Kyborg 15: GCB 4
If you have a minute, I would love to hear a word or two from you about this series of posts on Kyborgs. Is it too esoteric? Is it interesting?
As the saying goes: any feedback is good feedback.
Before the Chain
There’s a view in the conservative end of the liberal sphere that the world has been getting better and better and deservedly so (which makes the writer a liberal) and the reason for progress is the enlightened ideas of (mostly) dead white people (which makes the writer a conservative). Exhibit A in that category is Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature.”
The case for progress is usually made in the context of modern Western dominance, of a world made safe by science and reason — you will hear the term ‘European Enlightenment’ a lot if you read these guys. Since they’re liberal, the progress propagandist will argue how early modern Europeans broke with the past and rejected superstition for science.
In that scheme, the Great Chain of Being is one of the villains, the inherited superstition that had to be overthrown.
But looking back, it seems to me that the GCB itself can be construed as progress over what came before. It was Plato who marked the shift away from the warrior ethic to one in which the life of reason was the most prestigious. Lovejoy doesn’t have much to say about the transformations that led to the GCB, but strangely, it’s the chronicler of the modern self, Charles Taylor, who gives us an indication.
Note how he says: “the higher life is that ruled by reason and reason itself is defined in terms of a vision of order, in the cosmos and in the soul.”
“a vision of order, in the cosmos and in the soul” is nothing but the Great Chain of Being.
That’s how Taylor indicates that Plato was as radical as Descartes in his rejection of the warrior past before him, of replacing the world of Homer with the world of Socrates. Why is this Platonic view superstition? Wouldn’t the conservative liberal agree that replacing the warrior ethic with the life ruled by reason is a strong indicator of progress?
The Great Chain of Being is a world made intelligible to reason
It’s not a society of unreason being replaced by a more enlightened society: the Platonic Republic is as much a society ruled by reason as Victorian England. In fact, the transition from the primacy of honor to the primacy of reason happens much earlier. Instead what occurred a few hundred years ago is a transformation in our understanding of reason and its origins.
In the GCB, reason is out there - it emanates from the divine intellect and envelopes the world. Aristotle famously said that ‘man is a rational animal’ and the only animal to be so - which is why we are close to the top of the Great Chain. But we don’t carry the burden of reason because it emanates from God. But after the fall, the world is no longer embodied reason; it’s purely mechanical motion.
So where do we look for reason: inside ourselves.
But when we look inside ourselves, do we find reason? Kant thought so, but after Freud and a couple of world wars, Europeans could no longer believe that reason dominates their lives. The brute exiled by Plato was back in town with nuclear weapons in his holster.