Sunday, July 16, 2006

In the thick

of assembling passages and references for my insane but exciting chapter on human perfectibility (formerly titled "Horses, Hybrids, Humans"--now that's just one section--it's about everything that's interesting in the eighteenth century!), I have just come again to a passage I feel the need to evangelize about.

I've read a lot of really wonderfully interesting books (some from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some from the last fifty years--all over the place, really) in the last three or four years as I've worked on this project, but I'd say there are two twentieth-century writers who've most deeply affected my thinking on these topics having to do with breeding. One is Leslie Farber, who I've blogged about before. The other is John Passmore. (Actually I have also recently realized that Anthony Burgess is the third writer who seriously formed my opinions on free will, Pelagianism, etc. but that's a story for another day.)

So anyway, I read Passmore's The Perfectibility of Man in a state of rage! How come nobody had told me about this book before?!? It must have been known to some of my advisors in graduate school; surely they could have seen that it was the perfect book for me to read....

However I soon got over my fury at the years wasted not having read this amazing book, I read it again this spring and though in the chapter I will be writing more eloquently (I hope) about Passmore and perfectibility I do feel the need to share this amazing passage (I think I am going to use it as an epigraph at the beginning of my book) from his conclusion:

In spite of [reflections which] might lead us to reject perfectibilism in any of its forms, it is very hard to shake off the feeling that man is capable of becoming something much superior to what he now is. This feeling, if it is interpreted in the manner of the more commonsensical Enlighteners, is not in itself irrational. There is certainly no guarantee that men will ever be any better than they now are; their future is not, as it were, underwritten by Nature. Nor is there any device, whether skilful government, or education, which is certain to ensure the improvement of man’s condition. To that extent the hopes of the developmentalists or the governmentalists or the educators must certainly be abandoned. There is not the slightest ground for believing, either, with the anarchist, that if only the State could be destroyed and men could start afresh, all would be well. But we know from our own experience, as teachers or parents, that individual human beings can come to be better than they once were, given care, and that wholly to despair of a child or a pupil is to abdicate what is one’s proper responsibility.

My other epigraph, if I can get it to work properly with everything else, is from Leslie Farber:

The realm of causation is treacherous ground for a man interested in the truth about himself. Although it is certainly probable that most phenomena of this world, human and otherwise, do have causes of one sort or another, an absorption with the role of causation in human affairs may lead to an habitual reduction of any human event to its postulated cause. It is apparent how such reduction promises refuge to a man beset by the necessity to "confess": once he turns his attention to cause, his personal responsibility (whether he acknowledges it or not) is diminished, along with any undue stress or discomfort he may have felt in facing what he believes to be his absolute worst. No matter what scandalous detail about himself he may reveal, he follows such revelation with "I am this way because . . .," and everyone relaxes.

And one other scholarly recommendation, for those of you interested in these questions: Victor Hilts has a quite excellent essay called "Enlightenment views on the genetic perfectibility of man" in a collection called Transformation and Tradition in the Sciences: Essays in honor of I. Bernard Cohen, edited by Everett Mendelson.

(I don't know why I am always bursting with intellectual energy starting around midnight, it is very impractical!)

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