The Roar of Our Cataract

Age brings with it a certain fatalism.  It is when a man’s powers decline that he sees volition for the illusion that it always was.  In bygone days, he may have thought he was swimming with a sure and powerful stroke, but it now appears that he was always carried by the currents of the river.  And when he at last hears the roar of that not-so-distant cataract, he notices that the banks of the river are far too steep and slippery for him to climb.  And when he considers, he recalls that they were always steep, and slippery, and topped by a thicket of thorny brambles.  There never was anywhere for him to go, other than down the river and over the falls.

This may be part of what Hegel meant when he said the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk.

Cosmic fatalism is the companion of personal fatalism.  This is, no doubt, one of the many reasons youth and age do not see eye to eye.  It is the joy of youth to feel one’s self the captain of one’s own soul.  It is the judgement of age that one has always been a child of fortune, the sport of circumstance.  Thomas Cole captured the difference in the second and third painting of The Voyage of Life.

The Voyage of Life: Youth, Thomas Cole (1842)


The Voyage of Life: Manhood, Thomas Cole (1842)

That roar of the cataract is, for the personal fatalist, a foreboding of the inescapable plunge of personal death.  For the cosmic fatalist, it is a foreboding of a more general plunge that is no less inescapable.  Nations float down rivers with banks that are slippery, and steep, and topped by a thicket of thorny brambles.  They too can go nowhere other than down the river and over the falls.

Some explain the roar of the cataract as mere wind, or perhaps as the rumble of a distant train, but a man without illusions knows what it means.  He knows it is louder today than it was yesterday, and that tomorrow it will be louder still.  Just a few more bends and the river will begin to race and boil over the stones, and then one day, not far distant, a dreadful pillar of mist will rise up in the sky.

* * * * *

The image of our nation floating down the river to the cataract came to me when I read these lines from the French historian Victor Duruy.  Speaking of the ancient Athenians, he says:

Between Marathon and Aigospotamos a moral evolution took place.

Athens defeated the Persian invasion at the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.), and this victory gave birth to the golden age of the city.  At Aigospotamos (405 B.C.), Sparta defeated the Athenian navy and brought that golden age to a close.  After a mere eighty-five years, the men who defied Darius were under the thumb of Sparta.   Moral evolution is a wonderful thing!

In the later part of the century Athens possessed no longer the sentiments and beliefs which made her so simple and grand during the Median wars.

It is from such spectacles of moral evolution that we have the adage: hard times make good men; good men make good times; good times make bad men.  That is the entrenched river down which a nation floats.

Two words then were good enough for her, the gods, the country.

Good enough for the Athenians who proved they were men at Marathon, that is.  Not nearly good enough for the Athenians who sank into servitude at Aigospotamos.  Why not?  Between Marathon and Aigospotamos the Athenians were sophisticated.

But the gods die, like men; and the idea of country, by being too widely extended may be lost.

Duruy is misleading in the first clause of this sentence, for what is clear in what follows is that it is not the gods that die, but the men for whom gods live. The disenchantment of the world is really the disenchantment of men who have been carried down the river of moral evolution, all the while congratulating themselves on their sure and powerful strokes.

The second clause is clear, however.  Athens grew from a city into an empire between Marathon and Aigospotamos, and while an empire can elicit pride, it can never elicit patriotism.  The original meaning of “country” is the land surrounding a city, and Athenian patriotism died when it was separated from the Attic homeland.

 There was talk of art and science and philosophy;

He means there was talk in the Athenian schools, where Athenian men were wont (as Hobbes put it) “to prate and loiter.”  Foremost among these schools was Plato’s famed Academy, which met in the grove of Akademos, just beyond the city walls.

“See there the olive grove of Academe,
Plato’s retirement, where the Attic bird
Trills her thick-warbled notes the summer long.”

John Milton, Paradise Regained, book iv (1671)

The nightingale is the “Attic bird,” and it has long been the poet’s symbol of blithe freedom because of its sweet and varied song.  Like the warbling scholars in that olive grove of Academe, it sings beautiful tunes all summer long.  And then there comes the fall!

of an art which represented old divinities in new forms;

Duruy is thinking in particular of the dramatic arts, and most especially of the plays of Euripides, in which the gods became decorative and increasingly dispensable accessories to the human drama.  This trend would end by turning the gods into oversexed buffoons.

of science which destroyed the old gods by explaining them;

Naturalism renders the gods otiose.  They no longer have anything to do in this world, and so become mere ornaments in poetry and art.  An aesthete may be amused by these ornaments, but no soldier is fired with fear or courage when he thinks of otiose gods.

of philosophy, which overthrew received doctrine and taught a man to be a citizen of the world;

Received doctrine is what we call prejudice, the unexamined truths that bind men together, and regulate their conduct—so long as they remain unexamined. The local prejudice of patriotism is one received doctrine that dies under close examination.  Why should I hazard my bones on the Plain of Marathon?  Why indeed?

there was, finally, the training of the sophists, who, with all the audacity of the intellect and all the resources of language, taught men to formulate ideas in such a way that anything might be believed at will.

Coleridge tells us that many sophists were mere “word-jugglers,” but that the essence of sophistry is that the sophist is a hireling.  He is, at heart, “a vender, a market-man in moral and intellectual knowledges.”  He is “a wholesale and retail dealer in wisdom—a wisdom-monger.”  He sells his arguments by the pound, and his eloquence by the yard.

Plato and Aristotle allowed that many sophists had great gifts of argument and eloquence, just as they might have allowed that many courtesans had great gifts of beauty, and even kindness; but it was very bad, they said, for a man (or woman) to hawk such gifts in the marketplace.  The roar of the cataract grows loud when everything can be had for gold.

Plato observed that hireling sophists were a remarkably itinerant breed.  Like the jet-setting scientists and scholars of today, they moved wherever a paymaster called.  Plato saw this itinerancy as a cause of degeneration in philosophy and the polis, because man was meant to think in and for the city of which he was a citizen.  As Plato put it in the Timaeus,

I fear that somehow, as being itinerants from city to city, loose from all permanent ties of house and home, and everywhere aliens, they shoot wide of the proper aim of man whether as philosopher or as citizen.

* * * * *

I have not drawn your attention to the roar of our cataract because I hope we can scramble up the bank or paddle against the flood.  The bank is steep, and slippery, and topped by a thicket of thorny brambles.  And we have no paddle.

10 thoughts on “The Roar of Our Cataract

  1. Pingback: The Roar of Our Cataract | Reaction Times

    • Thanks. I think you are right that boredom is an important but ignored factor in human affairs. It’s the downside of a big brain that causes us no end of trouble. “Idle hands do the Devil’s work.” This can be said of nations as well as individuals.

  2. It is in the logic (so to speak) of sophism that its capacity to make anything believable swiftly produces a psychic environment in which nothing is believable. Once nothing is believable, nothing is worth knowing. Consciousness contracts, the society fails, and keener-sighted people move in and take over.

    • I will admit that I feel the effect of universal sophistry. As traditionalists have long argued, hearing arguments on all sides of a question produces apathy, indifference, and skepticism. When clever but unprincipled people are for hire, I will necessarily hear very good arguments both ways. Both arguments cannot be correct, but I cannot always see sophistry. The doctrine of free speech assumes that sophists are inept and easily detected, when the truth is, they are highly skilled and very persuasive. Plato and Aristotle hated them, but they never said they were fools.

  3. Samuel Johnson: “That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!”
    Modern Man knows little of Marathon,
    less of Iona.

  4. Pingback: Cantandum in Ekhaton 09/08/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

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