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 Safe Bet's Amy on May 31, 2018 at 8:24am

Interesting piece.  I do disagree with a LOT of it however.  For example, blaming atheism for the fall of our civilization is pretty bogus and unfounded.  Please kindly prove your hypothesis using factual evidence, if it is true (sorry about requiring scientific evidence, it's a "I believe in science" thing). ~ signed, a college-educated atheist.

P.S.  Thanks for my new word of the day:  quadrivium

Comment by Maui Surfer on May 31, 2018 at 8:34am

Let the Dead bury the Dead. But, let them do it as Jack's of All Trades ... Masters of None.

Comment by koshersalaami on May 31, 2018 at 9:24am

There’s an extent to which I don’t know if you’re kidding. Personally, I’m not up for idealizing the thirteenth century, for one thing because my ancestors were outside that unity when being outside that unity had awfully serious consequences. 

Atheism isn’t the enemy of unity. It is a common notion. The major Stalinist states were pretty unified. 

Empiricism has its limits. For one thing, empiricism doesn’t speak to morality. We may have gotten more empiricist, but that doesn’t mean morality isn’t a significant part of our discussions. Just because our morality is not as command-based as it used to be doesn’t mean it’s dying. 

As to fragmentation, its consequences really depend on which field is fragmenting. In a field like English Lit, yes, fragmentation can lead to specialization in the obscure and, to some extent, in the insignificant. In other fields, such as hard sciences, soft sciences, and mathematics, specialization helps build our overall knowledge. Investigating our world thoroughly has consequences in two directions: the lack of generalists that you decry and the increase in overall knowledge. Part of the loss you lament actually originates in 1960’s/70’s college education and the dropping of core requirements. 

Another part is the lack of national service. This used to be a military function, but there are a lot of people out there now suggesting that we need some sort of universal service encompassing civil functions. 

Comment by Robert Wolf on May 31, 2018 at 9:30am

I am currently writing a long examination of the history of western culture, Flight from the Center. In essence, it is an examination of the ideas and techniques that Western man adopted over many centuries that led us to our descent into  barbarism. In looking at our current condition, it is more useful to use the term philosophical materialism than atheism, although they are logically equivalent. Without going into a long explanation, philosophical materialism  cannot provide a basis for a civilization. It does not provide us with common notions but promotes fragmentation.

P.S. I am not objecting to science but "scientism," the belief that everything can be explained through science. That is a huge problem, besides being just plain dumb.

Comment by Safe Bet's Amy on May 31, 2018 at 9:50am

"I am not objecting to science but "scientism," the belief that everything can be explained through science. That is a huge problem, besides being just plain dumb."

That is only "true" (which its not, IMO) if you believe in some form of "Omnipotent Sky Daddy".  Prove to me it/he/she exists before you start calling a LOT of very brilliant people "dumb" (many of which are WAAAAY smarter than either of us).

P.S.  Something tells me that Siggy Freud would have enjoyed checking out your super-ego, seeing as how he thought that the need for a "daddy figure" should be replaced with 'reason" and that "faith" was merely an avoidance mechanism used by the super-ego.

Comment by Robert Wolf on May 31, 2018 at 10:15am

I did not intend to insult you. If you think about that sentence, I'll bet you'd agree with me.

Comment by J.P. Hart on May 31, 2018 at 10:19am

Like a lemon drop martini with Janis Joplin in Saginaw!

Like custard in the ghetto, 'ol chap!

Like Neil Young when the lights came back on & the band closed: Watch Tower.

Far & away the best essay I've read on forums such as this in the last 3467.5 days.

I think I'm going to copy, print and leaflet on the roof of the Milwaukee School of Engineering . . .
Comment by Maui Surfer on May 31, 2018 at 10:38am

Science has proved a lot of things that, depending on your POV can be spiritual. How can one thing be two places at the same time? It can. How can "waves of energy" be measured before cataclysmic events? When we pass on, we know the energy that was our life force returns into the Universe, does it retain anything? Why are there so many dimensions. Science is pretty cosmic, haha.

"Metaphysics had a beginnning, and it will have an end."


Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on May 31, 2018 at 10:38am

Fantasy to think Theism grants unity...medieval and early modern Europe is proof enough...and just as an example, a small one, the Hugenots ravaged the French Church every bit if not far more devastatingly and viciously than has ISIS has Islam.

Comment by Robert Wolf on May 31, 2018 at 10:38am

Be my guest, but make sure my name's on the leaflet. Thanks!


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