Journeying Down and In with God
You'd think this would deustracting, but ever since the Boy arrived I've mastered the ability to maintain my concentration under the most extreme forms of nuisance: the maestro is a sensitive subgenius no more!
I remember -- must have been around eight years ago -- posting while being double-teamed by a three month old Great Dane puppy above the waist and a two year old below, so this is nothing. Although I do believe I've lost some brain cells since then, so there's that.
Just yesterday I read something that goes to this question of interior con-centration. Without looking it up, it appears to me that con must mean "with," while centration has to do with gathering one's consciousness into a central point in order to increase the intensity -- somewhat like a magnifying glass can gather the sun's rays into a fiery point.
Now, man has always had this ability, for it is a form of volition applied to the mind as opposed to the body. However, it seems to me that he mastered the exterior focus long before the interior.
In other wor(l)ds, man was able to, say, master the concentration necessary to track and kill a wild animal before he could turn that focus inward and explore the subjective horizon. As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, many scholars regard Augustine's Confessions as the first sustained written effort in that direction, although it is probably more accurate to say that he is the most visible representative of a more general trend.
Oddly enough, Sowell touches on this in Knowledge and Decisions. One of the ideas we've been discussing is that man was very different in the past, but part of this is due to the exterior focus. It's not so much that his "nature" was different. Rather, he had to adapt to a radically different environment, plus this environment did not include such things as books or written language, both of which being a cause and effect of the interior journey.
Long story short, Sowell makes the point that man has always known a great deal, and that there is no reason to believe that an individual's life today is any less "complicated" than it was 50,000 years ago. While today we benefit from great complexity, the complexity is systemic, not the possession of any single individual. Indeed, as the old economic truism goes, no single man possesses even the know-how to make a pencil, which requires detailed knowledge of mining, metallurgy, forestry, rubber, etc.
Today we have much more complexity due to the division of labor. But back in the day -- 50,000 years ago -- since the only division of labor was between man and woman, a man had to know everything (or half) there is to know about how to survive.
A contemporary man in the archaic environment would essentially be a worthless know-nothing. Put us in those conditions, and very few of us would last a week, for lack of general knowledge of how to survive. So give primitive man his props. If he hadn't figured out a way to master the exterior world, we wouldn't be here exploring the interior.
While Inventing the Individual depicts the broad sweep of this subjective turn, The Middle Ages fills in a lot of the details. It is more dry and pedantic, so not really recommended if you're looking for a gay and lighthearted romp through middle earth.
The author does show, however, that it is hardly as if progress and history somehow slowed to a crawl between 500 and 1500, or between antiquity and Renaissance, or however you cut the historical sausage. Nor is the progress linear or universal. Rather, little springs of interiority appear here and there, only later becoming more of a collective pool or stream (and sometimes sewer).
At first, thinking is geared to the immediate environment, since that is all there is. Only after there is some degree of reliable slack does man have the space -- the luxury -- to take a look inside his own head.
After all, the interiority of Christianity had to deal with an existing world in which "people still celebrated bloody sacrifices, indulged in fortune-telling and magic, placed their faith in amulets and soothsayers, sought salvation through spells, and believed in superstition." Each of these represents an exteriorized from of religiosity. Only gradually was "the magical interpretation" of the world "robbed of its allure." And like Moloch or the Golden Calf or AGW or leftism more generally, the temptation to regress is always there.
Even the language of the day is difficult for us to comprehend, or to "think our way into," since its users were so different. As Fried writes, cognition "was rooted in a situational mode of thinking and rarely used abstracts" (in other words, situational as opposed to universal).
Likewise, familiar tools and concepts such as formal logic and cause-and-effect "were largely absent." Sometimes this resulted in failure to differentiate an image from the god: iconography easily descended to idolatry: "Many a simple-minded believer may well have identified the image with the subject depicted."
Again, this doesn't mean our forebears didn't know anything; rather, that they knew a very different world: "Within such a framework, no unity could be identified." Nor was there "any figure of abstraction separating the private from public realms." In this context, one can see the developmental leap required to intuit monotheism, which is another name for the ultimate unity of things, or their single cause.
I've mentioned before how the severely mentally ill person can provide insight into the relatively sane, since their psychic content and defense mechanisms are so visibly hypertrophied and externalized. Just so, we can see how each and every one of these prior modes of thought persist today. We don't so much abandon them as integrate them into a more comprehensive system. I can have an icon of Christ on the wall without confusing it with Christ; we can be religious without conflating it with magic; we can believe in science without confusing it with ultimate reality.
"Individual" and "private" co-arise in history, as they are two sides of the same development. Just as exterior freedom and private property are entirely bound up together, so too are self and privacy.
This lays the foundation for the profound political changes to come, for the unit of subjection becomes the person instead of the family or group. Compare this to, say, the Arab-Muslim world, where the primary identification is still to kin and tribe, while morality is not a private matter but public conformity to sharia law.
The latter is quite different from the Christian view, in which the individual was encouraged to undertake a "strict accounting of himself" (in Siedentop). We must try to look at ourselves as God sees us. Indeed, "moral authority ought to imitate the condescension of God, seeking out and inhabiting the depth of the human condition." God goes all the way down and in, so if it's good enough for him, it should be good enough for the likenesses of us.