October 15, 2010

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RESERVING JUDGMENT

Submitted by JR Nyquist on Fri, 15 Oct 2010


The frailty of our reason, and the ignorance of our learning, may be measured by how infrequently we are correct about the future. We all have some notion of where things are headed, but these notions are seldom correct. When someone has successfully predicted the future, we ought to pay attention. But our attention is usually fixated on predictions that flatter our own prejudices. We miss the obvious, again and again. We rush to judgment and wonder at our own blindness. 

In Twilight of the Idols: or How to Philosophize with a Hammer, Friedrich Nietzsche declared war on the prevailing ideas of his time.  The real enemy, he claimed, was self-deception, humanity's favorite pastime. And one of the keys to self-deception is our impulsiveness. "The essential thing has gone out of the entire system of higher education in Germany," Nietzsche explained. "There is a need for educators who are themselves educated." The same could be said for America today. What had gone wrong in Germany during the latter half of the 19th century, also afflicts us. "What the 'higher schools' of Germany in fact achieve is a brutal breaking-in with the aim of making, in the least possible time, numberless young men fit to be utilized ... in the state service."

What Nietzsche did not explain, because the process was then in its infancy, was the cultivation and adaptation of individuals to a new kind of propaganda. Men were given a so-called education. They were handed diplomas and told that they had been educated. But it was a deception. They were given nothing of the kind. Real education, said Nietzsche, consists of three things: "One has to learn to see, one has to learn to think, one has to learn to speak and write: the end in all three is a noble culture." That is how one avoids being governed by an Adolf Hitler. The key to real education and a noble culture, said Nietzsche, was to be found in "habituating the eye to repose, to patience, to letting things come to it; learning to defer judgment, to investigate and comprehend the individual case in all its aspects." Here was a preliminary step in true spirituality, characterized by Nietzsche in the following terms: "not to react immediately to a stimulus, but to have the restraining, stock-taking instincts under one's control."


Reserving judgment is not easy. We want to know, and we want a conclusion. We do not like waiting. We do not like suspense; so we go with something. We track in the direction of the obvious, not realizing how dangerous our impulsive approach can be. Reality is serious business, and misreading reality has serious consequences. In the history of Herodotus we find an account of the death of Cambyses, king of Persia. It is the story of an impulsive man, quite superficial and entirely at the mercy of his own passions. Cambyses had a brother named Smerdis, who was greatly admired for his strength. One night Cambyses dreamt that Smerdis was seated upon a royal throne, with his head touching the heavens. Struck with jealousy and fear, Cambyses ordered the assassination of his brother, and the assassination was carried out. Later, Cambyses was marching through Syria when he received word that Smerdis had seized the throne, but the offender wasn't his brother. It was Smerdis the Magi. Tearfully repenting his brother's death, Cambyses leapt onto his horse in "a fit of exasperation at all his misfortune,"  intending to lead his army against the imposter. But as he jumped onto his horse, the tip of his sword's scabbard came off, and the naked blade tore into his thigh. As Cambyses lay dying from his wound, he asked what city this was. Ecbatana, in Syria, came the reply. Cambyses then recalled an oracle which foretold that he would die in Ecbatana. He had always assumed this was Ecbatana in Media, where he expected to live out his old age.

Too often the things we see are colored by our jealousies, hopes and fears. Skepticism does not prevent us from drawing false conclusions. In the case of Cambyses, he impulsively concluded that his brother would turn against him. He assumed, as well, that he would enjoy a long life. What good was any information at all, given this propensity to draw false conclusions? And if the reader thinks Cambyses was silly for paying attention to dreams and oracles, imagine how silly our modern men have been, paying attention to Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud. If Cambyses misread the future, we have institutionalized the misreading of the past - which is far worse.

Today, billions of people depend on a stable and rational civilization. They depend on this for their daily bread, and to prevent a war of mass destruction. An irrational political outburst could topple our Tower of Babel and bury untold numbers of people beneath an unprecedented pile of rubble. The more we build, the more we advance, the more precarious our situation becomes. We have hardly avoided the German mistake. America's educators know very little about seeing, thinking, or writing. An academic book today is often an unreadable mass of packaged nonsense. Yet we send our children to be indoctrinated in that self-same nonsense. One should ask, given all this, what is now guiding our civilization. What track are we on?

Our pundits and politicians write and speak as if someone was in control of our society. When we have an election, supposedly to determine the party of control, what is actually in control? The root assumption is that someone controls our destiny. Perhaps it is the Trilateral Commission or the Council on Foreign Relations. But no, that is obviously absurd. For just as Cambyses did not master his own fate, today's elite have not mastered theirs. Fate is determined by character, not by knowledge. We rarely, if ever, reserve our judgment. We act on impulse, according to character. We believe on impulse, because we are irrational at our heart's core. We invest and we profit or we invest and we lose, according to the times. We fall in love with the wrong person. We make war upon the wrong enemy. We slay our brother on account of a mad dream.

In Shakespeare's Hamlet there is a line spoken by the fair Ophelia in her madness: "They say the owl was a baker's daughter." Then she says to the king: "we know what we are, but know not what we may be."

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