I bought my copy of Goethe’s Faust in 1952 when I was an undergraduate student of literature and philosophy at the University of Minnesota. It is a mid-XX century translation by C. F. MacIntyre with the original German text displayed on the opposite page for convenient reference. it is the earliest book purchase I still possess, and it has been carried it along with me throughout my long life. I thought of it today while rereading an essay I wrote at age 20 in 1954 as a summing up of my thinking, when I received my BA degree in Humanities.
Since then, I have studied philosophy, astronomy, medicine and, alas, psychiatry. Like Faust I feel no wiser now than I was before, and realize that we are all basically ignorant.
My essay proclaimed the dawn of a world-outlook, and one may compare what I thought 65 years ago with what I now believe.
Scientific knowledge then as now was celebrated as the sole means of understanding the structure of the universe, with intersubjective testability as the criterion for assessing the truth of a proposition about the natural world. The role of language was considered fundamental for this understanding, and my view of that remains strong.
Ethical values and social concerns also remain much the same now as then, and aesthetic interests while broader, continue as before. I didn’t like jazz or broccoli then and I still don’t.
My early thoughts about philosophy reflected a feeling of sterility about logical empiricism, useful in dealing with science and epistemology, but of limited benefit in examining value judgments and moral issues. I now incline more towards existentialism.
In a closing statement from 1954, I wrote “It would be nobler for mankind if the universe had no preconceived plan, because then we ourselves might endow it with a purpose. For what is man but a very small and yet complex chunk of the universe come alive and conscious? We are the universe, and what goals we set for ourselves we set for it also.” That remains my credo.
A lifelong theme has been a wide range of interests and not becoming a narrow specialist. Like Faust, I don’t presume to be an expert in anything, though learning has always been a source of fulfillment. I’ve tried to become at least a competent amateur in some areas, respecting the advice of Aristotle who wrote, “A man should be able to play the flute—but not too well.”
Finally, as a physician, I’ve tried to do no harm and hopefully have done some good for others. A sense of humour has been helpful in dealing with the vicissitudes of illness and advanced age.
After a lifetime studying history, science, literature, and psychology, the collapse of civilization looks inevitable, and the only certainty is the second law of thermodynamics. Applied reason and competition have enabled the human race to survive and achieve mastery over nature, but are destroying us. Compelled by our inborn traits and poisoned by our technology, the Eternal Masculine drags us down.
Freud wins over Goethe.