The Knowledge and Virtue of the Future
The notion of a necessary connection between knowledge and virtue is all but alien to our times.  The Machiavellian revolution and the “inversion of values” it involved deserves credit for our current situation, in which both morally-mercenary or amoral knowledge and blind virtue contribute to building a technocratic society in which goodness is supposed to… The post The Knowledge and Virtue of the Future appeared first on VoegelinView.




The notion of a necessary connection between knowledge and virtue is all but alien to our times.  The Machiavellian revolution and the “inversion of values” it involved deserves credit for our current situation, in which both morally-mercenary or amoral knowledge and blind virtue contribute to building a technocratic society in which goodness is supposed to coincide with adherence to and implementation of value-free knowledge.
The technocratic society calls knowledge and virtue to “work together”—to collaborate—lest they remain irredeemably at odds with each other.  What tells us they are is an underlying “pre-Socratic” or “materialist” supposition that truth and the good are originally or fundamentally mutually incompatible.  What does knowledge have to do with virtue if truth is beyond man?  What does virtue have to do with knowledge if virtue entails departure from what is beyond man, or from the brutal environment that early modern philosophers called “the state of nature”?
The formal categories of the contemporary school system reflect the problem at hand.  We speak of “natural sciences” and “social sciences”.  Natural science teaches us about the truth of the world/universe, while social science teaches us about the way people invent their truths.  Natural science is supposed to be concerned with amoral reality, while social science is supposed to be concerned with moral unreality, a “second reality” akin to what Plato speaks of as a “cave”.  Thus do our schools teach us that the “natural” world is constituted independently of any moral principle, while our “social” or “human” world is constituted autonomously of any knowledge of the natural world.  Indeed, human society would seem to emerge as our way of coping with the unknown by creating a surrogate world in which we may live without having to trouble ourselves with facing the raw truth underlying our social fabrications.  Until, that is, man becomes scientific, leaving behind his old dreams about reality in favor of the enterprise of discovering truth itself in the realization of a super-society—the society of truth itself, a society free from “myth,” “religious wars” and most importantly fear, insofar as the new society sees itself as repository of the pre-human powers of nature.
What is nature, here?  It is mechanical transformation, or, biologically speaking, “the work of death”: the process by which all things arise to decay.  Nature is a cycle of ineluctable decadence.  The ineluctable work of death.  Yet, on the brighter side of things, nature is life: life as a promise never kept.  Life is an illusion mirroring death, even as it points away from death.  Nature’s empty promise may be understood in terms of consciousness.  Nature would give rise to consciousness, to the dream of life, only accidentally, as a byproduct of the proper, mechanical working of death.
Can conscious life organize into a social world that does not constitute merely an ephemeral attempt to escape truth?  This is the cardinal question of the modern revolution, the vital “pivot” facilitating the passage of the pre or proto-scientific “old world” into a full-fledged scientific “new world”.  No longer based on mere “common sense” (the imagination), but on “reflection,” the new world tells us that we should no longer accept living in a society that turns away from truth in the element of fictions; instead, we should embrace society as an opportunity to perfect truth.  In Hegelian terms, our society should consciously carry on the work of death.
It is not enough for the new society to reject the old society; the new society must incorporate the old as building-material akin to nature itself.  Pre-scientific, or “pre-Enlightened” societies should be studied to support the consolidation of the scientific society.  Hence the importance of “historical studies” in our “scientific” age.  We study the history of everything, from toys to ideas, from words to clothes, from arts to thought itself.  Everything, including consciousness itself, should be incorporated into a single, unified History coinciding with the consolidation of the new, scientific society.
Yet, our historical studies need a “purely scientific” support, which they find in the natural sciences confirming the broad evolutionary context of historical studies.  In studying “historically,” we are inscribing knowledge in the framework of the evolutionary conception of nature peculiar to the modern world.  On that conception, nature amounts to force defined in terms of data or information.  Nature’s “force” accidentally gives rise to humanity, which eventually faces itself for what it is: an accidental byproduct of the work of death.
Today’s conception of man and nature betrays an attempt to neutralize the mysterious, dangerous character of nature, by conceiving nature as power abstracted from any inherent meaning.  Nature is not supposed to be or to enshrine its own end, so it makes no sense to modern man to turn to nature in search for meaning.  Modern man’s “nature” is what our natural sciences study in terms of value-free data, “information” that is meaningful only a posteriori, or insofar as we integrate the data into social structures.
What we are facing here is the modern attempt to domesticate nature by treating it, in Machiavellian terms, as a servile trump always ready to be used, as if she sensed that unless she were used she would remain utterly worthless.  In “using nature,” modern man convinces himself to be giving sense to nature, even to be saving nature from senselessness.
No longer seeking refuge from nature, modern society envisions nature as a woman ready-at-hand, waiting, almost begging for modern man to use her, lest she fall back into meaningless, mindless mechanical repetition.  Why, our modern scientific society could be nature’s only way to transcend itself and thus man’s only way to be more than a mere shadow of nature.  The new society would provide an invaluable outlet for nature to step outside of itself, not merely in human dreams, but in an unprecedented mode of being in which nature overcomes its old mode of being.  While nature has seemingly always unfolded in terms of disappearance—where what arises disappears into “the past”—the new mode of being envisioned by our scientific society entails an interruption of death in favor of a life that, rather than “passing away,” progresses into a future cut off from the past.
What is at stake, here, is no ascent to otherworldly immortality, but the conquest of concrete immortality, immortality “in time,” via a revolution of time itself—a radical reformation of the orientation of nature.[1] Historical studies are themselves propaedeutic to a revolution in our perspective, in our conscious attitude about life.  We are no longer supposed to dwell in the past, or to turn to it as an abyss of meaning, but to emerge out of it by making ourselves “responsible” for its conversion into a future that is no longer doomed to “repeat history,” as the expression goes.
Necessarily, our “revolution” bears distinctly on our conception of both knowledge and virtue.  The mental image we have of both is indebted to the end we, as modern men, accept as our destiny.  That end, nature’s self-overcoming, calls for knowledge/science as a vehicle for reconstituting nature’s data into a life-form incarnating nature’s consummate end—the good itself.  Our “virtue” can be nothing aside from the death-defying product of the technological realization of a “science” that gathers and organizes (through selection and elaboration) nature’s “brute information”.  Virtue will then coincide with a “new world” in which nature has surpassed its old compulsion to fall back into itself, as into the dark well of disappearance.  Not accidentally do our physicists stumble upon “black holes,” omens of the old nature that we are to overcome by establishing a world that is no longer merely “material,” but a synthesis of the subconscious and the conscious, of death and life, of reality and dream.  That synthesis, that new world, is the gift of technology and is technology itself at its best, or in its “ideal” form, a technology that has incorporated natural “information” to “save/store” it forever, converting it into a novel, unprecedented “format”.  The consummate technology will reformat a nature lending itself to the operation insofar as it is extremely unlikely to object to its being saved from oblivion.
Nature’s salvation is provided by a world keeping nature safe from its old ways; a technological world in which “the work of death” is turned upon itself to “rejuvenate” what would otherwise tend to decay.  That which turns toward “the past”—that which is “passing away,” namely the physical body—is to be used against itself, or to negate itself, in order to produce something “futuristic”: not merely something that turns toward the future, but something that is the future, something that abides in the future by abstaining itself from falling back into the past.  Evidently, this “something” cannot be any physical body as we have hitherto experienced it, but something akin to “mind,” albeit constituting a radical mutation of the bodily, as opposed to a reality presupposed by bodies.
What is left of knowledge and virtue in the “endgame” in question?  Knowledge has found solace in “storage” utilized by a new “artificial mind” to re-produce itself ad infinitum, through potentially infinite variations.  All merely physical bodies will serve to fuel the new form of “intelligence,” either directly, or by being incorporated into other bodies “more fit” to fuel the new machine.  Indeed, the integration of nature into a new “artificial organism” is of paramount importance for the fulfilment of nature as conceived in the wake of the Machiavellian revolution.  Integration itself will be the new “virtue”: integration as a good in itself; integration of all “information” onto a horizon on which nothing is “left behind”; and so integration of death itself into life everlasting.


[1] On the extent to which modern science takes seriously the project in question, see my “Mastery of Nature (Part 2)” in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, 45.3 (2019): 427-54.

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