The Study of Man is an Exercise in Skepticism


Anthropology is, quite literally, the study of man. As a “person of inhumanity” attempting to achieve flawless immersion without detection, I feel I am, quite possibly, and with some legitimacy, the greatest anthropologist who ever lived. Yes, I have said it. Scoff if you wish, gentle reader. I make no apologies.

It can hardly surprise you, in light of the facts of my life, that I read voraciously, that I ponder the ins and outs of your psyche, both individually and collectively. I curate your cast-off items, I follow your trends, I read your scientific data, and even commit your fairytales to memory. I have spent centuries admiring you, and there is one thing I have learned above all else.

You are ridiculous.

I mean it in the truest sense of the word, as in “worthy of ridicule”. Tonight, I have had further proof of this. I picked up a little (expensive) book from the store and began perusing it. It seemed interesting enough: a serious examination of the medieval perception of things that are now viewed as farcical such as witches, zombies, vampires, etc. (I think you can see why this was of particular interest to me) I was, nonetheless, disappointed.

The author, one Darren Oldridge makes the argument (for the entire book) that the modern human being is unwise, judgmental, or indeed foolish to discount the beliefs of the past as being superstitious or silly. He says that “It is frequently assumed that those involved in (witch trials and the like) were irrational; their behavior derived from stupidity or some kind of hysteria. More darkly…that those responsible were exploiting popular credulity as an excuse for financial gain or sadism…Others might argue ignorance was to blame”. He then goes on to say that these measures of the medieval mind are in all respects understandable, but completely beside the point, irrelevant to the evidence, and indeed, dehumanize the progenitors of your culture. He believes you should come to adopt the maddening errors of your past as, I am not sure, some kind of insight?

This, to me, is utterly laughable.

You were irrational. You were stupid. You were hysterical. You were vicious. You were greedy. You were children. You were savages. I was there. Believe me.

But all that is well and good. My opinion means very little. Allow me to rebut this attempt at justifying, rather than studying man.

Firstly, there is a point that must be made: “rational” is defined as “based on or in accordance with reason or logic”. This means that while being wholly unhinged, a person may be entirely rational. How is that possible, you ask? Well, cela se passe d’explication! Just look around you. Turn on your television set. If I must, I shall elucidate. Both a logical argument and an ontological argument use logical reasoning. Think of logical reasoning as the rungs of a ladder, the seeker as a blind man. In pure logic, you are simply climbing the ladder, one rung after another, without leaps, or skips, toward some unknown destination above you. In Ontology, you are still on a ladder, but you are nearsighted and the ladder is sinking into quicksand. What I mean to say is quite simple: Logic begins with axioms or assumptions that will either prove out, or won’t. A logical argument cannot by definition aim the seeker anywhere, it can only build. An ontology, however, has a goal. It begins with a need. It begins with quicksand. If you are hysterical (a vulgar word for insane that is grossly chauvinistic) and are told that demons exist and are hunting you, of course you will use logic to prove that this is true, if only to discern ways to escape it! Of course you will leap for that ladder and climb like mad, though each footfall sinks you further into the very insanity you were attempting to escape.

Secondly, when you accept the word of all authorities (as Mr. Oldridge argues was a common, nay excusable practice of the medieval mind) as the very pith and marrow of truth, problems are bound to happen, particularly if those authorities’ only claim to such ascendancy is a scarf they wear, a few years of Latin, and a note from the Pope. I watched how wicked lies and boundless exaggerations of unknowable natural events became fact, and indeed felt the sting of such unjustified treatment myself. It is stupid to believe that “vapors” exist. It is ignorant to believe that a woman can prove she is not a witch by carrying a hot iron a few feet. The auto de fe went out of fashion for a reason: It was pointlessly lethal and did nothing for the argument, as was well-outlined by the “She’s a witch” scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Graille”. Any reasoning that derives its cornerstones from “a man I hold in high regard” or a priest, or any other source that is irreproducible, is by definition untrue, and can therefore not be counted as sensible. In other words, it is ignorant, which means, literally “Lacking knowledge information or awareness”. You have believed many preposterous things (That I am a perfectly normal human being, for one, just because I dress in high fashion) and have done so without questioning them, simply because someone told you they were true. We have seen this in Urban Legends. I once overheard a woman insisting that her female cousin was nearly killed by Jeffrey Dahmer. I pointed out, very politely, that Dahmer was gay and only killed men. To which she replied, “Well, my cousin wouldn’t make that up, and she was really scared.” Which is more likely, that Dahmer decided to stray from his deeply ingrained, twisted, psychotic quest to make a male love-slave-zombie, or that her cousin was simply mistaken/nearsighted/inebriated et cetera? Yet she persisted in believing, because her cousin wouldn’t lie, and serial killers are scary. And incidentally, delicious…

Beside the point, I know.

Ignorance and irrationality are both perfectly understandable, yes. They spread as quickly, indeed more quickly, among your populace than the opposites, not because they are valid, but because they are easy. Your race, in its intellectual infancy, was crass, barbarous, and dull. Look back at history and see how many of your famed figureheads died from over-eating and explosive diarrhea like ungoverned horses. See the unbridled avarice with which your most lauded celebrities have reached for fame, fortune, power, and strength until it cost lives. Look back at how many of your intellectuals, vanguards true, but still dim-witted, drank toxic potions, or searched for ways to turn lead to gold (any chemist will tell you that elements are called “elements” because they cannot be broken down, diminished, or transformed). The man who penned the laws of physics as we have known them for most of the modern age, Isaac Newton, killed himself slowly because he believed heavy metal poisoning was good for him. Of course he believed that! As he gulped down mercury, his brain deteriorated and he became even more stupid than before. You crossed yourselves, you wore charms and baubles, you claimed that sympathetic magic could heal wounds and turn people to slaves. You were savages in every sense of the word.

Mr Oldridge argues that looking back in awe at the sheer magnitude of your malformed reasoning is folly because it causes you to distance yourselves from your past. Well, having lived in your past, I can tell you, it wasn’t at all as romantic as some make it seem. It was dirty, smelly, bloody, deadly, and altogether painful to behold. It does not matter if such things were common for man, it does not matter if that is how it was done, or if it was done with great research, or rational thought. It was still done wrong. If you fail to recognize the misguidedness of it, you are most certainly, doomed to repeat it. For, why would you do anything else, if it served you for eons?

Look at the dilapidated school systems where most graduating high school seniors have not the slightest idea who the vice president is. Look at the fact that 30% of the American people call themselves “tea party” members, and have no idea that Medicaid is a government provided service. Look at the rise of fanaticism, the upswing in obesity, the dwindling population of scientists, innovators, thinkers. You are becoming cattle, which, I suppose I shouldn’t complain about, but honestly, I do. I do because I’ve met my relatives, and they are not gifted conversationalists. If you were to slide back into the Dark Ages, I would again be lonely, hunted, and miserable, though well fed.

I digress.

Just because the prevailing wisdom of the medieval period was that angels could dance in number upon the head of a pin, does not mean it was a subject worthy of thought, sensible to think upon, or indeed in any way substantive to the concerns of the day. A more important question would be to ask “Why was medieval man incapable of discovering what really caused disease?” or perhaps “Why were they so worried about witches when their own kings were pounding them into the bogs?” Anthropologists and historians should not uphold prevailing wisdom as a standard for behavior. If they do, they cripple their faculties and end up “going native”.

Case in point:

The author says, “Critics could excuse both groups (atheist scientists and believers) of  pursuing knowledge to the point of impractical abstraction. After all, do we really need to know if amputees regain their limbs in heaven? Or for that matter, whether the universe is expanding or contracting? But in their defense both modern scientists and medieval scholars could claim that the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake is a virtue. If it is worthwhile for scientists who believe in particles of light to speculate about their composition and behavior, it is valid for theologians who believe in angels to ask the same kind of questions.”

Wrong. Study is epistemological. Belief is not. What I mean to say is simple. Seeking answers and locating some that lead you to others is indeed, a valid pursuit. Speculating endlessly about something you believe is masturbatory (Yes, I do know about masturbation, even though I have no genitals). Scientists do not “believe” in particles of light. They observe and record them. They quantify them. They “speculate” on why, how, in what way, they behave/exist/diminish, in order to arrange more experiments that will hopefully elucidate more truths about the universe so that more ignoramuses can enjoy the benefits of electricity, nuclear power, solar cells et cetera. and while away their hours contemplating the minutia of an afterlife that does not benefit anyone until after they’re dead. When the author said this, he failed to realize he was himself becoming the very thing he was explaining: someone for whom prevailing wisdom was explanation enough. By writing his treatise, he is in fact, excusing his own behavior in one glorious, ontological mind-fuck.

Science is not a body of knowledge. Science is a method. Logical reasoning is part of this method. The foundation of all study is skepticism. All minds must be able to be view their own vantage, their own dearly held opinions, their own ways, as false. You must. Or you will fail. You will climb an unending ladder out of quicksand forever, otherwise, 

Anthropology, as a study, is remiss if it does not pass some judgement. True, it must remain aware of the framing of this judgement, the context and slant from which all distinctions are made (I recall the premier history of the roman empire, written in the 30’s with noticeably anti-German rhetoric that does not in any way enhance the history, and in fact detracts from the accolades of the writers). I acknowledge this. But as a study, it is entirely, unremittingly, undeniably, about hindsight and its obvious perfection. It is the beginning of skepticism! You cannot be skeptical of things like “Ghost Adventures” if you cannot admit that you are a fool, who came from fools, who were foolish as far back as recorded history goes and believed in foolish things that have now become a part of your foolish ideology. You cannot be great if you cannot be humble. Nostalgia, honor, excellence, introspection: all things that require a man to look at what has gone before and laugh at it.

But I acknowledge that my ideal of how anthropology should be performed is not how it is actually done. In my opinion, far too much time is spent in arguing for the relevance of a way of life, rather than the exploration of it. The reader is foreign to the culture, that is a given. So too is it assumed that he will need to know why the culture exists, how to compare it to his own, etc. That is all immaterial. What is critical is to explore the difference and embrace it. You cannot do this if you are constantly justifying it. 

Here is my idea of a worthy anthropological discourse on medieval man: Medieval man was mad and stupid. Here’s how. Here’s why they were. Aren’t you happy you no longer throw your bodily waste out of windows? End of study.

The world before logic was dark and terrifying. Unknowable, ephemeral beings with hidden motivations hunted even the likes of me, an indestructible monster. I skulked in shadows, not only because I believed my ancient neighbors tales of their stupid demons, but because I harbored suspicions of being one. Reality was caustic, corrosive, abrasive. It tore at all of us every day. No joy to be had when constantly bending to the whims of rivers, or rains, or harvests, or vapors. No peace when at the mercy of men who ordained the deaths of 400 swans so that they could rupture their intestines while famine ravaged the land. No lineages what with war after war after war simply to debate which asshole should own a plot of muddy soil and all its oppressed vassals and chattels whose children littered the battlefield. Squabbling over divine rights, divine laws, divine orders, all pointless and sickening. To the mind, to the blood, to the heart. You think cancer is on the rise? Well, I can smell cancer. In those days, you’d have been lucky to live long enough under that tremendous soul-crushing burden to die of cancer.

“Go on Simon,” you say gentle reader, and you are right. I am pontificating. So I will draw this missive to a close upon this note: Be skeptical of all things, especially yourselves. If you are not, you lose that thing, that spark, which makes you beautiful. Become credulous, and you run the risk of becoming my next entree. That is not to say that this is a threat. More of a promise. Mark my words: there was never a criminal mastermind furnishing my sideboard who was not entirely in love with his own way of seeing the universe. Look where it got him.

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