Lectures d’été (Sélections d’Août)

Great Chain

Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873 – 1962), The Great Chain of Being – A Study of the History of an Idea (1936): Lovejoy’s book joins the rank of those, once located in the “must read” category, that steadily fade into an obscurity, which they by no means deserve.  The horizon of intellect in Anno Domine 2020 has retracted so far that the scope of Lovejoy’s learning lies beyond it; no Great Chain of Being exists for the contemporary mind, which obsesses perpetually over somatic trivialities, so much so that it forfeits the dignity implicit in the label of mind.  Lovejoy is aware of folkloristic precursors to the idea of the Great Chain, but he sees the fully articulate expression of it as emerging in Plato’s Timaeus and in the essays, collected as the Enneads, that make up Plotinus’ Third-Century Neoplatonism.  In Chapter II of The Great Chain – “Genesis of the Idea” – Lovejoy divines the dialectic of “otherworldliness” with “this-worldliness” as the urgency behind his titular metaphor.  “Having arrived at the conception of the Idea of Ideas,” as Lovejoy writes, Plato “finds in just this transcendent and absolute Being the necessitating logical ground of this world.”  The apparent flux of existence, which stands in tension with the conceptual, takes its explanation, not only in what Lovejoy calls “the Intellectual World,” but in a Creative Intellect that generates the world.  Becoming provides the bottom floor, or perhaps the basement, of the universal structure, which, unlike a this-worldly structure, a Parthenon or a Mausoleum, the Master Architect builds from the roof down to the foundation – or rather the roof is the foundation.  The Master Architect’s kallokagathos permeates the cosmos in the form of “a Self-Transcending Fecundity.”  A common interpretation of Plato – that the philosopher finds the realm of matter inferior to the realm of spirit – strikes Lovejoy as false.  Lovejoy extends this judgment to Neoplatonism: “In Plotinus still more clearly than in Plato, it is from the properties of a rigorously otherworldly, and a completely self-sufficient Absolute, that the necessity of this world… is deduced.”

The height of Hellenistic speculation proved entirely compatible with Christian speculation as Late Antiquity gave way to the Medieval centuries.  “The most classical thing in the Middle Ages may be said to have been the universe,” Lovejoy writes.  Gothic theo-philosophical thought indeed reveled in the concepts of Plenitude and Plurality.  In Chapter IV of The Great Chain – “The Principle of Plenitude and the New Cosmography” – Lovejoy documents the centrality of the “Plurality of Worlds” to the Medieval and post-Medieval Christian conceptions of life, the universe, and everything.  Lovejoy’s chapter underscores the bigotry in the modern view of medievality, which in total ignorance supposes that its own Weltanschauung qualifies as replete whereas its Medieval antitype qualifies only as a boxed-in, flat-earth species of obtuseness.  Lovejoy writes how “a non-geocentric arrangement of the heavens,” as foreshadowed by the Copernican model, “could, indeed, plausibly be regarded as more harmonious than the Ptolemaic scheme with the Christian theology.”  By the Sixteenth Century, the convergent cosmology view held that “the other planets of our solar system [were] inhabited by living, sentient, and rational creatures”; that the stars were suns whose planets were similarly inhabited; and that some of those extraterrestrial people might have risen to a more exalted level than mankind.  Problems arose.  Had the multitudinous other planetarians experienced the Fall?  Had Christ appeared among them to offer Redemption?  The case of Giordano Bruno increases in its gruesome aspect for Lovejoy when he places it in historical context.  Bruno argued for the “Plurality of Worlds” because, for him, it heightened the generosity of the Creator.  Bruno drew ire, as Lovejoy sees it, mainly for his rhetorical insistence.  He called attention to “the intrinsically contradictory nature of the general medieval conception of God.”

A Puritanical kill-joyism pushed the Great Chain of Being to the margin and then outside the bounds of respectability.  Lovejoy cites the constipated Königsberg Idealist as a chief of the kill-joys.  In Chapter X of The Great Chain, “Romanticism and Plenitude,” Lovejoy portrays the early Nineteenth-Century reaction against the Enlightenment as the last stand of Platonism against the spiritually destructive tide of Utilitarianism.  In a discussion of Friedrich Schiller, Lovejoy ascribes to his subject the admonition that “the human artist… is bidden to remember that he will not be following the cosmic model in his small creative efforts if he allows too much concern for ‘form’ to lead to lead him to sacrifice richness of content.”  But is not a hierarchy a form?  Not exactly.  It is a generative principle.  God does not want to crowd every niche with infinite iterations of one thing; he wants infinitely various individuality – and in the case of people, whether terrestrial or extraterrestrial, infinitely various personality, each one unique.  Lovejoy writes, with irony overtaking him, of the Great Chain in its Romantic version as “the idealization of diversity.”  The Great-Chain-as-Diversity guarantees the legitimacy of both private judgment and national or regional culture.  In addition to being a generative principle, hierarchy is an anti-totalitarian principle.  One might disagree with Lovejoy’s conclusion, that “the history of the idea of the Chain of Being… is the history of a failure.”  An ideologically driven narrowing of consciousness failed the idea of the Great Chain; but the same idea of the Great Chain coincided with the two formative periods of Western Civilization, that of Classical Greece and that of Atlantic Man after Anno Domine 1000.  Contemporary radicals express themselves – albeit in the low language of low thought – with perfect honesty: They want to topple the hierarchy.  Their narcissism deludes them.  Hierarchy is built into the cosmos.


Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988), City (1952 – Republished in the Simak Centennial Edition in 2004): According to Sam Moskowitz, writing in Seekers of Tomorrow (1966), Clifford Simak derived from Bohemian emigrant stock but was born and grew up in rural Wisconsin.  Moskowitz quotes Simak as saying, “I sometimes think that despite the fact that my boyhood spanned part of the first and second decades of the twentieth century… I actually lived in what amounted to the tail end of the pioneer days.”  Simak’s father had inherited his father’s farm.  As Moskowitz writes, “Simak’s greatest love and affection is reserved for the farmer.”  A parallelism unites Simak with another writer associated with the science fiction genre, Ray Bradbury, and Simak’s best-known book, City, has something in common formally with Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1950): It links up a number of short stories, published separately in periodicals, as a story-cycle with linking interludes – something approaching a novel, if not quite a novel.  Simak nevertheless furnishes City with a more elaborate framework than Bradbury provides for his Chronicles.  City purports to be a collation of ancient and rather implausible legends dating from an alleged human phase of terrestrial development before the co-reign of the dogs and the robots.  Implausible though they seem, writes the “editor” of these tales, the likelihood that they “may be of non-doggish origin in part, is borne out by the abundance of jabberwocky which studs the tales – words and phrases (and worst of all, ideas) which have no meaning now.”  City tells the story of the rise of Dog-and-Robotdom, but also and more poignantly for its actual readers, it tells of humanity’s disappearance.  The first story foreshadows the Great Demise.  Called “City,” it records how a universal aversion to urban life overcame humanity in the Twenty-First Century.  Technology permitted a general retreat to the countryside.  A migration from Earth to the other worlds followed, leaving the planet largely to the animals and automata.

Simak composes Dog-and-Robotdom as a broken idyll.  A member of the Webster family endowed speech on the canine race, and when humanity has departed, the endowment spreads to the other mammalian species.  The robots act as caretakers for the animals, who, after thousands of years, have forgotten their original partnership with people.  Thou shalt not kill functions as the Law of Laws, but in the Seventh Tale, “Aesop,”one of the remaining humans, a naïf, invents a new type of “throwing stick,” actually a bow-and-arrow.  In company with Ichabod, a dog, Lupus, a wolf, and Fatso, a squirrel, Peter proposes to demonstrate its efficacy.  Peter asks, “What shall I hit?”  Fatso sees a bird on a limb.  He says, “That robin, sitting in the tree.”  Peter has no malicious intent.  The idea of a lethal weapon has never occurred to him.  Once he has loosed the arrow, however, “the robin toppled from the branch in a shower of flying feathers,” and “he hit the ground with a soft, dull thud.”  A sanguine trickle reddens the ground where he has fallen.  Shock permeates the group; the four grasp their violation of the Law of Laws.  It is a cross between the Fall and the first murder although the killing differs from Cain’s killing of Abel due to a lack of homicidal intent.  Jenkins, the senior robot, the supervising caretaker of the dogs, and the continuity persona in Simak’s story-cycle must make a decision.  He sees no guilt, but he does see a pattern that will likely repeat itself, just as it repeated itself in an earlier phase of history.   It belongs to Simak’s story that the dogs, able to think in ways that humans could not, have discovered parallel worlds.  Jenkins takes the remaining humans, now called “Websters,” to one of those worlds so as to leave the dogs and other animals in possession of Earth.  He will later need to lead the dogs away, too.

City enacts a Requiem for Man, whose imperfections damn him even when he enthusiastically attempts to realize a self-evident good.  Simak’s humanity effectuates much good, not least in fostering the “Brotherhood of Beasts” and imprinting on the robots a type of necessary sentimentality in regard to their creators – call it a sense of qualified indebtedness.  Jenkins, who returns to Earth in the last of the tales, only to leave it once again in company with other robots, has existed for close to twenty thousand years.  Jenkins has internalized many human habits.  When one evening he has “leaned far back in [his] chair,” he thinks “how un-robot-like it was to be sitting in a chair.”  The dogs, out of deep gratitude, gave Jenkins a new body when he turned seven thousand years old.  It operates as efficiently in the last tale, thousands of years later, as it did on the day he received it.  He looks forward, with human eagerness, to exploring the universe.  He also feels burdened by memory, which in the moment of departure, in the gravity of its millennia, overwhelms him.  He has arranged that “the Dogs would be free to develop their culture without human interference.”  He leaves behind the mice, the last terrestrial mammalians, to organize their future.  A terrific nostalgia nevertheless grips him.  “He had tried forgetfulness, ignoring time, and it had not worked, for no robot could forget.”  He cannot shake off “the sadness of an empty house… the sadness of failures and empty triumphs.”  Simak finishes with Jenkins climbing aboard the spaceship, trying “to say goodbye,” but being unable to do so: “If only he could weep, he thought, but a robot could not weep.”


Henri de Lubac (1896 – 1991), The Drama of Atheist Humanism (1944 – English edition 1949): Lubac’s study surveys “The Drama of Atheist Humanism” from Ludwig Feuerbach to Friedrich Nietzsche.  It implicitly goes beyond Nietzsche, drawing up a diagnosis of the modern condition in the mid-Twentieth Century.  Lubac avoids polemics, but he pulls no punches in directing criticism at the contradictions and purblindnesses of his specimen atheist personae.  The reader might expect Lubac to concentrate on Marx and Nietzsche, whose names continue to have massive currency in the Twenty-First Century, but another party, Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857), dominates The Drama’s discussion.  The obsessive social orientation of Western culture in 2020 suggests that Comte’s influence might have penetrated more deeply, more pervasively, and more subversively than Marx’s or Nietzsche’s.  Insofar as all intellectual and academic disciplines have been sociologized, and insofar as the prefix social now parasitizes key items in the functional vocabulary, then Comte’s Cult of Positivism has indeed triumphed, even should those who follow its precepts know not where their dogma originates.  Comte follows the Encyclopédistes in constructing, with changing nomenclature, a three-phase history for mankind.  As Lubac writes, Comte postulated “the theological or fictitious state, the metaphysical or abstract state, and the scientific or positive state” as the rungs of the spiritual ladder.  Comte cast himself as the inaugurator-revelator of the final state or phase.  He proposed to organize the whole world on “positive” principles, writing to Czar and Sultan and Pope suggesting that they should underwrite his project.  Positivism would assume the form of a Church of Humanity, based on “social physics.”  Not only Positivism traces its pedigree to Comte, but also what writers like Jose Ortega and Eric Voegelin refer to as scientism.  Comte despised what he regarded as superstition.

Comte’s “offense,” as Lubac remarks, “lies in trying to reduce man to no more than the subject matter of sociology.”  Before he could reduce the person to an atom in a great mass, however, Comte needed to get rid of God.  Positivism, Lubac writes, “Supplies an object for that urge to worship which is at the heart of our nature.” That object is “Humanity” in the abstract, which Comte himself described as “the only true great Being, of which we are wittingly the necessary members.”  Reading Lubac’s account of Comte, one begins to suspect the latter of having entered into a rivalry with God and with his Catholic deputy the Pope.  Comte regarded himself as the Pontiff of his Church, which he expected shortly to replace Catholicism as the truly universal religion – hence his missives to world leaders.  Drawing on Comte’s diaries and notes, Lubac tells of the schemer’s dream how “one day… Notre Dame de Paris [will be] turned into ‘the great Temple of the West.’”  In that Temple, “the statue of Humanity will have as its pedestal the altar of God.”  Comte thought of Christians as “slaves of God”; he thought of his sociological ecclesia as “the servants of Humanity.”  Despite the Beatitudes, Comte, in Lubac’s words, “made a point of disparaging the Gospel, with a kind of rancorous pertinacity.”  Whence, one might ask, the arrogant hostility of a Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Daniel Dennett?  One could probably trace the line of descent through the mid-Twentieth Century French existentialists, to their materialist precursors, and, if not exclusively, all the same to Comte.  Whereas Comte reserves febrile animosity toward Jesus, he admires Paul.  Why?  Paul systematized Christianity – he created the Church, as such, and established policy.  In this light, Comte sees Paul as one of his precursors.

In another prolepsis of contemporary anti-Christianity, Comte saw himself as the announcer of a “New Spirituality.”  In the profane situation-comedy Family Guy, the paterfamilias Peter awakes and finds himself stuck in an elevator with the Deity.  He tries to make conversation.  He asks God, “Do atheists go to Hell?”  God replies, “No.”  Peter asks, “How about people who say they are not religious but they are spiritual.”  God grows heated.  He replies that he sends them “straight to Hell, to the boiler room of Hell, all the way down.”  God adds, “Sometimes I pull ‘em out just so they think everything’s going to be okay, but then I put ‘em right back in.”  Lubac devotes an entire chapter to detailing Comte’s plagiarism of Catholic organization and doctrine, including the elevation of his late Platonic girlfriend Clotilde to the rank of the Virgin Mother.  In Lubac’s representation Comte makes his sweeping pronouncements, formulates his pseudo-theology, and coins his complex policies with a combination of unctuousness and autism.  The representation tempts the reader to react to Comte the way God reacts to the not-religious-but-spiritual in Family Guy.  Indeed, the not-religious-but-spiritual tend to shoulder their way into the spiritual convictions of their others, blustering about their own reasonableness and belittling counter-belief.  Under “social physics” in his secular Church, Comte will empower a “Priesthood of Humanity” to implant correct doctrine and actively to disabuse error.  This priesthood will recruit its constabulary from scientists, men possessing an “encyclopedic mind” (Comte’s phrase) who therefore know everything and can exercise the moral omnicompetence of their “systematic generality” (Comte’s phrase again).  “In all things,” Lubac writes, this morality police “will decide what should be thought,” and “man’s understanding will be subjected to it.”

Steam in the Air

Maurice Kelly (born 1931), Steam in the Air The Application of Steam Power in Aviation during the 19th and 20th Centuries (2006): Mainstream accounts of powered flight mislead the public.  The history of powered flight stretches back into the first half of the Nineteenth Century and boasts a number of impressive achievements, including take-offs under power and controlled landings.  The original Wright-Brothers “Flyer” required a catapult to throw it into the air.  The alleged “first powered flight” with a pilot aboard of 17 December 1903 at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, consisted in fact in a power-sustained descent, after a boosted take-off, of a paltry 120 feet on leaving the catapult rail.  The Wrights had developed a light-weight internal combustion engine, a prototype of the motor that would dominate aviation until the middle of the Twentieth Century.  For that they deserve credit.  Their “first powered flight” remains, however, a rather dubious proposition, beginning with the catapult.  Before the internal combustion engine came the external combustion or steam engine.  The Nineteenth Century rightly bears the title among others of The Century of Steam.  Nineteenth Century inventors applied light-weight steam engines to large airframes, the science of which had developed quite far, and achieved a number of outstanding successes.  As Kelly writes, Sir George Cayley (1773 – 1857) had, at his death, “laid all the theoretical foundations for powered flight in the spheres of both aerostats and aerodynes.”  Cayley, who built and flew a piloted glider in 1852 or 53, emphasized that heavier-than-air flight depended in the perfection of a small but efficient power plant.  While aeronautics to its detriment largely ignored Cayley’s work, the pioneers William Samuel Henson (1812 – 1888) and John Stringfellow (1799 – 1883) knew that work and built on it.  Kelly reports on their endeavors of the 1840s in his second chapter, “The Era of Successful Flight.”

Henson and Stringfellow sought to raise funds for their Aerial Transit Company.  They drew up plans for a steam-powered “Aerial Steam Carriage” with a wingspan of no less than 150 feet and capable of carrying passengers on cross-channel excursions into Europe or even beyond, all the way, by stages, to India.  Between 1843 and 1848 the team built three scale models of its proposed full-scale aerodyne.  The last of these, incorporating a motor designed and built by Henson, drove itself by means of two counter-rotating pusher-propellers mounted on the trailing edge of the wing; the wing itself had a span of twenty feet.  The airframe lacked, however, the modern tail-structure of the unbuilt Aerial Steam Carriage.  In one flight, as Kelly writes, “the machine… achieved a rise of 1 [foot] in 7 [feet] and had gone a distance of 40 [feet] in powered free flight.”  In 1868, Henson and Stringfellow built a triplane that they tested in the Crystal Palace.  “Since no trial in free flight was allowed in the Main Hall,” as Kelly writes, the test involved a tethered flight “along a wire that was stretched out in a nearby transept for 100 yards.”  According to multiple witnesses the machine “lifted off and raised the wire ‘several feet.’”  The conditions imposed by the exhibitors make the results somewhat ambiguous.  Kelly points to indirect evidence of the design’s probable flightworthiness.  Samuel Pierpont Langley later purchased the triplane.  He incorporated details of its design in his own flying models, also steam-powered.  Thomas Moy flew his full-sized “Aerial Steamer,” on the grounds of the Crystal Palace, in 1875.  Like the flight of Henson and Stringfellow’s triplane, this was a tethered sally.

Kelly refers to the Frenchman Clément Ader (1841 – 1925) as “probably the most contentious figure… in early aviation.”  Ader’s cantankerousness provoked public scandals that have obscured his achievements.  As Kelly writes, Ader “was the first person to take off in a powered heavier-than-air machine.”  On 9 October 1890, Ader piloted his steam-driven Éole into the air at Armainvilliers in North-Central France.  Ader had created, in Kelly’s words, “a complicated piece of equipment” whose batlike aeroform and Rube-Goldberg internal disposition ignored, if it did not flout, the cumulus of aviation science of the previous decades.  Ader’s flight, which required no catapult or ramp, nevertheless extended for 165 feet – forty-five feet longer than the first flight, so-called, of the Wright-Brothers machine.  According to Kelly, “The 20hp steam plant of [the Éole] was the best part of the aeroplane, for it was apparently very well made, being extremely light for its rated power output.”  Ader built two other steam-powered flying machines, the Avion II and the Avion III.  He claimed to have flown the Avion III in 1897 although the claim is today in doubt.  The Avion III is preserved and on display at the Musée National des Techniques-CNAM, Paris.  The American engineer Langley (1834 – 1906), mentioned in connection with Henson and Stringfellow, built a series of aerodromes in the 1890s.  These flew – again on steam power – but a piloted version crashed in the Potomac.  Other pioneers of “Steam in the Air” were Sir Hiram Maxim (1840 – 1916) and Gustave Whitehead (1874 – 1927), both of whom leapt skyward before the Wright Brothers.  Maxim flew under tether, but Whitehead flew free.

3 thoughts on “Lectures d’été (Sélections d’Août)

  1. Pingback: Lectures d’été (Sélections d’Août) | Reaction Times

  2. Well stated piece on the current horse latitudes we find ourselves in. Include in the must read category “The History of Civilization” by Will and Ariel Durant.

    • Durant’s is another book (well — a whole shelf of books!) to which reference is nowadays only infrequently made. It is as though intelligence itself was in rapid decline. People used to read Will Durant; now they, the self-proclaimed intelligent crowd, read Ta-Nehisi Coates.


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