Saturday, August 17, 2013

Extraordinary Discourse 134

Deep Twaddle

Freedom, then, to do anything and to become anyone? Informality and spontaneity as the ends of life? Pico emphatically rejected this. Born indeterminate, he says, human beings have to find unity in their lives; a person must make him or herself coherent. In Renaissance Humanism, this quest meant uniting conflicting ancient ideals by bridging the Hellenic and the Christian mindset; in Pico’s own philosophy, it meant making the one and the many cohere, or as philosophers would put it today, discovering unity in the midst of difference. Spinoza, two centuries later, was grounded in just this Humanist project.

What does the Humanist quest for unity in the midst of difference mean for us today? Here a contrast between Pico and Spinoza is all important. Spinoza emphasized unities transcending time—timeless unities in mental space—whereas Pico dwelt on the fact of shifting time, and shifting time in everyday experience. Pico dwelt, we would now say, on the phenomenon of life narrative: can the events and accidents of life add up to a coherent story? That is every migrant’s question. And since these events and accidents are beyond an uprooted person’s control, the unity of a life-story has to reside in the person telling it; unity, we would say, lies in the quality of the narrator’s voice. The narrator, following Pico’s precept, must learn how to tell about disorder and displacement in his or her own life in such a way that he or she does not become confused or deranged by the telling.
Richard Sennett