art, Philosophy, Science

Santayana’s Folly

untitled-1969

We must not fall into the trap of seeing the world as a teleology, or worse, as a function of an unmoved mover. We must, as Santayana implores, look to the past in order to not repeat it, but we often misunderstand this dictum. Events as they are do not seek to move forward with a preordained or mechanical certainty for want of human agency. Events, history, movements, revolutions, are all aspects of human agency. The world will behave according to the laws of nature unless acted upon by human beings, and even then we must remember that humans are animals and a part of nature. So perhaps we must reword our original preposition: Events as they are will move, and any perceived direction is a projection of human need, fear and desire. Humans are self-obsessed animals, self-aware of their own awareness, captivated and intimidated, overwhelmed, by their potential for agency in the natural world. We are apes and subject to the sort of whims and whimsy, and instincts, of that class of organisms. We are pattern seekers and have indeed created a world for ourselves that exists, within our own minds at least, independent of the realities of nature and physics. Philosophy is a wish the human mind makes, a striving for order in a system that is inherently chaos. We are instinctually inclined to see chaos as a negative state of affairs, but it is neither “good” nor “bad”; chaos is, and that is all there is to it.

There is no good or evil, there is only cause and effect. We do and then that which is done upon acts in response. We are conditioned, as social animals, to see the good in the group we belong to. The violence done by, or in the name of, those who we associate with is not seen as violence, but as a reaction against a constant war that rages around us and against us. The world is a “dangerous” place for “our sort” and this is and has always been true. Humans will do anything, convince themselves of anything, in order to feel safe in the group, safe in the community, safe in the society. We all live in a spotlight that we believe is projected only onto ourselves. This is not narcissism, this is a sort of human naturalism, a built in mechanism that had its place in our development. It undermines us now only because we chose to attempt to transcend the purely animal and to achieve something that would allow us to “not repeat history”. We cannot help but “repeat” history because we will always conform to our natures. It is as much in our nature to create as to destroy, to rage as well as to love, to learn as well as to stick our heads in the sand.

But, we can make a change in the application of our personal, and collective, agency in order to better our own circumstances and those of our fellows. One can live well and live healthily, safely, and comfortably without violating the laws of nature. Nature allows for human comfort and happiness, but it will never allow human utopia. The problem the philosophical systems we have created (and continue to create) and let run rampant is that all are based on the premise that the human is perfectible. What we fail to realize is that the human animals already is perfect, at least insofar as perfection has a place in nature. We are what we became, and we became what we are because of natural forces. Natural Selection is not wish fulfilment, and it does not act so much as it exists. Species change over time, we are all transitional forms, changing not out of some “striving” to “become”. Firstly, nature does not strive, nature acts and reacts according to the laws of nature, and nature does not become because there is nothing to become save for what is at the moment, and that moment changes constantly. Nothing is now how it was a moment ago.

History cannot repeat itself as there is nothing to repeat: nature exists as a perpetual “is” and this is a result of laws we have discovered and continue to discover. Heraclitus was right all along, in a simple all too human way. One cannot step in the same river twice because the river is never the river, it is only the sum of the constantly moving atoms that comprise what we see as a flow of water, that we wade into for refreshment and pleasure, which we call a river, and which we bestow with the attributes and the attitudes of what we have decided comprises a “river”. We see parts where there is only a whole, and this is fine, for an animal, natural. The ape will reach for the brightest fruits, and he will choose from those only the sweetest. This will serve the tree as much as it will serve the animal, for it will spread its seeds as far as the animal will sojourn and make the kingdom of the trees that much more diverse and vital. Change is the only constant, a constant being only that which human beings have decided will (or must?) transpire based on what they have observed.

Science is that human propensity for observation refined into systems and measures that allow us to glimpse the fine print, and past drafts, of natural law. Our most noble attribute is the need to explore and to learn from that exploration. After this primary value is the penultimate, Art. Art is the human propensity for taking in what we observe in the world, filtering it through the unique contents of our individual minds, and expressing it through creative activity and behavior. Art is the ultimate human commentary on nature; where science quotes, or attempts to paraphrase, art rhapsodizes,criticizes and excoriates. Art allows us to create something that is our own and to try our hands at being in control of nature, God over the universe (and God is only our self-obsessed conception of ourselves projected onto the chaos of nature) or at least a little creative universe of our own. Art allows us to express emotion, as much blessing as curse for our ape minds, without inflicting our emotions on our fellow creatures. Art can rage as much as it can sing. Without science art would have no mythology to draw upon, without art science would have no music to inspire us. We reached for the Moon, and traveled thereto, not just because we observed it as an aspect of nature, but because its light has inspired a thousand tall tales, and gave mood and color to countless works of art. Apollo 11 was propelled as much by poetry as much as by rocket-fuel

 

Art thou pale for weariness

    Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,

Wandering companionless

     Among the stars that have a different birth,

And ever changing, like a Joyless eye

    That finds no object worth its constancy?

All this, then, is Santayana’s folly: it is not possible to learn from the past because the past is only a flawed human perception of the present. The philosopher was far more on point, if not in such a broad way as his assessment of the past, with this comment on human agency


An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world.

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