Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Five stages?

"One begets the idea, another is godfather at its baptism, the third begets children by it, the fourth visits it on its deathbed, and the fifth buries it."

So writes G.C. Lichtentberg in notebook H, aphorism 24, printed in the collection titled The Waste Books. As Roger Kimball says in a good appreciation of the man, he is not a household name, but something rarer: a writer loved by those who are household names. The latter would include Goethe, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Karl Kraus, Wittgenstein, Oakeshott. Often it's difficult to hear Lichtenberg well, for a reason given by Kraus: "Lichtenberg digs deeper than anyone ... He speaks from the subterranean depths.  Only he who himself digs deep hears him."

The fivefold scheme given by Lichtenberg seems implicit in the "ideal eternal history" proposed by Vico in 1725, in the first version of the Scienza Nuova. This ideal history is traversed in time by every nation in its "rise, development, maturity, decline, and fall." At times, Vico is no less aphoristic than Lichtenberg.  He too is not a household name, and probably never will be. 

As I was thinking about this fivefold scheme, a section of Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols came to mind: "How the 'Real World' at last Became a Fable." Nietzsche gives us five stages that seem related to those of Lichtenberg and Vico.

1. The real world is attainable to the wise. "Plato" - the philosopher who is also a creator par excellence, begetting the idea. 

2. The real world is unattainable for the moment, but is promised to the wise. "It becomes Christian" -- Plato baptized, made more enticing, more appealing, but perhaps also more incomprehensible.

3. The real world is unattainable, but it's consoling to think about, and we have a duty toward it. "K√∂nigsbergian."  A Copernican revolution in thought, with plenty of heirs.  

4. The real world is unattainable and unknown, so that it gives us nothing, either by way of consolation or obligation. "Cockcrow of positivism." The real world is dying, but it's not quite dead. The voice that speaks the world sub specie quantitatis, without quite abolishing the real world.

5. The "real world" -- useless, superfluous, worthy of abolition. "Free spirits run riot." To bury something that has been dying for quite a while -- this can be an occasion for cheerfulness, as it so clearly is in some moods. The real world having been abolished, so too is the apparent world.

Where next?  Are we at the end of history? Or is there a sixth age? Nietzsche thought there is, or at least he did when he was still communicating with us. He presumes to mark it by the fateful words "Incipit Zarathustra."  Would such an age be something new? Or would it be a return to the first?  The safest answer is probably "yes."  Zarathustra is not entirely new, so far as he is an archetype of the wise old man, as Jung points out. What from one perspective is a radical break, is from another perspective a return to something old.

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