Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Quote of the Day

The only text from classical antiquity quoted by H. Blumenberg in Die Genesis der kopemikanischen Welt in which the central position of the Earth amounts to a privilege is from Seneca: "That you may understand how she (viz. Nature) wished us, not merely to behold her, but to gaze upon her, see the position in which she has placed us. She has set us in the center of her creation, and has granted us a view that sweeps the universe (circumspectus)." [De Otio V, 4, in Moral Essays]

At first blush, it looks as if we are reading black on white that man is in the place of honor, and that this place is the center. But a closer look shows that this position hardly redounds to man's advantage. On the contrary. For grammar and in reality, the subject is not man, but nature. What Seneca says is that nature wants to have a spectator, so that she can reveal the plenty of her treasures. The place of man in the middle is scarcely a privilege he could boast of. It bears witness to the almighty producer, nature, who wanted to receive applause and managed her theatre so that her admirers would receive comfortable seats.

As far as my knowledge goes (and it does not go as far as I wish), Freud's contention can be propped up by one text and by one text only. I know of only one mediaeval thinker who confused the two meanings of centrality and grounded an alleged greater worth of man on the fact that his home in the universe, namely the Earth, is located in the latter's center. This thinker lived at the beginning of the 10th century in Bagdad. He was the Jewish theologian and apologist (mutakallim) Saadia Gaon (882-942). He becomes interesting for us because he is utterly out of tune with the rest of the mediaeval concert. I quote a passage from his masterpiece, the apologetical tract Book of Beliefs and of Convictions:

Though we see that the creatures are many in number, nevertheless, we need not be confused in regard to which of them constitutes the goal of creation. For there exists a natural criterion by means of which we can determine which one of all the creatures is the end. When, then, we make our investigation with this criterion as a guide, we find that the goal is man. We arrive at this conclusion in the following manner: Habit and nature (binya) place whatever is most highly prized in the center of things which are themselves not so highly prized. Beginning with the smallest things, therefore, we say that it is noted that the kernel is more precious than the leaves. That is due to the fact that the kernel is more precious than the leaves, because the growth of the plant and its very existence depend upon it. Similarly does the seed from which trees grow, if edible, lodge in the center of the fruit, as happens in the case of the nut. But even if a tree grows from an inedible kernel, this kernel is located in the center of the fruit, as is the case of the date, no attention being paid to the edible portion, which is left on the outside to preserve the kernel. In the same way is the yolk of the egg in the center, because from it springs the young bird and the chicken. Likewise also is the heart of man in the middle of his breast, owing to the fact that it is the seat of the soul and the of the natural heat of the body. So, too, is the power of vision located in the center of the eye because it is by means of it that one is able to see. When, therefore, we see that this situation appertains to many things and then find the earth in the center of the heaven with the heavenly spheres surrounding it on all sides, it becomes clear to us that the thing which was the object of creation must be on [om. v.1.] the earth. Upon further investigation of all its parts we note that the earth and the water are both inanimate, whereas we find that the beasts are irrational. Hence only man is left, which gives us the certainty that he must unquestionably have been the intended purpose of creation.

Thus, we have in Saadia and, apparently, in Saadia only, a clear example of an anthropocentrism grounded on a geocentric cosmology. Let me first underline some points:

1) Saadia does not support a naively teleological world-view. This is shown by what he explains, not without some emphasis, about fruits, like dates or apricots, the aim of which is to be looked for in the kernel, not in the edible rind, and which is not edible for man. Natural phenomena are not seen from the point of view of human use, but in themselves.

2) The cogency of the reasoning is somewhat undermined by a [sic] unavowed shift in the criterion. Saadia begins with the thesis, gained by way of induction that nature puts what is more important in the center. In this way, he can make plausible that in the universe, too, we have to look for what is most precious in the center. This should lead us to surmise that the Earth is the jewel of the universe. But when Saadia looks at the Earth, he silently gives up his criterion of centrality and introduces a second point of view, i.e. life. This enables him to discard the elements, because they are lifeless. Finally, he adds a third criterion, or reason. This enables him again to discard the animals on behalf of man alone. The criterion of centrality would not suffice. It is not enough, when what must be proved is the greater worth, not of the Earth, but of man. The alternative reading I mentioned above ("the Earth" instead of "on the Earth") may be the trace of the misgivings that dawned on the mind of some copyist who wanted to simplify Saadia's argumentation.

Furthermore, we will have to point out, on the other hand, that Saadia's contention did not remain unchallenged. On the contrary, later thinkers blamed him for according too much worth to man. They did that without their pulling their punches. The most famous -- and at the same time the most outspoken -- of Saadia's critics was probably the highly learned globetrotter and Biblical scholar Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167), whose rationalistic cast of mind is well-known. The clearest passage I could find is a long digression in the second version (shittah akhereth) of his commentary on the Torah, more precisely in his commentary on the first verse of Genesis. The context is a general critique of anthropomorphism, and especially of the idea according to which man is more worthy than than the angels -- a critique that we can find elsewhere in Ibn Ezra. He mentions the tiny size of the Earth. In the universe, it is hardly more than a geometrical point, i.e. a point without dimensions. He then submits Saadia's two examples (the core in the apple and the yolk in the egg) to harsh criticism:

The argument he mentions, i.e. that what is most worthy n the fruit of the apple-tree is the pip, which maintains the species, is no proof either. For this (viz. the apple) is a compound, which the heavens are not. Moreover, the fruit of the apple-tree is more worthy when it comes to actual existence than what is potentially. What he (Saadia) contends, that the chick comes to being from the red part of the egg, i.e., from the yolk, is false, because the yolk is a food for it.

We can distinguish three arguments in Ibn Ezra's critique:

a) We must tell compound things from simple ones. What holds for the former does not necessarily hold for the latter. In realities that are all in one block, like heavens, it does not make sense to distinguish between the aim and the means towards it.

b) Even if we stick to fruit as an example, we should reverse the order of value that Saadia supposes. For the core, that contains the fruit only potentially, cannot be the final aim.

c) In the case of the egg, the yolk, that undoubtedly lies in the middle, is not the seed, but some sort of pantry for the chick.

Unfortunately, Ibn Ezra's critique does not deal with the relationship between the central position of a thing and the increased worth it is supposed to possess. This is all the more surprising in that he could have poked fun at Saadia without the slightest difficulty. The latter relies on the principle that the content is more important than the container. Now, this principle is diametrally [sic] opposed to another, more commonly admitted principle, i.e. the container is more worth than its content. By not remaining with this principle, Saadia gave critique an easy opening.

RĂ©mi Brague
"Geocentrism as a Humiliation for Man"
Medieval Encounters 3 (1997): 187-210
(footnotes omitted)

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

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