As we struggle defiantly into the new year, we would like to think that we are part of the future. Or if we’re “old”, we think of ourselves as bricklayers, of the conserved foundation, of what is yet to come.
(Goodbye to the Future, 24×18, oil on canvas. Click to enlarge.)
That is not who we are. In the painting, we are the camel driver, the Lone Ranger, the newly mobile nuclear family of the 50’s and 60’s. Sketched in outline because we barely remember ourselves.
In the distance, separated by the red Mohave desert, lies a singular city of temporary structures, cheaply molded imitations of iconic, monumental architecture. Like the ephemeral cities of Futurism, which were to be built and destroyed in a few days, Las Vegas is permanently neoteric, of the here and now. Like the future, its protean form speeds away from memory. And if you happen for an instant to touch the future, it melts like a snowflake, becoming yesterday’s novelty.
We reluctantly expect that democratic politics is captive to the here and now. History grants occasional exceptions to individuals who possess the seeds of greatness, which may sprout under exceptional circumstances, such as war. Even the threat of planetary destruction from climate change may not be enough. (Totalitarianism is not the subject here.)
Though U.S. politics lives in a tight box of wants, needs, costs, and moral imperatives, it remains a little surprising that political science scholarship also lives in a tight box. If the historical record of Socrates were not so debatable, we could pin it on him, as hinted in Politics Part2. Of one thing we can be sure. He was the father of secular humanism, the study of the individual, emphasizing ethics, independent of religion. (Goodreads), 383 Socrates Quotes gives an idea, though there seem to be some fakes in the mix.
In 383 quotes, you’ll find virtually nothing about the economics, technology, or amenities of Athens, other than the advice to live with less. To Socrates, all that mattered was the man in the city, and his relation to other men. Quoting CNN Editorial, Meredith McCarroll, Anthony Bourdain listened; Appalachia’s Three Percent,
Quoting [Lewis] Mumford, “In the ‘Phaedrus’, Socrates declares that the stars, the stones, the trees could teach him nothing: he could learn what he sought only from the behavior of ‘men in the city’. That was a Cockney illusion: a forgetfulness of the city’s visible dependence upon the country, not only for food, but for a thousand other manifestations of organic life, equally nourishing to the mind; and not less, we know now, of man’s further dependence upon a wide network of ecological relations that connect his life…”
Even Socrates had nothing to say about women, or the many slaves who made mechanical ingenuity unnecessary. An extraordinary original, he nevertheless reflected aspects of Athens society that resulted in a messy, cramped, unhygenic metropolis greatly at odds with modern glorification.
Disregard for material conditions, of which Socrates was merely a verbal exponent, resulted, I assert, in the first modern political failure, of the city planning variety. Socrates gave us a box, a comfort zone for the professions that favor Doric columns, politics and law. It would take Marx to introduce the concept of material conditions. Though Marx has been justly discredited, historical materialism, as a study approach, has independent utility for understanding Now.
Of ancient origin, neoteric political thought, disconnected from material conditions, excluding time itself, has the result of ingrown political literature. We will explore this.
What can I wish for you, for the new year? That you touch the future, even for an instant, to feel the perfect snowflake turn into drops. To carry that instant forwards an entire year; not to preserve, but renew.