Thursday, November 8, 2018

Kevin Shau: Using the Humanities to Promote Individual Excellence

"Hi, I’m Kevin Shau, a humanist, writer, photographer, mentor, and website designer. This site is dedicated to the value and practical application of the Liberal Arts." So begins the welcone dialogue at a website called The Classical Humanist. By the end of this first paragraph I was already won over with this invitation: "Feel free to browse the posts in the blog section of this website, then go read a classic."

Our paths crossed via Medium, the Ev Williams brainchild designed to bring writers and readers together. Thus far I've been impressed by the caliber of work being produced by many contributors there. Shau's themes cover the whole gamut from grammar, rhetoric and history to logic, philosophy and literature. His reading list and range of interests is striking, especially for one so young.

His birth name is Kevin O'Shaughnessy, with Kevin Shau apparently his online moniker much as I have self-identified as ennyman. Enjoy this exchange and then visit the links at the close to learn more.

EN: Your interests seem broad. What is your background and what led you into the study of the humanities?

Kevin Shau: I have always been interested in philosophy at some level. During my undergraduate and graduate years, I spent an increasing amount of time studying the history of philosophy with particular emphasis on the Italian Renaissance. This was once a period noticeably absent in many philosophy courses. Professors occasionally touched upon the works of Niccolò Machiavelli but that was about it. In addition to Western philosophy, I studied Eastern philosophy as well – Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shinto. Throughout my college years, I was both deeply interested in philosophy and history as well as appalled by the postmodern influence present in both disciplines. I wanted to study the humanities from a point of view based in practicality. I make it a mission of mine to promote a practical humanities education, focusing on the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric), aimed at promoting a greater understanding of human nature, and promoting the excellence of the individual.

EN: Who have been your biggest personal influences?

KS: There are quite a few to choose from. I list many on my Classical Humanist site. Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the most important. I have always been drawn to his towering intellect, based in observation and experience. Leonardo understood the value of the Classics (notably Dante Alighieri) but was also necessarily skeptical of academic Scholasticism. I would argue that the modern postmodern academics are a continuation of those medieval scholastic debates about how many angels can dance on the end of a pin.

Camille Paglia and Jordan Peterson been very influential. I became familiar with Paglia through her appearances on art history documentaries talking, for example, about the work of Sandro Botticelli. Her cultural criticism has proved very insightful. Additionally, she takes a long-term view of history – one going from prehistory to the present. This large time span helps acquaint one with human nature throughout time rather than merely to promote a political ideology.

Jordan Peterson has been one of the greatest influences on my life through his online lectures, Maps of Meaning, and 12 Rules for Life. Before reading Maps of Meaning, I was doubtful that the present time could contribute a text of outstanding quality to posterity. Peterson’s magnum opus proved me very wrong. The levels of insight present in that one book are enough to guarantee Peterson a spot as one of the great thinkers in the history of modern philosophy as well as psychology. Other major influences include the Renaissance humanists, most notably Francesco Petrarch who has done much to popularize appreciation for the liberal arts through study of the ancient Roman Classics.

EN: In your essay on dragons you call Carl Jung “perhaps the greatest genius of the twentieth century.” By what measures do you make this claim? (I give you credit for the qualifier at the beginning of the statement.)

Carl Jung (public domain image
KS: My brief essay on dragons is commentary on a quote from Carl Jung. Having read Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy as well as a major work written by Jung’s protegee Eric Neumann (The Origins and History of Consciousness), I became familiar with Jungian ideas at a much greater depth than the mere encyclopedia entry-style coverage of him in a college psychology course from years ago. I call Jung perhaps the greatest genius of the twentieth century because he explored human nature at greater depths than any other thinker of his time. His work has yet to be incorporated into the general culture (though Joseph Campbell promoted his ideas to a limited degree. Peterson has recently done much to popularize Jung). Carl Jung brings together science and the arts, as well as the secular and the religious, at deep levels.

EN: In your essay on empire you address the five stages of emergence, rise, golden age, decadence and decline of civilization. I believe both Nietzsche and Thomas Mann wrote about that with regards to Germany. (Nietzsche was especially critical of Wagner as emblematic of the decadence, Mann later analyzing the decline.) Where is the United States in regards to the stages of empire? What are the symptoms you see that point to your diagnosis?

KS: The topic of the course of empire is quite fascinating. The general theme can be seen in civilizations throughout history – from Rome and China to the British Empire. While Nietzsche, Mann, Spengler, and others have addressed the topic with regards to Germany, my understanding of the course of empire has been shaped largely by Edward Gibbon’s magisterial History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae. The former analyzes the decay of a great civilization over the course of centuries whereas the latter presents themes related to the rise and fall of civilizations in the history of art. Camille Paglia has said that the United States is in a decadent late phase of culture.

I would be in general agreement with that. The United States, it seems to me, is at a transition from golden age to decadence. The Roman Empire is a good historical equivalent due to the size and influence of each. I would also argue that the history of the Republic of Venice is relevant as well – an Italian power during the Renaissance, it entered a long period of ‘elegant decline’ after trade routes shifted with the ‘discovery’ of the Americas by Europeans. The United States has an empire of bases around the world and has been intervening in the political and economic affairs of other countries really since 1898 with the victory in the Spanish-American War. Extended foreign excursions, an increasingly top-heavy government, a Hollywood-centric culture in which celebrities push political agendas, political correctness, and an emphasis on a kind of infantilizing soft despotism (in which the state takes on more power to act ‘benevolently’) all point toward a move in the general direction of decadence.

EN: You have written about the significance of the historian Herodotus. How was his approach to history different from what you see in academia today?

KS: Herodotus stands at a major symbolic turning point in the history of how human societies were able to comprehend the past. In previous centuries, the past was mythologized to a much greater degree. Think of the Homeric epics. Historical reality was welded together with attention-arresting mythological elements so as to make such events memorable (I am not making the claim that the ancients did this consciously, rather I think that, as humans, we see the world mythologically). The archetypical hero’s journal – present in all cultures – is the best evidence for a mythological way of perceiving the world. This is further delineated by Jordan Peterson in Maps of Meaning: "The world can be validly construed as a forum of action, as well as a place of things. We describe the world as a place of things, using the formal methods of science. The techniques of narrative, however - myth, literature and drama - portray the world as a forum for action. The two forms of representation have been unnecessarily set at odds, because we have not yet formed a clear picture of their respective domains. The domain of the former is the object world-what is, from the perspective of intersubjective perception. The domain of the latter is the world of value-what is and what should be, from the perspective of emotion and action." --Jordan Peterson

Historians from Herodotus on have tried to make sense of the world around them through the use of historical materials. The use and critical assessment of written records became relevant only when increased literacy and comprehensive record-keeping allowed for new ways of looking at the past. This also allowed historians the ability to project their own biases onto the past. The real shift in recent decades can be seen the differences between the humanities and social sciences. The former is centered on the trivium and a deep understanding of human nature (and, thus, at least considers the utility of various ways of looking at the past – including mythological perspectives) while the latter focuses on detail but has the massive drawback of having been polluted with decades of deeply politicized content. The social sciences tend to emphasize the recent over the distant whereas the humanities are centered on quality and insight.

EN: What is the “intellectual dark web” that you refer to in your essay “The Art of Discourse”?

KS: The Intellectual Dark Web is simply a group of people who put interest of ideas above tribalism. The mathematician Eric Weinstein coined the term to refer to an ‘alternative sense-making collective’ composed of people with different backgrounds and political views but united in their interest in deep conversation in order to better understand the world. I make the argument that the Intellectual Dark Web is the modern-day equivalent of the Enlightenment ‘republic of letters.’ Both terms refer to networks of intellectuals outside the mainstream establishment interested in discourse. The mainstream media of today seems more interested in soundbites, things ‘going viral,’ and chasing viewers.

The rise of the podcast has allowed the spoken word to become as powerful as the written word. Additionally, the access costs for creating a platform have decided substantially with the rise of the internet. Jordan Peterson, among others, has drawn parallels between the Gutenberg revolution of the Renaissance and the Digital revolution of the past decade. The level of discourse which the internet has allowed is staggering. Yes, there is obviously an enormous amount of low-quality material on the internet but the quality of some of the discussions platforms like YouTube allow are of the highest quality. People like Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, and Ben Shapiro (all of whom are part of this Intellectual Dark Web) host YouTube interviews with a variety of guests, each of whom brings a wealth of their own experiences to the table. I regard the Intellectual Dark Web as the most important intellectual development since the Age of Enlightenment.

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Related Links
Kevin Shau's Website: The Classical Humanist
Kevin's Author Page on Amazon

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