my mind wanders, as it often does, and I begin to imagine, say, the raids
conducted by the Mongol Horde, the psychopathic methods of torture they devised,
and the incalculable amount of raping and pillaging that must have gone on,
unrecorded, across the Eurasian land mass since the domestication of the horse
and the invention of metallurgy, I admit that sometimes I think to myself: Alright! Good show! I am impressed with
all this cruelty, not indignant about it, and I suspect you are too. The
standards I bring to my assessment of the killers who filled the mass grave at
Srebrenica, a little over a decade ago, are completely different. I am still
trying to figure out why this is so.
is a similar double standard that comes into play in my reading of the history
of philosophy. Consider the claim that 'only love does
not have to be. God loves without being'. Now it seems to me that if I came
across this sort of thing in Gregory of Nyssa or in Nāgārjuna
I would think to myself: There is much
wisdom here. But when I see this claim in a book written in the 1990s (which is where I in fact saw it), my
reaction is very different. What are the
author's grounds for claiming such a thing, I want to know. How can he justify this claim?
in both cases it cannot just be that
we hold more recent figures to different standards (of morality or of
rationality) than past figures as a result of the availability in our age of
rules of acting or thinking that were not available then. After all, I spend
much of my time insisting on the relative superficiality of the innovations
that we think of as distinctly modern. The historical record shows that there
were a lot of people being nice to one another long before Kant or Peter Singer
or the UN Declaration of Human Rights; and there were a lot of people saying
things that were rational and well-founded, by our standards, long before
Francis Bacon or A. J. Ayer attempted to spell out for us exactly what such
things are like. There is indeed nothing more empirically grounded and
practically rational than the 'concrete sciences', like botanical taxonomy,
characteristic of la pensée sauvage.
that the distant past featured people who were good and rational in our sense,
why not take them as the standard-bearers for their own era, rather than employing
different standards for different eras? I think the answer is in part that,
with respect to the present, expediency requires something like an ethical
suspension of the anthropological: the consequences of actions or beliefs in
the distant past are already known. Nothing hangs on my condemnation of Genghis
Khan, and so I am freed up to simply observe him and contemplate him as a
larger-than-life manifestation of a certain sort of human potential. To
disapprove of Genghis Khan would be scarcely different from disapproving of
humanity itself (even as, curiously, failing
to disapprove of Adolf Hitler is also to disapprove of humanity), for Genghis
provides us a useful and vivid demonstration of the vast range of what it is
human beings are capable of doing. He is a singular illustration of Clyde
Kluckhohn's intriguing but untestable thesis: "During the long course of
human history individual men and women have probably thought, felt and done
almost everything that was within the range permitted by anatomy, physiology,
and the limits of external nature."
am freed up by Genghis's historical distance to let him feed my imagination.
And it's my imagination, too, that is fed by Gregory of Nyssa: what I want from
him is to gain a sense of the range of possible thoughts human beings can have.
If I'm looking for the truth here, it's a different order of truth than
anything that can be found in the content of his claims. It's a truth about the
range of possible beliefs, rather than a particular true belief, that I'm
In the present age
by contrast I expect everyone to be straight and narrow, to tell it like it in
fact is and to be moderate and sober in their actions. I don't want any new
demonstrations of the extremes of human potential or of the range of exotic
beliefs people collectively come up with in order to get through their lives.
If my wishes are respected, people will be nice and reasonable, rather than
mean and unreasonable, with one another, and surely that is good. An
unfortunate corollary of this however is that it transforms the past into a
sort of age of heroes, and shows our very decency to be a symptom of decline.
The present age starts to look like what Goethe feared would be the ultimate
result of Enlightenment: a worldwide hospital, where 'everyone is everyone
else's humane nurse'.
I don't want to
decide here as between a torture chamber and a hospital, but I do want simply
to pause to note the correlation, and possible connection, between the two
sorts of double standard. The expectation that our fellow human beings tell it
like it is arises together in history with the expectation that they be nice to
one another. The chronological upper limit of the exemption that I, and I
expect others, allow for saying delirious things about God and angels and
spirits and the prophetic power of dreams is roughly the same as the one for
raping and pillaging and bludgeoning. If I had to be precise, I would say the
boundary lies somewhere around the end of the 15th century (with a good deal of
regional variation, and with the non-European world only coming to fall on this
side of the historical boundary at the same rate as it is assimilated into the
Euro-American global system), and that it is Christopher Columbus who stands as
a sort of pioneer of the modern way of being wrong.
course the pillaging and unreason go on as before, not just in spite of the
Euro-American global system, but just as often in support of it. Modernity then
is not really that period when people begin to think and to act differently--i.e.,
rationally and morally-- but only that period when disapproval of the default
way of human thinking and acting --irrationally and brutally-- begins to make
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