objective of this course is to prepare students to react philosophically to the cultural and historical changes taking place today. For this reason, I would like to start off by remarking that, as a rule, major cultural changes happen in a very peculiar manner, since rarely, if ever, is a body of ideas, values, and symbols abandoned because it has been directly confronted, refuted, or overcome. Rather, major changes in culture are usually a consequence of the substitution of a dominant intellectual class by a newly emerging one, having a distinct social origin and different concerns—that is, with its attention focused on other themes and questions. Thus, along with the new intellectual class comes a new culture, which takes over society in such a way that the old one becomes incomprehensible and inaccessible in a very short period of time. So one should never mistake the historical supplantation of a cultural trend by another for an intellectually valid confrontation between a new culture and an older one. From the fact that a body of ideas has been abandoned historically, it does not necessarily follow that it has been refuted or impugned in any intellectually valid way whatsoever.
Actually, any such impugnation never occurs. There are no examples in history of shifts in cultural trends that happened because an earlier prevailing body of ideas was actually examined and refuted by the advocates of a new intellectual order. Besides, rather than entailing a major cultural change, the scrutiny of a body of ideas presupposes the preservation of the cultural framework to which the ideas under discussion belong. That is to say, those people involved in examining and debating them are still discussing the same set of issues that spring from that framework.
Nietzsche once remarked that only that which is replaced is completely destroyed, and I think his observation serves well to summarize how a major cultural change really takes place. Because a shift in culture does not result from intellectual debate, but rather from the replacement of certain prevailing ideas with others in such a way that the previous ones are simply forgotten, left behind. While certain ideas are still dominant, it is a fact that they have not been refuted, and after they have been forgotten, what is the use of refuting them? As a result, the so-called “progress” of culture or “progress” of knowledge is in truth a series of instances of forgetting, of absolutely remarkable losses.
Besides, as the new ideas take the place of and no longer need to be confronted with the old ones, the number of intellectual perspectives available for judging the new preponderant ideas naturally decreases—a process which is somewhat uniform in the history of the West. Put another way, it is possible to observe in our civilization a general tendency towards uniformity resulting from the way cultural changes occur. For whenever certain prevailing intellectual perspectives are abandoned and new ones completely take their place, what follows is that the old conceptions gradually become unimaginable or unthinkable (except for a very small number of people who can still understand them). It is precisely because of this that new ideas are able to dominate the cultural scene with great freedom of action, for not only do they not need to be upheld against the previous culture, but also they only admit to be contradicted or discussed within their own intellectual framework. This, naturally, tends to reduce culture into a closed system.
In short, major cultural changes comprise two distinct processes: the forgetting of old ideas, through which the new generations educated within a new intellectual culture become unable to even imagine the previous one; the complete elimination of old ideas, carried out to the point that the previous culture itself becomes unconceivable except in the form of simplified stereotypes created by the new culture for the sole purpose of its own glorification.
This means that every cultural, intellectual “progress” actually consists in a series of impoverishments, of losses, in a series of memory losses, so to speak. But not only that, because when a loss of memory lasts long enough, it becomes a loss of capability, and specifically in the case of cultural changes, it becomes a complete loss of those intellectual and imaginative capabilities required to comprehend a previous culture.
Because in periods of cultural change the new ideas emerge as overwhelmingly powerful as a large mass of water that takes over an empty space, they easily become instruments of social action and produce social changes in a rather fast pace—a phenomenon that can be observed throughout the last four or five centuries. A case in point is the rise of the so-called “humanist” class around the 1500s. The humanists, as opposed to the previous class of intellectuals, no longer had a scholastic philosophical education. They received an education in rhetoric based on the rhetoricians of antiquity—especially Quintilian and Cicero—and devoted themselves to the literary and the language arts. Their particular field of expertise was, therefore, the art of persuasion, and they soon began to apply the rules of ancient rhetoric to their own national literatures and write in their own national languages, which enabled them to gain a large readership among the European nobility, a class which had been completely alien to the world of higher culture during the Middle Ages.
The medieval nobility was characterized by its utter lack of education. Consider, for example, Charlemagne, during whose government, by the way, the first universal literacy project was launched. He remained illiterate until he was thirty-two years old, and he only consented to be educated after much insistence. The learning of literacy, it was then thought, was an occupation suitable either for monks or for women; noblemen were not supposed to devote themselves to such a thing.
However, it was precisely among Europe’s dominant class, the aristocracy, that a new culture became quickly widespread soon after the appearance of the humanists. This success among the nobility, as I have pointed before, was due to the fact that the humanists wrote in their own national languages and no longer used the highly complex logical techniques of scholasticism (which were instruments of proof), but employed instruments of persuasion (that is, of psychological action).
But if we ask ourselves whether in that period there was any intellectual confrontation between the humanists and the schoolmen, the answer is that, in fact, there were none. Humanism merely took over an empty space, and quite naturally the previous culture was left behind.
Not long after that, when the so-called modern scientific culture arises with Newton, Bacon, Galileo, and the like, once again the same phenomenon takes place. What could have remained of the scholastic culture is once again set aside in favor of a new rising culture, which in addition came with a promise of certain technological applications that could directly result in an expansion of the power of the dominant classes. Thus, to say that the modern scientific culture brought about a progress in knowledge is a complete mistake. One could say that it brought about a very profound social change, but not that knowledge as such progressed. For there is progress only when a previously conquered territory is preserved, absorbed, expanded and transcended into a larger structure.
Besides, the few historical instances of an objectively verifiable progress in knowledge are quite different from those major cultural changes, from those events which Thomas Kuhn, for example, calls “scientific revolutions.” In fact, the so-called “scientific revolutions” do not bring about progress of any sort; they merely produce a change of perspective, and, as we know, a change of directions is not necessarily progress. To progress is to go further in the same direction. For example, if a person changes his activity altogether, or if he changes the subject completely during a discussion, then he does not even have means for comparing what he is doing now with what he did before, for one thing has simply nothing to do with the other.
Student: Are there any historical examples of advance, of actual progress?
Olavo: Yes, there are. When you consider, for instance, the evolution of Christian doctrine, from the first fathers to scholasticism, you can see that there was a real progress in Christian theology; for nothing was lost, the former culture was not left behind. All that had been achieved in a previous stage of Christian thought was assimilated and merged with new elements into a new theoretical scheme. This is what happened, for example, with all the novel elements that had been absorbed from Aristotle. When St. Albert the Great and Saint Thomas Aquinas began reading Aristotle and then trying to formulate Christian doctrine in Aristotelian terms, they did not simply forsake the former steps taken by Christian doctrine and moved on. Rather, they rearranged them into a new theoretical framework. So, nothing was lost, and this is precisely what always needs to be done. So, you can say that from the early fathers up to scholasticism actual progress happened. Finally, bear in mind that all of this took place within the same culture—there was no cultural revolution, no breaking apart from the previous stages of Christian culture.
However, with the emergence of the humanists, there was a rupture. To me, one of the most obvious things about the humanists—when you read Erasmus, for example, or even Descartes (who had studied with representatives of scholasticism)—is that they do not quite understand what the schoolmen were doing. The humanists then created a new image of the scholastics that had nothing to do with the historical reality of scholasticism, but that had a lot to do with the self-justification and self-glorification of the newly emerging culture.
When the Enlightenment culture arose, it was also the result of this same sort of mutation I have been talking about. It was a new culture that surged into being thanks to the emergence of a new class of intellectuals and that represented a break with the previous cultural regime.
The Enlightenment intellectuals, however, were not humanists or scholars like Erasmus and they were not schoolmen, nor natural scientists. They were a fourth type of intellectuals: they were the precursors of present-day journalists. Voltaire, for example, was not an old style rhetorician, a scholastic philosopher, or a natural scientist. So what was he then? He was a journalist; in fact, the first modern journalist. We can say that it was during the Enlightenment period that the concept of an opinion-maker was born. These new intellectuals, these opinion-makers, constituted a distinct social class with a distinct social origin, and they quickly created a series of new trends that reshaped culture and rendered both scholasticism, and the direct predecessors of the Enlightenment virtually incomprehensible.
For instance, when you compare the entire work of Isaac Newton and those parts of it which Voltaire selected and summarized in his book The Elements of Newton’s Philosophy, you realize that there are two different Isaac Newtons: the historical Newton and a version of Newton adapted to serve the purposes of the Enlightenment—Sir Isaac Newton as portrayed by Voltaire.
The Voltairian Newton is so radically different from the historical one that it is hard to see any similarity between them. Historically, Newton’s basic purpose was to restore a kind of prophetic science that could allow him to interpret history in light of the Bible. That was the purpose behind all of his works, including his works on physics. The intellectuals of the Enlightenment, however, misrepresented Newton: they took his physics, cut it off from the rest of his work, and threw the remainder away in order to create a pseudo historical Newton adapted to meet the needs of their rising culture.
From the point of view of a person who seeks to acquire high culture—whether he is a university student, a seminarian, or anything else—, the self-legitimating proclivity built into every cultural paradigm means that a significant part of his education will consist in the falsification and obliteration of the past. .In other words, the culture of the time in which a person lives shapes his mindset; and it does so particularly by teaching him what is to be rejected or left behind. This happens because self-glorification is an important component of every culture. The idea of historical progress, for example, is built into the self-glorification proclivity of a culture as a permanent self-legitimating mechanism.
A most remarkable thing is what happens to people who are historical relativists, who are not supposed to believe in any kind of historical progress In theory they indeed claim that historical progress does not exist and that nobody should think about history in terms of more and less advanced ages, but in practice they consider themselves far superior to all those who came before them. So, even historical relativists cannot escape the worldview created by the ideology of progress.
Now, progress as a fact is one thing, progress as an ideology quite another. The existence of progress is a fact that cannot be denied, since it is true that sometimes things do indeed get better (even though it is also true that some other times they get worse). And since the existence of a number of instances of actual progress is an indisputable historical reality, it is not possible for someone to be against the idea of progress (as historical relativists are).
However, if it is true that nobody can be seriously against it, it is also true that nobody can be seriously in favor of the idea of progress.
Let us consider the concept of progress and see whether it is a scientifically viable notion. What is progress? What does it mean? “Progress” is a unit of measure generally used to assess whether a certain previous time in history reached an expected level of advancement or not. But what is the opposite of progress? Is it being behindhand, delayed? Or is it being backward? Well, since time only moves forward, and given that it is absolutely impossible for it to move backwards, the concept of backwardness does not make any sense.
Besides, since every process in time implies change, and since in any given period of history some things decay and some others flourish, then any time in history can be regarded as progressive in some respect and as decadent in some other. No historical time, however, can be logically seen as being behindhand or delayed in terms of development. There is no becoming delayed or behindhand in history because there is no such thing as a historical schedule that all civilizations, all societies, must follow. In history, there is no predetermined date and time at which a society should obligatorily reach a stage of development. Thus the idea that a society or civilization can be belated in development is simply a mindless logical byproduct of the idea of progress. Even though we can say that a society has progressed, we cannot say that a society is behindhand or belated. Progress is a historically existing phenomenon; belatedness is not. We cannot say, for example, that a society that has remained unchanged for five thousand years is “belated.” Even though this society may be seen as lagging behind when compared to some other, this really does not matter, because the comparatively underdeveloped society is not actually part of the other. Now, a society may always abandon its own criteria for evaluating its progress, begin to judge itself by the degree of development of another, and arrive at the conclusion that it is “belated;” but this would be the end of this society.
In short, the idea of a belated society is self-contradictory, because there is no way a society can fall behind a universal schedule of development that is actually nonexisting. The notion of progress, however, can be accepted as scientifically valid.
Student: But it is possible to measure progress within a single culture, right? According to your theory of previously achieved levels of development, for example, one can do this by verifying whether the new generations have reached the level of development set by the prior cultural stages in a society.
Olavo: Yes, it is possible, but only within a single culture. Yet, even when a new generation has not reached the level of development set by the previous generations, you cannot say the new generation is behindhand or delayed. But what you can say is that the culture has deteriorated.
It is not hard for anyone to understand what deterioration is. Anyone who has ever been healthy and got sick, or who has had a lot of money and lost it, knows what deterioration is. The word “deterioration” does correspond to real phenomena, and more than that, deterioration, in its various manifestations, is a permanent fact, a permanent possibility of human life. Belatedness or behindhandedness, on the other hand, only exists as a real phenomenon where there is a predetermined scale or schedule of progression. For example, when it takes longer than the time estimated by someone for him to attain a goal he set for himself, then we can say he is belated. Historically, however, I do no think that it is possible to say with any seriousness that a society or a culture is behindhand in respect of progress.
When people classify this or that society or culture as “belated,” what they are actually doing is measuring a certain culture’s or society’s level of progress by the standards of some other, based upon the completely stupid assumption that one society should be just like the other. And this assumption becomes particularly stupid whey people judge their own culture based upon it because their measuring their own culture’s degree of progress by the standards of another actually amounts to destroying their culture. For when a culture accepts to be measured by the standards of another, then it means this culture has already lost its autonomy and become merely a subculture of the other. This culture would have to destroy itself, to cease to be itself in order to enter on the track of progress.
Now, even if it can be proven that, historically speaking, it does not make any sense to say that behindhandedness is the opposite of progress, reasoning in terms of progress and belatedness is so entrenched a practice in our present culture that it has almost become an automatism.
People talk about “belated” societies, They say that Zambia, for instance, is a belated society. But in relation to what standard of progress is it behindhand? Do they mean that Zambia should be New York City? Where did they get that the idea one society should be like another? It makes no sense. One could say that the situation in Zambia is terrible, that Zambian people are starving to death, that the country is ruined, and so on, but they cannot say that Zambia is behindhand in respect of progress. Saying that a society is belated, stuck in a time warp, delayed in its progress, and the like has become a surrogate for expressing a negative judgment about that society. For example, to avoid saying that a certain society is in a terrible situation, people will say that it is “belated.”
The problem is that when people enter the realm of high culture the first thing they receive is the impact of the current high culture, and along with it they also receive all its limitations, all of its intellectual blinders, prohibitions, prejudices which will allow those people to develop only in certain directions. This means that the mere existence of an established culture implies the concomitant existence of, so to speak, predetermined intellectual careers. That is to say, a predetermined blueprint for each and every intellectual profession.
Student: In an interview you gave to the Atlântico magazine, you said that instead of dividing the political spectrum into right-wing and left-wing, we should try to classify political movements as revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, because this latter pair of concepts enables us to see, for example, that some political positions and movements usually regarded as right-wing are actually revolutionary and thus belong together with left-wing movements—something which escapes our view when we use the usual definitions of left and right. Regarding this problem you have been addressing so far, have you developed another key to understanding the problem of progress, something like your concepts of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary?
Olavo: No, I have not. What I am doing is merely splitting apart a pair of concepts and saying that they do not form a pair of opposites in reality. More accurately, only at the level of vocabulary—only semantically speaking?, backwardness is the opposite of progress. In historical reality, there is no such thing as a phenomenon of backwardness which is the contrary of progress. Even if in our minds we conceive progress as a forward movement and backwardness as backward movement, the fact is we know that in reality time never moves backwards and that it is impossible for it to do so. Now, let us examine the expressions “advanced societies” and “backward societies” in light of this. It is obvious that the current conditions of any society can get worse, but they cannot literally go back to a prior state because the present conditions of a society include all their prior states. Some people say: “Oh no, we’re going back to the Stone Age!” But being born in the Stone Age is one thing, and having to live with Stone Age instruments after having known all the technology we have today is quite another. This is not going back to the Stone Age. This is something totally different; this is deterioration, not backwardness.
So, from this you can see that, being among the most used, the most imaginatively powerful, and the most entrenched in our culture, this simple pair of concepts (progress and backwardness) can make people not to understand a number of historical processes. That is to say, if people judge historical processes in terms of progress or backwardness, they will never be able to grasp the reality of what they are considering.
Wanting to become intellectuals, historians, philosophers, and so on, the poor and naive students will naturally apply to and eventually enter universities. The problem is that as they gain entry into the world of high culture, they will receive a severe impact of a huge network of intellectual blinders/impediments. Of course, they will also get a lot of positive knowledge, but when we compare the whole of material knowledge they learned, the whole of the content they acquired at university, with the system of concepts that organize this knowledge, we see that the latter is always more powerful. Why? Because the contents and their organizing concepts relate to each other as form relates to matter, in the Aristotelian sense of these words, and because it is the form of a body of knowledge determines what this knowledge means.
Now, the study of philosophy has precisely the purpose of enabling you to create your own network of concepts according to the actual needs of the quest for knowledge and not according to pre-established social ends, which are rather focused on the creation, expansion, and conservation of cultural fashions. Philosophy is an instrument for the creation of conceptual structures capable of comprehending and transcending the structures of the cultural fashions that prevail at the moment. In this sense, philosophy is a powerful instrument of deculturation. So, since your task is to try to see beyond the horizon of the culture in which you are, the first thing you need to be able do this is to learn how to retrieve the lost cognitive and intellective possibilities from times past.
How do you restore these possibilities? In the first place, you must have the necessary materials at your disposal, that is, the texts and documents that tell you exactly what happened in the periods of the past you are studying. Next, you must use your imagination to try to understand—note well—not the authors of the past as they understood themselves but rather your own situation as those authors would understand it if they were alive.
You cannot study Plato, for example, from the viewpoint of the contemporary culture because you will never understand him. Why? Because, in addition to that series of important cultural mutations that took place in the twentieth century, we are now going through a gigantic transformation in our society, a transformation determined by a factor called “technology.”
The impact of technology on modern society and culture has been only gradually perceived and integrated into human consciousness, and, strictly speaking, we are not yet living in a technological civilization, because technology does not decide and determine all social processes, although it determines a great and important number of them. But there are still a lot of things that are based on processes which have nothing to do with technology. For example, consider the facts that in our society there is a large number of religious people and that these people live, partially at least, within a cultural environment upon which technology has little or no influence at all because it simply has nothing to do with religion.
However, it is one thing to live in an environment where people believe in the existence of a God who has created the world and who is going to drive the process of history until it reaches a certain goal—the end of the world and the passage of all things into eternity. Now, it is quite another to live in a culture where everything is a matter of technology. And the fact is that as the impact of technology on society gets stronger, our culture tends to consider all matters in the light of technology.
The first and most immediate consequence of this is that everything that lies beyond the reach of technological action ends up falling beyond the reach of people’s imagination as well. (When I say “immediate,” however, I do not mean that this effect occurs without any delay, since several decades, at least, may be necessary for it to take place.) Because if technology becomes the main lens through which we view reality, then, sooner or later we will end up only thinking about those things which fall within the grasp of technology or which will supposedly fall within the grasp of technology in the future. This means that, in a sense, the realm of human action (in its material sense) becomes the ultimate horizon of reality and that nothing exists beyond it.
It is evident that the territory which falls within the grasp of man’s technological agency is vast. For instance, we may expect that someday all currently existing diseases will be cured by technological means. This has not happened yet, but we may fairly expect it will, and it is a fact that people have hopes that it will indeed happen. When people contract a disease for which there is no cure yet, what do they usually do? They sit tight and hope that, within two, three, four, five, ten, or twenty years, a cure for their disease will be found. For example, I think that all the HIV positive people in the world entertain this kind of hope. So, as I was saying, there is indeed a realm of existence which can be affected by man’s technological action and this realm is very large. However, when technology is understood as the key to existence, then, quite naturally, all that lies beyond the theoretical possibility of technological action ceases to attract people’s interest. The world, seen from this viewpoint, becomes a sort of laboratory for us to conduct our experiments (which, of course, may go right or wrong), and everything that cannot be tested through experimentation ceases to be of any interest for us.
As a consequence, all those dimensions of existence upon which technology cannot act in any way are viewed as non-existing or irrelevant—an example of this is the phenomenon of death. Nowadays people cannot seriously think about death, only about how to postpone it, which is actually thinking about how to extend human life, or how to prolong human existence. Prolonging human existence is indeed a technological possibility, and more than that, it is a possibility that technology has been able to realize so far. But what about death itself? The fact is that sooner or later, we are all going to die, that death is part of the structure of reality, and that no life-prolonging technology can possibly change this structure. And because the phenomenon of death cannot be affected by technology, because the reality of death lies beyond the reach of technological action, the concept of death is not integrated into our society and we live in a culture where death has no place. For centuries death was one of the most predominant themes in culture, but now, suddenly, the topic of death is gone. People do not talk about it anymore; they only talk about health, about extending life, about eliminating pain, and so on.
When you set out on a quest for high culture in a cultural situation like that, you start your intellectual journey with a huge blind spot in your field of vision, because an entire dimension of reality is invisible for you, as if it has never existed.
Now, the study of high culture and philosophy can help you recover the vision of those lost dimensions of reality, that is, it can help you become capable of imagining that which is not usually imaginable in your own culture. The problem is that acquiring high culture is often identified with acquiring the credentials necessary to obtain government authorization to enter the teaching or the researching profession. This poses a problem for all those who seek to acquire high culture. For it is one thing to want to acquire high culture in order to be able to understand reality, and specially the reality of history, of civilization, of human existence throughout the ages. It is quite another thing to want to acquire high culture in order to be able to practice this or that profession. In fact, these two uses of high culture are not just different, but opposed to each other, because if have to adapt yourself to the present culture to the most, so that you may be able to represent it professionally.
This is why I consider the academic institution to be the worst enemy of higher studies nowadays and why I have remained on the fringes of academia all my life. I have always feared it because I knew it did not strengthen people’s consciousness to enable them to understand reality, but rather molded their minds to enable them to perform certain social roles. Besides, I have also noticed that the social role of the academic and the scientific profession can be so hostile to a true understanding of reality that even the best minds, to the extent they strive to adapt and be successful in those professions, have to maim themselves intellectually so as not to say things that would be incomprehensible or shocking in their professional environments. Of course, there are exceptions to this. There are people who are able to have an academic career and still remain in touch with reality, but they are very scarce.
While I was watching “Voegelin in Toronto” — the DVD of a 1978 conference at York University in which Eric Voegelin participated as a lecturer and panelist—, I came to the realization that if you compared what Voegelin had to say to what the other participants had to say, you would find that while Voegelin was talking about realities, they were discussing typical academic topics of philosophy. And they were no ordinary professors, but first-rate philosophers like, Bernard Lonergan and Hans-George Gadamer, among others. Voegelin, however, sounded so strikingly different from them that I think they could not really understand what he was saying, because it was too grave and too serious.
We can never forget that universities are schools, and that school education does not pose real-life challenges to students, but it is merely designed to afford theoretical teaching and practical training to students. In this sense, a school is like, for instance, a military academy, where students do battle exercises, go through shooting training, and so on and so forth, but they do not go to real wars or shoot their classmates. In this sense, a school, or a military academy “non é una cosa seria,” as Pirandello says. That is to say, it is not a serious thing. For things only get serious when you see some actual combat. There, in the battlefield, the enemy is not trying to teach you anything, he just wants to kill you. So a soldier who has a good military training and a soldier who has combat experience are worlds apart.
This means that everything that is adapted to suit a school education mindset is merely an imitation of real situations and processes. In short, academic and school education simulate reality. And they always do it from a safe distance, since students and teachers are confined behind walls that protect them from reality. Because of academic freedom, for example, a student or teacher cannot be held accountable for what he says. Now, if you are a politician, a minister, or the head of a company, everything that you say has consequences. But if you are a teacher or a student, little of what you say has consequences, since most of what is said during a class is said for the sake of learning. In the classroom, for example, a teacher can teach the exact opposite of what he truly believes. If he wants to do it, there is really nothing to keep him from doing so. Because ultimately what a teacher says to his pupils has always a didactic purpose and therefore is tentative, experimental, provisional. Nothing that he says is definitive, so to speak.
Now, if you want to understand the reality of what is happening now in politics, society, and culture, you have to remember, first of all, that reality does not fit curricular and disciplinal requirements. In other words, it is just not possible to reduce reality to a scheme of standardized approaches that correspond to the names of the various disciplines and to the curricular gradations of education. Let me give you an illustration of the irreducibility of reality to the exigencies of academic study. Think of any war. Nowhere can you find a war perfectly adequate to the exigencies of, say, a War 101 college course, another war that fits the purposes of a War 102 course, and a third one that is perfectly suited to War 103. No, actual wars do not come already adapted to fit different course levels. Likewise, there are no wars suited for the methods of the science of economy, neither wars tailor-made for the purposes of sociology, nor wars adapted for the study of political science. The reality of war is one and the same for every science. However, let us say I am a political scientist and I have to teach a course on war for freshmen in a university. In that case, I will have to select from the concrete reality of war only those elements that match my discipline. That is to say, I will have to shape the phenomenon of war according to the requirements of political science rather than according to the requirements of the objective reality of war. This means that the more the academic institution grows and expands, the more it becomes an essential instrument for keeping society at work, and the less it serves the purposes of the quest for knowledge.
That is a real tragedy—the great tragedy of the twentieth century. In the last few decades, not only in Brazil, but everywhere, the universities, rather than being centers for the education of first rate intellectuals, have become hubs of political recruiting, of training of political activists to defend the most stupid ideas in the universe. Nowadays, virtually no first rate intellectuals are well integrated into the academic milieu. In every field, the best are always at least slightly out of place in that environment or have a conflicting relationship with it. Besides, we should never forget that the university is an educational institution for the masses, not for the elite, and also that anyone in the amorphous mass of university students can earn a bachelor’s degree, become a Ph.D., a professor, etc. What is worse, nowadays most people think they have a right to earn a college degree, as if this were one of the fundamental rights of man, which, of course, makes the coordination between academic education and the quest for knowledge even more difficult. Now, please note that so far I have been only talking about a problem that pertains to the structure of academic education, a flaw that is inherent in the very nature of academia, and I have not brought into the picture the possibility of deliberate academic censure and boycott (which are things that indeed happen in colleges, universities and research institutes). Worse than that, this academic wickedness is actually a reflection of that structural problem, which means that even if academics were as honest as they could be, the very structure of academic education would still be problematic. However, the fact is that, academics, for multiple reasons—internal power struggles, maintenance of the prestige of the academic class, and the like—do not always behave honestly. So, when we put together the obstacles to the pursuit of knowledge that derive from the structure of academia and the malice and wickedness that exist in there, the result we get is the end of knowledge of reality.
This means that, in an academic environment, the possibility of carrying out a serious investigation into the true reality of things is virtually nil, except for those who are geniuses, who have such impressive personalities that nobody dares to mess with them. These people are allowed to do what they want, for both their students and colleagues think them crazy and find it best not to mess with them. This was, for example, the case of Eric Voegelin. Because people were afraid of him, they did not try to stop him from doing what he wanted, but they kept a distance away from him. In fact, they did not understand much of what Voegelin was talking about. For example, there is a famous anecdote about Voegelin’s first lecture at the University of Munich. Among the attendees were some of the greatest German intellectuals, including Ralf Dahrendorf, the most eminent political scientist at that time. But Dahrendorf, after he had heard Voegelin’s lecture, confessed he was perplexed by it and said he could not understand a word of what Voegelin had said: “He did not talk at all about the Constitution, about human rights, and things like that. I do not understand, what sort of political science is that? He was talking about something else altogether, and I do not know what that something is.” The fact that Voegelin was never understood in the German academy did not result in any form of boycott against him, but had he been any less rigorous a person, he would have been crushed by the German academic environment. Voegelin eventually got fed up with German academics and decided to go back to the United States, leaving all his German students at a complete loss, because for them, Voegelin was a light in the darkness. But the truth is that Voegelin could not take—who would imagine this?—the mediocrity of the German university.
Another amazing thing about the universities is that they usually maintain their prestige long after they have lost their intellectual vigor, just like mummies. An illustration of this is that almost anywhere in the world people still think that the German universities are great universities, as if we were still living in the 1920s. A similar phenomenon takes place here in the United States when somebody mentions Harvard in a conversation, in spite of the fact that nowadays Harvard is nothing more than a training school for leftist activism. People praise Obama, for instance, because he once was the president of the Harvard Law Review—which is nowadays nothing but a weekly of the extreme left, a magazine for semi-illiterate people, but which still retains the prestige conferred upon it in old days. A quite curious thing is the fact that those who contributed the most toward the destruction of the academic institution—the leftist activists of the 1960s—are the ones who benefit today from the prestige of those universities they themselves have helped to destroy. This is plainly an usurpation. It is like murdering a person to take over his position and title, just like in Alexandre Dumas’ “The Man in the Iron Mask.”
This course—in fact, not only this course, but all that I do in education—has been designed to give an answer to the following problem: What exactly should you do if you wanted to study history, culture, philosophy, religion, and so on, “in order to know things as they really are,” as Leopold Von Ranke put it, regardless of whether you were ever able to use that knowledge in an academic profession or not, and regardless of the risk that you might become incomprehensible if you succeeded in gaining such knowledge? If you have the courage to take on this challenge, you can attain knowledge of things as they really are, you can attain objective knowledge of reality. But, take note: the more you know, the more you know things that others do not. So, right from the start, knowing more is knowing things that others ignore, and thus the more you know, the less understood you will be by those who do not know. If you want to pay that price, if you think knowledge is worth it, those are the first things you have to bear in mind. Personally, I think knowledge is worth it. I have devoted my life to the pursue of knowledge and I do not regret it in the least. Quite to the contrary, I think it is great. However, over the years, I had to learn not to expect to be comprehended by the ignorant, for they simply cannot understand me. Also, bear in mind that if you really want to be a serious scholar and not only viewed as such by the ignoramuses who pretend to be scholars, you will have to engage in a series of practices and follow a number of protocols of learning which will allow you to get where you want. This is what I have been doing all my life and is what I would like to teach others to do.
So, when I start thinking about a problem, I want an actual answer for it. Ranke’s sentence, “I want to know things as they really are,” is always on my mind, and I truly believe human intelligence is capable of attaining this kind of knowledge. However, the “things as they really are” are not necessarily the same as people like to imagine they are. Besides, when you find out the truth about the past, for example, your new knowledge changes your view about people who live in the present, that is, you start looking at them from a different perspective. Also, you become able to make comparisons between the past and the present according to a significant larger scale of reference, and as a result things that may be novelties to other people may be not so new to you, because you may have points of comparison which other people do not have. In consequence of your accumulated historical knowledge, you will know beforehand that many of those high hopes people usually entertain are not going to lead anywhere. Also, a terrible thing may happen to you: once you have understood a series of processes, once you have acquired a large philosophical and historical culture, it may happen that people do not really want to hear your opinion, because they would rather cling to their prejudices and silly ideas. Let me tell you that this is not at all uncommon: it does happen all the time, putting you in a rather awkward position.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate my point. There was this one time when I walking down a street and came across an old lady who had fallen down to the ground and was laying there, wiggling and squealing in a fit of hysteria—I even thought she was having an epileptic seizure. As I reached out to help her get back up on her feet, she started punching me and screamed: “I hate men, I hate men!” So what could I do? I simply told her: “You know what? Screw that. I’m not trying to help you anymore; if you don’t want my help, then you won’t get it.” That is precisely the situation you will sometimes find yourself in when dealing with politicians, public men, opinion leaders, business leaders, military officers, and so on and so forth. Because they refuse to listen, the only thing you can tell them is something like this: “Look, I have a solution to your problem, but if you don’t want to listen, that’s your loss. I was just trying to help.” That is to say, you will be regarded as an unheeded and unwanted advisor who actually knows to a fix a problem. Even so, even if this happens to you, and it may very well happen, I still think that the quest for knowledge is the best of purposes in life because when you understand how things are, at least you do not suffer like a helpless animal, but with all the dignity of a human being, for you know what the problem is.
The purpose of this course is to convey to you a part of my experience of searching for knowledge, and in this sense, in this course we are not going to study “philosophy,” our subject matter is not “the philosophical tradition,” but rather something that is known as reality. But you might ask: what is reality? Roughly speaking, everyone knows reality and what reality is. Reality is where we live, where we move, where we have joy, where we cry, where we have hope, where we have our struggles, our victories, our defeats, and so on and so forth. In short, reality is the realm where we have all of our internal and external experiences—that is reality. And when philosophy first appeared in the world, it came up precisely as an inquiry into reality, not as an academic discipline where you had to perform certain rituals in order to be accepted into a professional community. When compared to philosophy, that is, to the study of reality, this professional or academic “philosophy” is merely a child’s play. It is something we cannot take seriously for even a minute and, in fact, we should always keep our distance from it.
Now, in order to be a philosopher you have to do what Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle did. Of course, numberless discussions may be risen about the concept of philosophy, about what philosophy is or is not. Ultimately, however, they are nothing but mere speculations. So we are not going to start off by speculating about the concept of philosophy. We are going to do differently: we are going to start from a fact which is the historical datum that if the word “philosophy” ever came into usage, it is because three individuals—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—first applied this word to describe their activity, to name those things they were doing. That being true, our goal is, in the first place, to do as they did. In other words, we are here to devote ourselves to the same activity to which Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle applied themselves, and their activity was to speculate about the nature, foundation, and structure of reality with a view to shedding some light upon human existence. That is to say, they aimed to create an area of luminosity amidst the general confusion and obscurity of human existence. It is not at all possible to doubt that this was truly what they did, since they themselves said this is what they did. Besides, when you look at their practice, you see that what they said corresponds to what they actually did. Both Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle defined philosophy as the quest for wisdom, and wisdom consists precisely in making reality translucent, that is, in knowing what is going on, what your existence is all about, who you are, what you are doing here, what is this universe that surrounds you, and what is the best way to live in it. That is what they were seeking, and that is what we are going to seek too.
Very well. Since the starting point of this course is the verification, or the discovery, of that state of affairs I described at the beginning of this lesson, then our first step is to try to restore in the students the possibility of comprehending the thought and culture of other times and places, not from the current academic standpoint, but from a philosophically valid perspective. You will gain no true access to any philosophy of the past if you insist on looking at them only from the viewpoint of the present culture. Many aspects of Plato’s, Aristotle’s, and Socrates’ philosophies—not to mention other philosophies and cultures that are even harder to be understood—do not and cannot fit into the molds of contemporary culture, because an intellectual perspective shaped by technology simply cannot understand them. In other words, a technologically based culture has no way to grasp some of the most important teachings by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Technology has no way of grasping, for instance, the notion of “structure of reality” or “total order of reality.” But we, as individual human beings, do. Each and every human being knows that he lives in a universe that had been existing long before he was born. He also knows that, in principle, the universe comprises all that has happened and all that will happen. Please note well: the word “all,” here, implies the totality of natural processes—physical, biological, and so on and so forth— plus the totality of historical events and the totality of all human thought and emotion throughout the ages. We all know that reality is all this, and we also know that reality does not come to us in a chaotic fashion, but in the form of a structure, a structure which repeats itself for each and every new human being that is born. If, on the on hand, it is true that lots of things change; on the other hand, it is also true that a certain structure remains absolutely unaltered. For example, everyone knows that human beings have a limited lifetime and that they will die when the lifetime of theirs is over. Everyone knows that. Besides Everyone knows that if it is true that only an insignificant part of the totality of what happens comes to their knowledge, it is also true that the greater part of what happens is present somehow, that is, they know that all those things that have not come to their knowledge are not entirely absent, but rather they are latent.
Imagine, for instance, that Mr. John Doe has fallen in love for Miss Jane Doe, and that he wants to ask her to marry him. However, he does not know whether she is going accept or reject his proposal. So, her future answer is his area of ignorance in that particular situation. But is what he does not know entirely absent for him? If it were, that would never be a problem at all. The truth is that what he ignores is not totally absent, but rather it is present as a tensional element. That is to say, Mr. Doe knows that Miss Jane has some idea about his proposal and that she will eventually tell him about her idea. However, at the present moment he ignores what her idea is. So, all those things we ignore form a whole or a set of latencies, which is so intensely present to us as those things we actually know. Here is another example: suppose that as you are walking down the street you come across a dog that is lying there. What is this dog going to do in the next moments? Is it going to wag his tail at you? Bark at you? Bite you? You do not know, but the whole number of actions the dog has not yet performed is as present to you as the dog’s actual physical presence. Perhaps even more. If you are afraid of this dog, the sheer possibility that it may bite you affects you even more than its mere physical presence. Thus, the whole number of things we ignore is also a whole number of potentially explosive enigmas. And the truth is that we live in a reality which is not comprised only of evident presences, but also of an infinite number of latencies.
Besides, these latencies do not exist only in our minds. For what I think that dog is going to do next is one thing, and what it is actually going to do is quite another. I may conceive, for example, four hypotheses about the dog’s behavior: it will either wag its tail, or it will growl, or it will bark, or it will bite me—or try to bite me, at least. Now, when I conceive these four hypotheses, they come to exist in my mind. However, if they exist only in my mind, the dog’s behavior will never be a real problem to me, since an imaginary dog cannot hurt me. So I am not here talking about the ideas I may have about the dog’s behavior, but about what the dog is actually going to do, and it is those real possibilities of action that the dog has that are the latent elements of its presence, and not the ideas that I conceive in my mind about what it may or may not do to me. Of course, when I conceive those hypotheses, I create a mental equivalent or representation of the real latencies of the dog, but it would be absolutely ridiculous to suppose that these latencies exist only in my mind and are not present in the real dog. In short, even though I try to know the latencies mentally, they are located in the real world, and not only in my head . Were they not in reality, they would not be a problem, and thinking about them would be simply an irrelevant imaginative game. For instance, when will I die? How many years will I live? I do not have the slightest idea, but is my death merely a thought I have? If it were, I would never die, and death would not be a serious problem at all . However, I know that I will die someday, which also makes me think about something else: when I die, will I leave my family in a better situation, or will I leave them out in the cold? What is going to happen to them when I die? Everyone thinks about these things, and they are quite real things. So, I am talking about this kind of latencies, and not only about their mental representations. Real latencies are actual presences and the world is almost entirely constituted of latencies, that is, of things you ignore but that are present somehow. In this sense, we could say that even past events are latencies, since facts of the past that you ignore can modify your future in a way that is also unknown by you. Thus, latencies can be found both in the past and in the future. And they are found in space as well. For example, we are now here in this room, and we have a certain idea about our immediate environment, about the neighborhood we are in, about the neighbors’ houses, and so on and so forth. We also know that beyond our immediate environment, be it close to or far away from us, there are things happening in reality, and not only in our minds. And a twofold proof that they take place in the real world is this: not only is it true that just a small fraction of these things can be known by us, but it is also true that we are all the time receiving new information about things which we have never thought about before. This is true for all human beings everywhere and always: from the first man born on earth down to the present time, all human beings have been born into the same reality, a reality which is constituted by two realms—the known and the unknown—and a reality in which elements from the realm of the unknown are constantly penetrating the realm of the known. There is not a single person who is an exception to this; not a single one. This is a datum—one among many—that is a constituent part of the structure of reality.
So, if what we want is to know the structure of reality, then we will necessarily have to transcend the limits of the dominant culture of today. The possibility of doing this transcending—however unbelievable it might seem—actually exists within contemporary culture itself, because, in spite of all the limitations it imposes upon us, our current culture also has a number of positive elements, such as the access to information from other times. However, the fact that contemporary culture gives you access to this information does not mean that it also gives you the means to understand such information. For instance, how many editions of Plato’s works do we have today? Probably thousands. So, this information is materially available. But how many people actually capable of helping you read Plato in a more useful and fruitful manner are there? It is a significantly smaller number. And how many of these people do you think you will meet in your life? One or two, if you are really lucky. So, today, in general, even though the material access to Plato’s works is readily available, this does not mean that people understand Plato better, because there are so many incompetent teachers out there who can do nothing but make you confused, offering you a Plato made after the image and likeness of their own intellectual limitations. As I mentioned before, it is simply impossible to read Plato in the light of a culture defined by technology, because Plato dealt with and spoke of things that lie outside the realm of technology. As a result, to modern culture, either Plato simply becomes incomprehensible, or he has to be reshaped and reduced to those elements which contemporary culture is able to comprehend. That is why I say that any serious higher education needs first to deculturalize students, that is, it has to place them outside and above their own culture through the assimilation of elements from cultures of other times and places. However, we always have to make sure we do not look upon those elements exclusively from our own cultural perspective, because if we do so, they cease to be what they once were and become a barely recognizable version of themselves, a version adapted to fit the viewpoint of modern culture.
And how can we solve this problem? By absorbing elements from other cultures, not as mere curiosities available to adorn our contemporary culture, but rather as elements of critical importance to ourselves as living human beings. For example, when you read Plato’s works, do not simply read them from the perspective of what your college professor finds interesting about Plato. Read Plato to find out what he would think about you. In other words, you must use cultural elements from other times and places as mirrors for looking at your own self. Put it another way: you, a real existing person, living now, will try to converse with people from the past who are able to tell you something crucial about yourself.
So this will be our first precept: we must learn how to look at ourselves with the eyes of the philosophers from times past instead of looking at these philosophers through the eyes of our own culture. After all, looking at other times through the eyes of our own culture is something quite easy to do. If you want to do this with Plato and Aristotle, for example, simply read any college textbook on Plato and Aristotle or consider the way popular culture or the media portray them. But, as I said, we must go in the opposite direction: we will learn to look at ourselves in light of the teachings of Plato and Aristotle and after that we will learn to look at our own culture from their perspective. By adopting this approach, we will have not only the present perspective on the past but also the past perspective on the present, not only the perspective of our culture on other cultures, but also the perspective of other cultures on ours. Besides, as we combine these different perspectives, we will discover several tensional elements, enigmas, questions, and issues which constitute the true fabric of cultural history.
In short, our goal is to allow the student to effectively experience the achievement of human culture, that is, to experience an education according to universal culture, and not only to this or that particular culture. In the process of striving to acquire this universal culture, not only will the student’s mind be opened up and expanded, but also each new piece of information that may come to be integrated by him—whether it comes from the forefathers of his own culture, or from foreign cultures—will function as a reflecting surface or mirror in which he will recognize himself, a recognition that will also enable him to recognize his own culture through the eyes of the other cultures.
In order to attain this goal, and because human individual experience is rather limited, we will need to make a large use of our imagination. Or, put it another way, because the number of events that may happen to us, or that we can witness, is a very small one, we will need to develop and enrich our imagination to be able to gain a universal culture. Even supposing that a person has had a life like mine, full of events and experiences, he would still need to enhance and expand his imagination, for not even a life like mine is rich enough. In my life I have experienced thousands and thousands of things, but, more importantly, I have seen too many things, so many that my usual reply to people who ask me whether I will write my memoirs some day is that it would be impossible for me to narrate all the things I have seen. Yet, all this is not enough, because the number of events is still very small, still virtually nothing. So, as I was saying, we need to overcome the limitation of our experience through the development of our imagination, which means that we have to begin our journey with the cultivation of our imagination. Our goal is to render our imagination so rich and flexible to the point that we may be really able to look at ourselves from the perspectives that have been developed by philosophers of the past, as though, for example, we became characters in the dialogues of Plato and were in Athens, having those conversations with Socrates and benefitting from the vantage points that he (or Plato) might open for us. That being our first objective, then the first thing we have to do in this course is teach students how to complete their historical and literary culture before we can go into actual philosophical discussions.
That means that the first year of this course is going to be practically a history and literature course, although we are not going to do a specialized study in history in the sense of turning students into professional historians, but simply in the sense of making them able readers of history. Nor are we going to teach a specialized course in literature in the sense of turning students into philologists or something of the sort, but rather in the sense of equipping students with the greatest products of human imagination (which function as mirrors, not of historical reality, but rather of a possible reality, of the possibilities of human life).
Now, taking into account the fundamental role imagination plays in all this, we can understand why history and literature must walk hand in hand. Aristotle used to say that the basis of all literary art is speculation about the realm of the possible, that is, not about what has actually happened, but rather about what could or might have happened. That which has actually happened, on the other hand, belongs to the domain of history. But ask yourself these questions: How can we understand the meaning of what happened in the past? How are we to judge the importance of historical events? It is simply not possible to do that unless we are able to speculate about what might have happened instead of what actually took place. In other words, we can understand the meaning and the importance of an event because we are able to conjecture possible alternative pasts or historical trajectories. Let me give you an example. Suppose you find out that your neighbor beats his wife every day. Why are you able to judge his action as a bad thing? Well, let us do a thought experiment. Let us imagine that, in reality, all husbands have always beaten their wives, that they have been doing so every day from time immemorial, and that this is the only and established way for husbands to solve their marital problems. Well, if that were true, no one would ever notice that there is something wrong with the use of physical violence by husbands against their wives. It would be perceived as a perfectly normal thing to do. So, again, why is it that you are able to judge this action as bad? It is because you are able to conceive different ways to treat a wife, other than beating her up every day—and this even if you have never been married. If you were not able of imagining any other possible alternative, your neighbor’s violent behavior would never seem strange or wrong in any way, and whenever his wife started screaming from being hit, you would find that fact as banal as chicken clucking in the chicken pen. So, from this example you can see that the speculation about human possibilities gives us the key to assess human events. And those things that have actually happened give us the limits of our useful imaginative speculation. They help us see the extent to which it is profitable to speculate and the point beyond which all speculation becomes useless. For example, when I was very young, I realized that fictional literature deals with “the realm of the possible” and that there are two kinds of possibility at least: those which are more likely to happen and those which are so improbable, so remote that speculating about them is sheer waste of time.
So, we should not use our imagination to idly speculate about things that will never happen, that cannot happen, and that are just logical games. Our imagination has to be trained to become an instrument for understanding reality, and the great literature of the world is an absolutely precious material for the student of philosophy, because literature is a means for maturing our perception of reality.
However, it is quite obvious that the methods for teaching literature currently adopted in Brazilian colleges and universities make the very imaginative experience of literature altogether impossible. I say so because when you read Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, or Shakespeare, for instance, you are supposed to gain access to what these great minds conceived about the possibilities of human life. But if you attend a literature course in a Brazilian college, you will be told to start looking at great literature as mere textual structures (as you are supposed to do when you adopt a structuralist or deconstructionist approach), and, as a result, that element of experience contained in the great literary works becomes invisible. That is to say, literature ceases to be a mirror of life, and the study of literature becomes just a formal activity. I must confess I do not understand why a person devotes himself to this kind of study. Maybe he does this out of a whim or something like that. But that is not my point. My point is that the so-called “study of literature” in Brazilian universities today may become a sure way to vaccinate students against literature as an instrument for having imaginative access to reality. In that 1978 conference at York University in which Eric Voegelin participated, there was a panel discussion on the art of reading and, of all the panel members who were there talking about this art, Voegelin was the only one who said right away: “Look, we only read this stuff because it relates to our lives; otherwise, why would we study this?”
Let me give you an illustration of how the application of a structuralist or deconstructionist method to the reading of literature may cause you to fall victim to the very problems portrayed in works of fiction literature. For example, if you read the works of those great German writers of the twentieth century (Jakob Wassermann, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil), you will notice that they are essentially about the many forms of man’s alienation from reality, an alienation that precisely constitutes the moral context in which we live. Now, if you choose to read their works merely as texts, as language structures having no connection to reality, you actually choose avoid all contact with both the reality of those works and the reality they deal with. In other words, when you chose to do this, you choose to dodge the subject, and, worse than that, you lapse yourself into one of those modes of alienation portrayed in the books of the writers you examine. So, instead of being a reader of, say, Robert Musil, you become like one of his characters.
So, as I said, my idea for the first year of this course is to assign the students a series of readings of historical and literary works to properly educate their imagination for the task of understanding reality. Through these readings, for example, I hope my students will accomplish one of the first steps towards having an educated imagination: the acquisition of a general sense of the character and duration of the historical periods. Even though having this sense is extremely important in life, the fact is that most people do not have it—including the members of the “educated classes.” Unfortunately, the type of historical imagination present in our culture today is almost completely made up of vulgar historical myths and illusions. The understanding people have of the historical past—which is the understanding to which they appeal in public debates, for example—is usually sketchy, simplistic, and almost entirely false. They have been inculcated with a chronological notion of history that is an absolutely deformed, absurd, and not only false, but impossible one.
Let me back up what I am saying with an example. In current public debates about totalitarianism, democracy, liberty, and the like, people usually invoke as instances of oppression, intolerance against diversity, the totalitarian systems of the Soviets, the Nazis, and the Holy Inquisition. However, if you study the history of the Inquisition thoroughly, you will see that no one was ever sentenced to punishment by the Catholic Church for being “different.” For example, the Inquisition never condemned anyone merely for being Muslim or Jewish. This kind of condemnation was simply inconceivable at the time. Furthermore, the Inquisition, whether you approve of it or not, is a phenomenon totally diverse from modern totalitarianism. In fact, in some important respects, the Inquisition was the exact opposite of modern totalitarianism.
When we see the Inquisition in the light of contemporary totalitarianism, we lose sight of the fact that phenomena such as totalitarian regimes had never existed in human history prior to the twentieth century, not even in the most barbaric civilizations. The worst tyrants of Antiquity were not capable, not of doing, but even of imagining all the atrocities committed by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and the like. And if we fail to understand this fact, much less can we understand what specifically differentiates the political phenomena of our times. It is usually said, for example, that the Inquisition tried to control and manipulate the public opinion of its time. However, it is a historically established fact that the concept of public opinion only emerged in the eighteenth century. How then could the Inquisition have tried to control public opinion, if they were not even aware of the existence of a phenomenon called “public opinion”? The very idea of complete control over society, over public opinion, could never have emerged before the emergence of the idea of public opinion!
This is just an example of how people, when trying to express their feelings about a current phenomenon that shocks them, not only end up deforming the historical perspective, but also become incapable of understanding that same phenomenon of which they speak. Besides, when this happens, they are no longer talking about reality, but rather about what Robert Musil calls “second reality.” In other words, people make up their own version of the “history of mankind” and then go on to make moral judgments against one or more events that comprise their purely imaginary historical account. To a certain extent, this is explainable, since it is a lot easier to imagine a certain phenomenon, such as the Inquisition, simply based on the data provided by contemporary culture than it is to try to understand “things as they really were,” borrowing Leopold von Ranke’s words, that is, to understand how a phenomenon, or a group of phenomena, really took place in history.
I will give you another example. Nowadays people have a rather negative view of the Islamic civilization, and they think, for instance, Muslims will behead anyone who has a different opinion—which in fact happens every now and then in some Islamic nations. However, they should remember that the Islamic civilization as a whole is 1,400 years old and that during all of its existence it has never tried to Islamize the entire population of the places it took over, which shows that the idea of totalitarianism is not intrinsic to Islam. It is true that, of all the old civilizations that have survived to this day, Islam is indeed the most prescriptive, the most controlling of people’s lives. Nevertheless, the totalitarian perspective is completely absent in Islam: totalitarianism is not a part of the nature of the Muslim religion. Of course, when certain Muslim groups receive the influence of totalitarian ideologies, they may try to adapt Islam to totalitarian ends, but that is still a localized, not a widespread, phenomenon in the Muslim world.
Moreover, the truth is that, even in those places where a blend of Islam and totalitarianism has been attempted, the results obtained are still far from the totalitarian reality of Communist countries. For example, think about a Muslim nation that is widely regarded as totalitarian nowadays, like Iran. Now, ask yourself this question: do you think the instruments the Iranian government has for controlling its population are anything close to the ones the KGB had in the USSR? Of course not, an apparatus like that costs a lot of money. Besides, you have to remember that the KGB was the largest organization has ever existed in human history. Even if you added together the Catholic Church, the Free Masonry, all the political parties, all the soccer teams, and so on, all this still would not match the size of the KGB as an administrative structure. Poor old Ahmadinejad may well desire to have an apparatus like that of the KGB one day, but now he does not have the means at all to exert such control over his population like the KGB could. In fact, not even Nazi Germany had those means.
Perfect totalitarian control has only been achieved in one place so far: Russia, through the KGB. Hitler desired this kind of control, but he never managed to effect it. In fact, Nazi Germany was like a feudal kingdom divided among many lords: there was a real war for power going on between the many secret police agencies. Well, a totalitarian regime is not compatible with the existence of warring factions because no secondary or competing powers should exist under totalitarianism. In Soviet Russia, on the other hand, they were eliminated altogether. All the power was centralized; hence the perfection of the Soviet totalitarian control. Of course, time is an important factor in the development of a totalitarian system, and the fact is that the Soviets had decades to bring about theirs, while Hitler only had twelve years. Actually, Hitler did not even have twelve years, because the Second World War began in 1939. So, Hitler only had six years, from 1933 to 1939, to build his totalitarian State, and, obviously, during such a short period of time, he could not have achieved that same level of totalitarian control as Stalin did in Russia. Other governments attempted to follow Stalin’s model, and at least one of them was quite successful. In Cuba, for instance, the Communists achieved a totalitarian control of the population comparable to that of Soviet Russia. But we have to remember that Cuba is not the size of a continent (the island is but a small stretch of land), which makes things a lot easier.
All in all, totalitarianism is a specifically modern phenomenon, unknown in the whole prior human history. If we compare totalitarian regimes to those empires of Antiquity, for example, we will realize that not even the Pharaohs had such tremendous power as totalitarian governments did. For instance, never did a Pharaoh attempt to force an enslaved people to change their culture in any way: the Jews, living as slaves in the midst of the Egyptians, kept their own religion, their own rites, their own customs, and so on and so forth. In other words, even though they were slaves, they got to maintain their own separate culture, their own cultural enclave within the Egyptian empire. And, as a matter of fact, they were lots of other cultural enclaves like that in Egypt. Now, imagine if that would have been allowed in Soviet Russia? It would have been simply impossible.
What I mean to say is that when people do such things as equate the Inquisition with totalitarianism, their reasoning is not based on actual knowledge of the phenomena they have in mind but rather solely on a certain emphasis people give to the horror they feel at the things they are comparing. That is to say, when they equate the Inquisition and totalitarianism, they more or less know what totalitarianism is and are horrified by it, and then they move on to compare their horror of totalitarianism with the horror that feel at what they imagine the Inquisition was—and, of course, they usually imagine it to have been as bad as modern totalitarianism. In short, they compare the horror they have of something they more or less know with the horror they have of something they do not know at all and finally conclude the two horrifying things are the same. So, it is quite obvious that any public debate that is based on comparisons like that is sheer phantasmagoria. What is worse, this kind of comparison is not merely employed by debaters as a rhetorical figure. No, comparisons like that actually express the forma mentis or the mentality of the people who take part in public discussions: that is to say, they are actual illustrations of what these people really think happened; they represent quite faithfully people’s historical imagination. From this we can see that people build their own version of history and base their judgments, decisions, reactions, and feelings on this world of their own invention.
Another noteworthy example of this phenomenon of historical distortion is the fact that leftists always feel like they are being persecuted and threatened by the right, by conservatives, by reactionaries. Even when they are in power, they live in a permanent state of alarm, as if their lives were always in danger. Stalin, for instance, felt threatened all the time, and so does Fidel Castro. Fidel claims that the Americans have made more than forty attempts to assassinate him. In reality, they have made none; if they had, Fidel would be dead already. But that’s how leftists are; they feel cornered by the right at every waking moment. Now, if you look at all the people who were murdered by the Communist regimes—be it in Russia, in the satellite countries, in China, in Vietnam, in North Korea, in Cambodia, in Cuba, or in Nicaragua—, you will see that the most part of these people were also Communists, and not reactionary bourgeois. Give it some thought: How many reactionary bourgeois were there in Russia in the 1940s? Probably none. So who was the Communist Party assassinating at that time? None other than their own activists or sympathizers, of course.
If you count the number of Communists killed by Communist regimes, you will see that it is tremendously larger than the number of Communists killed by any other kind of regime, including by that of the National Socialists. The number of Communists murdered by the National Socialists does not add up to two million people. Now, if we take into account the 75 million people whom Mao Tse-Tung killed, the 60 million people who were killed in the USSR, plus all the people other Communists killed in other places around the world, we have, say, around 50 million Communists killed by Communist regimes. So tell me, why do the Communists fear the right so much when the most dangerous place on earth for them to be is the Communist Party?
So, we can see that it is extremely dangerous to take part in a successful Communist revolution, because revolutionaries are very likely to be murdered by their fellow revolutionaries who have taken over power. It is true that Communists are under constant threat and lead dangerous lives. However, the real danger does not come from their opponents, but rather from their own party. This is the real and objective situation where they live. Of course, if you are a Communist activist while the bourgeois are in power, you may be in relative danger; however, after the revolution, the risk is multiplied a hundredfold! The murdering of Communists by fellow Communists is not something that happened occasionally, here and there; rather, it always happened everywhere the communists were in charge. So that is what they really have to fear. But then, why do they fear their opponents so much, and why do they feel so safe in their activism? Because they also live in a “second reality.” They are not afraid of the real danger they face, but rather of an imaginary one, which functions as an anesthetic against what they really should be fearing.
This is a very common phenomenon, by the way: usually, when you are dealing with a deadly serious threat, you come up with an imaginary or irrelevant one so that you might stop thinking about the real danger you face and get some relief from it. This attitude is like that of a person who is dying of cancer and begins to worry about not having enough money to pay his bills by the end of the month. In other words, he nurtures one worry so as not to think of the other. That is another example of escaping into a “second reality.” So, the creation and escape into a second reality does not exist only in the realm of culturally relevant ideas, but also in the realm of daily life. Anyone may fall into this mistake (concerning his own perception of things, for instance), which obviously can give rise to many neuroses. Philosophy, among other things it can do for you, can give you a cure for your escaping into second realities, but there is a price to it. The price is not being afraid to know where the real danger lies.
So, let us go back to what I was saying before. During the first year of this course I am going to assign you a series of readings, of both fictional and historical works. However, we are not going to read and analyze literary works as it is usually done in college literature courses. The method we are going to use here is similar to the one I employed in a course of liberal education I taught in Brazil some years ago. Instead of analyzing the great literary works in light of this or that theory, we are going to do the other way around: we are going analyze ourselves and our lives in the light of the great works of literature. If you want to know the truth, this is the only method that really works, because analyzing a literary work is like decomposing a symbol, and a symbol loses its effect once it has been broken down. It no longer means anything. Analyzing a literary work would be like taking a cold medicine to a laboratory in order to have it analyzed and decomposed instead of actually taking the medicine. You would find out the formula of the medicine, but knowing the formula is not the same as taking the medicine, and this knowledge will not make you any better. Unfortunately, this is what is done in college literature courses. Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, they all created stories that can illuminate the human soul and shed light on human experience. But if you get stuck analyzing the pill and never really take it, you avoid an imaginative experience that was conceived to illuminate your experience of reality. Lucky for us, there are a few methods for studying a work of fiction that do not fall into this error, and these are the methods we are going to use here.
Likewise, we are going to use a method for reading works of history that is not usually adopted in college history courses. We are going employ the method conceived by the great English historian Macaulay who taught that we should first look at historical narratives as imaginary narratives and only later as reality-based narratives. So, for example, we will read a work of history as though it were a fictional story about what could possibly have happened at a certain time and place; next, we are going to read different accounts about the same event, still regarding them as fictional stories, as narratives about an event that is only possible, not real; finally, we are going to compare the several stories we read, the different perspectives on the same series of facts, in order to get closer to what really took place.
Nowadays, the fact that historians employ methods that fiction writers use to compose their narratives is used as an argument to support the claim that there is no reality, only narratives. However, this claim is rather stupid because if there is no reality but only narratives, we certainly would not need to put so much effort into creating and developing narrative tools and techniques. In other words, the very existence of several narrative techniques is evidence that reality cannot be reduced to narrative: narrative techniques have been created and developed precisely because reality exists and is complex enough to drive people to find out new and better solutions for improving the art of story-telling. If that was not the case, we would only be able to make narratives of narratives (and so on and so forth), and it would not take long before we run out of narratory possibilities. It is precisely because there is the mystery of reality beyond and outside narrative that we need to use all the narrative techniques we can get. Different narrative techniques are like different lenses that allow us to see an object from various perspectives and help us locate it in space.
If I wanted to draw the face of one of the students that are here, for instance, what would I do? As a drawer, I would get a pencil and start taking the measures of her face, for example, and then I would mark them on paper, so that I could draw a face with roughly the same proportions of hers. However, she was not made through these techniques; it was not a drawer who composed her face, but rather certain embryological, genetic processes, etc., that have nothing to do with the art of drawing. So you have, on the one hand, the structure of the actual object that is being drawn, and, on the other, the structure of the drawing itself, and they only coincide in their proportions. However, this does not mean that the drawing has a structure that is totally independent from the object that is drawn. It is clear that the drawing has an internal structure and order, but, nevertheless, they are not independent from the actual object. When I draw an imaginary picture, then I take only the proportions of the imaginary picture, and, since it is imaginary, I can change these proportions at any given time. But when I draw an object from nature, as they say, I am entirely subjected to a system of proportions that is not of my own making, but which is imposed on me. It is also very clear that the same face, picture, or landscape can be drawn from different perspectives. If you show ten different painters the same landscape and ask them to paint it for you, you will get ten different paintings. But will they be completely different? No, of course not; otherwise, they would not all be paintings of the same landscape. It is precisely this difference in perspective that shows that, beyond the paintings, there is something more, and that these ten painters know they are painting this something more when they make their art.
The same holds true for the study of history. We have to look at several narratives, and we have to know that beyond all those narratives there is a structure which was not created by any one of those narratives. And this structure cannot be expressed in itself—the expression “to express something in itself” has no meaning whatsoever. I can only express that which I perceive or think. What the fact itself expresses in itself is already expressed in the fact itself. What the narrator does is simplify the fact so as to make it imaginable to a person who has not witnessed it. Thus, the reader has to make an imaginative effort to transcend what is being narrated and restore the reality of that experience. We all have this capacity for perceiving reality imaginatively, and it is precisely in the intersection between the various imaginative perspectives that lies the profile of reality. That is why, when you want to draw an object, you don’t take only one measure, but rather several, and in several directions, so that you may capture the object in a network of references that will allow you to see where the object is and how big it is. The plurality of narratives on the same event has no other purpose; it is like a series of measures that were taken of one reality.
Let’s go back to the example of the ten painters. If you had not seen the landscape that they had painted, but only their ten pictures of it, you would be able, nevertheless, to imagine the reality beyond the pictures, their common landscape. But if you were one of those painters and you tried to paint exactly what you had imagined from the landscape, you would not be able to reproduce it exactly, but only that which your technical procedures allowed you to reproduce of it. In this process, two translations would take place: one from the experience to your imagination and memory, and the other from your memory and imagination to the painting. This fact, instead of signifying that reality is not accessible to us, is precisely what shows us that reality does exist; for, if we only had access to that we imagine ourselves, then this imaginary content of ours is what would be reality to us, and since this imagined reality would then, in its turn, become an object of imaginary perception, we would have to imagine it again; this second imagination would then also become an object, and we would have to imagine it again, and again, and again, and this would be an infinite process. But, in actuality, it is a finite process. And why is that? That is because we have reality as a reference, and this reference gives us the limits of the imaginary work that can be done upon it. If the ten painters, instead of painting the same landscape, painted each other’s pictures, in the last painting the landscape the first painter had imagined would have disappeared altogether.
Have you seen that movie that is on YouTube, of an elephant drawing another elephant? Did you notice that the elephant perceives the structure of an elephant almost exactly as we do? There is only a slight difference: the elephant’s perspective seems to be more vertical than horizontal. That’s because the elephant’s artistic technique was developed prior to Giotto—the guy who created the technique for drawing on a horizontal perspective. In the old days, in order to represent that one object in a drawing was farther than the other, you would draw it above the other object; the farther you wanted to place the object, the higher on the drawing you would have to put it. Giotto is the guy who came up with a technique for drawing everything on the same horizontal plane. The elephant didn’t learn Giotto’s technique, so its perspective is still vertical. But, you see, the elephant drawn by the elephant has four legs, a trunk, ears, and so on. So there is not much to debate about the objective structure of an elephant, if you have any doubts, you can just ask the elephant itself about it.
So, in the end, this whole study of works of literature and history has the purpose of improving our imaginations and transforming them into means for investigating reality. In fact, in any domain of science or of knowledge the imagination has a central role. Imagining alternatives, imagining possible perspectives, crossing these perspectives until you find the limit of reality: that’s the very essence of the scientific method. Thus, without a well-trained imagination, you will never do science or philosophy.
Something I would really like to develop in my students in this course is precisely this sense of reality as something which was not invented by us, but inside of which we live, and which imposes certain limits on us and opens to us some real possibilities. In every situation in our lives we have, so to speak, a series of possibilities that have been closed and are now unchangeable, and a series of possibilities that are still open; it is in the intersection of these two sets of possibilities that we are able to see and understand the structure of human action, that is, what any one person has the possibility of doing at any given moment and what that person does not have the possibility of doing. In the game of chess, we have the same situation, but in a simplified version; there are a series of movements that a player can execute and others that are no longer possible. Of the movements that are still possible, some will open to that player some possibilities of movement, and some will close some other possibilities. This same type of analysis can be done in any situation; for instance, you can use it in politics, to determine what is possible to happen and what is not. This is the method of investigation used by Sherlock Holmes: once you have excluded the impossible, what is left must be true to some extent. And, to determine what is the impossible, we need but look at those points in reality where movement is no longer possible, where there is no more room for movement.
So, the education of the imagination has two finalities: broadening the imagination (so that you may conceive possibilities that are not a part either of your daily life or of your culture, but which are present in the set of the human possibilities) and structuring the imagination (so that you will not speculate without a basis, but only within the limits that each situation you study set for you). And educating the imagination in this manner is our objective for the first year of this course.