The metaphysics of history (1): The one and the many

one and many
The human condition is either one or many:  and there can be no scientific test to determine the truth.  We can never fully know what we are.

If one, then there is a single human perfection, a universal ideal that we, in our condition as human beings, must achieve in our moment of transcendence.  Nothing in life or society can be compared in importance to this achievement.  Every relation we form, every aspect of the knowledge we learn, every application of power by the state, must bring us closer to perfection.  That is justice.  That is “the good.”  Any tendency in the opposite direction, or in no direction, is immoral.

If the human condition is many, then we are fractured and scattered, and must find our way back to a gathering-place.  The great question becomes how to avoid slaughtering one another.  A persuasive answer must be found if we wish to be better than vampires, feeding on human blood.

Yet the answer must be found within the framework of an existence that is an eternal exile from transcendence, a retreat from the universal:  a long, hard migration in search of a small, safe place.  Any gathering-place we find in our wanderings is justice.  Politics is deadly business:  the power of the state is a temptation to pogrom.  “The good” shrinks into a private affair.


If we can never fully know who we are, an awful possibility confronts us:  that a single human perfection exists, beyond the reach of our ability to understand or attain.  Transcendence is theoretically possible, but a practical impossibility.  Even if, by some tragic accident, we stumble upon the right path, a mob of refutations and counterfactuals will surround and confuse us, and we will yield to doubt because of our irremediable uncertainty.  We are, in that case, like the prophet who climbs to a high place and glimpses the promised land, which he knows he will never reach.

The cause of our uncertainty is the directionality of the human perspective.  Each man and each woman, each tribe and each nation, by a sort of structural destiny, is turned toward some direction and blind to all others.  But transcendence must touch the universal if it is to be anything:  it must embrace all possible perspectives, the entire moral compass.

Ours is an incurable condition.  We are cursed with partial blindness from birth.  The tests and logical arguments that prove the truth of our “universal” ideals sound like childish babbling to those turned toward a different “universe.”

The proposition that we are partially blind is not identical to the proposition that we are many.  In the first case, we are fractured from an inability to perceive the full truth.  In the latter case, our fracture and dispersal is the only truth.  Consequences follow.  To be partially blind means to be burdened with theoretical and prophetic possibilities:  we will be shown glimmers of true perfection and suffer from apocalyptic dreams and existential despair.   Morality will be visionary, and politics will tend to absolutes.

To be fractured and dispersed as the whole truth, conversely, means to endure an unending march toward justice and meaning – to stitch together, like Penelope in the Odyssey, as large a truth, from as many perspectives, as is possible to our kind, only to see it unstitched at the next turn of the historical road.  Morality will rest on conventional notions.  Politics and the state will divide along lines drawn by Hobbes and Locke:  one path leads to wars of extermination, the other to an obsession with legalism and formal procedure.


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