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.



10 responses to “Genius and Risk in The Age of Discovery

  1. edlevin2015 says :

    I think your auto correct got the best of ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny

  2. Scott Preston says :

    I came across this older essay (1995) by Umberto Eco in the NY Review of Books. It’s called “Ur-Fascism” in which Eco describes 14 characteristics of fascist movement. I remember reading it years ago, but had forgotten it.

    It’s worth reading (even twice). And later, perhaps, I’ll bring it up again in relation to Gebser’s cultural philosophy and how much of it does indeed describe the so-called “alt-right” (even though the alt-right, ironically, considers everyone a fascist and a totalitarian except the alt-right — in which you see projection at work in spades).

  3. Scott Preston says :

    BTW (and I’ll probably post something about this at a later time) what we today call “the field” is one of those things that predates philosophy (and individuation principle) itself, and which is being revived in physics, biology, psychology etc. The field was the ancient “genius” or tutelary deity.

    What Jung calls “collective unconscious” is that ancient field, which has become “unconscious” only relative to the development of the ego-consciousness and especially “point-of-view” or perspectivising consciousness. At one time, this “collective unconscious” was not unconscious, and largely corresponds to Gebser’s “archaic” consciousness structure.

  4. Scott Preston says :

    ” The “post-truth” reality is not simply an accident – it is a concerted assault on the rational psyche” (“What Gamergate should have taught us about the alt-right”)

    That assessment segues right into Moira Weigel’s “crypto-politics” in her article on political correctness,

    In turn, this “crypto-politics” is also connected with Hervey Cleckley’s “Mask of Sanity”

    And all are equally connected with the architecture of power that former Harvard Political Science prof Samuel Huntington proposed — rule from the “dark side”:

    “The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”

    It’s all connected, a tangled spider’s web that includes also spam, fake news, disinformation, etc — all an attack on the rational psyche and a “deconstruction” of it. In that sense, all very Mephistophelian.

    All this also cries out for us to develop greater insight, and with greater insight comes greater transparency. What Gebser calls “the transparency of the world” is needed now for our very survival. So this situation of “post-truth” may actually serve as the stimulus for “the consciousness mutation” necessary for greater insight.

  5. dadaharm says :


    I just read something rather unbelievable in a review of Eternity’s sunrise. I thought it might be of interest to you:

    But the most unlikely neo-Blakean to emerge from this book is Donald Trump. We learn that in his personal library he displays, “transformed into a self-congratulatory slogan”, the most famous of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
    In Trump we are witnessing not a reader of Blake’s works but the assumption of human form by a character from them. He has improbable hair, lives in a tower deep in a city that never sleeps and wants to build a wall the width of a continent so that he can become the most powerful man in the world. You couldn’t make it up, but William Blake could.

    It seems we are living in a very strange world.
    glorious luminary by james ward

    • Scott Preston says :

      No! No! No! David Cameron? Bono? Donald Trump? Appropriation. It’s possible to appropriate, co-opt, and pervert anything and everything. I can only conclude that in the minds of some incapable people, Blake works like poison. Blake intended his works to be corrosive — corrosive of the self-nature, that is. Apparently in some it works to opposite effect. They mishandle the power of Blake’s words.

      As Ward puts it: “It is a sad fact that something about Blake appeals to ego- and megalomaniacs bent on world domination, self-destruction or some weird combination of the two.”

    • Scott Preston says :

      Thanks for the recommend, by the way. I’ve ordered the book.

  6. Andrew says :

    Excellent piece! There is something not quite right about time as the fourth dimension. I certainly concede my quibble to be of my own faulty understanding, though. I did notice that you qualified the reference . Time, it would seem to me, exists and is embedded directly into the 1st dimension. As soon as there was point A and point B there was distance and time came into being . I’m not sure what is going on here with science but this framing of time as the 4th dimension doesn’t seem right. My own intuitive best guess is that the 4th dimension is not time but a populated dimension of beings best described as archons ( architects)…..My mythicist views differ quite considerably from the atheist mythicist camp….

  7. abdulmonem says :

    It is clear we are facing risks far greater than the possibilities of recovery, specially when we know that the system is insisting on pursuing its greedily destructive path and has no intention to change, as it is well-illustrated by the stories of the standing rock and the middle east. It is not strange that the criminal policies pursued by the western governments to ward the outside is starting to spill on the inside and the good people of the west start suffering what other peoples have been suffering over centuries of the west governments, oppression, exploitation and theft. It is the law of return, that is the bad you have done unto others will return to haunt you. It is sad that the people of the west have been made to think that there are no divine rules but only natural mechanical laws that have no relation to the humans who are free to do anything with no negative consequences. We are now living these negative consequences and yet the denial of the system persist ,but it is on the rise if only one listen to the recent rhetoric of the western politicians. It is sad also to see the intelligentsia of the west ,with the exception of the few, busy discussing the abstracts and leaving the concrete, indulging in the parts and forgetting the whole,fighting the ghosts and oblivious of the real perpetrators.

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