Monday, September 14, 2009

Complexity as Inevitable

I would love to leave the Intelligent Design/Evolution controversy alone and read John Derbyshire in peace... why must I be ambushed by comments such as these from his Straggler column?

There are great cosmic principles at work here. Simplicity yields to complexity. From ammonites and trilobites come seven hundred species of dinosaur; from the spare pronouncements of the Master come annotations, exegesis, and commentary upon commentary; from the convenience of a phone call we advance to email inbox folders, texting, MySpace, Facebook, and twittering. There were originally three federal crimes: there are now, according to one scholar's tally, at least 4,452. (Did you know that as of 2002 it has been a federal crime to move birds across state lines to engage in fights?)

Derbyshire is a highly intelligent man, certainly smarter than I am. Yet this quote is open to a Sesame Street-level analysis that seems beyond the reach of committed Darwinists like him: Which one of these things is not like the others? His examples of exegesis and commentary, email and twittering, and the increase in federal law are all examples of the effects of intelligent agency. The complexity in these cases doesn't just "happen" as though complexity is waiting in the wings for simplicity to "yield" to it. It only happens because intelligent men apply their minds to the world and add complexity to it. The one case where this is alleged not to have happened is in the simplicity of ammonites "yielding" to the complexity of dinosaurs. Can't you just hear those complex dinosaurs banging at the door to be let in?

It may very well be that dinosaurs developed from ammonites through the unintelligent, mechanical process that Darwinists suppose. I don't know. I do know that email and federal law certainly didn't. What is perplexing about Darwinism, and makes me wary of it, is the manner in which its allegedly hard-headed and skeptical advocates fail to see the obvious. If they can't see intelligent agency in email and federal law, why should I put any stock in their assurances that there is no intelligent agency in the development of life?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Conventional Courage and the Western Way of War

Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation recalled for me Victor Davis Hanson's thesis of the "Western Way of War." In a series of books (this and this one for a start - both good), Hanson argues that the West has prosecuted wars in a peculiarly violent and effective manner throughout its history. He attributes this to cultural reasons, which are summarized in the Amazon editorial reviews.

Hanson doesn't get much into philosophy, but I wonder how much the philosophical distinction between nature and convention that I mentioned in this post has contributed to the lethality of the West. Cultures that do not possess this philosophical distinction (and it seems that they do not prior to their encounter with the West, but I am not enough of a cultural anthropologist to say this categorically) tend to have a conventional way of fighting. By this I mean a way of fighting that is not necessarily rationally ordered to the end of victory, but is a stylized way of fighting that has developed for peculiar religious or traditional reasons.

For instance, the life of the Crow warrior was centered around "counting coups", which meant performing bold exploits against the enemy. Lear writes that

If the survival of the Crow tribe as a social unit had been the primary good, one might expect that highest honor would go to the warrior who killed the first enemy in battle, or the warrior who killed the most. But to count coup it was crucial that, at least for a moment, one avoided killing the enemy. There is a certain symbolic excess in counting coups. One needed not only to destroy the enemy; it was crucial that the enemy recognize that he was about to be destroyed.

Lear analyzes the notion of counting coups and concludes that, for a nomadic hunting tribe like the Crow, the crucial point was to establish boundaries with respect to other tribes. The form that counting coups takes with the Crow makes sense from this point of view; tapping the enemy with your coup stick before killing him makes him recognize the boundary he has violated before he dies; taking his weapons from him while he is still alive demonstrates that he cannot pass this boundary as a warrior:

The establishment of boundaries will, of course, be important to any cultural group. But it is especially tricky when it comes to a nomadic group whose migration depends heavily on hunting. As the tribe migrates, its defensible boundaries will shift, but it needs to be able to exert a proprietary claim over the animals within its (shifting) domain; and it needs to be able to repulse the proprietary claims of its rivals. Counting coups is the minimal act that forces recognition from the other side. The about-to-die Sioux warrior is, after all, about to die: if all goes as planned, he will be no further threat to the Crow. Recognition of the Crow boundary is the second-to-the-last thing the Crow warrior wants from him. (The last thing is his scalp, but that will serve as a token that he achieved that recognition.) If the tribe's goal is the firm establishment of a boundary, then the act of counting coups is not excessive. It strikes the mean between the defect of wishful thinking that one has boundaries when one is unwilling or unable to defend them and the excess of slaughtering one's enemies so quickly that one does not obtain from them recognition of anything. When struck with a coup-stick, the Sioux warrior recognizes a Crow boundary because he also recognizes that he is about to die.

The problem with Lear's argument is that, since the Sioux warrior is about to die, what does it matter whether he recognizes a boundary or not? If the establishment of boundaries is the goal of counting coups, then what matters is whether the surviving Sioux recognize the boundary, not the dead Sioux. Furthermore, even if Lear were successful in establishing a rational goal for counting coups, it doesn't follow that the Crow counted coups for those rational reasons. Lear's analysis attempts to show that the conventional form of Crow courage is the form it should take according to the nature of Crow life; in other words, it is an analysis from means to end. But there is no reason to think that Crow traditions were established with this sort of rational analysis. They seem to have developed innocently and unreflectively, like most traditions within aboriginal peoples.

Counting coups is reminiscent of the Aztec way of war that Hanson discusses in Carnage and Culture. Aztec weapons were not particularly lethal; their purpose was to stun the enemy so the Aztec warrior could drag his opponent back to the pyramid to be a ritual human sacrifice. It turns out that this way of fighting was effective against other native tribes for psychological reasons. But it is unlikely that it developed as a deliberate way to psychologically demoralize the enemy. Probably the religious ritual came first, and it was later discovered that Aztec warriors capturing the enemy to be human sacrifices had a particularly devastating effect on their morale. Whatever the case, it didn't have much impact on the morale of Hernan Cortez and his men. One reason so few Conquistadors were able to conquer an Aztec empire of hundreds of thousands is that the Aztec way of war was singularly ineffective against Spanish steel. But, more significantly, the Aztec could not adapt their methods of war to the novel enemy constituted by the Spanish. Their staggering losses to Spanish swords and armor did not cause them to reconsider the practice of human sacrifice as a way of war. Courage for an Aztec warrior still meant dragging an enemy off to the pyramid. They had no rational tradition of philosophy to treat warfare abstractly as a mean to an end, or to understand courage as involving means to an end.

Although Cortez was not a philosopher, he was raised in a culture that was informed by the philosophical notions of nature vs. convention and means vs. ends. Courage in the West is not finally specified by a particular act in battle, like striking the enemy with your coup stick or stunning him so he can be a human sacrifice. It means overcoming your fears and facing lethal dangers in the service of victory - whatever form that might take in any particular situation. Cortez approached the Aztecs rationally as a military problem to be solved. (The moral analysis of the Conquistadors is another subject entirely.) He even went so far as to construct his own navy from scratch to eliminate the Aztec mobility on the lake surrounding Tenochtitlan.

It is the Western tradition of philosophically-based rationality that has made it so lethal, for it has given the West a flexibility and creativity in war not known to non-Western peoples.

Monday, September 7, 2009

More on Lear and Radical Hope

In this post I began a discussion of Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Here I would like to discuss more specifically the content of radical hope.

In Ch. 3, the "Critique of Abysmal Reasoning", Lear writes this about radical hope:

I would like to consider hope as it might arise at one of the limits of human existence. In the scenario outlined in the preceding chapter, Plenty Coups responded to the collapse of his civilization with radical hope. What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.

The reason Lear says that the hope transcends the current ability to understand it is that the Crow understanding of the good life was specific to their mode of living - hunting buffalo, roaming the plains, "counting coups" against their enemies. This way of life was inevitably doomed with the coming of the white man, a future Plenty Coups anticipated through several dreams he experienced as a youth. In these dreams he was advised to pay attention to the "wisdom of the Chickadee", a bird that is smaller than other birds yet is more intelligent and perceptive. Plenty Coups applied this wisdom as a chief, allying the Crow with the U.S. Army against the Sioux, rather than fighting a hopeless battle against irresistible U.S. government force. The end result was that the Crow were unusual insofar as they never suffered a defeat at the hands of the U.S. military, and they were also able to retain their ancestral lands under their own possession (with the usual encroachments and false dealing by the U.S. authorities.)

My philosophical interest in this post is Lear's statement about a hope that is directed toward "a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is." For hope to be any sort of hope at all it must have some content. Hope is hope for something. We can't merely hope that "things will be different" because things might become different by becoming worse; we only hope if we can anticipate some state of affairs that we recognize as desirable in itself. It must have a goodness that doesn't entirely transcend our current ability to understand it so we can direct ourselves toward it as an end. The situation is similar to the attributes of God. If the goodness of God is a goodness that utterly transcends any possible conception we might have of it, then God is not a being who can be an object of our desire. In fact, according to St. Thomas, we can have a genuine but limited notion of the goodness of God through analogy.

And, in fact, the hope of Plenty Coups was not a leap into the dark or across an abyss but had some content. Arguing the point that the radical hope of Plenty Coups was not simply wish-fulfilling fantasy, Lear writes:

Finally, it has been the aim of this entire chapter to argue that Plenty Coups's radical hope was not mere wish-fulfilling optimism (criterion 5), but was rather a radical form of hope that constituted courage and made it possible. After all, through a series of canny decisions and acts, the Crow were able to hold onto their land, and Plenty Coups helped to create a space in which traditional Crow values can be preserved in memory, transmitted to a new generation, and, one hopes, renewed in a new historical era.

Lear is certainly right that Plenty Coups was a man of outstanding virtue, a man who was able to transcend the concept of courage as it was taught him in the Crow tradition when it became clear that the traditional notion of courage was no longer relevant. But the fact that he and the Crow were able to preserve their lands through "canny moves" shows that they had some notion what they were doing. A man with a contentless hope can't make canny moves, because he doesn't know what he is moving toward. Plenty Coups saw in his wisdom that "counting coups" in the traditional sense against the U.S. Army was futile; he realized that planting the coup-stick in no way intimidates the man firing a Gatling gun. But by allying themselves with the white man, and learning his ways, he seems to have understood that some parts of the Crow nation might be preserved - in particular, their land. This is not a hope that transcends understanding, but a hope that is real but limited. Plenty Coups was remarkably successful in handling the encounter of the Crow with the white man, but there is a sense of melancholy in what he says of life after the Crow were included in the reservation system. "After this," Plenty Coups said, "nothing happened." This is a statement of limited hope fulfilled. 

Darwinian Logic and the Mind

The post Darwinists Check Their Logic at the Door over at Uncommon Descent brings up one of my favorite topics, the relationship of evolution to the mind. I think all three of the participants in the main post miss the logic of the situation.

The problem with Delurker's response in the first exchange ("To the extent that nature is comprehensible, modern evolutionary theory predicts that alignment with reality will be selected for.") is not that it is circular. Barry A. confuses an epistemological question with an empirical one in making that argument. No, the problem with Delurker's response is that it is a philosophical response rather than the empirically contingent one he seems to think it is.

There is nothing wrong with philosophical responses, of course, unless they are mistaken for something else. This is what happens here. "Alignment with reality will be selected for" cannot be a contingent conclusion from evolutionary science, but is a precondition for the possibility of evolutionary science itself. Is evolutionary science about the true world or merely about our impression of the world, an impression that may or may not have anything to do with true reality? (I.e. do we have a science of the noumenal or the phenomenal?) Evolutionary scientists to a man take it for granted that their science is about the world as it really is, which means that they already assume that their minds are "aligned with reality." Evolutionary science must predict that alignment with reality will be selected for, because only a mind aligned with reality can truly investigate how it is that the mind is aligned with reality. I happen to agree that our minds are aligned with reality, but not because I think it is a possible empirical conclusion, but rather because Aristotle settled the issue thousands of years ago in his Metaphysics Book IV.

The logic of Exchange #3 is similar. How did the mind and world become coordinated? The answer is that "organisms who don't deal with reality die (eventually)." This again cannot be a contingent conclusion from evolutionary science, but is a precondition for the possibility of evolutionary science itself. If it were a contingent conclusion, then we would have to seriously consider the possibility that "organisms who don't deal with reality fare quite well." But if this latter possibility were true, then since human beings have fared quite well, we may very well be the type of creature that fares well without dealing with reality. Our evolutionary science, in that case, might have nothing to do with the way things really are. The assertion "organisms who don't deal with reality die" is an assertion about reality only if it is spoken by a creature already confident of his connection with reality; if its negation is taken seriously as an empirical possibility then the mind has put itself out of its own misery.

In exchange #4, the point is made that "the nature of reality is not addressed by modern evolutionary theory. The fitness of organisms to that reality is." If the nature of reality is not addressed by modern evolutionary theory, but the fitness of organisms is, then the fitness of organisms must have nothing to do with the nature of reality. We are back to the point that the possibility of evolutionary science requires that the human mind be "fitted" to reality; if this fitness is not itself part of reality but only our imaginations, then evolutionary science as a science of the way things truly are is not possible.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lear and Aristotle on Courage and Radical Hope

I recently finished reading Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Lear is also the author of the wonderful Aristotle, the Desire to Understand. I would like to discuss Lear's use of Aristotle in the former book, but to do so I must give a preliminary account of Lear's project in that work, so I ask the reader's patience.

Radical Hope is a meditation on the meaning of the virtues, and specifically courage, in a time of cultural collapse. Lear bases his investigation on the life of Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow Nation. Plenty Coups's life spanned from the 1850's, when the Crow were still a vibrant Indian tribe, through to the 1930's, by which time they had been relegated to a reservation for many years. Lear credits Plenty Coups with guiding the Crow through this transition in a way significantly more successful than most other Indian tribes. 

What happened to the Crow was something far more significant than merely a military defeat or occupation. Their traditional way of understanding themselves became unintelligible. Lear calls this event a loss of concepts. When Plenty Coups was raised, the traditional Crow life was still tenable. His moral character and imagination was developed in its terms. For example courage, for the Crow, centered on the feat of "counting coups." Counting coups was paradigmatically some sort of  bold exploit with respect to the enemy. Lear quotes the following account of counting coups from Plenty Coups:

To count coup a warrior had to strike an armed and fighting enemy with his coup-stick, quirt, or bow before otherwise harming him, or take his weapons while he was yet alive, or strike the first enemy falling in battle, no matter who killed him, or strike the enemy's breastworks while under file, or steal a horse tied to a lodge in an enemy's camp, etc. The first named was the most honorable, and to strike such a coup a warrior would often display great bravery.

The crow-stick was also used as a "line in the sand" in battle. If a warrior planted his coup-stick, he was obliged to hold the ground in which it was planted or lose his life attempting to defend it. As Lear describes it:

The planting of the coup-stick was symbolic of the planting of a tree that could not be felled. In effect it marked a boundary across which a non-Crow enemy must not pass. This was a paradigm of courage. A warrior culture will accord highest honor to the brave warriors - and the wise old chiefs who once were brave warriors.

Now what happens when a tribe such as the Crow is moved onto a reservation? Prior to the reservation, the Crow had a certain understanding of life's possibilities. Life is about hunting buffalo and beaver and fighting the Sioux and Blackfeet. The tragic possibilities of life seem accounted for. The worst thing that can happen is military defeat by their enemies. Lear's point is not that the Crow thought they would always be victorious, but that they had a conception of the range of life's tragic possibilities. "Either our warriors will be able to plant their coup-sticks or they will fail." 

But after the move to the reservation, what meaning does "planting the coup-stick" have? The Crow no longer fight the Blackfeet or the Sioux; inter-tribal warfare is forbidden by the U.S. Government. What has happened is something the Crow couldn't even imagine prior to their move to the reservation. Worse than failing to plant their coup-sticks, the entire concept of "planting coup-sticks" has lost intelligibility. How is a warrior raised in the Crow warrior tradition, where life revolved around counting coups, to understand himself on the reservation where planting the coup-stick would be a ridiculous act?

This is what Lear means by "ethics in the face of cultural devastation." He doesn't mean merely that your nation has been defeated and occupied; he means that your nation's entire way of life and means of understanding itself has lost intelligibility. You have suffered a loss of concepts.

Plenty Coups is interesting because he responded to the devastation of the Crow way of life in a novel and flexible way. He didn't "go down fighting" by planting his coup-stick in a doomed defense against the U.S. Army. Plenty Coups, in his youth, had several dreams that prophesied the destruction of the Crow way of life. They also gave a clue concerning a way he could deal with it, "the virtue of the Chickadee" :

Young Plenty Coups's dream calls on him, and it gives him ethical advice - advice that seems designed to help him survive the cataclysmic rupture that is about to occur: become a chickadee! "He is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom. The Chickadee-person is a good listener. Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by constant use. Whenever others are talking together of their successes and failures, there you will find the Chickadee-person listening to their words." Becoming a chickadee, then, is a virtue - a form of human excellence... Chickadee virtue called for a new form of courage, yet it drew on the traditional resources of Crow culture to do so. "The Chickadee is big medicine," Pretty Shield told her interviewer.
Lear makes the argument that, using the virtue of the Chickadee, Plenty Coups was able to transcend the culturally specific form of courage into which he was raised and discover a way the Crow could weather the storm of the White Man. This is what Lear means by radical hope; a hope that transcends the concepts with which one may understand it. The courage that Plenty Coups demonstrated in following the virtue of the Chickadee was outside the parameters of courage as it had been taught him in his Crow youth.

It is by way of analyzing courage and what it might have meant to Plenty Coups that Lear brings in Aristotle. He uses Aristotle's analysis of courage to analyze the courage of Plenty Coups. Lear then writes this:

In a period of cultural devastation such as Plenty Coups and the Crow had to endure, there would have to be a radical transformation in the risks associated with courage. At such a historical moment, traditional examples of risk - counting coups - have become weirdly irrelevant. And the risks that do arise are of a different order: the risks of facing a future that one as yet lacks the concepts to understand. Are there courageous ways of facing a future for which the traditional concept of courage has become inapplicable? This is not a question that Aristotle ever asked; and one can see that it has distinctive challenges.

Lear does not explore why Aristotle never asked this question; the impression he gives is that it is a simple lack in Aristotle. But there is a good reason that Aristotle never addressed it: His understanding of courage is not one that might become inapplicable through cultural devastation. In fact, this is the very reason that Aristotle's twenty-five hundred year old analysis of courage is still useful to Lear in his contemporary analysis of Plenty Coups.

The difference between Aristotle and Plenty Coups is that Aristotle was a philosopher and Plenty Coups, as brave and flexible as he was, was not. All of Aristotle's thought is based on the fundamental philosophical distinction between nature and convention. Aristotle analyzes courage in terms of nature; that is, in terms of the enduring characteristics of human being that are the same everywhere and for all time, and that transcend cultureNon-philosophical cultures, like that of the Crow, do not possess this distinction. For them, the conventional form of courage found in their culture - e.g. counting coups - is courage pure and simple. When circumstances change in a way that makes counting coups no longer intelligible as an act of courage, then courage itself ceases to be a meaningful concept. This is how the Crow can lose the concept of courage. Aristotle can lose his concept of courage only if human nature itself is transformed.

Lear introduces Aristotle's analysis of virtue this way:

For Aristotle, the virtues are states of character the exercise of which contributes to living an excellent life. He did not confront the problem that different historical epochs might impose different requirements on what states of the soul could count as courage. And thus the conception of courage I shall explore extends beyond the virtue that Aristotle explicitly considered.

Everything hangs on what is meant by an "excellent life." Does it refer to a culturally specific form of life, such as the nomadic warrior/hunter life of the Crow with its focus on counting coups, or the ancient Greek life specific to Athens? The original philosopher, Socrates, was executed for challenging the conventional forms of religious piety in Athens. For Socrates the "excellent life" could only be a life lived according to a reason informed by nature - "the unreflected life is not worth living." Aristotle followed Socrates by dividing the virtues into intellectual and moral virtues. The intellectual virtues are the virtues by which we know the truth about nature and man; the moral virtues are those that allow us to live according to the truth discovered by the intellectual virtues. The intellectual virtues inform the moral virtues. What makes "courage" truly count as courage is not its conformity to a culturally specific mode of life, but whether it reflects the truth about the nature of man; just as Socrates argued against Euthyphro that "piety" is only truly piety if it is based on the truth about the gods and not merely the conventional way of interacting with the gods.

Aristotle famously begins the Nicomachean Ethics by saying that "Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim." He then proceeds to draw a distinction between instrumental goods and goods that are ends in themselves, the former of which are pursued for the sake of the latter. Aristotle uses the example of the military arts, which are all subordinate to the end of victory. The end of victory itself falls under the science of politics, or the master art, which is directed to the end of man as such. When an instrumental good is no longer able to serve the end to which it is subordinate, it loses its status as a good. This is implicit in Aristotle's analysis. Counting-coups was an instrumental good conducing to the successful defense of the nomadic warrior/hunter Crow tribe against other Indian tribes. For Aristotle, when counting-coups no longer made sense in terms of the success of the Crow tribe, it would cease to be a virtue. This would not have been a world-shattering event for Aristotle; it was world-shattering for the Crow because they did not possess Aristotle's philosophical understanding of the distinction between instrumental and final goods. Here is more from Lear on what happened to the Crow:

The Crow had a conception of happiness, a conception of what life was worth living for. They lived in relation to a spiritual world in which they believed God had chosen them to live a certain kind of life. Happiness consisted in living that life to the full. This was an active and unfettered pursuit of a nomadic hunting life in which their family life and social rituals could prosper... With the destruction of this way of life came the destruction of the end or goal - the telos - of that life. Their problem, then, was not simply that they could not pursue happiness in the traditional ways. Rather, their conception of what happiness is could no longer be lived. The characteristic activities that used to constitute the good life ceased to be intelligible acts. A crucial blow to their happiness was a loss of the concepts with which their happiness had been understood.

I believe that Lear is in danger of reading into the Crow a philosophical attitude they did not possess. Nothing Lear quotes from the Crow indicates that they had a concept of "happiness." They had a way of life, the nomadic warrior/hunter life, that constituted their life as Crow. They weren't living their lives "for" anything; they were just living them. Hunting buffalo and counting coups are what Crow did, and there is no reason to think they did it self-consciously in terms of a concept of what life was about. This lack of self-consciousness, or philosophical innocence, in fact, seems to be what attracted Rousseau to "savage" people and led him to develop the notion of the "noble savage." The noble savage lives directly and immediately, without the philosophical reflection that leads him to develop a science and politics that ultimately enslaves him (or so Rousseau thought.)

Whether or not we are attracted to the philosophical innocence of aboriginal life, it is a life that is in danger of becoming unintelligible if its specific mode of living becomes untenable. In such circumstances the only possibility open to it is a "radical hope", or a leap into (and hopefully across) the abyss. What is on the other side of the abyss (i.e. what the Crow will be like after the encounter with the white man) is something the "noble savage" can't possibly conceive.

A culture that is philosophically based, on the other hand, as Western culture was from the time of the ancient Greeks forward, has the resources to persevere through civilizational collapse, as trying as those times might be. The premier case of this is, of course, the collapse of the Roman Empire. St. Augustine, in his City of God, drew on all the philosophical (and religious) resources of the West to teach us that what mattered about Rome was not anything that could disappear with the sack of Rome; it would endure as God and the nature of man endures.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Elderly and the City

What does it say about a City (in Plato's sense of the word) that considers its elderly a burden rather than the expression of its greatest fulfillment? I write this after having made a comment on the secular right blog.

If human being means something more than mere productive utility, then it must bear a goodness that develops with time and is therefore expressed in the elderly or nowhere at all.  Traditional cultures do not see the elderly as burdens but as the fullest expression of the way of life of their City. The elderly possess an understanding of life and human nature, a wisdom, that can only come with age and experience; they are not a burden to the city but its greatest resource. We can always bear more young. A wise old man or woman can only be the result of many years of virtue and good fortune. 

The Enlightenment cut wisdom down to what can be demonstrated via an abstract reason married to empirical observation. This had the immediate benefit of sweeping away many old and obstructive prejudices. But it also undermined any serious notion of wisdom, and specifically the conviction that there are important things about life and human nature that can only be known through long experience and reflection. The young Descartes could only choose to embark on his universal doubt if he thought that time and experience were not essential to any important truths. In the twentieth century, the young Albert Camus could write the following only in an intellectual universe thoroughly penetrated by the Enlightenment understanding of reason and its lack of respect for the wisdom that is a prerogative of age:

After so many centuries of inquiries, so many abdications among thinkers, we are well aware that this true for all our knowledge. With the exception of professional rationalists, today people despair of true knowledge. If the only history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotences. (From the Myth of Sisyphus)

In the 12th century, someone who uttered such sentiments would be asked: What can a 29 year old possibly know? In the twentieth century, he is applauded for his bold vision.

We in the twenty-first century have difficulty finding reasons to keep the old folks around. We have eliminated the pursuit of wisdom as the goal of our universities; now we are contemplating severing our last link with the only people who might have finally learned wisdom on their own. What will happen to Athens when Socrates is given hemlock before he even has a chance to become the gadfly that wakes up the City?