Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Asimov's Foundation and the Great Books of the Western World

The Foundation Series and Great Books of the Western World have many common points. Both Foundation and GBWW are concerned with the preservation of the civilizing influence of reason and Western culture. Both address theories of knowledge and power. Both attack ethics and the sentiments with great feeling and strong views.

But as the Great Books of the Western World is a real life conversation spanning the ages, it is about true things and actual stories, which even though fiction are based in true cultures and times. The Foundation Series is fiction through and through, fiction in the best, the Aesopian, sense of the word. The world of Foundation cannot and could not ever exist.

But in a deeper sense Asimov's Foundation is poetry; it is a fiction that shows more truth than a history can.

The underlying context of Foundation occupies the same epistemic space as Plato's ideal republic. Socrates insists that reality can be measured; how much more does the fictional Hari Seldon force nature to yield up her secrets through psychohistory! The Encyclopaedists of the Foundation represent the Platonic educational ideal, and the various scurrilous derring-do of the first book of Foundation represent symbolically much of the political dialog that followed in the wake of Plato's work these last few thousand years.

Finally, in the annoyingly analytical smugness of the psychohistorians, starting with Hari Seldon himself, we can see Aristotle's rational and dry wisdom at work.

The key point of dissimilarity between the Great Books and Asimov's Foundation is simply that Asimov has a far more narrow view of knowledge than the Great Books. Asimov's Foundation, when exposed to the harsh, humane, realistic light of the Great Books, reveals itself to be marred by a narrow scientism and cramped by reductionistic cliches.

Nevertheless, as Harold Bloom would put it, the Foundation Series expresses considerable anxiety towards the centralized authority of the Western tradition. The Empire is doomed, but the Foundation will endure through the dark age of irrational faith and mystical, magical thinking. Asimov's effort to assert reductionist scientism makes the Foundation Series (at least in the first three books) vital and genuine.

Finally, comparison with the Great Books casts a new light on the latter books - ie, 'Foundation's Edge', 'Foundation and Earth'. If the heroic effort to ward off the forces of gaian wholism in the latter books of the Foundation Series is not entirely convincing, then the fault is perhaps not in the vitality of the writer but in the weakness of the material.

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