The Creative Dialectics of Intellectual and Cultural History

One of the joys of exploring intellectual and cultural history is that we begin to perceive the variety of critical debates and creative dialectics that have influenced and shaped our worldviews and ways of life across the ages and within different cultural traditions.

Books I’ve enjoyed reading and re-reading recently include “From Dawn to Decadence,” by Jacques Barzun, “The Roots of Romanticism,” by Isaiah Berlin, “Culture and the Death of God,” by Terry Eagleton, “The Age of Atheists,” and “The Modern Mind,” by Peter Watson, “Plato at the Googleplex,” by Rebecca Goldstein, “The History of Knowledge,” by Charles Van Doren, “Sources of the Self,” and “The Secular Age,” by Charles Taylor. I’ve become passionate about exploring intellectual and cultural history, and have become so shameless as to give copies of my favorite books to several close friends, hoping that these fine books might stimulate further spirited conversations about “the great ideas.”

Some of the critical debates and creative dialectics that become obvious in any reading of the history of ideas and culture include the following themes: Affirmation and Renunciation, The Picturesque and the Heroic, The Beautiful and the Sublime, the Hedonic and the Ascetic, the Sensuous and the Austere, the Secular and the Sacred, Immanence and Transcendence, Potentiality and Limitation, Unity and Plurality, the Universal and the Particular, the Cosmopolitan and the Provincial, the Abstract and the Concrete, Reason and Passion, Morality and Instinct, Ethics and Aesthetics, Will and Being, Eros and Agape…to name a few. These great dialectics run through the entire history of philosophy, religion, literature, art and culture.

It also becomes obvious that there has been an ongoing contest between the different “Culture of the West,” that is, between the ascendency and attempted hegemony of their respective domains of knowledge and their respective ways of knowing. These different intellectual and cultural ways of being and knowing have become reified and archetypal. They include the Religious Ways of the Shaman, Sage, Prophet, and the Mystic. They include the Secular Ways of the Philosopher, Scientist, Historian, Mythologist, Poet and Artist. There is a constant push-pull, what Charles Taylor calls “cross-pressure” between these domains of knowledge with their competing epistemologies. Of special interest to Taylor is what he calls “the ghost of transcendence” even in a secular age of exclusive humanistic immanence. Terry Eagleton follows a similar line of thought, seeing a hidden longing for transcendence within the exclusively immanent frame of secular modernity.  At times the ineffable, the eternal, the sacramental and the transcendent seem to vanish into complete hiatus from the immanent frame of the secular age. But the transcendent longing is often hiding in plain sight. And it often reappears in various newly adaptive and modified secular forms. The search for the sacred and the sublime continues, even among many who identify themselves as entirely secular and non-religious in outlook.

Sometimes it helps to put faces and names to the various Cultures of the West. Below are a few images that conjure entire worlds of cultural tradition and worldview perspective, both ancient and modern, sacred and secular. Literally hundreds of images could be added to this small cluster of merely representative types. A true liberal arts education will expand our appreciation for the vast array of possible ways to see and live in the world, and will introduce us to the many “cross-pressures” that nurture a complexly nuanced experience of life with all its dualities, dialectics, ironies, enchantments, contradictions and paradoxes. Not only will a liberal arts education give us a broader and wider appreciation for the many ways of being human, but it will also sharpen the intensity and refine the quality of our experience. Those of you who have been following my blogs know that this is one of my persistent themes. We need a renaissance of liberal arts education, historical perspective,  cultural literacy and civil discourse if we are not to be reduced to economic animals, compulsive addicts, distracted spectators and mindless consumers.


Jesus and Buddha, Redemptive Savior and Enlightened Sage


Rumi, the Ecstatic Mystic of Absorption into the Divine Beloved


Plato and Aristotle, Rational Mystic and Rational Empiricist


Ludwig Schopenhauer, Philosopher of Ascetic Renunciation


Frederick Nietsche, Philosopher of Dionysian Affirmation


Jacques Barzun, Western Intellectual and Cultural Historian


Shakespeare, Poet and Playwright


Beethoven, Musical Genius Celebrating Human Grandeur


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