Gods of the Modern World

“Gods of the Modern World” is one panel in a fresco, The Epic of American Civilization, painted by Jose Clemente Orozco for the Baker Library at Dartmouth. The panel is a critique of the modern university, violent and passionate.

Skeletons robed in academic gowns stand facing us. In the foreground another skeleton lies in birthing position, legs spread and upraised, pregnant with books. Bending over this skeleton is another, a robed academic holding in its hands a baby skeleton with a mortarboard and tassel. Formaldehyde filled jars with baby skeletons fall alongside piles of black tomes.

The dead bring forth the dead: dead academics beget more dead academics and dead books, a self-perpetuating cycle.

The world is on fire, yet the living dead robed in academic gowns are unaware of it. Unaware and impotent, their backs are turned to the conflagration.

Orozco painted The Epic of American Civilization between 1932 and 1934, years in which Lewis Mumford was a “roving professor” at Dartmouth. The mural made a deep impression on Mumford, and in several of his books he reproduced some of its panels, including Gods of the Modern World. Mumford’s interpretation of university teaching and scholarship matched the muralist’s.

Lewis Mumford and the Pubic Intellectual

Mumford remains an exception among American scholars. An intellectual who wrote on regionalism, city planning, architecture, technology, and American culture, Mumford never completed college. Yet he grew into the foremost American intellectual of the twentieth century. As a generalist, Mumford derided specialization and the narrowness it entailed. Mumford, furthermore, was not only a scholar, but in Ezra Pound’s phrase was one who put his “ideas into action.”

As a founding member of Regional Planning Association of America, Mumford collaborated with city planner Clarence Stein and architect Henry Wright (both fellow RPPA members) on the design of the planned development of Radburn, New Jersey. Earlier he had been researcher for Stein on several state sponsored housing projects. He argued publicly and passionately in print and in public forums on the need for the development of Garden Cities and for the regionalization of American economics and culture. No wonder Mumford scorned specialists.

Yale began the march toward academic specialization when it bestowed its first doctorate in 1861. Doctoral programs eventually grew into what Thorstein Veblen called “the PhD. octopus” and professional guilds followed. To earn a doctorate one had not only to specialize but produce an original piece of research. In the humanities, once the major writers and thinkers were raked over, the candidate had to discover a minor figure upon whom to devote years of study, research and writing. He became a specialist in a sub-sub-specialty of his field. The doctoral requirement for university teaching became one more bit of evidence that ours was a fragmenting society.

Within the seclusion of the university, and as a specialist, the academic often lacks the knowledge and imagination for effective social criticism and action. Thinkers of the caliber of Emerson, Ruskin, and William Morris helped guide and develop the culture of their times. Ruskin, besides making contributions to several fields, including worker’s’ education, was the spiritual father of the Arts and Crafts Movement, initiated by his disciple William Morris. Mumford was their successor, perhaps the last of what are called “public intellectuals.” Now as in the past century, anyone who boldly and competently advances into areas outside his specialty is open to attack by Orozco’s walking dead.

And so minds that might have served a useful function, perhaps teaching the liberal arts, made themselves illiberal and irrelevant. Worse, they shaped and continue to shape those young minds that aspire to academic positions into images of themselves. The pedantry, the obfuscation, the prolixity, and in many cases the arrogance continue.

Unity in the Seven Liberal Arts and the Doctrine of Ideas

With specialization Europe and America lost the intellectual unity that Western culture had in the Middle Ages. That unity was supplied not only by Christian doctrine, but by the liberal arts. These arts, inherited from classical Greece and Rome and codified in late Roman times, created an intellectual discipline out of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic or dialectic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy).

For the purposes of this argument, I skip over the trivium to the quadrivium as the texts chosen for the four mathematical arts created a unified vision of the cosmos. The texts derived from the teachings of the Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras and were adopted by Plato and subsequently passed on through his Academy. Pythagoras taught that number was the essence of all things and that the world—because it was ordered through number—was a cosmos.

The Pythagorean texts of the quadrivium developed in the student a qualitative vision of the universe. Such a vision is radically opposed to the mechanistic and quantitative interpretation that developed in the Renaissance and which governs the world-view of Mass Man. While it does connect the whole and its parts through number and mathematical analysis, the quantitative world- view emphases difference, the essential atomic nature of all things. By contrast, the qualitative world of Plato and the Pythagoreans is relational, with its parts united by ratio and proportion and by analogy.

For the medievals the arts of the quadrivium became an aid to understanding the works of God and the harmony of all within creation. For the masters of the quadrivium the mathematical arts were a ladder leading the seeker to an apprehension of God the Maker.

Arithmetic, the basic study of the quadrivium, taught ratio and proportion, and the theory of numbers. Geometry, the next study, was taught through Euclid’s Elements. Euclid had been a student at Plato’s Academy and his definitions of point, line, and plane make clear the ideal basis of his work. Euclid, like Boethius and Nicomachus—two significant transmitters of Pythagorean thought—was a Pythagorean and Platonist.

Music as understood by Plato and the Pythagoreans was not a study of sound per se, but a study of the harmonic relationships between musical intervals (the octave, fifth, third, etc.). Johannes Kepler brought together the current astronomical data of his time in his treatise Harmonices Mundi, which attempted to demonstrate the ancient Pythagorean dream of the music of the spheres. Thus understood, music was inextricably at one with astronomy, the study of invariant motions. The study of invariance became, for the philosopher, the last step to the apprehension of the Ideas. Music, Plato declared, was the highest form of philosophy and led to an apprehension of The Good.

Many of the Church Fathers of the second and third centuries, including Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Eusebius, were Platonists and embraced the doctrine of Ideas. St. Augustine (354-430), deeply influenced by Plato, acknowledged the existence of Plato’s Ideas, but held that they existed not outside but within the divine intelligence.

Subsequent to Augustine, the teachers of the monasteries and cathedral schools were Platonists. Through these schools the seven liberal arts were preserved into the High Middle Ages. The cathedral schools, reflecting Plato’s teaching, emphasized the quadrivium over the trivium.

Without a study of the quadrivium, there would have been no Chartres, or Notre Dame, or Amiens. The architects of the cathedrals were masters of the quadrivium, using the golden section and musical consonances for their architectural grammar. As they saw it, these ratios and proportions were those subsisting with the divine intelligence, and thus the cathedrals became an instantiation of divine harmony.

From Unite to Multiplicity

The thirteenth century was the point of greatest cultural unity within Western culture. After that, unity descended into multiplicity, to echo Henry Adams. The splintering of thought and society accelerated until now we seem to have reached the maximum of dissolution before absolute anarchy. Academic specialization was a necessary outcome of our loss of intellectual unity.

Briefly, my version of the descent is this: Until the early fourteenth century, Plato’s doctrine of Ideas was the dominant theory of the nature of reality, a doctrine the medievals called Realism. Realism was not challenged until William of Ockam (c. 1287 – 1347) first propounded the theory of universals. Ockham’s doctrine of the nature of ideas, called Nominalism, denied the existence of Ideas and contended that only individuals exist. Thus there is no Idea of Man but only individual men; nor any Idea of Whiteness, only instances of whiteness.

It was but a small step from nominalism to empiricism, the philosophy that holds that sense perception is our sole source for knowledge. George Berkley contended that empiricism led to atheism, and time has shown Berkley to be correct: the cry of the college-educated atheist is, “I believe in science.”

Empiricism was one of the roots of philosophical materialism, which surely is the underlying, driving force of Western culture, despite the numbers of contemporary Fundamentalists in all three monotheistic religions. For practical purposes, God is dead. Western Man centuries ago lost his common notions, including a belief in God or divinity, and without common notions, no civilization can long endure.

Without common notions there can be no effective resistance to the ever-increasing mechanization of man and society. Certainly the academic specialist, Orozco’s walking dead—a product of Western fragmentation—can offer no resistance. But then, who can?

Views: 240

Comment by Maui Surfer on May 31, 2018 at 10:41am

Oh, and enjoy the welcome-wagon Mr. Wolf, we'd drop some brownies by your front door if this digital hood would allow, not the special kind though. Freud may have had some opines on passive aggressiveness and BPD as well.

Comment by Robert Wolf on May 31, 2018 at 11:21am

"Fantasy to think Theism grants unity."    You do not qualify "unity." Without stating it, you're implying I made the claim that theism grants absolute unity. There's no such thing, as you know. What I did write was that the thirteenth century was the point of greatest unity in Western Europe. Quite a difference.

And of course history is replete with religious wars. That's a statement on human nature, not this or that religion. That's a statement n how people use their religion.

Comment by Robert Wolf on May 31, 2018 at 11:25am

Maui Surfer: What is BPD?  and how am I being passive aggressive?

Comment by koshersalaami on May 31, 2018 at 12:22pm

I’m not sure I’d characterize Western history as a descent into barbarism. In terms of human rights we are way past where we used to be. We are far more egalitarian, far more democratic, far more tolerant. Not that we get to be self-congratulatory because we have a lot to do yet but what’s been done is far from trivial. 

Comment by Maui Surfer on May 31, 2018 at 3:46pm

I see no sign of you being passive aggressive whatsoever, that was my subjective observation of another's comment, sorry for any confusion on that. BPD- Borderline Personality Disorder --- welcome to the monkey house.

Comment by Rodney Roe on June 1, 2018 at 5:02am

Glad to find that Mumford was not a "Pubic intellectual".

The fresco panel presented is powerful, but I wonder at the interpretation, because art is open to everyone to interpret and that is art’s attraction and its value. 

The argument against increasing subspecialization, pursuit of the arcane, and the “publish or perish” mentality is valid.  The conundrum, however, is how to overcome this trend.  Survey courses are too superficial and impersonal.

To wit, the case of Guy de Chauliac.  Guy (or Guido) de Chauliac (1300-1368) was a physician and surgeon whose reputation grew such that he became the physician to Pope Clement VI.

Medicine and surgery at the time were learned from books and based on nonsense; that disease was caused by a disturbance in body humors.  Nonetheless, de Chauliac became a master of nonsense.  Pope Clement died of the plague despite his physicians best efforts, and de Chauliac claimed to have contracted the disease and survived.

It is not for his knowledge of medicine based on an invalid premise that de Chauliac should be remembered; it is for his use of what became known as the scientific method.  Guy De Chauliac kept meticulous notes of everything related to his patients, noting diet, environment; everything.  He wrote a tome in Latin, Chirurgia magna, (surgical encyclopedia) which became a reference for the next 300 years.  An historian’s comment reads;

"It was seemingly from books that [Chauliac] learned his surgery.... He may have used the knife when embalming the bodies of dead popes, but he was careful to avoid it on living patients"

What Chirurgia magna provided that was new was an emphasis on anatomy.  That concept is so ingrained today that it is hard to imagine that there was a time when it wasn’t.

However, it was his attempt to analyze the results of his treatment of those with the plague in an empirical manner that was his real contribution to the knowledge and practice of medicine and surgery.

It should also be noted, given the appeal here to the metaphysical, that the death of the French Pope Clement had a profound effect on the hold that the church had on society and the people.  The pope was regarded as the representative of God and therefore infallible.  How infallible could a pope be who couldn’t save himself from the plague, and, more importantly, how fallible must God be who couldn’t save his representative.

Science is held up as an opponent to religion, but science is not the thing, but the scientific method that threatens absolutists. 

Comment by Steel Breeze on June 1, 2018 at 5:27am

if you ponder the "origin" and beyond,neither science or religion offer a reasonable theory....

Comment by koshersalaami on June 1, 2018 at 5:53am

Science isn’t inherently an opponent to religion. For one thing, science is not a series of conclusions, it’s a method of reaching those conclusions. There are plenty of scientists who are not atheists. Also, by and large the use of religion has shifted. At one point it provided creation myths because there weren’t alternative explanations available. Now it’s more about morality and conduct, which is an area science doesn’t help much with and, to the extent that it does, its information is frequently integrated into religious practice. The Catholic Church, the single largest religious organization on Earth, has stated that evolution is not counter to Catholicism. To use another example, many non-fundamentalist religions/religious branches have changed how they view women’s roles because the grounds on which the sexes were treated unequally have been disproven. A third example is how many religions and religious branches have shifted their views on homosexuality as science has shown that homosexuality is not pathology as was previously thought by a whole lot of people. It’s not that religion doesn’t contain what we would consider to be off the wall prohibitions, it’s that religions have always contained dilemmas and how many of these dilemmas are being addressed has shifted as a result of scientific input. As an example here: prohibition on male homosexual congress (though there are aspects of translation that make this more ambiguous than it looks at first glance) vs. do not do to others that which is hateful to you. At this point, Hillel’s adage - or a whole lot of variations on it, both older and newer - is considered way more morally important to the non-fundamentalist religions I know about. 


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