I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active – not more happy – nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.
― Edgar Allan Poe
Continuing from yesterday, I want to tell you a story. It’s probably told much better somewhere else, but I’ve been pursuing it over many years and it makes sense to me. Call it “Carl’s brief history of human identity”. I don’t think the title is the best either. If you read this through and come up with a better one, I’m open to suggestions.
As you saw yesterday, Alexander Pope posits humanity as a series of contradictions, not simply to suggest contradictions for their own sake but, more significantly, to contend that human beings are gloriously complicated and by times infuriating, majestic, petty, generous, etc. It’s a viewpoint with which I have great sympathy but one, I think, that has become rather passé in the 21st century. As I wrote a day or two ago, the emerging “technological model” is something quite different (something I have yet to define clearly, as well, I know – told you this would be long). So how did we arrive where we are?
As an early 18th century writer, Pope lived during a time when science – and an accompanying focus on all things rational – was taking hold in a big way, at least among the 1% in a position to take time to think about such things. Nowadays, we think of the scientific method as the primary way to truth: we want evidence and we want it to be clear. In Pope’s time, alternative approaches to determining reality were accepted and pursued equally. Probably the best example would be Sir Isaac Newton, arguably one of the greatest scientists of all time, who was also a longstanding student of alchemy and other “occult” studies.
The eighteenth century “Age of Reason” or “The Enlightenment” saw some adopt a view of human beings that made no allowance for anything other than rationality. If people could examine their habits and persons with a critical eye, adjustments could be made to that “object”, the result being an intrinsically “better” human being. Certain eminent figures of the day kept daily journals which, so the argument went, could lead to a better understanding of where improvements and adjustments were needed.
Granted, this was an extreme, an entirely mechanistic view which imagined individuals as little more than empty vessels waiting to be filled: with knowledge, with experience, with determining factors. In modern psychological terms, proponents of such a view could be said to be on the extreme “nurture” side of the nature-nurture debate, so fundamental to psychology.
Pendulums always having to swing, a brief period toward the end of the 18th century saw a significant move to the opposite pole. A number of writers and thinkers thought it necessary to emphasize a more mystical and unseen path to “truth” or understanding. Human beings possessed intangible qualities of imagination, insight, intuition, empathy, to name a few, and the any understanding of what it meant to be human had to take such features into account.
It should come as little surprise that the 19th century became a rather fractious time where these two tendencies commonly conflicted. That being said, science was beginning to develop both an objective credibility and a momentum that would have profound consequences, not only for the trappings of modernity (inventions, advancements, etc), but for our understanding of ourselves as well. (to be continued)