The drama of consciousness

Jackson Mathews’s introduction to his translation of Paul Valéry’s Monsieur Teste:

Valéry saw everything from the point of view of the intellect. The mind has been said to be his only subject. His preoccupation was the pursuit of consciousness, and no one knew better than he that his pursuit led through man into the world. Valéry’s deep concern was always with some possibility, some potential of the mind. He looked at seashells, read mathematical physics, went to the theater, or waked early in the morning, all for the same purpose—to receive the light from these diverse angles, times, and objects upon his obsessive center: the conscious mind.

Consciousness is in itself dramatic, embodied as it is in its opposite, the human flesh. It is that quality which cannot be isolated or known. […] Like the wind, it may be “seen” only in other things. […]

It is this “point of view” of the intelligence that tells us the nature of Valéry’s work. It has been said that his Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci was rather an introduction to his own method, for what he did was to imagine the structure and operation of a mind so complete, so universal, that all the sciences and all the arts were its tools. If such a man ever actually existed, said Valéry, it was certainly Leonardo.

[…] The mind as it knows and suffers in man, as it lives in science, myth, or the arts; consciousness as it ranges from the lower limits of sleep upward through stages of waking and knowing, to the extreme limits of thought; the mind as it rises from the rich muck of the unconscious to the complex structures of the artistic or mathematical imagination; the human and historical condition of consciousness, the drama of consciousness: this may be the central subject of Valéry’s work. He called it the Intellectual Comedy.

Monsieur Teste is Valéry’s novel. Test himself may be seen as an ordinary fictional character, the lonely man of modern city life, a problem in everyday human relations. On the other hand, he is a mind behaving as a man, or to put it the other way, “a man regulated by his own powers of thought.” Monsieur Teste is the story of consciousness and its effort to push being off the stage.

But is it possible for a man to be all mind? Is Monsieur Teste possible? If not why is he impossible? That question, Valéry says, is the soul of Monsieur Taste: he is impossible because consciousness cannot entirely consume being and continue to exist. Consciousness depends on being. Sensibility is its home, knowledge is its profession. That is why Valéry had to invent Madame Test, all soul and sensibility; and Teste’s friend, his knowledge of the world.

The pieces that make up the present volume of Monsieur Teste are the occasional results of a lifetime of meditation on this question: how would a complete mind behave as an everyday man?

[…]

Valéry’s first conception of Monsieur Test was a kind of abstract man without a name—merely “the portrait of a certain Monsieur.” It may be that Valéry himself had not yet fully realized the importance of his creation and was hardly prepared to take Monsieur Test seriously. But that impression was erased when Valéry posed his basic question: Que peut un homme?”What is a man’s potential?” Here Valéry sounds his fundamental note.

On “the light from these diverse angles,” I think of the “innumerable reflections” in Ortega y Gasset’s preface to Meditations on Quixote. And on “sensibility is its home,” I am reminded of May Swenson’s “Question,” and the second stanza of Anne Sexton’s “The Poet of Ignorance“:

Perhaps I am no one.
True, I have a body
and I cannot escape from it.
I would like to fly out of my head,
but that is out of the question.
It is written on the tablet of destiny
that I am stuck here in this human form.
That being the case
I would like to call attention to my problem.

See also Rebecca Golstein’s novel The Mind-Body Problem.

The fallacy of what was fallacious

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”:

[…] the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

[…]

When we consider either the history of opinion, or the ordinary conduct of human life, to what is it to be ascribed that the one and the other are no worse than they are? Not certainly to the inherent force of the human understanding; for, on any matter not self-evident, there are ninety-nine persons totally incapable of judging of it, for one who is capable; and the capacity of the hundredth person is only comparative; for the majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify. Why is it, then, that there is on the whole a preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct? If there really is this preponderance—which there must be, unless human affairs are, and have always been, in an almost desperate state—it is owing to a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man, either as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter—he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.

As a model of discourse, compare William James on the “pretension” of possessing truth wholly; the portrayal of wisdom in Proverbs 8, here in the King James version:

1 Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice?

She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths.

She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors.

Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man.

O ye simple, understand wisdom: and, ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart.

Hear; for I will speak of excellent things; and the opening of my lips shall be right things.

For my mouth shall speak truth; and wickedness is an abomination to my lips.

All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing froward or perverse in them.

They are all plain to him that understandeth, and right to them that find knowledge.

10 Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold.

11 For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.

12 I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions.

Mencken on “The Truth-Seeker,” in A Mencken Chrestomathy:

The man who boasts that he habitually tells the truth is simply a man who has no respect for it. It is not a thing to be thrown about loosely, like small change; it is something to be cherished and hoarded and disbursed only when absolutely necessary. The smallest atom of truth represents some man’s bitter toil and agony; for every ponderable chunk of it there is a brave truth-seeker’s grave upon some lonely ash-dump and a soul roasting in Hell.

Wittgenstein on suffering on behalf of truth; and Bertrand Russell’s famous remark in “The Triumph of Stupidity“:

The fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

Others are annoyed by it

The final lines of Book 2 of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated into Latin at the direction of Aquinas by the 13th-century scholar Guilelmus of Moerbeke, preserved in this 15th-century German manuscript, Codex 763 at the University of Pennsylvania.

The third and final chapter of the anomalous Book 2 (Little Alpha, Alpha Minor, or Alpha Ellaton) of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, 995a, translated by Hugh Tredennick:

The effect of a lecture depends upon the habits of the listener; because we expect the language to which we are accustomed, and anything beyond this seems not to be on the same level, but somewhat strange and unintelligible on account of its unfamiliarity; for it is the familiar that is intelligible. The powerful effect of familiarity is clearly shown by the laws, in which the fanciful and puerile survivals prevail [i.e., “in which fanciful and childish elements prevail”—ML], through force of habit, against our recognition of them. Thus some people will not accept the statements of a speaker unless he gives a mathematical proof; others will not unless he makes use of illustrations; others expect to have a poet adduced as witness. Again, some require exactness in everything, while others are annoyed by it, either because they cannot follow the reasoning or because of its pettiness; for there is something about exactness which seems to some people to be mean, no less in an argument than in a business transaction.

Hence one must have been already trained how to take each kind of argument, because it is absurd to seek simultaneously for knowledge and for the method of obtaining it; and neither is easy to acquire. Mathematical accuracy is not to be demanded in everything, but only in things which do not contain matter. Hence this method is not that of natural science, because presumably all nature is concerned with matter. Hence we should first inquire what nature is; for in this way it will become clear what the objects of natural science are [and whether it belongs to one science or more than one to study the causes and principles of things].

Compare the translation by W. D. Ross:

The effect which lectures produce on a hearer depends on his habits; for we demand the language we are accustomed to, and that which is different from this seems not in keeping but somewhat unintelligible and foreign because of its unwontedness. For the customary is more intelligible. The force of habit is shown by the laws, in whose case, with regard to the legendary and childish elements in them, habit has more influence than our knowledge about them. Some people do not listen to a speaker unless he speaks mathematically, others unless he gives instances, while others expect him to cite a poet as witness. And some want to have everything done accurately, while others are annoyed by accuracy, either because they cannot follow the connexion of thought or because they regard it as pettifoggery. For accuracy has something of this character, so that as in trade so in argument some people think it mean. Therefore one must be already trained to know how to take each sort of argument, since it is absurd to seek at the same time knowledge and the way of attaining knowledge; and neither is easy to get.

The minute accuracy of mathematics is not to be demanded in all cases, but only in the case of things which have no matter. Therefore its method is not that of natural science; for presumably all nature has matter. Hence we must inquire first what nature is: for thus we shall also see what natural sciences treats of [and whether it belongs to one science or to more to investigate the causes and the principles of things].

The Greek for “exactness” here is ἀκριβολογία, akribologia, a combination of λόγος and the adjective κριβής (exact, precise, scrupulous, methodical).

In extant ancient Greek literature the word often carries a negative valence: excessive precision, pedantry. It appears perhaps most famously in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic at 340e, where Thrasymachus accuses Socrates of too much akribologia: “ὥστε κατὰ τὸν ἀκριβῆ λόγον, ἐπειδὴ καὶ σὺ ἀκριβολογῇ, …” consequently, according to precise speech, since you too demand precision... (In Paul Shorey’s translation, “so that, speaking precisely, since you are such a stickler for precision.” Shorey’s footnote: “For the invidious associations of ἀκριβολογία (1) in money dealings, (2) in argument, cf. Aristotle Met. 995 a 11, Cratylus 415 A, Lysias vii. 12, Antiphon B 3, Demosthenes. xxiii. 148, Timon in Diogenes Laertius ii. 19.”)

Erasmus makes reference to this line of Thrasymachus in the first, slimmer edition of his adages, Collectanea Adagiorum, published in Paris in 1500. In the translation by John Grant, based on the slightly revised and updated 1506 edition, the discussion appears at 335:

335. Ad vivum. Summo iure / To the quick. By the letter of the law

The meaning is “right to the skin.” We use the expression to refer to actions that are conducted with utmost precision, as when we pursue something with excessive keenness. In Plato Thrasymachus calls Socrates a false accuser, meaning a pettifogger, because he applies a very narrow interpretation to what has been said, distorting the sense of the words whose meaning is clear rather than showing how somewhat carelessly expressed words can be given a better sense. He adds, “Therefore, according to your precise mode of interpretation (since you cut right to the quick), no craftsman can make a mistake.” Similar to this is what Cicero says when defending Caecina: “All the others turn to that way of speaking when they think they have a fair and good defense to make in a case. If, however, there is a wrangling about words and phrases, and, as the saying goes, the letter of the law is applied, they are in the habit of using such fine words as “fair” and “good” to counter such wickedness.” To fight Summo iure “By the letter of the law” means to cut back the laws to the quick and to apply a very narrow interpretation. From this we get “Extreme right is extreme wrong.”

Sachiko Kusukawa traces this lineage in her essayAd Vivum Images and Knowledge of Nature in Early Modern Europe.” As she points out, Cicero uses the phrase ad vivum in his dialogue De Amicitia, On Friendship, translated here by W. A. Falconer:

This, however, I do feel first of all—that friendship cannot exist except among good men; nor do I go into that too deeply [neque in ad vivum reseco], as is done by those who, in discussing this point with more than usual accuracy [subtilius], and it may be correctly, but with too little view to practical results, say that no one is good unless he is wise. We may grant that; but they understand wisdom to be a thing such as no mortal man has yet attained. I, however, am bound to look at things as they are in the experience of everyday life and not as they are in fancy or in hope.

Erasmus makes reference to Cicero’s usage of ad vivum resecare in the longer edition of his adages, at II.4.13:

M. Tullius lib. De amicitia Ad vivum resecare dixit pro eo, quod est rem exactius, quam sat est, ac morosius excutere: Sed hoc, inquit, primum sentio, nisi in bonis amicitiam esse non posse. Neque id ad vivum reseco, ut illi, qui haec subtilius disserunt. Mutuo sumpta metaphora a tonsoribus capillos aut ungues resecantibus, nam ii saepenumero molesti sunt, dum nimium diligentes esse student. Idem in libris De finibus dixit pressius agere pro exactius et accuratius. Plautus in Bacchidibus sub persona Chrysali: Tondebo auro usque ad vivam cutem. Et hoc ipsum tondere pro deludere Graecis in proverbio est.

Kusukawa gives the translation of “mutuo sumpta…”: “the image is borrowed from hairdressers as they cut short one’s hair or finger-nails; for they are often tiresome with their efforts to be needlessly precise.” As she notes, Plato’s use of akribologei

had been translated by the Florentine scholar Marisilio Ficino (1433–1499) into “ad vivum resecas (you speak needlessly precisely).” This is probably the reason why Erasmus connected the two classical passages of Cicero and Plato, but ad vivum was by no means a fixed Latin counterpart to akribologia, a word that was also found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. [She quotes what I quote above.] In the medieval translation by William of Moerbeke (ca. 1220–1235–ca. 1286), the Greek phrase akribologia had been left untranslated, but the Byzantine humanist John Argyropoulos (1415–1487) rendered this mathematical akribologia as “exacta discussio mathematicorum (mathematicians’ exacting examination).” Another point made in the passage above [that is, Aristotle] is that overattention to detail in discussion or transaction was deemed “mean” (illiberales in Argyropoulos’s translation). The mean-spiritedness of excessive precision was carried over to the phrase “exigere ad vivum,” which Erasmus identified as a characteristic harshness (rigor). Ad vivum thus meant something like “to the bare bones” in English, with the negative sense of verbatim, an overattention to the strict sense of a word or to the letter of the law which reflected some meanness in spirit. Erasmus, whose ambition was to educate his audience to speak and write with the rhetorical flair of the classical authors, had little positive to say about this sense of ad vivum.

The figure of the akribologos, the nit-picker or hair-splitter, is also explored in Richard Bett, “Humor as Philosophical Subversion,” while Alessandro Vatri considers akribologia as a feature of prose style in Orality and Performance in Classical Attic Prose: A Linguistic Approach, and Richard Pasnau reflects on it as a feature of reasoning in After Certainty: A History of Our Epistemic Ideals and Illusions. See also Aristophanes’s portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds, and Lowell Edmunds, “What Was Socrates Called?

On the anomalous quality of Book 2 of the Metaphysics, see Werner Jaeger, Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development, p. 169:

Aristotle’s literary executors were philosophers. They would have given much to be able to construct, out of the precious papers that they found, as true a picture as possible of the whole intellectual system of ‘first philosophy’ as Aristotle had intended it to be; but their desire was thwarted by the incomplete and disparate character of the material. For one thing is certain; the editors themselves did not believe that with the order which they established they were giving posterity the complete course of lectures on metaphysics. They realized that they were offering an unsatisfactory makeshift, which was all that the condition of their materials allowed. The postscript to the introductory book, the so-called little α, comes after big Α simply because they did not know where else to put it. It is a remnant of notes taken at a lecture by Pasicles, a nephew of Aristotle’s disciple Eudemus of Rhodes. [With footnote: “Asclepius, in his commentary on the Metaphysics (p. 4 l. 20, in Hayduck), refers this information, which reached him as a tradition handed down m the Peripatetic school, to Α; but this is a confusion. His account must come from notes taken at a lecture by Ammonius, and obviously he misheard. The true account is given by the scholiast on little α in the codex Parisinus (cf. Ent. Met. Arist., p. 114).”]

Escaping abstraction

Jacques Barzun, “History as Counter-Method and Anti-Abstraction,” quoted in Arthur Krystal’s 2007 profile in The New Yorker:

History, like a vast river, propels logs, vegetation, rafts, and debris; it is full of live and dead things, some destined for resurrection; it mingles many waters and holds in solution invisible substances stolen from distant soils. Anything may become part of it; that is why it can be an image of the continuity of mankind. And it is also why some of its freight turns up again in the social sciences: they were constructed out of the contents of history in the same way as houses in medieval Rome were made out of stones taken from the Coliseum. But the special sciences based on sorted facts cannot be mistaken for rivers flowing in time and full of persons and events. They are systems fashioned with concepts, numbers, and abstract relations. For history, the reward of eluding method is to escape abstraction.

The worst hundred books

Oscar Wilde’s letter to the Pall Mall Gazette on the subject of “The Best Hundred Books,” February 8, 1886, from Thomas Wright, Oscar’s Books: A Journey around the Library of Oscar Wilde (2008):

Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:—

1. Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.

2. Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.

3. Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St. Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the Essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.

The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for, the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.

Indeed, it is one that is eminently needed in this age of ours, an age that reads so much, that it has no time to admire, and writes so much, that it has no time to think. Whoever will select out of the chaos of our modern curricula ‘The Worst Hundred Books,’ and publish a list of them, will confer on the rising generation a real and lasting benefit.

After expressing these views I suppose I should not offer any suggestions at all with regard to ‘The Best Hundred Books,’ but I hope you will allow me the pleasure of being inconsistent, as I am anxious to put in a claim for a book that has been strangely omitted by most of the excellent judges who have contributed to your columns. I mean the Greek Anthology. The beautiful poems contained in this collection seem to me to hold the same position with regard to Greek dramatic literature as do the delicate little figurines of Tanagra to the Phidian marbles, and to be quite as necessary for the complete understanding of the Greek spirit.

I am also amazed to find that Edgar Allan Poe has been passed over. Surely this marvellous lord of rhythmic expression deserves a place? If, in order to make room for him, it be necessary to elbow out some one else, I should elbow out Southey, and I think that Baudelaire might be most advantageously substituted for Keble. No doubt, both in The Curse of Kehama and in The Christian Year there are poetic qualities of a certain kind, but absolute catholicity of taste is not without its dangers. It is only an auctioneer who should admire all schools of art.

A covering of flesh as well

A fifteenth-century French manuscript of the Institutio Oratoria

From the first book of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, translated by Harold Edgeworth Butler:

For almost all others who have written on the art of oratory have started with the assumption that their readers were perfect in all other branches of education and that their own task was merely to put the finishing touches to their rhetorical training; this is due to the fact that they either despised the preliminary stages of education or thought that they were not their concern, since the duties of the different branches of education are distinct one from another, or else, and this is nearer the truth, because they had no hope of making a remunerative display of their talent in dealing with subjects, which, although necessary, are far from being showy: just as in architecture it is the superstructure and not the foundations which attracts the eye. I on the other hand hold that the art of oratory includes all that is essential for the training of an orator, and that it is impossible to reach the summit in any subject unless we have first passed through all the elementary stages. I shall not therefore refuse to stoop to the consideration of those minor details, neglect of which may result in there being no opportunity for more important things, and propose to mould the studies of my orator from infancy, on the assumption that his whole education has been entrusted to my charge.

[…]

These two branches of knowledge were, as Cicero has clearly shown,1 so closely united, not merely in theory but in practice, that the same men were regarded as uniting the qualifications of orator and philosopher. Subsequently this single branch of study split up into its component parts, and thanks to the indolence of its professors was regarded as consisting of several distinct subjects. As soon as speaking became a means of livelihood and the practice of making an evil use of the blessings of eloquence came into vogue, those who had a reputation for eloquence ceased to study moral philosophy, and ethics, thus abandoned by the orators, became the prey of weaker intellects. As a consequence certain persons, disdaining the toil of learning to speak well, returned to the task of forming character and establishing rules of life and kept to themselves what is, if we must make a division, the better part of philosophy, but presumptuously laid claim to the sole possession of the title of philosopher, a distinction which neither the greatest generals nor the most famous statesmen and administrators have ever dared to claim for themselves. For they preferred the performance to the promise of great deeds. I am ready to admit that many of the old philosophers inculcated the most excellent principles and practised what they preached. But in our own day the name of philosopher has too often been the mask for the worst vices. For their attempt has not been to win the name of philosopher by virtue and the earnest search for wisdom; instead they have sought to disguise the depravity of their characters by the assumption of a stern and austere mien accompanied by the wearing of a garb differing from that of their fellow men. Now as a matter of fact we all of us frequently handle those themes which philosophy claims for its own. Who, short of being an utter villain, does not speak of justice, equity and virtue? Who (and even common country-folk are no exception) does not make some inquiry into the causes of natural phenomena? As for the special uses and distinctions of words, they should be a subject of study common to all who give any thought to the meaning of language. Let our ideal orator then be such as to have a genuine title to the name of philosopher: it is not sufficient that he should be blameless in point of character (for I cannot agree with those who hold this opinion): he must also be a thorough master of the science and the art of speaking, to an extent that perhaps no orator has yet attained.

[…]

Perfect eloquence is assuredly a reality, which is not beyond the reach of human intellect. Even if we fail to reach it, those whose aspirations are highest, will attain to greater heights than those who abandon themselves to premature despair of ever reaching the goal and halt at the very foot of the ascent.

[…]

In the course of these discussions I shall deal in its proper place with the method of teaching by which students will acquire not merely a knowledge of those things to which the name of art is restricted by certain theorists, and will not only come to understand the laws of rhetoric, but will acquire that which will increase their powers of speech and nourish their eloquence. For as a rule the result of the dry textbooks on the art of rhetoric is that by straining after excessive subtlety they impair and cripple all the nobler elements of style, exhaust the lifeblood of the imagination and leave but the bare bones, which, while it is right and necessary that they should exist and be bound each to each by their respective ligaments, require a covering of flesh as well.

Where earth is forgotten

The opening of Thomas de Quincey’s review of The Works of Alexander Pope, Esquire in the North British Review (August 1848):

Every great classic in our native language should from time to time be reviewed anew; and especially if he belongs in any considerable extent to that section of the literature which connects itself with manners; and if his reputation originally, or his style of composition, is likely to have been much influenced by the transient fashions of his own age. The withdrawal, for instance, from a dramatic poet, or a satirist, of any false luster which he has owed to his momentary connection with what we may call the personalities of a fleeting generation, or of any undue shelter to his errors which may have gathered round them from political bias, or from intellectual infirmities amongst his partisans, will sometimes seriously modify, after a century or so, the fairest original appreciation of a fine writer. A window composed of Claude Lorraine glasses spreads over the landscape outside a disturbing effect, which not the most practiced eye can evade. The eidola theatri affect us all. No man escapes the contagion from his contemporary bystanders.

As books multiply to an unmanageable excess, selection becomes more and more a necessity for readers, and the power of selection more and more a desperate problem for the busy part of readers. The possibility of selecting wisely is becoming continually more hopeless as the necessity for selection is becoming continually more pressing. Exactly as the growing weight of books overlays and stifles the power of comparison, pari passu is the call for comparison the more clamorous; and thus arises a duty correspondingly more urgent of searching and revising until everything spurious has been weeded out from amongst the Flora of our highest literature, and until the waste of time for those who have so little at their command is reduced to a minimum. For, where the good cannot be read in its twentieth part, the more requisite it is that no part of the bad should steal an hour of the available time; and it is not to be endured that people without a minute to spare should be obliged first of all to read a book before they can ascertain whether in fact it is worth reading. The public cannot read by proxy as regards the good which it is to appropriate, but it can as regards the poison which it is to escape. And thus, as literature expands, becoming continually more of a household necessity, the duty resting upon critics (who are the vicarious readers for the public) becomes continually more urgent — of reviewing all works that may be supposed to have benefited too much or too indiscriminately by the superstition of a name. The praegustatores should have tasted of every cup, and reported its quality, before the public call for it; and, above all, they should have done this in all cases of the higher literature — that is, of literature properly so called.

What is it that we mean by literature? Popularly, and amongst the thoughtless, it is held to include everything that is printed in a book. Little logic is required to disturb that definition. The most thoughtless person is easily made aware that in the idea of literature one essential element is some relation to a general and common interest of man — so that what applies only to a local, or professional, or merely personal interest, even though presenting itself in the shape of a book, will not belong to literature. So far the definition is easily narrowed; and it is as easily expanded. For not only is much that takes a station in books not literature; but inversely, much that really is literature never reaches a station in books. The weekly sermons of Christendom, that vast pulpit literature which acts so extensively upon the popular mind — to warn, to uphold, to renew, to comfort, to alarm — does not attain the sanctuary of libraries in the ten-thousandth part of its extent. The drama again — as, for instance, the finest of Shakespeare’s plays in England, and all leading Athenian plays in the noontide of the Attic stage — operated as a literature on the public mind, and were (according to the strictest letter of that term) published through the audiences that witnessed their representation some time before they were published as things to be read; and they were published in this scenical mode of publication with much more effect than they could have had as books during ages of costly copying or of costly printing.

Books, therefore, do not suggest an idea coextensive and interchangeable with the idea of literature; since much literature, scenic, forensic, or didactic (as from lecturers and public orators) , may never come into books, and much that does come into books may connect itself with no literary interest. But a far more important correction, applicable to the common vague idea of literature is to be sought not so much in a better definition of literature as in a sharper distinction of the two functions which it fulfils. In that great social organ which, collectively, we call literature, there may be distinguished two separate offices that may blend and often do so, but capable, severally, of a severe insulation, and naturally fitted for reciprocal repulsion. There is, first, the Literature of Kowledge; and, secondly, the Literature of Power. The function of the first is — to teach; the function of the second is — to move: the first is a rudder; the second, an oar or a sail. The first speaks to the mere discursive understanding; the second speaks ultimately, it may happen, to the higher understanding or reason, but always through affections of pleasure and sympathy. Remotely, it may travel towards an object seated in what Lord Bacon calls dry light; but, proximately, it does and must operate — else it ceases to be a Literature of Power — on and through that humid light which clothes itself in the mists and glittering iris of human passions, desires, and genial emotions. Men have so little reflected on the higher functions of literature as to find it a paradox if one should describe it as a mean or subordinate purpose of books to give information. But this is a paradox only in the sense which makes it honorable to be paradoxical. Whenever we talk in ordinary language of seeking information or gaining knowledge, we understand the words as connected with something of absolute novelty. But it is the grandeur of all truth which can occupy a very high place in human interests that it is never absolutely novel to the meanest of minds: it exists eternally by way of germ or latent principle in the lowest as in the highest, needing to be developed, but never to be planted. To be capable of transplantation is the immediate criterion of a truth that ranges on a lower scale. Besides which, there is a rarer thing than truth — namely, power, or deep sympathy with truth. What is the effect, for instance, upon society, of children? By the pity, by the tenderness, and by the peculiar modes of admiration, which connect themselves with the helplessness, with the innocence, and with the simplicity of children, not only are the primal affections strengthened and continually renewed, but the qualities which are dearest in the sight of heaven — the frailty, for instance, which appeals to forbearance, the innocence which symbolizes the heavenly, and the simplicity which is most alien from the worldly — are kept up in perpetual remembrance, and their ideals are continually refreshed. A purpose of the same nature is answered by the higher literature, viz. the Literature of Power. What do you learn from Paradise Lost? Nothing at all. What do you learn from a cookery-book? Something new, something that you did not know before, in every paragraph. But would you therefore put the wretched cookery-book on a higher level of estimation than the divine poem? What you owe to Milton is not any knowledge, of which a million separate items are still but a million of advancing steps on the same earthly level; what you owe is power — that is, exercise and expansion to your own latent capacity of sympathy with the infinite, where every pulse and each separate influx is a step upwards, a step ascending as upon a Jacob’s ladder from earth to mysterious altitudes above the earth. All the steps of knowledge, from first to last, carry you further on the same plane, but could never raise you one foot above your ancient level of earth: whereas the very first step in power is a flight — is an ascending movement into another element where earth is forgotten.

Were it not that human sensibilities are ventilated and continually called out into exercise by the great phenomena of infancy, or of real life as it moves through chance and change, or of literature as it recombines these elements in the mimicries of poetry, romance, &c., it is certain that, like any animal power or muscular energy falling into disuse, all such sensibilities would gradually droop and dwindle. It is in relation to these great moral capacities of man that the Literature of Power, as contradistinguished from that of knowledge, lives and has its field of action. It is concerned with what is highest in man; for the Scriptures themselves never condescended to deal by suggestion or cooperation with the mere discursive understanding: when speaking of man in his intellectual capacity, the Scriptures speak not of the understanding, but of “the understanding heart” — making the heart, i.e. the great intuitive (or non-discursive) organ, to be the interchangeable formula for man in his highest state of capacity for the infinite. Tragedy, romance, fairy tale, or epopee, all alike restore to man’s mind the ideals of justice, of hope, of truth, of mercy, of retribution, which else (left to the support of daily life in its realities) would languish for want of sufficient illustration. What is meant, for instance, by poetic justice? — It does not mean a justice that differs by its object from the ordinary justice of human jurisprudence; for then it must be confessedly a very bad kind of justice; but it means a justice that differs from common forensic justice by the degree in which it attains its object, a justice that is more omnipotent over its own ends, as dealing — not with the refractory elements of earthly life, but with the elements of its own creation, and with materials flexible to its own purest preconceptions. It is certain that, were it not for the Literature of Power, these ideals would often remain amongst us as mere arid notional forms; whereas, by the creative forces of man put forth in literature, they gain a vernal life of restoration, and germinate into vital activities. The commonest novel, by moving in alliance with human fears and hopes, with human instincts of wrong and right, sustains and quickens those affections. Calling them into action, it rescues them from torpor. And hence the pre-eminency over all authors that merely teach of the meanest that moves, or that teaches, if at all, indirectly by moving. The very highest work that has ever existed in the Literature of Knowledge is but a provisional work: a book upon trial and sufferance, and quamdiu bene se gesserit. Let its teaching be even partially revised, let it be but expanded — nay, even let its teaching be but placed in a better order — and instantly it is superseded. Whereas the feeblest works in the Literature of Power, surviving at all, survive as finished and unalterable amongst men. For instance, the Principia of Sir Isaac Newton was a book militant on earth from the first. In all stages of its progress it would have to fight for its existence: first, as regards absolute truth; secondly, when that combat was over, as regards its form or mode of presenting the truth. And as soon as a Laplace, or anybody else, builds higher upon the foundations laid by this book, effectually he throws it out of the sunshine into decay and darkness; by weapons won from this book he superannuates and destroys this book, so that soon the name of Newton remains as a mere nominis umbra, but his book, as a living power, has transmigrated into other forms. Now, on the contrary, the Iliad, the Prometheus of Aeschylus, the Othello or King Lear, the Hamlet or Macbeth, and the Paradise Lost, are not militant, but triumphant for ever as long as the languages exist in which they speak or can be taught to speak. They never can transmigrate into new incarnations. To reproduce these in new forms, or variations, even if in some things they should be improved, would be to plagiarize. A good steam-engine is properly superseded by a better. But one lovely pastoral valley is not superseded by another, nor a statue of Praxiteles by a statue of Michelangelo. These things are separated not by imparity, but by disparity. They are not thought of as unequal under the same standard, but as different in kind, and, if otherwise equal, as equal under a different standard. Human works of immortal beauty and works of nature in one respect stand on the same footing; they never absolutely repeat each other, never approach so near as not to differ; and they differ not as better and worse, or simply by more and less: they differ by undecipherable and incommunicable differences, that cannot be caught by mimicries, that cannot be reflected in the mirror of copies, that cannot become ponderable in the scales of vulgar comparison.

All works in this class, as opposed to those in the Literature of Knowledge, first, work by far deeper agencies, and, secondly, are more permanent; in the strictest sense they are χτηματα εσ αει: and what evil they do, or what good they do, is commensurate with the national language, sometimes long after the nation has departed. At this hour, five hundred years since their creation, the tales of Chaucer, never equaled on this earth for their tenderness, and for life of picturesqueness, are read familiarly by many in the charming language of their natal day, and by others in the modernizations of Dryden, of Pope, and Wordsworth. At this hour, one thousand eight hundred years since their creation, the Pagan tales of Ovid, never equaled on this earth for the gaiety of their movement and the capricious graces of their narrative, are read by all Christendom. This man’s people and their monuments are dust; but he is alive: he has survived them, as he told us that he had it in his commission to do, by a thousand years; “and shall a thousand more.”

All the Literature of Knowledge builds only ground nests, that are swept away by floods, or confounded by the plough; but the Literature of Power builds nests in aerial altitudes of temples sacred from violation, or of forests inaccessible to fraud. This is a great prerogative of the power literature; and it is a greater which lies in the mode of its influence. The knowledge literature, like the fashion of this world, passeth away. An encyclopedia is its abstract; and, in this respect, it may be taken for its speaking symbol — that before one generation has passed an encyclopedia is superannuated; for it speaks through the dead memory and unimpassioned understanding, which have not the repose of higher faculties, but are continually enlarging and varying their phylacteries. But all literature properly so called — literature χατ εξοχην — for the very same reason that it is so much more durable than the Literature of Knowledge, is (and by the very same proportion it is) more intense and electrically searching in its impressions. The directions in which the tragedy of this planet has trained our human feelings to play, and the combinations into which the poetry of this planet has thrown our human passions of love and hatred, of admiration and contempt, exercise a power for bad or good over human life that cannot be contemplated, when stretching through many generations, without a sentiment allied to awe. And of this let every one be assured — that he owes to the impassioned books which he has read many a thousand more of emotions than he can consciously trace back to them. Dim by their origination, these emotions yet arise in him, and mould him through life, like forgotten incidents of his childhood.

The tree of knowledge

The frontispiece of the first of Pierre Mouchon’s two-volume Table (1780), or index, to the 28 volumes and 5 supplementary volumes of the Encyclopédie originally edited by Diderot and D’Alembert (first edition 1751), engraved by Robert Bénard (whose name appears in the lower righthand corner), with epigraph

Au lecteur

Da veniam Scriptis, quorum non gloria
nobis causa, sed utilitas, officiumque fuit.

Ovid Trist. III. 10.

(which gives an incorrect citation of Ovid! it should be Ex Ponto III.55) and this inscription:

ESSAI D’UNE DISTRIBUTION GÉNÉALOGIQUE DES SCIENCES ET DES ARTS PRINCIPAUX.
Selon l’Explication détaillée du Système
des Connaissances Humaines dans le Discours
préliminaire des Editeurs de l’Encyclopédie
publiée par M. Diderot et M. d’Alembert,
À Paris en 1751
Reduit en cette forme pour découvrir la connaissance
Humaine d’un coup d’oeil.
Par Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth,
À Weimar, 1769

The “tree” of knowledge in the first edition of 1751

came after the “Preliminary Discourse” (translated into English by Richard N. Schwab), with these remarks:

After reviewing the different parts of our knowledge and the characteristics that distinguish them, it remains for us only to make a genealogical or encyclopedic tree which will gather the various branches of knowledge together under a single point of view and will serve to indicate their origin and their relationships to one another. We will explain in a moment the use to which that tree may be put according to our claims, but the execution itself is not without difficulty. Although the philosophical history we have just given of the origins of our ideas is very useful in facilitating such a work, it should not be thought that the encyclopedic tree ought to be, or even can be, slavishly subject to that history. The general system of the sciences and the arts is a sort of labyrinth, a tortuous road which the intellect enters without quite knowing what direction to take. Impelled, first of all, by its needs and by those of the body to which it is united, the intelligence studies the first objects that present themselves to it. It delves as far as it can into the knowledge of these objects, soon meets difficulties that obstruct it, and whether through hope or even through despair of surmounting them, plunges on to a new route; now it retraces its footsteps, sometimes crosses the first barriers only to meet new ones; and passing rapidly from one object to another, it carries through a sequence of operations on each of them at different intervals, as if by jumps. The discontinuity of these operations is a necessary effect of the very generation of ideas. However philosophic this disorder may be on the part of the soul, an encyclopedic tree which attempted to portray it would be disfigured, indeed utterly destroyed.

Moreover, as we have already shown in the subject of Logic, most of the sciences which we regard as including the basic principles of all the others, and which ought for this reason to occupy the first places in the encyclopedic arrangement, do not have the first places in the genealogical arrangements of ideas because they were not invented first. Indeed, in the beginning we [human beings] of necessity studied individual things. It is only after having considered their particular and palpable properties that we envisaged their general and common properties and created Metaphysics and Geometry by intellectual abstraction. Only after the long usage of the first signs have we perfected the art of these signs to the point of making a science of them. And it is only after a long sequence of operations on the objects of our ideas that, through reflection, we have at length given rules to these operations themselves.

Finally, the system of our knowledge is composed of different branches, several of which have a common point of union. Since it is not possible, starting out from this point, to begin following all the routes simultaneously, it is the nature of the different minds that determines which route is chosen. Rarely does a single mind travel along a large number of these routes at the same time. In the study of Nature, men at first applied themselves, as if in concert, to satisfying the most pressing needs. But when they came to less absolutely necessary knowledge, they were obliged to divide it among themselves, and each one moved forward in almost equal step with the others. Thus several sciences have been contemporaneous, so to speak. But when tracing in historical order the progress of the mind, one can only embrace them successively.

It is not the same with the encyclopedic arrangement of our knowledge. This consists of collecting knowledge into the smallest area possible and of placing the philosopher at a vantage point, so to speak, high above this vast labyrinth, whence he can perceive the principal sciences and the arts simultaneously. From there he can see at a glance the objects of their speculations and the operations which can be made on these objects; he can discern the general branches of human knowledge, the points that separate or unite them; and sometimes he can even glimpse the secrets that relate them to one another. It is a kind of world map which is to show the principal countries, their position and their mutual dependence, the road that leads directly from one to the other. This road is often cut by a thousand obstacles, which are known in each country only to the inhabitants or to travelers, and which cannot be represented except in individual, highly detailed maps. These individual maps will be the different articles of the Encyclopedia and the Tree or Systematic Chart will be its world map

But as, in the case of the general maps of the globe we inhabit, objects will be near or far and will have different appearances according to the vantage point at which the eye is placed by the geographer constructing the map, likewise the form of the encyclopedic tree will depend on the vantage point one assumes in viewing the universe of letters. Thus one can create as many different systems of human knowledge as there are world maps having different projections, and each one of these systems might even have some particular advantage possessed by none of the others. There are hardly any scholars who do not readily assume that their own science is at the center of all the rest, somewhat in the way that the first men placed themselves at the center of the world, persuaded that the universe was made for them. Viewed with a philosophical eye, the claim of several of these scholars could perhaps be justified by rather good reasons, quite aside from self-esteem.

In any case, of all the encyclopedic trees the one that offered the largest number of connections and relationships among the sciences would doubtless deserve preference. But can one flatter oneself into thinking it has been found? We cannot repeat too often that nature is composed merely of individual things which are the primary object of our sensations and direct perceptions. To be sure, we note in these individual things common properties by which we compare them and dissimilar properties by which we differentiate them. And these properties, designated by abstract names, have led us to form different classes in which these objects have been placed. But often such an object, which because of one or several of its properties has been placed in one class, belongs to another class by virtue of other properties and might have been placed accordingly. Thus, the general division remains of necessity somewhat arbitrary. The most natural arrangement would be the one in which the objects followed one another by imperceptible shadings which serve simultaneously to separate them and to unite them. But the small number of beings known to us does not permit us to indicate these shadings. The universe is but a vast ocean, on the surface of which we perceive a few islands of various sizes, whose connection with the continent is hidden from us.

One could construct the tree of our knowledge by dividing it into natural and revealed knowledge, or useful and pleasing knowledge, or speculative and practical knowledge, or evident, certain, probable, and sensitive knowledge, or knowledge of things and knowledge of signs, and so on into infinity. We have chosen a division which has appeared to us most nearly satisfactory for the encyclopedic arrangement of our knowledge and, at the same time, for its genealogical arrangement. We owe this division to a celebrated author [Bacon] of whom we will speak later in this preface. To be sure, we have thought it necessary to make some changes in his division, of which we will render an account; but we are too aware of the arbitrariness which will always prevail in such a division to believe that our system is the only one or the best. It will be sufficient for us if our work is not entirely disapproved of by men of intelligence. We do not wish to resemble that multitude of naturalists (censured with such good reason by a modern philosopher) whose energies have been ceaselessly devoted to dividing the productions of Nature into genera and species, consuming an amount of time in this labor which would have been employed to much better purpose in the study of those productions themselves. What would be said of an architect, who, having to build an immense edifice, passed his whole life in drawing the plans for it? Or likewise what would we say of an inquisitive person who, proposing to inspect an enormous palace, spent all his time in observing the entryway?


On the Encyclopédie and the encyclopedic tradition, see:

Phillip Blom, Enlightening the World: Encyclopédie, The Book That Changed the Course of History (2005)

Robert Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775–1800 (1987) and W. Paul Vogt’s review, “Paideia for Profit” (1982)

Clorinda Donato and Robert M. Maniquis, The Encyclopédie and the Age of Revolution (1992)

John Lough, The Encylcopédie (1971)

Alan Rauch, Useful Knowledge: The Victorians, Morality, and the March of Intellect (2001)

Robert Yeo, Encyclopaedic Visions: Scientific Dictionaries and Enlightenment Culture (2001)

On the tree and other controlling metaphors for organizing knowledge and information, see:

Tore Frängsmyr, ed., The Structure of Knowledge: Classifications of Science and Learning Since the Renaissance (2001)

D.R. Kelley and R.H. Popkin, eds., The Shapes of Knowledge from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (1991)

Manuel Lima, The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge (2014)

Manuel Lima, The Book of Circles: Visualizing Spheres of Knowledge (2017)

The bestiary of the imagination

Foucault’s preface to The Order of Things (1966), translated by Routledge (anonymously!), referring to Borges’s story “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”:

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought — our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography — breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a certain Chinese encyclopedia” in which it is written that animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies”. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

But what is it impossible to think, and what kind of impossibility are we faced with here? Each of these strange categories can be assigned a precise meaning and a demonstrable content; some of them do certainly involve fantastic entities — fabulous animals or sirens — but, precisely because it puts them into categories of their own, the Chinese encyclopedia localizes their powers of contagion; it distinguishes carefully between the very real animals (those that are frenzied or have just broken the water pitcher) and those that reside solely in the realm of imagination. The possibility of dangerous mixtures has been exorcized, heraldry and fable have been relegated to their own exalted peaks: no inconceivable amphibious maidens, no clawed wings, no disgusting, squamous epidermis, none of those polymorphous and demoniacal faces, no creatures breathing fire. The quality of monstrosity here does not affect any real body, nor does it produce modifications of any kind in the bestiary of the imagination; it does not lurk in the depths of any strange power. It would not even be present at all in this classification had it not insinuated itself into the empty space, the interstitial blanks separating all these entities from one another. It is not the fabulous” animals that are impossible, since they are designated as such, but the narrowness of the distance separating them from (and juxtaposing them to) the stray dogs, or the animals that from a long way off look like flies. What transgresses the boundaries of all imagination, of all possible thought, is simply that alphabetical series (a, b, c, d) which links each of those categories to all the others.

A taste for the secret

Derrida in conversation with Maurizio Ferraris, translated by Giacomo Donis in I Have a Taste for the Secret (2001):

I have a taste for the secret, it clearly has to do with not-belonging; I have an impulse of fear of terror in the face of a political space, for example, a public space that makes no room for the secret. For me, the demand that everything be paraded in the public square and that there be no internal forum is a glaring sign of the totalitarianization of democracy. I can rephrase this in terms of political ethics: if a right to the secret is not maintained, we are in a totalitarian space.

Belonging—the fact of avowing one’s belonging, of putting in common—be it family, nation, tongue—spells the loss of the secret.