Philosophical studies bring both the delight of a search for wisdom and the danger of entrapment in the world of abstractions, veritable castles in the sky. While overtly arguing against those who proclaim themselves wise (the sophists), many philosophers — in particular, the postmodernists — are sophists themselves. They revel in increasingly distant realms of abstraction and emphasize the importance of the ‘right’ kind of rhetoric as well as speak like the elites of a secretive religious order using terminology coined and used in the ivory tower of academe. This distinction between those who seeks to present themselves as purveyors of wisdom (even if maintaining a facade of false modesty) and those who genuinely seek wisdom and are aware of their own ignorance runs to the foundation of philosophy as an articulated way of seeing the world during the time of Plato and Aristotle (with some backformation to the still more distant days of Thales). Modernity presents the intellectual with an increasingly ponderous path ahead, between fragmentary ideologies which have managed to thrive since the great ruptures of 1450 (the printing press), 1789 (the French Revolution), and the turn of the century (the internet/social media platforms). German philosophy has given us a useful word — holzweg — for our journey into the potential and danger that modernity confronts us with.
Holzweg is defined as a ‘woodway,’ though other definitions also emphasize more negative aspects. In his series ‘The Romantics and Us,’ historian Simon Schama emphasizes the double-sided nature of the term — it contains within it both positive and negative elements. This path through the woods can take you, in one direction, into a positive realm of creativity and exploration and in the other — a realm of bitterness, resentment, and the darkest depths of the human psyche. One could compare this rather psychological interpretation of the holzweg with that of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy in that both are explorations of idealism and hell, of paradise and the depths of evil. Philosophy itself is a kind of path through the woods — the primeval forest of the human condition. One in which we occasionally walk past the ruins of some old philosophic edifice, such as the grand abstractions of Immanuel Kant. We, however, must forge our own path. Great thinkers of the past can inspire, impart wisdom through their works, and remain relevant through their deep understanding of human nature but grand systems building always turns out to be a dead end — the mere mental joys of those who love abstractions.
German Romanticism contained within it a critique of the flattening nature of grand Enlightenment visions with the deeper human understanding of, and appreciation for, folk traditions. These ideas, not unique to Germany, are decidedly modern in that they emerged from the rupture between the superficial world of the French philosophes of Paris and critiques by some of the greatest minds of the day — most notably those of Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and German philosopher and cultural critic Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803). The former broke with the unbridled optimism associated with Enlightenment rationality while the latter emphasized the importance culture and the language of the people. Rousseau’s ground-breaking discourses of the 1750s took aim at the bourgeois society which promoted, superficially, the ideas of the philosophes (like Voltaire) as well as the obscene levels of inequality which existed in Old Regime France. Herder concerned himself with human nature and also laid the foundations of folklore studies which the Brothers Grimm would famously build upon (under the yoke of the oppressive French forces — Boney’s evil empire).
“The nature of man remains ever the same: in the ten thousandth year of the World he will be born with passions, as he was born with passions in the two thousandth, and ran through his course of follies to a late, imperfect, useless wisdom. We wander in a labyrinth, in which our lives occupy but a span; so that it is to us nearly a matter of indifference, whether there be any entrance or outlet to the intricate path.”
-Johann Gottfried Herder, from ‘Ideas on the Philosophy of Human History’ (1784–1791)
Cosmopolitan Plato thought himself cleverer than his contemporaries and masked this with a veil of humility and the edifice of his teacher Socrates (who may or may not have even existed). Plato than constructed castles in the sky — great tokens of Platonicity — which come crashing ignominiously to the ground with the faintest whiff of human nature or faintest whiff of reality. Cosmopolitanism, as even Voltaire noted, has its blind spots. One can see this in his character Pangloss — the notorious teacher of Candide in the famous novel by the same name. This name could be applied to the naively optimistic visionaries of the Enlightenment including Voltaire himself. For when Voltaire wrote histories, he distorted them to serve his political ends. English historian Edward Gibbon critiqued him thus:
“When he treats of a distant period, he is not a man to turn over musty monkish writers to instruct himself. He follows some compilation, varnishes it over with the magic of his style, and produces and agreeable, superficial, inaccurate performance.”
The fragility of Enlightenment idealism was made manifest in the brutal realities which surrounded the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars -when Boney’s militarism used the cosmopolitan ideals of liberty, equality, and brotherhood to beat people into submission in his attempt to create a pan-European empire in which French oligarchs could loot distant territories while stomping on local customs. The idealism of Revolutionary France died a thousand deaths between 1789 and 1815. Over 21 centuries earlier, Plato’s cosmopolitanism was forged in opposition to democracy — a form of government associated, until very recently, with mob rule. In pretty much all cases in history, grand narratives and top-down idealistic visions are so fragile that they do not last outside the ivory tower of academe or the salon rooms of idealistic young thinkers or enthusiastic patrons.
The primeval core of human nature has outlasted the rise and fall of civilizations and for eons before the first man took up the first writing implement to record the most pressing things on his mind. The vast and endless beyond which exists beyond our understanding can be construed to have a wisdom above and beyond ourselves, so much so that our grandest and most logical utopian visions appear as juvenile as the most rudimentary crayon drawing from a four-year old. Those who maintain a desire to live up to the ideal of philosophy as ‘love of wisdom’ must be genuine and open about our vast limitations and seek approaches to wisdom that include bottom-up systems, heuristics, and mythology. Human nature is antifragile and as such, utopian visions are inconsistent with the very core of our being.
Modernity is a kind of holzweg — a shadowy path in the early hours of the morning as the very first bits of sunlight begin to peak over the horizon and there is a fog around us. We must venture forth with trust in ourselves, awareness of our own biases, faults, limits, and limitless capacity for improvement.
Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker.
What does not kill me, makes me stronger.
-Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Twilight of the Idols’ (1888)