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· Michel Serres Aces the Final ·

I'm giving my final exams this week. Without time to describe them, I thought to share something from the philosopher Michel Serres today, a writer whose extended 1995 text, The Natural Contract, grasps both substantively and stylishly the aims of the work I typically ask students to do.

Serres' words pass a clear test of intelligence and mark well the two aims of real study, instruction and education. As we sometimes forget them, I've thought Serres' "Rearing" section, from his book's third chapter ("Science, Law"), apt to our use. His passage, given today without added comment, I hope you'll agree merits a solid "A."

In any case, here's Serres' "Rearing":

May this Sage1 found a lineage. The rearing of the human baby is based on two principles: the first positive, concerns his instruction; the other, negative, involves education. The latter forms prudent judgment and the former valiant reason. · Michel Serres ·

We must learn our finitude: reach the limits of a non-infinite being. Necessarily we will have to suffer, from illnesses, unforeseeable accidents or lacks; we must set a term to our desires, ambitions, wills, freedoms. We must prepare our solitude, in the face of great decisions, responsibilities, growing numbers of other people; in the face of the world, the fragility of things and of loved ones to protect, in the face of happiness, unhappiness, death.

To deny this finitude, starting in childhood, is to nurture unhappy people and foster their resentment of inevitable adversity.

We must learn, at the same time, our true infinity. Nothing, or almost nothing, resists training. The body can do more than we believe, intelligence adapts to everything. To awaken the unquenchable thirst for learning, in order to live as much as possible and to persevere, sometimes, through invention: this is the meaning of equipping someone to cast off.

These two principles laugh at the paths that guide today's contrary educational practices; the narrow finitude of an instruction that produces obedient specialists or ignoramuses full of arrogance; the infinity of desire, drugging tiny soft larvae to death.

Education forms and strengthens a prudent being who judges himself finite; instruction by true reason lauches this being into an infinite becoming.

Earth, the foundation, is limited; yet the casting off from it knows no end. Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995, 95-96.


In his previous section [pp. 94-5] — The Instructed Third (Le Tiers-Instruit) — Serres defines current civilization's ideal Sage:

Today's Sage is a mixture of the Legislator of heroic times and the modern titleholder of rigorous knowledge; he knows how to weave together the truth of the sciences with with the peace of judgment; he blends together our Egyptian and Roman heritages, the source of our laws, with our Semitic and Greek legacies, givers of knowledge; he integrates quick and effective sciences into our slow and prudent laws. Young and old at the same time, the Sage is reaching maturity.

I call this Sage "le Tiers-Instruit," the Instructed Third, knowledge's troubadour: expert in formal or experimental knowledge, well-versed in the natural sciences of the inanimate and the living; at safe remove from the social sciences, with their critical rather than organic truths and their banal, commonplace information; preferring action to relations, direct human experience to surveys and documents, traveler in nature and society; lover of rivers, sands, winds, seas, and mountains; walker over the whole Earth; fascinated by different gestures as by diverse landscapes; solitary navigator of the Northwest Passage, those waters where scientific knowledge communicates, in rare and delicate ways, with the humanities; conversely versed in ancient languages, mythical traditions, and religions; free spirit and damned good fellow; sinking his roots into the deepest cultural compost, down to the tectonic plates buried furthest in the dark memory of flesh and verb; and thus archaic and contemporary, traditional and futuristic, humanist and scientist, fast and slow, green and seasoned, audacious and prudent; further removed from power than any possible legislator, and closer to the multitude's ignorance than any imaginable scientist; great, perhaps, but of the common people; empirical but exact, fine as silk, coarse as canvas; ceaselessly wandering across the span that separates hunger from surfeit, misery from wealth, shadow from light, mastery from servitude, home from abroad; knowing and valuing ignorance as much as the sciences, old wives' tales more than concepts, laws as well as non-law; monk and vagrant, alone and vagabonding, wandering but stable; finally, above all burning with love for Earth and humanitiy.

Finally, siding with bonds tied rather than soil tilled, fibered cordage rather than farmed roots, he begs a concluding, speculative question about the current conditions of modern human belonging.

This mixture demands a paradoxical rootedness in the global: not in a plot of earth, but on Earth, not in the group, but everywhere; the plant image hardly makes sense anymore. Since we left the ground, casting off powerfully for remote places, we have relied more on immaterial bonds than on roots. Could this then be the end of all forms of belonging?

Posted by
Styles on December 9, 2003 09:21 PM

The answer is no. Serres assertion that "Since we left the ground . . . we have relied more on immaterial bonds than on roots" is unsupported here and unfounded elsewhere. Consider: We stem from our roots, but we choose our bonds. Bonds may be tied, broken and reformed, but roots are broken only at great risk. Has he no genes?

Yet, Serres' description of today's Sage is quite en pointe and somewhat familiar, friend Styles. Gratia.

Posted by Demos Nuova on December 11, 2003 07:14 PM

No, indeed.

Serres' Francophilic utopianism, as you say, is here interrogatively underjoined — I'd say in Robert Frost's great line, "To everything on earth the compass round." Clearly, you are right.

The sager chapter is today Wendell Berry's "The Body and the Earth" from The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977). Berry has been a graceful presence here since day one.

En pointe like many of my students, though, Serres still, of course, may deserve his "A."

In any case, my sincere thanks for your kind note.

Posted by Styles on December 12, 2003 12:19 AM

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