Tuesday, May 10, 2016

H.J. Muller's 'The Uses of the Past'

I'm reading the most exciting and challenging book I have read for some years, HJ Muller's 'The Uses of the Past' (1952). Muller is a dispassionate historian commenting on the state of 'civilization' at his time, colored of course by his experience of WWII, but still remarkably separated from that catastrophe. His encapsulations of Greece, Rome and the Enlightenment are rich and erudite -- every few pages take me a few days to digest. Highly recommended (for those who can extract themselves from the navel-gazing present)! One passage:

"Science remains the author of our major problem, in its gift of tremendous power that has been terribly abused; but for the wise use of this power we need more, not less, of the objective dispassionate scientific spirit. For our philosophical purposes we need more of its integrity and its basic humility, its respect at once for the fact and the mystery."

Another informative passage:

"In short the Greeks were cribbed and cabined by their ideal of excellence...they lived in a tidy Euclidean world, finite, static, complete. They had no feeling for horizons, prospects or backgrounds, [having] such a horror of infinity that the idea was taboo...their colonies clung to the Mediterranean...Their ideal of excellence was a design for living in this small world, and included elements unsuited to our life as the Greek cornices on our early skyscrapers...In particular the city-state was a very small affair, whose administrative problems were negligible...We have not only created great nations but sought to enable the whole population to participate in the whole life of the nation. Now we have set up the idea of a United Nations...We are dealing with problems the Greeks hardly thought of."

And part of a review of one of his later books:

"[Muller argues that] the literary resentment of science is based on the belief that science conceives a universe of brute fact in which the sole principle of explanation is mechanism, in which the conception of human free will is impossible, in which mind is but the passive recorder of events and—perhaps most important of all—in which “values” have no validity. The literary philosophers conceive the alternative to scientific naturalism to be some form of religion, although in practice this is usually no more than a religiosity which takes its chief impulse from the ingrained, unconscious pragmatism of the “believer”—he needs a faith and will have it, for it does him good. At first glance, this literary hostility to science seems the continuation of a crisis in culture which began early in the nineteenth century. In actual fact, however, it is merely the vestige of that historical situation, ritualistically continued and maintaining the appearance of life by feeding on ignorance: Mr. Muller is polite but blunt in saying that literary men of philosophic bent know little about science. What they so courageously defy is the science of Tennyson’s “The Two Voices,” not science now in use."

That review excerpt is from this source.

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