The 12+12 Books of Christmas #5

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Imagine you once knew your place in the universe. From God to the lowest thing in existence, you knew you were somewhere in the middle of it all. How comforting it must have been to accept your fate, whatever it was, and know that your position in life would always remain the same. If we are to believe Arthur O. Lovejoy’s study The Great Chain of Being, something like this was true for a couple of thousand years. Then, it was all ruined with the onset of modernity.

Lovejoy’s book is important for the history of ideas. It is old-fashioned in some ways, but it’s still a good read. Where he talks about ideas and sketching out their path through time, we could talk about doing the same to arguments left behind in writing in order to circumvent the tricky notion of ideas. It would not diminish Lovejoy’s pioneering work one bit.

My fascination with the history of ideas began with a set of philosophy lectures by Daniel N. Robinson called the Great Ideas of Philosophy. I forget where I got the set of fifty lectures from, but I listened through them a few times one summer when I was working in a metal shop. The work was fairly monotonous and involved powerful tools and sharp instruments, so it was very important to stay awake. Listening to the lectures helped, and I also got an excellent lesson in the history of philosophy that summer. I read Lovejoy’s book much later and by that time his methods were already deeply ingrained in my own thinking.

In any case, should we feel bad that we have lost our place in the universe and now think of ourselves as thrown into being? Should we feel depressed by the fact that we are now just a bunch of monkeys floating on a rock in space without any possibility of transcendence? That we are merely recycled biomass in a circle of life that is as unholy as Elton John’s banal interpretation of that very theme? I don’t think so. It looks like our disenchantment was the result of the species waking up to possibilities that were never dreamed of before. If we woke up from one paralyzing dream, there’s a good chance we will wake up from another one some time in the near future.

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