The apex of human progress
Olavo de Carvalho
Freud used to say that the history of the Western mind had been marked by three humiliating defeats, successively imposed on the presumptuous human ego: first, Copernicus showed that the planet we inhabit is not the center of the universe; later Darwin taught that man is not a superior being, but just an animal among others; finally Freud himself brought the proof that individual conscience is not even its own master, but the plaything of unconscious forces.
The idea of the progress of knowledge as an exchange of grandiose illusions for evermore depressing truths became so impregnated in the worldview of the learned classes that other episodes of the history of ideas were interpreted according to it, almost by default. In the time period between Copernicus and Darwin, Newton and Galileo had taught that our impressions of the sensible world are subjective and misleading, because only measurable quantities can be the object of certain knowledge, and Kant demonstrated the impossibility of knowing anything positive about God and the immortality of the soul. In the period in-between Darwin and Freud, Marx revealed that the history of ideas itself is nothing but the apparent manifestation of veiled economic interests, while Comte sanctioned the prohibition of questioning about that which we cannot know through the methods of Newtonian science. Finally, one of Freud's contemporaries, Max Weber, extracted from that the most lethal result: not only good and evil are arbitrary choices, but scientific knowledge itself is not possible without an initial arbitrary choice.
In the following decades, the downgrading of the human species continued ruthlessly. Behaviorism replaced the very notion of the “psyche” by a set of conditioned reflexes that didn't differ significantly from the ones that condition the behavior of a rat or, ultimately, of an ameba. Structuralism and Deconstructionism abolished the Marxist notion of a meaning of History as a residue of humanist illusions. Genetics, neurophysiology, computer-science models of the brain, and pharmacological psychiatry reduced to nil the aspirations of Freudian psychology itself. Ecology portrayed the human being as a bad-behaved and destructive animal harmful to nature. Finally, philosopher Peter Singer promoted chicken and pigs to holders of human rights, in the same footing as a sublime creature as Peter Singer himself.
Thus came down, one after the other, the “narcissistic illusions” – as Freud used to call them – of an animal species that dared to proclaim itself an image and likeness of God. The history of scientific ideas, seen from this aspect, is a history of intellectual humility.
But there are three problems there.
The first one is that the theories included in this narrative are not all equally true. Galileo made the Sun the center of the universe and not just the center of the solar system. Marx vowed that capitalism would restrict the market instead of expanding it. Evolutionism remains in a state of a debatable hypothesis. And psychoanalysis has been so much demoralized that Lacan, in an effort to save it, had to find in it an unconscious part and then proclaim it was this part, and not the one Freud knew, that was genuine psychoanalysis. There is no sense in equalizing scientific truths, awful mistakes and idiotic fantasies as if they were ascending steps of a cognitive scale.
Second problem: each one of the steps of this supposed ascension was climbed at the expense of a monstrous falsification of historical data. The scheme employed was always the same: to forcefully instill in some past doctrine meanings totally foreign to the time in which it was enunciated and to the mentality of its author.
Copernicus never imagined that heliocentrism would remove “man” from the top of the created universe. This interpretation was invented a century later by Giordano Bruno, and Bruno himself warned those who wished to use it as the basis for a materialistic conclusion: do this and you will become so stupid to the point of doubting your own existence (this came to pass, literally, when Deconstructionism preached the “inexistence of the subject” ).
Darwinian doctrine, by placing the human being at the apex of animal evolution, could not at the same time downgrade him to the level of any other animal. The very word “evolution” expresses an ascent in level, not a descent. This should be obvious at first sight, even without the aid of the opening paragraphs of The Origin of Species , which celebrate the evolutionistic ascension as a divine work of – alas! – intelligent design.
The Freudian doctrine does seem to demote the human being, as it reduces consciousness to a product of unconscious factors. But if the passage to the self-conscious level resulted from the destruction of the narcissistic illusions of childhood, how could the destruction of another illusion be a demotion and not a promotion?
Freud himself never gave up his bet that the Ego would end up absorbing and overcoming the Id, which is by the way the central promise of psychoanalysis. When talking about the demotion of human aspirations, Freud used a figure of speech that unilaterally highlighted only one aspect of his own work, omitting the dialectical compensation of which he was perfectly conscious. And he did the same to the teachings of Copernicus and Darwin, in order to artificially transform both in precursors of himself.
Thereafter, it became a universal fad to base the history of ideas on extemporaneous analogies, downgrading the public understanding of the past to a stream of cheap gossip against human dignity. The encyclopedic summary of these gossips constitutes the present historical view, as a dogma of faith, in the minds of practically all contemporary men. It resurfaces again and again in newspaper editorials, speeches in Congress and grade-school compositions, with global unanimity, and serves as an argument to justify political, economic and strategic decisions, as well as to arbitrate domestic discussions and give an appearance of importance to unintelligible university theses.
The third problem is that none of those supposedly humiliating discoveries has turned intellectuals into more humble beings. In the contrary, each one of those discoveries was celebrated as a victory of reason and light against the darkness of the past, resulting in evermore demented outbursts of pride and evermore unlimited demands for power.
Copernicus and Newton served as an argument for 1789 revolutionaries to concentrate more power in their hands than any tyrant in Antiquity and to kill more people in a year than the Inquisition killed in three centuries.
Positivism and Scientificism gave birth to innumerable enlightened dictatorships, some of which understood the killing of priests, nuns and Indians (especially christened ones) as a superior expression of human rationality.
As for Marxism, it shouldn't be necessary for me to elaborate. Who doesn't know The Black Book of Communism? Are the barbaric deeds it describes monuments to intellectual humility?
Behaviorism and the ensuing schools of psychology developed in their practitioners an ambition to shape the behavior of others as if it were an industrial product. Ecology has reinforced this ambition, creating projects for global control that determine even what you may or may not eat and forcing you to fill a pile of forms in order to be allowed to pick a bunch of bananas.
Eric Voegelin called “history-genesis” the symbolic vision of history as an ascending process which, by culminating in the person of its narrator, turned his age into the supreme holder of human knowledge. Initially he thought that this scheme was an invention of modernity, but he later found out that it already existed in ancient Egypt and in Mesopotamia. History-genesis is a bad and deforming mental habit that reappears in all ages, thanks to the incoercible tendency of the human being to turn himself into the umbilicus mundi , the world's navel.
Modernity only added to this the particularly ridiculous detail that it describes the glorious ascension that leads to itself as a process of rational self-limitations and growing intellectual humility. This way the umbilicus -centric conception of history became a self-caricature, and this is the supreme intellectual glory of modern times.