'Nostalgia for the Absolute': The prophetic insights of George Steiner's 1974 Massey Lectures
The internationally renowned thinker and scholar died this week at the age of 90
In 1974, George Steiner delivered the CBC Massey Lectures, entitled Nostalgia for the Absolute. His lectures examined the gap left by the decline in authority of established religions, and the alternative "mythologies" which filled in that gap: Marxism, Freudian psychology, Lévi-Straussian anthropology, and — most tellingly for our own time — fads of irrationality.
The literary and cultural critic died earlier this week at age 90. But what he said over 45 years ago has particular resonance today.
"It is a truism to say that Western culture is undergoing a dramatic crisis of confidence," he said in his lectures.
The renowned scholar viewed Western society as a fundamentally bereft culture, looking for new answers to fill the void left by the sweeping away of religious belief — the central claim that ties his five Massey Lectures together.
Steiner turned his attention to the very idea of truth itself in his final Massey Lecture, almost anticipating our own "post-truth" moment. Steiner had a great fear of what happens to societies when they lose their commitment to truth. He was also keenly mindful of humanity's limits — and the threat that determining ultimate truths is simply beyond us.
Here is an excerpt from George Steiner's final Massey Lecture:
"To the philosophers of the Enlightenment, to the agnostic and pragmatic thinkers of the 19th century, the rise of the sciences, mathematical, physical, social, applied, was causally and logically inseparable from the decline of religion.
As the ancient darkness of unreason and credulity receded, the light of the sciences was to shine forth.
The truth, we were told, shall make ye free. But can science assuage the nostalgia, the hunger for the absolute?
What today is the status of the classical concept of truth?
The disinterested pursuit of the truth, in the sense in which Descartes or Sir Karl Popper understand it, as subject to falsification, to experimental proof, to logical constraint. This pursuit is not a universal. I know this is a shocking thing to affirm, but the disinterested hunt for abstract truths is culturally specific.
Its history is relatively brief. It has a geography of its own. It is an eastern Mediterranean phenomenon, which in turn energized the Western intellectual and scientific tradition.
Why did it originate where it did, in Asia Minor, in Greece, somewhere around the end of the seventh or perhaps the start of the sixth century B.C.?
This is a very difficult question, possibly related to factors of climate, of protein diet, of a masculine dominated kinship system in which men were predatory and had a dominant questing role. Perhaps they would not have been pure speculative thought without slavery, without the fact that men had leisure to give their will and energy and ambitions to problems not immediately related to economic and personal survival.
In other words, the pursuit of truth is from the outset a pursuit. It has elements of the hunt and of conquest as a marvellous moment in one of Plato's dialogues when at the end of a very difficult logical demonstration the disciples in the crowd standing around gives a literal Halu — the cry of a hunter — when he has cornered his quarry. Through the scientific technological revolution, which came to dominate Western social and psychological consciousness of the 16th century, the entire conception of truth assumes both a more special rigour and an almost unexamined moral obviousness and authority."
About George Steiner
George Steiner lived through the horrors that absolute belief can produce. As an 11-year-old Jewish boy living in Paris in 1940, he saw his own childhood disrupted by the cruelty of totalitarianism.
His family fled to the U.S. before the Nazis arrived. Steiner was one of only two fellow pupils he went to school with to survive the Holocaust.
The potential of societies to go brutally wrong haunted Steiner's thinking throughout his professional life, and lent a moral urgency to his ideas about culture, literature, and language.
Yet his own career was a glittering one. Perfectly fluent in English, French, and German, he held distinguished teaching positions at Princeton, Geneva, Oxford, and Cambridge, where he attained the prestigious title of "Extraordinary Fellow."
He was also a very public intellectual, writing on a huge range of topics — from books and music, to society, politics and human nature. For 30 years, he was a regular presence in the New Yorker magazine, contributing more than 200 articles.
* This episode was produced by Tom Howell.