According to one of my new favorite books, a history of thinkers and doers called To The Finland Station, Giambattista Vico, an Italian philosopher of the 18th century, revolutionized our conception of history by proposing that everything that had happened before us could be understood in human terms. The world came to be the way it is today because people made it that way, and for no other reason; if we want to understand the way the world works, we must focus on understanding people. Civilizations are not created by heroes or gods or abstract ideas, but by human beings and the circumstances into which they are placed—the physical environment and the mores of the time in question.
In this book, Edmund Wilson writes that the “myths that have made us wonder are projections of a human imagination like our own and, if we look for the key inside ourselves and learn how to read them correctly, they will supply us with a record, inaccessible up to now, of the adventures of men like ourselves.”
We can understand the past, even if we have large gaps in our knowledge—gaps which increase to monstrous sizes when we go back more than a hundred years—just by understanding ourselves. Then Jung might say that this latter feat is impossible, since the unconscious is far too infinitely vast for anyone to comprehend, but that’s another blog post.
This idea was not a big deal to Vico’s contemporaries, who ignored his genius, but it later became a big deal to a French historian named Jules Michelet, whose immense Vico-inspired volumes on French history (written in the early-mid 19th century) would influence Marx and Lenin and exert an immense, almost otherworldly force on the political affairs of the 20th and 21st centuries. It could be argued that Vico’s ideas and discoveries play an enormous role in answering the question of why North Korea attacked Yeonpyeongdo, why Julian Assange suddenly became a rapist after he infuriated the most powerful people on Earth by exposing what they actually do when the cameras are turned away, the rise of Sarah Palin, etc., etc. The man posthumously proved his own philosophy by contributing significantly to the creation of our world.
So I’m reading two books now—The Essential Jung and Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy, and as I was glancing through the opening pages of the latter I was suddenly reminded of a folk tale about Abraham Lincoln I had randomly read in an overly-long commentary on Plato’s Symposium in a Greek drama / philosophy class several years ago at Hampshire.
The story is called “Abraham Lincoln And The Pig” and I believe it was basically the same here as the form I read in the Symposium’s commentary—
One day while President Lincoln was going to the Congress, he saw a helpless pig stuck in the mud. He felt pity for the animal and wondered how he would feel if he was in the pig’s place. He decided to help the pig. He told his driver to stop the carriage, so that he could pull the pig out of the mud.
The driver stopped the carriage, and President Lincoln got out. The driver said to the President, “You wait, I will take him out. I don’t want your clothes to get dirty.”
The President replied “I do not care for my clothes. The pig’s life is more important.”
The driver said, “Please wait and let me try. If I fail, I will ask for your help.”
The driver tried very hard, but he could not pull the pig out of the mud. So the president helped the driver pull the pig out. While doing that the President’s clothes became very dirty. The driver offered to take him back home so that he could change his clothes. The president however told him that he did not want to be late for the meeting, and asked him to drive towards the Congress building.
When he reached at the meeting, everyone wondered what happened to the president. The driver explained everything. He told them how the president saved the life of a helpless pig. Everybody in Congress praised the president for his kindness.
Of course I was struck by how there are really no folk stories about modern politicians, or modern kleptocrats—my new favorite word. These people are obviously as human as Vico would make them out to be, and in the modern world’s media-saturated environment we have no difficulty seeing just how ugly John McCain is or how boring Barack Obama somehow becomes when he feels like he doesn’t have to work very hard to keep people awake while he’s making a speech. Is this because our society has changed with the advent of such powerful technology, or is it because the people who lead us today are just a bunch of shitheads when you compare them to the giants of the past?
No one would believe it if Barack Obama suddenly got out of his limo to help a pig out of the mud, and indeed Barack Obama would never do such a thing. Everyone would call it a media stunt, and no one would think for a second that his motives for helping the pig were purely altruistic. But although this story about Lincoln is probably a load of horseshit I’m sure it turned more than a few heads at the time. The man was such a giant that he really captured people’s imaginations. Even I myself doubt my doubts. Maybe it really happened. The fact that such a story still exists just goes to show that the guy is slowly transforming into a myth, who may have to be debunked by a future Euhemerus.
The two Roosevelts were also pretty goddamn amazing, but I think history will have just as much trouble remembering the names of the presidents between FDR and George W. Bush as it does when we’re forced to scratch our heads and wonder just who exactly came between the reigns of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Is this because they’re just not as interesting, because circumstance compelled the lot of them to be a bunch of corrupt or incompetent fuckwits, or because we have so much information about them we know that all of them are overwhelmingly human? What the hell happened? Why aren’t there any stories about these guys? We see FDR standing up in Pearl Harbor; Teddy Roosevelt drove half of Africa to extinction when he lost the race to the presidency and spent his youth boxing and winning wars practically single-handedly (with the other hand obviously tied behind his back). LBJ shouted things at people while he was on the shitter and George Bush was unable to function in a supermarket checkout line; I think some degradation, some dilution, must have occurred between a truly great president like FDR and a truly monstrous scumbag like George W. Bush.
I don’t even know if it’s sad that people aren’t making up these kinds of stories anymore, because they were obviously born out of far more ignorant periods of history, and I think it’s better to be drowning in information as opposed to being totally starved of any concrete facts at all. People rightfully love movies and film dominates our culture’s artistic scene, but there’s something to be said for just listening to a good story being told to you by a good storyteller—I eat that shit up like a fucking T-Rex and feel like there are very few pleasures in the world that go beyond the pleasure of telling or listening to a good story. Films, on the other hand, do the imagining for you. With TV cameras and computers we can see that Barack Obama is very much a human being, and this is far better than believing him to be some sort of demigod chosen by the mandate of heaven; nonetheless, Keats was on to something when he asked if all charms fly at the mere touch of cold philosophy.
I find myself compelled to conclude with the question of where have all the heroes gone? Where are the bogatyrs? Have presidents stopped rescuing pigs in distress because of the enormous influence of Giambattista Vico?