The Largest Conflict in Us
By Eli Siegel
Note. Using The Cambridge History of American Literature, Mr.Siegel continues to look at sentences by Morris Cohen about philosophy:
The idea of universal evolution or development, though as old as Greek philosophy..., received a most impressive popular impetus from the work of Darwin and Spencer, and stirred the popular imagination as few intellectual achievements had done since the rise of the Copernican astronomy.
A phase of the seeing/comfort conflict is the orderly/disorderly situation in us. Very often we don’t want to think because a tidy situation will likely be disrupted if we think about it anymore. We also know that through our desire for comfort we can be disorderly.
We go for disorder and order for a good reason and a bad. We go for order because order is a phase of completeness and freedom. And we go for order too much because we can’t bear the idea that perfection is not visible.
“The idea of universal evolution or development...” Everyone likes to think that he or she is developed or developing, but for what? What is development; and what is the happy termination of those goings on? Development is a big notion in philosophy. That is: is the universe perfect? From one point of view, how can a universe be anything else than perfect? It is itself; there’s nothing else but universe. So universe has come to be the same as perfection. The universe, however, is exceedingly nervous, apparently. All sorts of things happen in it, and we can see dissatisfaction. If we study the nebular theory, we can get the idea of a contented universe; but also, when we study some of the goings on in farther space we get the notion that the universe has domestic trouble. All sorts of disruptive things are present. Still, how can a universe as such be other than perfect? And we have this question: how can we as such be other than perfect? How can we have any fault—aren’t we ourselves?
This problem of perfection was with the Greeks. The Greek cosmologists were exceedingly taken with it. Parmenides said every imperfection that you see in the universe is your own illusion. You, being imperfect, think that if a river gets mud in it there’s something wrong with it. Or if a tree falls and hits a cow, you think it’s a fault of the ruling class in the skies, but it’s only your own illusion. We have nothing but being; there’s been no tree falling.
Heraclitus, however, would accent the fact that the universe is a series of not-first-rate happenings, such things as a stone falling in the mud and staying there, oxen getting tired and biting a general, all kinds of things that don’t seem to honor the absolute. However, Heraclitus and Parmenides would be agreed on this: that the universe was developing. Developing for what, is hard to say.
There have been some philosophers who say that the universe doesn’t develop at all, that there is nothing towards which it is going. Chauncey Wright, whom Cohen referred to, is one of those persons. Wright felt the idea of seeing any purpose in the universe was simply vulgar: there was no such thing, evolution or not. As he saw it, evolution is simply mechanism with a sense of first, middle, and last, that’s all. There is no purpose in it, just what happens before, what happens during, and what happens after.
Still, the idea of development is around, because we do see a bud that later changes into a flower. A bud blossoms, and no matter how nonchalant we are, we can’t get away from the idea that there’s a little developing going on there. We also see a chick change into a rooster or hen: there’s a little developing going on. We see a seed growing into a poplar tree: developing is present. And every person has these two feelings: we would like to develop—every person wants to be better than he was yesterday; but every person also can dislike the idea that the way he was yesterday was not good enough. So how can you go for developing without giving up the idea that you were perfect yesterday? This is within the seeing-and-comfort idea that I am illustrating.
“...though as old as Greek philosophy...” It has been pointed out that the Greeks didn’t have the idea of progress. They didn’t have any idea of universal brotherhood, that wars would cease, everybody would be just, and the world would be cleansed. The Greeks didn’t think in those terms. The Egyptians didn’t either. People of ancient times felt being in ancient times was sufficient, and they couldn’t point, say, to the year 50,000, when everybody would have three cars and all the great books. The notion of progress is fairly new. Progress is development when it’s going good. But some notion of development was present, because no person could watch a tadpole and see that tadpole later as a frog without being taken with the idea. And there were tadpoles, apparently, in Greece.
Humility & Pride
Then: “The idea of universal evolution...received a most impressive popular impetus from the work of Darwin and Spencer.” That the human being should at one time have been other than a human being, is something important in development, however it occurred.
“...and stirred the popular imagination as few intellectual achievements had done since the rise of the Copernican astronomy.” A phase of the history of man’s humility is in the Copernican astronomy. There was a desire to feel that all the other planets somehow were running around Earth, doing it homage; and to have Earth itself doing the running around seemed to be a personal insult for a while. So Copernicus did insult people. And Galileo later confirmed the insult. Instead of having the planets and the sun circling about Earth, showing how important Earth was—to have the Earth, on which we are, be one among the attendants of our lord Sun, that was seen as depressing. However, people got a little used to it, and by the 17th century they were already saying that this makes man important. Here we are, the most important thing on Earth, but the Earth is not the most important planet: that shows we are better than ever—because anytime you want to praise yourself, you’ll find some means for doing so.
Everything, it seems, has the possibility of making us feel good or bad. Also, everything can be seen, known. What’s the relation?
Teleology, or Purpose, Is Talked Of
The discovery of man’s essential kinship with brute creation led to the renewal of an idealistic philosophy which made human development and perfection the end of the cosmic process travailing through the aeons. Thus, instead of doing away with all teleology, the evolutionary philosophy itself became a teleology, replacing bleak Calvinism with the warm, rosy outlook of a perpetual and universal upward progress.
Teleology, the idea of purpose in the world, can be used to fool oneself and used to strengthen oneself. Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life,” one of the most popular poems in America, which says that one’s life matters, is an attempt to have purpose or teleology used to strengthen oneself. However, there’s also a feeling that it is disgraceful to exist because we’re part of a purpose of something else. If we exist in order to raise cultural life in New Orleans, it’s an insult to us. If we exist for something else, obviously we’re not so important, no matter how good the something else is. (Ayn Rand made a great deal of that.) Therefore, teleology (in this instance, the denial of teleology) can be used for the affirmation of oneself in secrecy.
A purpose that we have very quickly is pleasing ourselves. Pleasing ourselves becomes a purpose taking on some of the nobility and grandeur that, say, building the Aswan Dam in Egypt takes on. People feel: Because I don’t see any purpose that makes any sense anywhere else, my purpose of pleasing myself is that much justified.
There is a fight in a person between teleologies, which usually is not settled, because while people have a desire to please themselves, they do find themselves willy-nilly interested in the starving West Virginian. This is a disgrace to oneself: a good auto-teleologist would not do any such thing; but we have our weaknesses. If there is a famine in India, we find ourselves sympathetic, which shows how frail the self is. A teleology of pleasing oneself has always been buffeted about by a teleology of being interested in other things. We can use comfort and seeing as to both teleologies. For instance, we can do a good deed in order to be praised: “There is the person who, single-handed, went among the flood-stricken!” And when he comes back to Boston he gets a dinner honoring him. Wanting that is not the same as being interested in other people. It goes for comfort: you’re interested in the medal, not the amelioration.
“The discovery of man’s essential kinship with brute creation...” Here we come to another problem that is in this essay: what is the meaning of relation? Man can deny relation in order to be comfortable and he can make a relation in order to be comfortable, and in both instances the idea of seeing can be dishonored. That is, we can take up the animal world not to see, and we can take up the animal world to see.
Hamlet says, “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” He was interested in what kin meant in relation to kind. How are we like other things? A comfort has been found in being like other things. A great discomfort has been found too. Man, in thinking that he may die, likes the idea that he’ll have a gurgling brook near him, and the best flowers, and perhaps a celebrity or two in the next vault. Well, that’s profanity—but while we can use the idea of relation and kinship for seeing, we can also use it for comfort. In fact, all knowledge can be used for bad comfort. That is the stupefying statement that has to be made. We can even be bleak in order to get to a comfort we don’t know. I am presenting the problem as related to the matters of American philosophy.
Then: “...led to the renewal of an idealistic philosophy...” With “idealistic” we find the word ideal. To have an ideal is already to be a softy, because people who have got away from their mothers don’t have ideals. To meddle with one is already to show that you don’t want to see the world straight. Yet if you have an ideal and you don’t live up to it, you’re also soft. So there’s a confusion.
Idealism has two meanings. One is to have something that you go for, whether it is being the Friend of All Things That Swim or something else. Then, there is the idealism that is of philosophy: the idea that the immaterial, or sometimes force, or spirit, is the basic structure of the world. In terms of philosophy, it was thought that the reason people got to the idea of all the world being Mind was to get away from germs or such beings as rats. You call the world Mind, you give it a prime mover, and your troubles are over, whereas to see the world as matter is tougher. It was thought that an idealist is one who wants his troubles to be over quickly; therefore he is looking for comfort. Meanwhile, we make people nicer than they are for our comfort—and also worse than they are.
We have an idea of comfort both when we think better of someone than he or she is and when we think worse of someone. And it’s been so in the history of philosophy: persons have called the world ugly, ruthless, brutal, in order to assert themselves; persons have also made the world too spiritual in order to be comfortable. As one studies American philosophy one sees the presence of that. It is present, to be sure, in French philosophy too. There’s Renouvier, who is an idealist, and there’s Boutroux, also an idealist, and along with them we have some of the toughest people.
Philosophy is a constant wavering between the facts and comfort. As we study the history of philosophy, we come to see how large this matter is: our desire to see and our desire to be comfortable.
This, Too, for Comfort or Seeing
Calvinism is mentioned in the passage, and Calvinism has a great relation to chance. It says your fate was already decided before you were born: you’ll either be saved or you won’t. This feeling of determinism was a big thing in Calvinism, though as the years went on it was tempered and abated. So the notion of chance comes into this discussion, and the notion of determinism. Are things already in the cards, already settled? It is quite clear that we can use that idea for our comfort: if things are already settled we don’t have to think. We can also use it to ask how it is settled, which would mean thought.
I’m presenting, then, philosophic problems in terms of two instincts: seeing and comfort. The deepest conflict in the world is between the desire to see a thing wholly as it is and the desire to get something from it, or be comfortable. This conflict, while the history of every person, is the history of all philosophy, including the philosophy of America since 1861.