There is No Patrimony

There is no patrimony, and hasn’t been for generations. We’ve been making it up as we go for the last 250 years or so, each of us cobbling together on his own the lineaments of a coherent way of life from the jetsam that is the only remnant of what was once the ship that bore our forefathers up together from infancy, piloted by their fathers and kept by their mothers.

That ship is gone, wrecked, taken apart piece by piece and thrown into the sea by improvident sailors, unofficered, free, and drunk.

There’s lots of jetsam, to be sure. Indeed it covers the waters still, thanks be to God; for she was a great and commodious caravel. There is Bach, the Tridentine Mass, a king here and there, the Book of Common Prayer, table manners, the wilderness and its rigors, Durham Cathedral, sportsmanship, Shakespeare, good old Plato and Augustine, and the disciplines of the various trades, occupations, vocations, professions and arts. And, too, there is the wisdom of the body, insisting that we so live as to enable human flourishing, and punishing us when we fail thereat with poverty, incapacity and weakness, exhaustion or enervated ennui, with depression, madness, rage, or disease. Richly supplied by the former and relentlessly urged by the latter, the most competent among us can cadge together a decent raft, if we work at it diligently enough.

But nothing is handed on to us whole from our forefathers. At best, our own parents have taught us to swim, and to knot and splice, and given us some good bits of the jetsam they themselves have gathered. All of us are at sea. None of us have a boat.

The really amazing thing, the hopeful thing, is that any of us have managed to stay afloat at all. What does this tell us? It says that it is indeed possible to build a boat while afloat. The timbers of the old ship were not destroyed, just taken apart and thrown overboard. All we have to do is fit them back together, in something like a proper order. That order is implicit in their forms, as the order of the finished jigsaw puzzle is implicit in the shapes of its pieces.

So, there’s no reason to panic, or despair. After all, we’ve managed so far. We just have to keep at it, as we have been.

5 thoughts on “There is No Patrimony

  1. From my essay at The People of Shambhala:

    It is worth recalling what the Saïtic priests tell Solon in [Plato’s dialogue] Timaeus when he visits Egypt and learns of Atlantis, whose legend he later celebrates in an epic poem. When Solon tried to impress his hosts by invoking the most remote events remembered in Greek lore, they rebuked him, saying, ‘O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are ever young, and there is no old man who is a Hellene… You are children; there is no opinion or tradition of knowledge among you which is white with age; and I will tell you why.’

    The priest then gives the explanation: ‘Like the rest of mankind you [Greeks] have suffered from convulsions of nature, which are chiefly brought about by the two great agencies of fire and water… When a deluge comes, the inhabitants are swept by the rivers into the sea [and] the memorials which… nations have once had of the famous actions of mankind perish in the waters at certain periods; and the rude survivors in the mountains begin again, knowing nothing of the world before the flood.’

    The longer a lifetime’s attention lingers over this prologue to the Atlantis-saga in Timaeus, the more central the framework looms in Plato’s import of the narrative. Plato makes a point related to that which he makes in The Allegory of the Cave in The Republic, namely that consciousness is subject to complacency and diminution and that the worst epistemological disease is the paradoxical one of the erroneous certitude that increases while consciousness blithely abets its own diminution. Consciousness might either never grow up (‘you Hellenes are ever young’) or it might become sclerotic, losing all contact with its original nourishing Eros. Plato’s careful prologue to the Atlantis-saga also implies that consciousness is historical and literary. A catastrophe, whether of fire or water, destroys the written records – even literacy itself. The society must begin again at the degree-zero of collective memory. Neither holocaust nor deluge is necessary to effectuate such a radical break, however; indifference and petulance can accomplish the same result, as perhaps they have already to a great degree in the modern world. If consciousness were literary and historical then a society bent on its own anti-historical premises and resentful of the literary archive would soon have divested itself of consciousness.

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