Genius and Risk in The Age of Discovery
I have been reading the newly published The Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance by Oxford scholars Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna in preparation for a meeting I will be having with one of the authors in a few weeks time, during which we will be hashing out some of the issues pertaining to chaotic transition. I took an interest in their book and in their work because Age of Discovery attempts to interpret our time also as a chaotic transition — as implied by the reference to “New Renaissance” in the subtitle — which they interpret as representing a convergence, or coincidence, of “genius” and “risk”.
I found the book a little uneven, as one might expect from a book written by two authors who might themselves be code-named “Risk” and “Genius”, or who may have specialised in one or the other aspect of that polarity. And I don’t think it probes those issues of risk and genius, and what this means in the context of chaotic transition, deeply enough. Here at The Chrysalis, what they call “risk” we call “disintegration” or “havoc”, and what they call “genius” we call “re-integration” or “consciousness mutation” or restructuration. So I want to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the book in its approach to the meaning, and full depth, of “choatic transition”.
The authors’ model or paradigm for chaotic transition is the Renaissance, and it’s from that period that they even appropriate the name for their book as descriptive of the present time: “Age of Discovery”, which implies some essential “progressive” continuity between the Old Renaissance and the New Renaissance rather than a major discontinuity and departure. “Age of Discovery” might be an appropriate title, though, in respect of the fact that the word “Apocalypse” in Greek means precisely that — discovery, disclosure, or revelation, and especially in the form of a “shattering truth”. The old “Age of Discovery” was just such an apocalyptic time, too — at least, for most of the world’s inhabitants who happened to be “discovered” or who also discovered, for their part, Renaissance Man.
In that sense, Dickens’ opening paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities would also have been a fitting quote with which to preface The Age of Discovery, regardless of whether this pertained to the Old or the New Renaissance:
“IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Polarisation and paradox. To the extent that this paradox or coincidentia oppositorum (or conjunction of the opposites) is similar in our times it can then be said that there is a resemblance between Old and New Renaissance. Otherwise, there is not much. The Old Renaissance was the “rebirth” of the Greek Mind or Greek Rationalism — classical Greco-Roman civilisation and culture. The New Renaissance is, however, the disintegration of that same Greek Mind and of Greek Rationalism. The Greek Mind came with a flaw that has finally caught up with us today and is forcing a rethink — a metanoia.
The Old Renaissance, in other words, was an act of retrieval of the ancient past, a pre-Christian past, which “irrupted” in the midst of an already decaying Christian civilisation. Renaissance and Waning of the Middle Ages were coincident processes. It was this tension, and wrestling with the paradoxes, polarities, and contradictions, that was generative of the great and vital achievements of the Renaissance but which age was actually very short-lived. Once the paradox was suppressed (or “resolved”), the period we call “Modern Age” began (along with the Age of Revolutions, too). In some significant respects, it was Francis Bacon (as well as Rene Descartes) who signifies this — the end of the Renaissance and the onset of Modernity. And although these conditions are today the same conditions as then, they are not completely identical. Only the pattern is.
Post-modernity, as discussed earlier, is another act of retrieval of the past, in this case Nietzsche’s recovery of the pre-Socratics, and especially the doctrines of Heraclitus who was actually the exception to “the Greek Mind”. He has been called “The Greek Buddha” today, but in his time he was “Heraclitus the Dark” or “Heraclitus the Obscure”. Any “New Renaissance” will not be a new “rebirth” of the Greek Mind or Greek Rationalism. It will be a retrieval older still than the pre-Socratics — “before philosophy” — which takes us into the realms of magic, myth, and the archaic, including “The Goddess”. And this is, as we see, very much happening today and is called “return of the repressed”.
This is indeed a “Renaissance” as well, only one with the potential to be very destructive unless this act of retrieval from deep time is integrated with all the periods and forms of consciousness that have succeeded it. This retrieval can be a summoning of “demons from the dusky deep”, as Shakespeare put it (havoc), or it can form the basis for a new integration and integral consciousness in the manner described by Jean Gebser — the holistic arational-aperspectival consciousness. And this means, consciously assuming all of human history and the Earth’s history too as our own autobiography, a universal history of the human soul, and entering the stream of that, and not as detached and disembodied minds “outside” or trapped in “points-of-view”. Of course, that takes empathy, which is today, in the culture of narcissism, in very short supply.
The integral consciousness is essentially that — knowing all of human history and the Earth’s history is our “universal history”, which you may claim as your own autobiography. The formal principle of that, expressed in biology, is “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, although that’s just another way of describing the holographic nature of the universe. “The world in a grain of sand”, as Blake put it, is potentially you yourself.
Now, as to “genius” as the authors of The Age of Discovery know and understand this, this is still too much “The Greek Mind” and perspectivising. Their model is Leonardo and Michelangelo and Copernicus the other bright lights of the Renaissance. The word “genius” is the genitive form of Latin “gens“, meaning “the tribe”. Genius means, literally, “of the tribe” or “of the people” and referred originally to the tutelary god or totem god that guaranteed the tribe’s fertility and welfare. The word “genie”, related to that, attests to that origin of the word “genius” and is related to the Arabic “djinn“. The genius, as the tutelary deity or divinity, was literally that in which the members of the tribe lived, moved, and had their being. But over time, this “genius” became localised in certain creative individuals, coincident with the individuation principle and the rise of the mental-rational consciousness (the discovery of the mind). But originally, genius had nothing to do with rationality. It is the generative or creative principle, or what held the tribe together and guaranteed its fertility and the succession of the generations (another word related to “gens” and “genius” and, of course “Genesis”).
Genius and Genesis are related words with related meanings because they refer, not to calculating rationality, but to creativity and imagination. The significance of this for the “New Renaissance” is something I think the authors of The Age of Discovery overlook because they are still too much beholden to the protocols and habits of the classical Greek Mind, and I doubt very much whether the future picture and projections that the authors foresee for the “New Renaissance” are going to come to pass in the form they predict.
The future, as they say, ain’t what it used to be, and too much of The Age of Discovery seems to be a vision of the future that is still very much a continuation of the past, even assuming we dodge or master the risks and perils they describe therein (which we probably won’t dodge), and not a real reconstruction. For one thing — and this is very much missing from the book — the first “Age of Discovery” was all about space and its expansion into the third dimension. That is no longer particularly relevant in an age that is now all about Time — the so-called “fourth dimension”. It’s all about time and about our handling of time, and time is not like space at all. To try to force time to behave like space is perhaps the key deficiency of the mental-rational consciousness which is very much space-obsessed.
“Time is of the soul”, said St. Augustine. And if you followed my reasoning about how the act of retrieval (or re-membrance) from deep time also results in a stimulation and reconfiguration of the human psychic structure and culture, too (in terms of the “return of the repressed”) then you’ll understand why you can’t use the methods pertaining to space and the ratios of space, in terms of subject and object dichotomies or dialectical triangulation, in the contemplation of time and the problems of time. Even Descartes knew that his “wondrous strange method” could not account for time or the experience of time. But today, it is precisely time that we need urgently to gain insight into, and most of the methods of the past will not help us in this. Problems of transition are problems of time and tempo and of “times out of joint” (inarticulate and decoherent in other words) and our methods and logic received from the past are not competent to handle the problems of permanence and impermanence or change.
This is becoming all too apparent.