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The Horizon

The Horizon: A History of Our Infinite Longing

Didier Maleuvre
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    The Horizon
    Book Description:

    What is a horizon? A line where land meets sky? The end of the world or the beginning of perception? In this brilliant, engaging, and stimulating history, Didier Maleuvre journeys to the outer reaches of human experience and explores philosophy, religion, and art to understand our struggle and fascination with limits—of life, knowledge, existence, and death. Maleuvre sweeps us through a vast cultural landscape, enabling us to experience each stopping place as the cusp of a limitless journey, whether he is discussing the works of Picasso, Gothic architecture, Beethoven, or General Relativity. If, as Aristotle said, philosophy begins in wonder, then this remarkable book shows us how wonder—the urge to know beyond the conceivable—is itself the engine of culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94711-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    This image, the opening of Joseph Conrad’sHeart of Darkness, is this book in a nutshell. A seafarer faces the open sea. Above is the sky, implacable; below is the fathomless deep. Nature appears in the primeval, geometric, naked fact of it: there is the earth and there is the sky. Nothing is hidden, nothing obfuscated. Yet the scene is profoundly mysterious. Its immensity kindles thoughts of ultimate concern. The human gaze spans the near and the far, the familiar and the remote. We become conscious of what Blaise Pascal might have called “the grandeur and misery” of human perception:...


    • CHAPTER 1 Permanence: Egypt, 2500 b.c.e.
      (pp. 11-28)

      In the beginning was no beginning, and no end.

      The first record of an enduring, self-possessed artistic and religious tradition arises out of ancient Egypt. It is there we find the first archeological and textual evidence of a single people possessed by an overriding idea that builds over a continuous historical period starting, in most estimates, around the fourth millennium b.c.e. Notwithstanding a short interlude in the thirteenth century b.c.e. during King Akhenaten’s reign, this record remains constant in outlook and, in its basic political and religious lineaments, remarkably of the same cut. Egypt’s fertile Nile Valley alone is not...

    • CHAPTER 2 Astonishment: Mesopotamia, circa 1900 b.c.e.
      (pp. 29-38)

      Though it dates from the third millennium b.c.e., theEpic of Gilgameshmade a rather recent entry into world literature. Its clay tablet manuscript was discovered by the British archeologist Austin Henry Layard in 1948 on the site of the ancient library of Nineveh. The twelve tablets engraved in Akkadian cuneiforms recount the story of Gilgamesh, a king thought to have ruled in Uruk around 2600 b.c.e.¹ Part legend, part myth, and part philosophical tale, the story tells of a hero who tests the limits of human experience and discovers death: “He who saw all, throughout the length of the...

    • CHAPTER 3 Enterprise: Aegean Sea, circa 725 b.c.e.
      (pp. 39-50)

      Why is King Odysseus so sad? Cajoled and caressed by the enchantress Calypso of the blessed isle, Odysseus wastes away with longing, “gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears,” and “weeping there as always.”² Odysseus pining before the horizon like the moping romantic he is not: this is the first glimpse Homer gives of the great hero. Not battle-ready on the Trojan fields of glory, nor in the exercise of his proverbial guile, but woebegone and useless. He who has strength, fame, and a goddess’s favor wallows in sadness. What ails the great man? How did an Iron...

    • CHAPTER 4 Tremor: Northern Kingdom of Israel, 500 b.c.e.
      (pp. 51-62)

      Written to answer the basic question, How did being begin? Genesis starts too late. In fact, the first verse nullifies the very question. Any cosmogenesis assumes the existence of what it purports to establish. It explains being by the prior existence of being—a preexisting oneness Genesis calls “God” (or “Elohim,” as the writers of Genesis, probably of the priestly school known as P, call him). We can infer one of two things about Elohim: either he is the whole of being and therefore brings the world out of his bosom, or he is the important denizen of a super-cosmic...


    • CHAPTER 5 Exodus: The Desert of Moab, 450 b.c.e.
      (pp. 65-76)

      “God led the people about through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea. And the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt. . . . They took their journey from Succoth and encamped in Etham at the edge of the great wilderness. And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, to go by day and night” (Exod. 13:18–21). Thus Moses—a Hebraic Gilgamesh, a Jewish Odysseus—pauses on the edge of...

    • CHAPTER 6 Synthesis: The Hellenic Archipelago, 500 b.c.e.
      (pp. 77-84)

      It is evidence of Homer’s great influence that nearly nine hundred years after his poems were committed to writing, savants still cobbled their map of the world from snippets of the Homeric text—stitching up the map with the golden thread of poetry. We have the first-century Greek geographer Strabo (63 b.c.e.–24 c.e.) to thank for collecting this lore into his seventeen-volume summaGeography, a compendium that heartily mixes observation, geopolitics, hearsay, and sailors’ tall tales. At its widest span, the world was thought to be bounded by an expanse of water, called Oceanus, beyond which the imagination dared...

    • CHAPTER 7 Closure: Athens, circa 400 b.c.e.
      (pp. 85-92)

      The movement known as the great Athenian achievement sprang from the graveyard of sixth-century b.c.e. philosophy. Heracleitus, Anaximander, and Parmenides devised a language in which to express rational ideas about the universe. The next generation of thinkers accepted this mode of thinking but recoiled from the world it was unveiling. That world proved too wide-open to their taste. The people who designed the six-column facade, invoked Apollo, chiseled the gymnast body, wrote in iambic meter, and cherished democratic self-rule were not romantics of infinity; they were people of measure and law—a staid people willing to impose terms to thought...


    • CHAPTER 8 Distance: Nicaea, 325 c.e.
      (pp. 95-104)

      Saul of Tarsus was on his way to purge Damascus of Christians when a shaft of light knocked him to the ground. By the time he recovered his sight, he had become Paul the Apostle (?–67? c.e.), chief member of the very sect he had hounded and head theologian for its charismatic Galilean rabbi, executed some twenty years earlier on the charge of rabble-rousing. Paul recounts the occurrence thus: “And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto...

    • CHAPTER 9 Trembling: Hippo, 410
      (pp. 105-115)

      Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354–430 c.e.), hailed from northern Africa, imbibed Christianity at an early age from his mother, studied under the formidable Ambrose of Milan, then returned to Hippo, in today’s Algeria, where besides his pastoral and episcopal duties, he marshaled his rhetorical skill, vivid confessional streak, keen logic, and enormous writing output to build the missing theological bridge between the Christian age and the ancient world.¹ To vindicate the Christian message, he showed its seed already alive in Platonic philosophy, and expounded the new Christian ethic in three basic volumes of astonishing breadth and visionary power:City...

    • CHAPTER 10 Space: The Northern Forest, 1100
      (pp. 116-135)

      In evolutionary terms, a cultural form such as a myth tends to endure when it tends to bolster the institutions and beliefs of its society. Stories of no social value whatsoever have the shelf life of anecdotes; those that promote communal permanence grow into myths. Even when they leonize go-it-alone heroes and recreants, myths foment group identity. It is those cultures possessed by a strong myth of the corporate life (the Athenian city-state, the Hebraic chosen people, the Romancivitas, the apostolic family of Christendom) that last long enough to write their own history. Among these collective narratives, Christianity cuts...

    • CHAPTER 11 Perspective: Mount Ventoux, April 1336
      (pp. 136-151)

      Less than two centuries separate the theologians Thomas Aquinas (1225?–74) from Nicholas Cusanus (1401–64). Though fundamentally Christian in its outlook, the form of the world inhabited by the latter might nevertheless have been unrecognizable to the former. Aquinas lived in a world whose shape conformed basically to Ptolemaic and Aristotelian ideas; it was a closed world that in its every turn proclaimed the primacy of contained form. The German cardinal Cusanus, on the contrary, lived in the century that saw a Genoese adventurer throw open the bourns of the known world and retire for good certain myths about...

    • CHAPTER 12 Ambivalence: Florence, 1503
      (pp. 152-166)

      The year 1482 is generally taken to be a turning point in the career of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Until then, the young Leonardo had apprenticed in Florence at the workshop of the artist Verrocchio, under whom he learned to paint in the pristine, courtly style of Lippi and Perugino. Then, after falling out of favor with the powerful patron of the arts Lorenzo de’ Medici, Leonardo was sent to Milan to wait on the pleasures of Ludovico il Moro, duke of Milan. There he spent most of the 1480s; there too, far from Florence and the Tuscan masters,...


    • CHAPTER 13 Mortuus sum: Bordeaux, 1574
      (pp. 169-180)

      One day he was riding his horse in the neighborhood of his manor in the Bordelais, the essayist and statesman Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) was violently thrown off his mount and, like Paul on the way to Damascus, had a revelation. As his fellow horsemen carried his unconscious body home, the moribund Montaigne was using his last glimmer of awareness to mull over the curious thought that he was dying. Ever the lover of knowledge—Montaigne recalls his intense interest in fixing the moment. The life unexamined is not worth living; neither, it seems, the death unexamined. For Montaigne,...

    • CHAPTER 14 Nothing: Regensburg, May 8, 1654
      (pp. 181-196)

      This was the day chosen by the German inventor and natural scientist Otto von Guericke (1602–86) to demonstrate before Emperor Ferdinand III the wondrous and mighty property of nothingness. The experiment presented two copper hemispheres the length of a man’s arm, brought lip to lip to make an unfastened globe on which Von Guericke mounted a pump. Having sucked the air out, he then harnessed thirty horses, a team of fifteen on either side, to pull in opposite directions. But, marvel of marvels, all that horsepower could not yank the hemispheres apart. This, declared von Guericke to his amazed...

    • CHAPTER 15 Night: Neuberg, November 10, 1619
      (pp. 197-210)

      Withdrawing from society, Descartes thus begins the monologue that will become modern philosophy. It would be eighteen years before the philosopher would set in writing the revelation of that fitful night of November 1619—a dramatic night Jacques Maritain has called Descartes’s “Pentecost of Reason.”² Then, the twenty-three-year-old doubter envisioned a plan to build sound scientific knowledge—knowledge that does not derive from received opinion, religious doctrine, tradition, conjecture, and so the like, but from certainties. What can I be certain of? Why? What beliefs of mine are indubitable? Descartes believed that by answering these questions he could cast the...


    • CHAPTER 16 Formless: Königsberg, 1780
      (pp. 213-225)

      A story holds that, after listening to a composition by Ludwig von Beethoven (1770–1827), Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) concluded that such music had sprung from the mind of an atheist.¹ Theological listening sounds puzzling to our modern ears; in the intellectual context of eighteenth-century deism, however, the claim is not devoid of sense. Music obeys an internally coherent language, a ratio—not unlike, as the Enlightenmentphilosophessaw it, the created world which evidenced a kind of clockwork, like a music box, a harmonious piece of machinery. Most of the eighteenth-century intelligentsia had stopped praying to the peevish, capricious...

    • CHAPTER 17 Severance: Wetzlar, November 1772
      (pp. 226-234)

      On getting wind of the rumor that his friend von Goué had killed himself, the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a letter commending the suicide for its bravery and independent spirit: “I honor such a deed.”¹ Happily, the rumor turned out to be false. But suicide was evidently in the air because another report, this one well-founded, shook the little town of Wetzlar, where Goethe made his occasional residence. On October 30, Karl Jerusalem (philosopher, poet, unrequited lover) retired to his garret, set his papers in order, and shot himself in the head—messily, as it happens, because his...

    • CHAPTER 18 Blue Yonder: Tübingen, 1810
      (pp. 235-249)

      By April 1802, it was becoming alarmingly clear to his employers in Bordeaux that Hölderlin could no longer serve his tutorship. His “hypochondriac” temperament had lately begun to show worrisome streaks of lunacy. It was imperative he be sent back to Germany.

      So Hölderlin wandered his way across France, no longer the brilliant student of theology who debated Hegel and Schiller, but, according to a witness, a stuttering wretch, “pale as a corpse, emaciated, with hollow wild eyes, long hair and beard, and dressed like a beggar.”¹ Once in Germany, and after stammering stints in psychiatric clinics, he found refuge...

    • CHAPTER 19 Eden: Upstate New York, September 22, 1827
      (pp. 250-264)

      Joseph Smith (1805–44) was the fourteen-year-old son of a farmer from the tiny town of Palmyra, New York, when God the Father and Jesus the Son appeared to him in person. All religious creeds and denominations, they told him, were wrong. God was yet to hand down his final revelation. By and by, Smith began receiving the visitations of the angel Moroni, who, one day in September 1827, led him to a secret spot where an ancient race had buried golden tablets written in reformed Egyptian. An improvised philologist of the Holy Spirit, Smith proceeded to translate this unknown...


    • CHAPTER 20 Flatness: Murnau, Bavaria, 1908
      (pp. 267-283)

      Until 1908, Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) had been a talented, unassuming artist who had taken up painting after a bumbling start in the legal profession. Soon a figure of the Munich art scene, Kandinsky made his name painting attractive landscapes in the smudged manner of Fauve artists like Henri Matisse, with elements of Paul Cézanne’s paneled style and Paul Gauguin’s crazy-quilt color schemes. They were pictures of Bavarian towns and waterfalls, of horse riding in autumn, dachas in the countryside, boats on the Volga, with evocative titles likeOld Town, Moscow Environs, or Landscape with a Locomotive.

      Then in a...

    • CHAPTER 21 No Exit: Buenos Aires, April 1941
      (pp. 284-294)

      Thus begins “The Library of Babel,” the short story by the Argentine writer and essayist Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986).Short storyis an awkward term because “The Library of Babel” really is not a story (rather the description of a building) and because it does not do to call a piece that encompasses the infinite “short.”

      A literary heir of Kafka, Borges perfected the art of the labyrinthine, sibylline tale that sends characters chasing after the Great Questions (God, the Absolute, the Origin of the Cosmos, Time, Eternity) only to finish tangled up in paradoxes, mad with riddles, or...

    • CHAPTER 22 Here: Woodstock, NY, August 29, 1952
      (pp. 295-307)

      The period following the Second World War saw a time of skepticism and sullen soul-searching in the house of culture. If all Western civilization could ratchet up was two horrendous global wars, mayhem, and butchery on an unconscionable scale, then clearly something was wrong with the formula “science + rationality + humanism = civilization.” Science evidently did not safeguard society from barbarism. And secular humanism (with its magic equation of “will + rationality – God = progress”) had some deep reckoning to do. Fascism, whether of the Stalinist, Hitlerian, or Maoist breed, advanced a cult of human determination and self-mobilization....

    • CHAPTER 23 Nowhere: The Moon, July 21, 1969, 3:58 a.m. BST
      (pp. 308-324)

      To silence Job’s sermonizing dirge, Yahweh reminds the mortal of how little humans can know: “Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? Declare if thou knowest it all” (Job 38:18). The Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible is given to pulling rank and does so here, suggesting that Job would have to be as mighty and omniscient as God to criticize God. The jealous gods would roundly smite the social-climbing Icaruses and Prometheuses of the world who dared climb to that panoramic perch. Job, for one, gets off easy with a warning. Job meekly admits that human knowledge indeed cannot...

  13. Afterword
    (pp. 325-328)

    But incomprehensible the horizon is not yet. It remains (if one may be allowed) on our horizon. In its heart of hearts, Western culture remains wedded to a picture of reality stretching between immanence and transcendence: a reality full of the thrill and tragedy ofdistance. We need to inhabit a reality we ache to transcend. Ourhereleans toward atherewhich, unapproachable and fanciful though it may be, exorcises the specter of the bell jar. We would rather take the span of life with a dash of existential ache, a feeling of incompletion, Charon forever midway across the...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 329-344)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 345-356)
  16. Index
    (pp. 357-363)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 364-364)