An Imperfect Storm

An Imperfect Storm

            Hegel’s understanding of authentic education involves us placing ourselves at a distance from what is familiar. We return to ourselves only through the transformation which the encounter with the alien brings forth. This movement is the result of our existential thrownness. Not only to we take up a project, we are ourselves projected into the world, while ideally avoiding the problem of ‘projection’, of such interest to both psychopathology and more generally, to ethics. At once we also commit ourselves to ‘die many times’, however immortal we may or may not become over the life course. It is this radically other presence, now in front of us, to which we have been drawn in spite of ourselves, that will perform its duty, both solemn and ebullient. Our self-sacrifice is just that, an immolation of what has been known as the self, the very person with which I may be too much in love and at the very least, too familiar with. For Hegel and Nietzsche after him, education was about forsaking the known for the heretofore unknown. Both as well recommended an humanistic study of only the classical canon of Greece and Rome. Hegel, as a Christian thinker, sought these sources not only as the roots of his religion and what he felt was the ultimate expression and collation of these roots in a universalizing ethics. Nietzsche, as an anti-Christian thinker, sought these same sources in order to go back behind a simplifying and ‘enslaved’ perversion of a more noble ethics. But either way, the classical period of antiquity made for an appropriate estrangement from the modern self, and this was its key feature for both writers.

            Our situation has in principle little changed today, though its reality is subject to some torrid irony. On the one hand, we have what on the surface is the noble pursuit of humanistic sources by Christian educators, though they sully their authentic discipline with that of barbarism, and on the other, post-Christian secular institutions – almost all of the universities, for instance – have bodily turned away from the very humanism which set them free from parochial provincialism. Yet the principle of distanciation, and the more so, self-distanciation, faintly reverberates. The neo-Christians, in their ardor to turn back the clock on a secularizing world, venerate humanistic sources without coming to radically dislodge their theocratic preconception of relevant histories and indeed, those deemed to be ‘irrelevant’ – paleontology is the most obvious example here – are somehow placed wholly outside the frame of Christian consciousness. For these conservative educators, distanciation is a description of the world over against that of themselves. For the liberal educators that dominate the universities, to gain the necessary Hegelian distance means rather to forsake the humanism that originally drove the ideals of ‘higher’ education in favor of technique, something that both Hegel and Nietzsche, and everyone in between them during the self-educating nineteenth century, abhorred. So while the conservatives use humanism as a guise to bolster a waning neo-Christian worldview, the liberals use technique to prove to themselves that a mere religious education was a dead end.

            In both, we see a fraudulent mimicry of Hegel’s diagnostic. In neither is there the truly radical distanciation that alters one’s self-conception. One is either a child of god or one is a thinking machine. As a social being, one is either a resident of Utopia or of Penguin Island. The conservative educator masks his ‘return to oneself after being other’ underneath a lineage of thought which inevitably draws itself forward into the advent of the Gospels. Given that Hegel sought Christianity as a culmination of historical forces and an expression of an absolute ‘spirit’ to which all could cleave their individual souls, this process has a face validity that liberal education lacks. But it is a surface feature alone, for the immolation of the self upon the alien shores of Rhodes has not occurred, cannot occur. Even so, the liberals, who have a content validity to put up against their rival’s ‘face’ – the action of science crosses cultures in its discursive galleries without as much ‘syncretism’, which the missionaries of yesterday always themselves faced – are forced to jettison anything which provides an holistic understanding of humanity. Truly ‘specialists without spirit’ are they.

            At the very eye of this pedagogic storm, its rivalry intensifying before our very eyes, there is a third force at large, aloof to both humanity as an evolutionary Gestalt and to the technology and techniques created by we earthly gods. This third force is nature ‘itself’. The Christian indictment to become ‘stewards of the earth’ is well-taken in these ‘last evil days’ of secular history. Yes, but the apocalyptarians, our most dangerous version of the venerable mystagogue, remind us that we have left things too late. That there is resentment against the shrill aspects of the environmental movement is understandable along these lines. Why tell us how evil we have been if at the same time the result of such evil is nothing less than the old world judgment of the new world deity? What is to be gained by sacrificing ourselves before the final oblation is to be rendered? Within this same movement, there is another voice that accepts the chiding but then states that we can yet prove ourselves worthy of the newly divine nature, saving ‘it’ and thereby ourselves as well. Hence Heidegger was premature, suggesting penultimately that ‘only a God can save us’, which ominously reminded one of how the Germans were thinking in 1930, the same year as Freud’s ‘Civilization and it Discontents’ appeared in print. Just so.

            Thus the apparently wholly secular and ‘progressive’ movement of nature lovers looks more and more like the wholly religious and regressive motions emanating from the extremities of neoconservative Christianity. The end is nigh, prepare to meet thy god, and such-like. Bumper stickers proclaim it so it must be true. But though Hegel reminds us that none of us today has the gumption to fully desert the familiarity of the known selfhood and thence experience the radical otherness of another world – for him, Greece and Rome, for us perhaps, the presumed coming encounter with at least imagined extraterrestrial cultures – it is Nietzsche who exhorts us to shed our ressentiment in order to take the first steps to another kind of being entirely. If Hegel’s stepwise evolution can be seen as the process of becoming the spiritual result of Nietzsche’s punctuated equilibrium in the Overman, within this tandem lies a fair model of authentic education. What results from self-distanciation is superior for both thinkers. I not only know more, I am more. But neither theology nor technique provides this self-overcoming. They both expressly lack the humanity  – one adores a god, the other a machine – in the first place. What then is to be overcome? For both thinkers, the self cannot be overleapt. It is not a matter of replacing something, but rather developing that which it is in its essence. One actually ‘returns to oneself from being otherwise’, and thus in turn one also ‘dies many times in order to become immortal’.

            And in no way does the belated presence of the third party, enveloping humanity and eschewing divinity at once, alleviate the historical task that both beckons and threatens us at this very hour. Nature, in its stark majesty, carries on outside of the sacred and secular alike. It has neither in its amorphous existence, it is neither in its essential being. Having just lived through my first hurricane, I comprehended that nature was in itself incomprehensible. I could not speak to it, I could not listen to its voice. Nature is too alien for Hegel’s pedagogic dialectic to cleave to, too eternal for Nietzsche’s cyclical existence to return to. For both thinkers, nature was never the goal, either as a metaphor for humanity’s wholly historical being, or as knowledge thereof, the material result of mere technique and its studied applications. Rather it was history in Hegel and culture in Nietzsche that were at stake. The climate mystagogues attempt to turn us away from both, to our collective peril. The evangelists attempt to subvert both in the service of mock sacrifice, speaking the twisted tongues of absent origins and destinations. For the one, nature in crisis originates in human hubris, for the other, that selfsame hubris dooms our species to self-destruction. Either way, the apocalypse is fulfilled. The environmentalist is shown to be merely the secular version of the evangelist.

            Hegel and Nietzsche would reject both out of hand. I fully agree. Our historical present is not primarily a conflict between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’. Indeed, the latter provides the necessary backdrop for the former’s sudden and radical appearance, the landscape upon which it irrupts as an uncanny force, not of suasion let alone soteriology, but rather of authenticity. The sacred is, and always has been, beholden only to our self-distanciation, radically called to conscience in a most phenomenological fashion. And though our experience within its rare and extramundane presence might tempt us to deride the otiose as somehow lesser and inauthentic, we must rather accept that the day to day is a prerequisite for the visionary. Perhaps its entire function is to provide the necessary perspective that a wholly sacred life would entirely lack. Such a life would be, in a word, inhuman, absenting itself from the very history which allows us to know ourselves. The sacred alone is kindred with nature’s ongoingness, somnolent or seething as the case may be. Instead, our life in the world of today is a test, sometimes of epic proportions, of our resolve to not run away from our own collective history and thence to not turn away from our shared and ownmost future.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.