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THE FIRST NIGHT
ARISTOTLE ON SPECIALISM IN ENGLAND

The first night the gods and heroes assembled on the heights around Florence. From the magnificent town there came only a faint glimmer of artificial light, and the Arno rolled its waves melodiously towards the sea. On a height full of convenient terraces, offering a view on the Lily of the Arno, on Fiesole, and on the finely undulating outlines of the Apennine Mountains, the Assembly sat down. From afar one could see the bold lines of the copy of Michelangelo's David on the hill. The evening was lovely and balmy. Zeus opened the meeting with a request directed to Alexander, King of Macedon, to ask his teacher Aristotle to entertain them with his experiences at the seats of modern learning and study. Alexander did so, and the grave Stagirite, mellowed by the years, addressed the Assembly as follows:

"All my mortal life I have tried, by reading, by making vast collections of natural objects and animals, and by the closest thinking on the facts furnished to me by men of all sorts of professions and crafts, to get at some unity of knowledge. I held, and still hold, that just as Nature is one, so ought Know[Pg 2]ledge too to be. I have written a very large number of treatises, many of which, thanks to Thy Providence, O Zeus, have escaped the smallpox called commentaries, in that the little ones never got possession of those works. But while always loving detail and single facts, I never lost sight of the connection of facts. As a coin, whether a penny or a sovereign, has no currency unless the image of the prince is cut out on it, even so has no fact scientific value unless the image of an underlying general principle is grafted thereon. This great truth I taught all my pupils, and I hoped that men would carefully observe it in all their studies. When then I went amongst the little ones, I expected them to do as I had taught their teachers to do. However, what I found was, O Zeus, the funniest of all things.

"On my visit to what they call Universities I happened to call, in the first place, on a professor who said he studied history. In my time I believed that history was not as suggestive of philosophical truths as is poetry. Since then I have somewhat altered my view. Naturally enough I was curious to know what my Professor of History thought of that, and I asked him to that effect. He looked at me with a singular smile and said: 'My young friend (—I had assumed the appearance of a student—), my young friend, history is neither more nor less than a science. As such it consists of a long array of specialities.' 'And which,' I asked timidly, 'is your special period?' Whereupon the professor gravely said: 'The afternoons of the year 1234 A.D.'" While everybody present in the Assembly, including even St Francis of Assisi, laughed at this point of Aristotle's narrative,[Pg 3] Diogenes exclaimed: "Why has the good man not selected the nights of that year? It would greatly reduce his labours."

A peal of laughter rewarded the lively remark. Aristotle resumed his tale, and said: "When the professor saw that I was a little amused at his statement, he frowned on me and exclaimed in a deep voice, if with frequent stammerings, which as I subsequently learnt is the chief attraction of their diction, 'My young friend, you must learn to understand that we modern historians have discovered a method so subtle, and so effective, that, with all deference be it said, we are in some respects stronger even than the gods. For the gods cannot change the past; but we modern historians can. We do it every day of our lives, and some of us have obtained a very remarkable skill at it.'"

At this point of Aristotle's narrative Homeric laughter seized all present, and Aristophanes patted the Stagirite on the back, saying: "Pray, consider yourself engaged. At the next performance of my best comedy you will be my protagonist." Aristotle thanked him with much grace, and continued: "I was naturally very curious to learn what my Professor of History thought of the great Greeks of my own time and of that of my ancestors. I mentioned Homer. I had barely done so but what my professor burst into a coarse and disdainful guffaw.

"'Homer?' he exclaimed; 'Homer?—but of whom do you speak? Homer is nothing more nor less than a multiple syndicate of street-ballad-singers who, by a belated process of throwing back the "reflex" of present and modern events to remote ages,[Pg 4] and by the well-known means of literary contamination, epical syncretism, and religious, mythop?ic, and subconscious impersonation have been hashed into the appearance of one great poet.

"'Our critical methods, my young friend, are so keen that, to speak by way of simile, we are able to spot, from looking at the footprints of a man walking in the sand, what sort of buttons he wore on his cuffs.

"'Poor Cuvier—otherwise one of my revered colleagues—used to say: "Give me a tooth of an animal and I will reconstruct the rest of the animal's body." What is Cuvier's feat as compared with ours? He still wanted a tooth; he still was in need of so clumsy and palpable a thing as a tooth; perhaps a molar. We, the super-Cuviers of history, we do not want a tooth any more than toothache; we want nothing. No tooth, no footprint even, simply nothing. Is it not divine? We form, as it were, an Ex Nihilo Club. We have nothing, we want nothing, and yet give everything. Although we have neither leg to stand on, nor tooth to bite with, we staunchly prove that Homer was not Homer, but a lot of Homers. Is that not marvellous? But even this, my young friend, is only a trifle. We have done far greater things.

"'These ancient Greeks (quite clever fellows, I must tell you, and some of them could write grammatical Greek), these ancient Greeks had, amongst other remarkable men, one called Aristotle. He wrote quite a number of works; of course, not quite as many as he thought he did. For we have proved by our Ex Nihilo methods that much of what he thought he had written was not written by him, but[Pg 5] dictated. We have gone even so far (I myself, although used to our exploits, stand sometimes agape at our sagacity), we have gone so far as to prove that in the dictation of some of his writings Aristotle was repeatedly interrupted by letters or telephonic messages, which accounts for gaps and other shortcomings.

"'Well, this man Aristotle (for, we have not yet pluralised him, although I—but this would pass your horizon, my young friend)—this clever man has left us, amongst other works, one called "Politics." It is not wanting in quality, and it is said, if with certain doubts, that there are a few things to be learnt from it. It is, of course, also said that no professor has ever learnt them. But this is mere calumny. Look at their vast commentaries. Of course, how can one accept some of the glaring fallacies of Aristotle? Imagine, that man Aristotle wants us to believe that nearly all Greek states were founded, equipped with a constitution, and in a word, completely fitted out by one man in each case. Thus, that Sparta was founded, washed, dressed, fed, and educated by one Lycurgus. How ridiculous!

"'Having proved, as we have, that Homer's poetry, a mere book, was made by a Joint Stock Company, Unlimited, how can we admit that a big and famous state like Sparta was ordered, cut out, tailored, stuffed and set on foot by one man? Where would be Evolution? If a state like Sparta was made in the course of a few months by one man, what would Evolution do with all the many, many years and ages she has to drag along? Why, she would die with ennui, bored to death. Can we admit that? Can one let Evolution die? Is she not[Pg 6] a nice, handy, comely Evolution, and so useful in the household that we cannot be happy until we get her? To believe in a big, important state like Sparta having been completely established by one man is like saying that my colleague, the Professor of Zoology, taking a shilling bottle of Bovril, has reconstituted out of its contents a live ox walking stately into his lecture-room. Hah-hah-hah! Very good joke. (Secretary! Put it into my table-talk! Voltairian joke! serious, but not grave.)

"'Now, you see, my young friend, in that capital point Aristotle was most childishly mistaken; and even so in many another point. We have definitely done away with all state-founders of the ancients. Romulus is a myth; so is Theseus; so is Moses; so is Samson (not to speak of Delilah); so is everybody who pretended to have founded a city-state. Since he never existed, how could he have founded anything? Could I found a city-state? Or any state, except a certain state of mind, in which I say that no single man can found a city-state? Could I? Of course, I could not. Well then, how could Lycurgus? Was he a LL.D.? Was he a member of the British Academy? Was he a professor at Oxford? Had he written numerous letters to The Times? Was he subscriber to so respectable a paper as The Spectator? It is ridiculous to speak of such a thing. Lycurgus founding Sparta! It is too amusing for words. These are all myths. Whatever we cannot understand, we call a myth; and since we do not understand many things, we get every day a richer harvest of myths. We are full of them. We are the real living mythology.'

"To this long oration," Aristotle continued, "I[Pg 7] retorted as calmly as I could, that we Greeks had states totally different from those of the moderns, just as the latter had a Church system absolutely different from our religious institutions; so that if anyone had tried to persuade an Athenian of my time that a few hundred years later there would be Popes, or single men claiming and obtaining the implicit obedience of all believers in all countries, the Athenian would sooner have gone mad than believe such stuff. For, to him, as a Greek, it must have seemed hopelessly incredible that an office such as that of the universal Pope should ever be tolerated; or, in other words, that a single man should ever be given such boundless spiritual power. I said all that with much apparent deference; but my professor got more and more out of control.

"'What,' said he, 'what do you drag in Popes for? We talk of Lycurgus, not of Popes. Was Lycurgus a Christian? Let us stick to the point. The point is that Lycurgus never existed, since so many professors, who do exist beyond doubt, deny his historical existence. Now, either you deny the existence of these professors, which you can't; or you deny that of Lycurgus, which you must. Existence cannot include non-existence. For, non-existence is, is it not?—the negation of existence. And since the professors exist, their non-existence would involve us in the most exasperating contradictions with them, with ourselves, and with the daily Press. This, however, would be a disaster too awful to be seriously thought of. Consequently, Lycurgus did not exist; nor did any other state-founding personality in Greek or Roman times.

"'In fact when you come to think of it, nobody[Pg 8] ever existed except ourselves. Adam was not; he will be at the end of ends. The whole concept of the world is wrong as understood by the vulgar. Those old Greek and Roman heroes, like Aristomenes, Coriolanus, Cincinnatus, never existed for a day. Nor did the Doric Migration, the Twelve Tables, and lots of other so-called events. They have been invented by schoolmasters for purposes of exams. Did Draco's laws ever exist? Ridiculous. That man Aristotle speaks of them, but it is as evident as soap that he invented them for mods. or other exams. of his.

"'The vulgar constantly ask me whether or no history repeats itself. What, for goodness' sake, does that matter to me? It is sufficient for all purposes that historians repeat each other, for it is in that way that historical truth is established. Or do not the great business-princes thus establish their reputation? They go on repeating "Best furniture at Staple's," "Best furniture at Staple's," three hundred and sixty-five times a year, in three hundred and sixty-five papers a day. By repetition of the same thing they establish truth. So do we historians. That's business. What, under the circumstances, does it matter, whether history itself does or does not repeat itself?

"'One arrogant fellow who published a wretched book on "General History," thought wonders what he did not do by saying, that "History does repeat itself in institutions, but never in events or persons." Can such drivel be tolerated! Why, the repetition by and through persons (read: historians) is the very soul of history. We in this country have said and written in and out of time and on every sort of[Pg 9] paper, that the "Decline and Fall of the Burmese Empire" is the greatest historical work ever written by a Byzantine, or a post-Byzantine. We have said it so frequently, so incessantly, that at present it is an established truth. Who would dare to say that it is not? Why, the very Daily Nail would consider such a person as being beneath it.

"'We real historians go for facts only. Ideas are sheer dilettantism. Give us facts, nothing but single, limited, middle-class facts. In the Republic of Letters we do not suffer any lordly ideas, no more than the idea of lords. One fact is as good as another, and far worse. Has not our greatest authority taught that the British Empire was established in and by absent-mindedness, that is, without a trace of reasoned ideas? As the British Empire, even so the British historians, and, cela vo sang dir, all the other historians. Mind is absent. "Mind" is a periodical; not a necessity. We solid researchers crawl from one fact to another for crawling's sake.'"

The gods and heroes were highly amused with the tale of Aristotle, and it was with genuine delight that they saw him resume the story of his experiences at the seats of learning. "When I left the Professor of History," continued Aristotle, "I felt somewhat heavy and dull. I could not easily persuade myself that such utter confusion should reign in the study of history after so many centuries of endless research. I hoped that the little ones[Pg 10] might have made more real advance in philosophy; and with a view to ascertain the fact, I entered a lecturing hall where a professor was even then holding forth on my treatise 'De Anima.' He had just published a thick book on my little treatise, although (or perhaps because?...) another professor, a Frenchman, had recently published a much thicker book on it.

"I listened very attentively, but could not understand a word of what he said. He treated me text-critically, philologically, hermeneutically,—everything, except understandingly. I felt that my treatise was not mine at all. It was his. At a given moment I could not help uttering aloud a sarcastic remark about the professor's explanations. Down he came on me like thunder, and with a triumphant sneer he proved to me that what I had said I had not said at all. In that I differed entirely from a great statesman of theirs, who had said what he had said. The professor put me under a regular examination, and after twenty minutes formally ploughed me in 'De Anima.'

"This was a novel experience for me. In the Middle Ages, it is true, I had repeatedly had the same experience, and Albertus Magnus and St Thomas Aquinas had done me the same honour. But in modern times I had not yet experienced it. The next day I called upon the professor, who lived in a beautiful house, filled with books, amongst which I saw a great number of editions of my own works.

"I asked him whether he had ever cared to study the anima, or what they call the psychology of animals. I added that Aristotle had evidently done[Pg 11] so, as his works explicitly prove, and that after he had surveyed all sorts of souls in the vegetable, animal and human kingdom, both normal and pathological, he wrote his treatise 'De Anima,' the real sense of which must escape him who has not taken such a wide range of the question. Ah—you ought to have seen the professor! He jumped from his seat, took another whisky and soda and said: 'My young friend, the first thing in science is to distinguish well. Bene docet qui bene distinguit. You speak of animals. What have they to do with human psychology? Their souls are studied by my colleague who goes in for comparative psychology; or rather by several of my colleagues, one of whom studies the comparative psychology of the senses; the other that of the emotions; the third that of memory; the fourth—the fifth—the sixth, etc., etc., etc.

"'I, I stick to my point. I have my speciality. You might think that my speciality is psychology, or Aristotle's psychology. Not at all. This is all too vague, too general. My speciality is quite special; a particularly singular speciality: the text of Aristotle's psychology. And even that goes too far; for what I really call my speciality is my version of the text which is said to have been written by Aristotle.

"'Now at last we are on firm ground. What under those conditions need I trouble about cats and rats? The latter, the rats, have, I admit, some little importance for me. They have in their time devoured parts of Aristotle's manuscripts, and I have now to reconstitute what they have swallowed. I am to them a kind of literary Beecham's Pill. But[Pg 12] as to cats, mules or donkeys? What have they to do with me? Can they influence my version of the text? Hardly.

"'My young friend, if Aristotle himself came to me, I should tell him: "My good man, unless you accept my version of your text, you are out of court. I am a professor, and you are only an author. Worse than that—a Greek author. As theologians fix the value and meaning of gospel-words; as the State makes a piece of worthless paper worth five pounds sterling by a mere declaration; even so we say what you Aristotle did say. What you said or meant is indifferent; what we say you said or meant is alone of consequence." How then could even Aristotle refute me regarding my view of his views? It is logically impossible.

"'Don't you see, this is why we have invented our beautiful system of excessive specialisation. Where each of us studies only one very small thing, there he need not fear much competition, but may hope for exclusive authority. We shall soon establish chairs for professors of philosophy, who will study, each of them, just a mere splinter of a twig of one branch of the tree of philosophy; or better still, just one leaf of such a twig of such a branch; and finally, just a dewdrop on such a leaf of such a twig of such a branch. Then we shall have completed our network of authority.

"'Our contemptible enemies say that our talk about Aristotle and Plato is like the gossip of lackeys in the pot-house about their noble masters. We know better. You are a young man. I will give you a bit of profound advice. If you want to make your way in the literary world rapidly and[Pg 13] with ease, hitch on your name to some universally acknowledged celebrity. Do not write on obscure, if great authors or heroes; but pick out Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, or Napoleon. Write constantly on some speciality of these men; thus, on the adjectives in Homer; on the neutral article in Plato; on the conjunctions in Dante; on the plant-lore in Shakespeare; on the names of women in Goethe; or on the hats of Napoleon.

"'Your name will then incessantly be before the public together with that of Homer or Shakespeare or Napoleon. After a time, by a natural association of ideas, something of the lustre of the immortal will fall on you. Note how the most elaborate writers on, say Shakespeare, are almost invariably men of the most sincere mediocrity. They are, nevertheless, exceedingly clever tacticians. They become "authorities." We are not authorities because we are specialists; we have, on the contrary, introduced the system of specialities in order to pass for authorities. To use Plato's terms: our whole business spells effectology, and nothing else. Take this to heart and be successful.'

"On leaving the professor," Aristotle said, "I felt that I had made several steps forward in the comprehension of that system of specialisation which I heard praised and admired in all the Universities. I need not tell you, my friends, how utterly wrong that system is. As humans do not think in words, but in whole[Pg 14] sentences, so Nature does not act in particulars, but in wholes. The particulars are ours, not Nature's. In making them we act arbitrarily. Why should dentistry be one speciality? Why should there not be thirty-two different specialist dentists for our thirty-two teeth? All specialisation in the realm of knowledge is rank arbitrariness. Without exception, the great leading ideas in all organised thought have invariably been made by wholesale thinkers like Pythagoras, Plato, I venture to add: myself, Lionardo da Vinci, Kepler, Newton, Pascal, Leibniz, Darwin. That is precisely where humans differ from animals. All animals are the most conceited specialists."

Here Diogenes interrupted: "Does the converse hold good, O Aristotle?"

"I will leave," Aristotle replied with a smile, "the consideration of this case to your own discretion. I do repeat it, that each animal is an out-and-out specialist. It troubles about nothing else than the two or three things it takes a professional interest in. It eats, sleeps, and propagates; occasionally it adds a tightly circumscribed activity of some kind. That's why animals do not talk. It is not part of their speciality. They do not talk for the same reason that the English do not produce fine music, nor the Prussians tactful behaviour. In all these cases the interest of the specialist lies elsewhere.

"Does a modern specialist in heart-diseases study the kidneys? Does a specialist in surgery care to study the nerves? Even so an animal does not care to speak. It is a specialist; it restricts itself to its 'business,' to 'the point.' The little ones say that animals have no general ideas, and that[Pg 15] is why they cannot speak. But have human specialists any general ideas of anything, and yet—do they not speak? The argument is too foolish for words.

"Why, Nature created men in order to have a few generalists, if I may say so, amongst all the specialists called animals or plants; just as amongst men she created Homers and Platos and Galileos and Leibnizes, in order to save the rest of humans from their evil tendency to over-specialisation. It is a plan as plain as transparent glass.

"Thousands of years ago Nature found out that, with all these endless vegetal and animal specialists on hand, she would soon have to declare herself bankrupt. One specialist ignored the other; or hampered, hurt, and paralysed the other; they could not understand one another, because they had no common interest. In her predicament, Nature created human beings for the same reason that men invented the locomotive or the telegraph. She could no longer be without him. Man was, by his very needs, obliged to drop over-specialisation. He interested himself, for a variety of ends and reasons, in stones as much as in plants and animals. By exterminating some of the most damaging species of animals, he saved the life of millions of specimens of other animals that would otherwise have been killed out by ferocious specialists, such as the tiger, the leopard, and the wolf. The same he did to plants, and partly to rivers and lakes. He brought a little order into this pandemonium of specialists in Nature.

"Look at the sea. There man was unable to exert his power for order by general ideas. Look at the indescribable disorder and chaos and mon[Pg 16]strosity of life and living beings in the sea. They are hideous, like an octopus; short-lived, nay, of a few minutes' duration, like the jelly-fish; fearfu............
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