“A Stranger to One’s Own Country”

by Charlie Huenemann

BookpagesDescartes was not a bookish man. There’s a well-known anecdote that reveals what he thought of libraries:

One of his friends went to visit Descartes at Egmond. This gentleman asked him about physics books: which ones did he most value, and which of them he did most frequently consult. ‘I shall show you’, he replied, ‘if you wish to follow me.’ He led him into a lower courtyard at the back of the house, and showed him a calf that he had planned to dissect the next day.

It is a suspiciously artful anecdote: Descartes prefers nature bound in calfskin to another person’s words bound in calfskin. But it gets something right: while Descartes did read and comment on books, and wrote many books himself, he steadily maintained, as did many early modern philosophers, that you can learn more by going straight to nature itself than you can by poring over old books.

Descartes spends several pages in his Discourse on Method relating his disenchantment with different sorts of books. He had studied at La Flèche, a great academy for classical education; but while he found the stories and histories of the ancient authors informative and entertaining, he was wary of the effect they had on him:

For conversing with those of other ages is about the same thing as traveling. It is good to know something of the customs of various peoples, so as to judge our own more soundly and so as not to think that everything that is contrary to our ways is ridiculous and against reason, as those who have seen nothing have a habit of doing. But when one takes too much time traveling, one eventually becomes a stranger to one’s own country; and when one is too curious about what commonly took place in past ages, one usually remains quite ignorant of what is taking place in one’s own country.

This is coming from a Frenchman who spent most of his productive years the Netherlands, where he could count on having few distractions. He devoted his attention to the abstruse studies of physics, metaphysics, mathematics, anatomy, and optics, and wrote virtually nothing on cultural issues and politics. The path he chose in life, it seems, was to be a stranger to his own country, and a resident of the world of ideas. He really wasn’t in any position to look over at the philologist studying Homer and fault him for knowing more about that world than this one.

But there is another interesting way of construing Descartes’s disenchantment with ancient authors. For they also wrote philosophy and metaphysics along with their histories and travelogues – and on these matters, becoming a stranger to one’s own country would mean becoming a stranger to the natural world around us. Devote yourself to Aristotle and his legions of disciples, Descartes warns, and you will become expert at understanding what they thought at the cost of not knowing what is true. This of course presupposes that ancient authors of philosophy and metaphysics were wrong, and that we can’t gain a better understanding of our world by reading them – but then if you wanted to determine whether they were in fact wrong, you would be better advised to start dissecting calves alongside parsing their words.

Descartes’s general hostility toward studying historical authors is a point not lost upon those historians of philosophy who study Descartes’s writings today. Daniel Garber, after noting a passage from a letter where Descartes denounces those who study the works of others as second-rate minds, confesses how disconcerting it is when one’s subject talks back in this way. A large irony hovers over the small industry of historical scholarship devoted to an author who denied the value of such scholarship. Being a scholar of Descartes is the last thing Descartes would ever want to be.

But so what? Finding fascination in the works of Descartes – or Aristotle or Plato or Homer – is not to share their opinions. Those who pick up and read the 1637 Discourse on Method are more interested in the history of ideas than they are in learning a methodology appropriate to modern-day science. (Either that, or they are certainly taking the long way around.) And this means, I suppose, that those who study Descartes are in fundamental disagreement with him about the best use of one’s time. We can imagine Descartes telling us, “Don’t waste your time with the pages of the dead – not even me! Go directly to the book of nature, and read it!” while the students of history say, “That’s interesting! I wonder what he meant by that, and what prompted him to say it….”

While some historians of ideas might try to argue that such understanding of the past in fact somehow augments or clarifies our understanding of contemporary issues and practices, I doubt that this is generally true. It does of course happen here and there – Jürgen Osterhammel’s impressive and lengthy global history of the nineteenth century, for example, sheds great light upon how many fixtures of our modern world came to be what they are – but this certainly isn’t true of all historical investigations, nor is it what motivates the historian’s curiosity. The plain truth is that historians like to geek out over the past, and they find the past every bit as interesting as Descartes found his dissections of calves to be.

Indeed, I think many historians would join me in finding some attraction in being a stranger in one’s own country. For here is the problem with being at home in it: it’s messy, noisy, full of conflict, and hard to see clearly. Those who try to discern the larger patterns in the world as it is right now tend to resemble the seers and augurs of old – the guys who used to cut up chickens or spill out bags of bones to see what the future would be. They take what seems to them salient in the mess of data arrayed before them and try to construct a larger frame of reference out of it. It’s not that what they come up with is a total illusion: it’s just that it’s very, very hard to be sure that what seems salient really is important. Consider in this regard Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. There are plenty of intriguing ideas and observations in the work, but there also is no end of critics who claim that Fukuyama has overestimated the significance of X or underestimated the importance of Y. And it is no more obvious that these critics are right or wrong. Who knows? It’s a total mess.

There is also plenty of mess, noise, conflict, and obscurity in the past as well, of course, but (thanks to entropy) the array of data we have to work with is more sharply limited. It’s not likely that we are now going to come across more data that will help us put together a better picture of Shakespeare’s life, or of the ancient Roman economy, or of Descartes’s Discourse. What we have to work with now is all there is to work with, for the most part. There is still plenty to argue about and be unsure about – history, as a species of inquiry, is not even close to ending, pace Fukuyama – but the basic data set is pretty much fixed, for better or for worse. What remains to be seen is what clever uses the data may be put to – new readings, new analyses, new frameworks for making sense of them. It’s a game with a finite board, rather than one that trails off into a cloudy periphery.

F5ca2d20ce2a5d4145ae3dacd693fa60This makes history, for the historian, a lot more fun and “playable” than the guessing game of trying to know our own times. In fact – though I bet few historians will want to walk with me down this path – it makes history something like the sorts of back stories that come to be postulated by fans of fantasy novels. Fans of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings have come up with all kinds of theories of what could have or must have happened “behind the scenes”, i.e., outside of the narrative Tolkien provides. Why did Aragorn capture Gollum and bring him to the Mirkwood elves? Why doesn’t Gandalf use the eagles to bring the ring to Mt. Doom? Tolkien provides us with some “facts” – some parameters – and these must be held as somewhat sacred data-points as we generate theories of what might have or probably happened, and at this point we can be sure that no further facts will be forthcoming. Filling in the rest of the story depends on the intelligence and creativity of the fans to put forward better or worse theories, to be debated in chatrooms and comic-cons in just the way various accounts and theories are debated at professional meetings of historians’ associations. (Well, except the costumes at comic-cons are more interesting.)

Yes, I know, what the historians debate concerns the real world, and what the fans debate concerns a fantasy world – but there is a sense in which that is beside the point. Both the historians and the fantasy enthusiasts are geeking out over something that allows them to escape, for a little while, the clutter and noise of one’s own country. The same goes for Descartes as he dissected calves and geeked out over the marvelous biological machinery he found, distracting himself from the wars, plagues, and acrimonious theological disputes that could be found down the road. Being a stranger in one’s own country has its appeal, as every geek knows.