Evolution & Society

Speaking of getting more circumspect the more I learn, treading more carefully on evolutionary topics these days than I used to. Thanks to those who have brought more depth to my understanding here and at other blogs and such, especially Mike Flynn. Of course, my continuing lack of understanding is nobody’s fault by mine. Onward:

There are here both a basic idea and a basic problem that war, or at least are made to war, with each other. First is the grand idea, not quite so grand as many imagine but grand nonetheless, of species arising under the pressure of natural selection. Darwin spends the first part of the Origin of Species (note: origin of species) discussing how farmers have always, more or less consciously, artificially selected the most desirable plants and animals for breeding and thus perpetuation. That’s the model to be kept in mind always when considering Darwin: natural selection is to be understood as analogous to what a farmer does.  Continue reading “Evolution & Society”


Why (almost) Nobody Can Read

In a comment somewhere, I opined that if we consider literacy to mean not the mere mechanics of reading, but both actually reading and understanding what you have read, the percentage of people who are literate in America has got to be under 10%. I’m thinking probably well under. If you can’t read, in the sense of rendering those symbols on the page or screen into English, then of course you’re classically illiterate (and so of course aren’t reading this). But even if you can read in that sense, if you don’t read, it clearly makes no difference. The label ‘functionally illiterate’ should apply to people who don’t read as as much as those who can’t read.

Image result for readingThe bigger issue is understanding what you read. Recent reading and discussion, for example, show an almost complete misunderstanding of what the Constitution *is*.  That men wrote a document in order to establish and limit a national government seems almost entirely missed, as is the understanding that an unlimited government is by definition a tyranny.  Even the Bill of Rights is seen as somehow magically granting gifts to the People, rather than stating areas where the government shall not tread.

Recently tried to explain the Electoral College to a coworker, how it protects minorities – those who live in less populous states – from getting bullied by the majority, and how the Constitution very probably would not have gotten state approval without it – and he simply refused to understand, but continued to relish his anger at having the majority denied their will. I even added that revolts tend to come from the provinces, that the Founders knew this, and instituted the Electoral College as a way to mitigate this risk. Nope.

This accusatory finger here is pointed squarely at the mirror: hardly a day goes by when I don’t read something and realize I lack the context to understand it. What I do have, in addition to curiosity, is a liberal education – Great Books, some math and music, a little science and art and history. What that gives me is a skeleton like the girders that hold up a skyscraper that can be filled in, here and there, with more detail. That no man, let alone a poser like me, could ever fill it all in is beside the point. At least I have some context for the context, as it were.

Perhaps the most important part of a liberal education is a profound appreciation of how ignorant we all are. There is an effectively infinite set of things it would be good to know, and we most definitely have a finite amount of time and capacity. Further, no one with a functioning mind could come away from an encounter with Plato or Aristotle (or a host of others!) and still believe we moderns are way smarter than those stupid ancient people. No one (1) could look at the works of art – architecture, sculpting, painting, literature, music – and imagine we moderns are just way more sophisticated and smart than those old geezers. In fact, the feeling we’ve fallen far is hard to shake, that we couldn’t hold a candle next to truly great minds. Now, objectively, I believe there are any number of truly brilliant people around today in a thousand fields, as brilliant as anyone ever, but the image that springs to mind is of Dawkins and Musk with their hubris and gadgets trying to talk with, oh, Charlamagne and St. Thomas or Plato and Archimedes or even Jefferson and Newton. Always worth a giggle.

A liberally educated man will therefore be at least a little timid about his conclusions no matter how vigorous in his principles – and know the difference. The typical miseducated college grad is vigorous in his conclusions and vague about his principles – or would be, if he could tell the difference.

When I’m being careful and honest with myself (I try, but I’m only human), I’m somewhere between suspicious to pretty confident about what I’ve deduced from reading education history. I’m very confident about much of the framework items, such as Fichte’s role, the role of the Prussian models of universal and university education, and how compulsory graded classroom schooling spread in America – mostly because no one I’ve come across, critic or supporter, seriously disputes it. I’m a little uncomfortable with the contention that the Irish immigrants were the proximate cause of Mann getting Prussian style schooling approved in Massachusetts. I’ve seen this in 2 or 3 sources, and the timing matches, and the attitudes of Americans about the Irish certainly support it, but it’s not clear these sources aren’t really one source passed through time.

And so on, down to my complete lack of sources for the when and why the graded classroom model became the Catholic schooling model. It happened, that’s for sure, but I’d like some names, dates and arguments.

This is just an example, a place in the framework where I’ve managed to fill in some of the detail. I’m painfully aware of the effectively infinite number of empty spaces for every space I’ve filled in even a little. I’m aware I could be wrong. But I’m also aware that the enemies of truth and reason don’t feel (can’t say ‘think’) the same way about their positions, and don’t care. Can’t let legitimate minor doubts silence you in the face of irrational hatred.

In conclusion: I flatter myself imagining I read with some context and care. I fear, and unfortunately, the world seems hellbent to confirm it, that the number of people who can claim even this much is as a drop in a bucket. I hope I’m wrong.

  1. No one except Hegel. But boy, was he committed to getting the square peg of Reality into the round hole of his Theory.

On Progress and The World as Grass

Two interesting posts from two of my favorite regular blog reads:

Mike Flynn says:

“We often hear that the rate of progress is accelerating. Change is coming faster and faster. Things that were once pooh-poohed as “slippery slope fallacies” only a few years ago are now spoken of as inevitable and well-established. We are building something new, we are told.

“Yet a building being constructed does not move faster and faster. A building collapsing does, as it accelerated under the force of gravity.”

Brian Niemeier says, among other things:

There’s another, more sinister aspect to this phenomenon that heightens the already disorienting experience of learning that the Weird Al single you’d meant to buy on release but kept putting off is now old enough to drive–like children born on September 11, 2001 are now. It’s an empirical fact that Western pop culture–and even Western technology itself–has remained largely static since the late 1980s.

Submitted for your consideration:

  • The last two generations of iPhones have had no new features.
  • The celebrated iPod performed the same essential function as a 1970s Walkman.
  • Movies and TV are dominated by sequels to film franchises and adaptations of comic book story arcs that first gained popularity in the 70s and 80s.
  • Nintendo is still the biggest name in video games, trading on IPs it established in the 80s.
  • In terms of ordinary street clothes, popular fashion hasn’t changed substantially since the 70s. You could zap the average American twentysomething dude back to 1988 right now, and no one would bat an eye, except perhaps to comment that he looked like a slob. There would be no Marty McFly-style gaffes, e.g.: “Hey kid, you jump ship?” “I’ve never seen purple underwear before!”
The issue is bigger than a generation of kids raised on Nickelodeon turning 40. As the 21st century lumbers out of its infancy, we find that the music-makers can only sample Vanilla Ice ripoffs of Queen songs; and the dreamers can only dream of the lifestyle their parents took for granted.
We’d better get some new dreams.
I commented on these thoughts, respectively:

Good image. Also, from working in the software industry: progress almost never means coding, or more generally, the stuff you can see happens as a result of the real progress, but is not progress in itself. Almost all the progress happens before there’s anything to show for it.

Two wildly different examples: in my industry, meaningful progress happens during the ‘thought-smithing’ stage, where sharp people figure out what’s really going on, what’s really necessary. Ideas and processes crystalize. THEN, if you’re lucky and did a good job, coders code, and there’s software to look at. But coders code and produce stuff to look at all the time – it’s called ‘shelfware’, beautiful software nobody wants, so it sits on a shelf. Conclusion: the software itself isn’t where things got made better.

Second, in honor of the upcoming feast of St. Scholastica, a lot of real progress was made more or less unintentionally when the great Benedictine monasteries were built. The Rule of St. Benedict and the motto Ora et Labora ARE the progress – they ALLOWED the monasteries to spread, thrive, and change the world through being consistent pillars and sources of stability, civilization and technological development. It was almost like having a cultural mom and dad, who, just by being there and not budging, allowed the kids to grow up more confident and optimistic.

Corollary I: few people ever see where the real progress is made, they only see the results of real progress and imagine those results are causes rather than effects.

Corollary II: What people most tout as progress probably isn’t – which I suppose is your point.


Your point about new gadgets is good. I suspect the number of ways people can be distracted is not all that flexible, so a cool gadget that really hits the spot has nowhere to go. Technologically speaking, phones, games, movies can only improve on the margins.

Look at the new gadgets people seem to be pining for: robots (especially sexbots!) do DO anything really different, just free up more time for? New gadgets? Flying cars are called ‘airplanes’. Otherwise, we want *better* books, phones, games, movies – the same things, only better. Real progress in most ways we spoiled consumers define it has come to a halt.

Hegel and by extension all other believers in Progress as a sort of benevolent force at work in the world hang their faith on the very evident material progress made over the last 250 or so years. In his Logic, Hegel in fact asserts that it is obvious traditional logic needs to change (in the sense of be destroyed) as it alone among the arts and sciences has remained ‘unimproved’ since Aristotle. He sees Progress at work in the world, and anything not progressing as being, as the cool kids say, On the Wrong Side of History.

A story told by Feynman springs to mind: he was once on a scientific junket of some sort to I believe Brazil, and was asked about the problems of the poor and if science had anything to offer. The specific example was how slum dwellers needed to march down a hill for a long ways to reach potable water, and then haul it back up to where they lived.Feynman points out that all the technology, all the science needed to solve this problem existed and had existed for decades or centuries: run a pipe up the hill and put in a faucet. Whatever the reasons for that simple solution not having been done, science wasn’t it.

The Antikythera Mechanism. A beautiful dead end. ‘Ahead of its time’ – whatever that’s supposed to mean!

In a similar way, most of what we see as progress day to day is application of technologies developed years earlier. And, worse, it’s almost all fluff – unless you need cutting edge medical care. Even then, chances are the cutting edge is built on ideas that have been around for decades. Our TV and phones and cars are marginally better than they were 10 or 20 or 50 or a hundred years ago – but they serve the same purposes, and the new improved versions have improved our lives little – unless we measure improvement in gadgets.

Real progress is messy, difficult and relies on changes of heart and mind more than any mere material invention. The Greek philosophers legendarily considered caring (much) for practical improvements to day to day life to be beneath the dignity of a real man. Practical progress of a sort was made in some arts, Archimedes is a legend himself – and then there’s the Antikythera Mechanism. But the outcome was not airplanes and moon landings, or even better plows and printing presses – it was constant internal bickering followed by conquests by the Macedonians followed by the Romans and jobs as tutors to their conqueror’s kids.

What the Greeks were missing was ‘why’. Certainly, they were brilliant, curious and ambitious enough to have accomplished so much – that made little material difference. It took the influence of Jerusalem and Christian Rome to provide a civilization with enough room, enough hope, to turn random intermittent ‘progress’ such as is characteristic of men whenever and wherever we live into a program, a communal effort.

If we are made in the Image of God, and the Heavens proclaim His glory, and the world is His handiwork, then applying our minds to understanding the world is a worthy activity. We can use that understanding to better serve our brothers and sisters. We needn’t accept the way things are. Christians are the only people who as a culture were not indifferent to the lives and deaths of the poor. Romans and Greeks, Indians and Chinese would have considered it an affront for a poor man to have the temerity to die on their doorstep; a Christian would be expected to see it as his own personal failure. Look what I  have done the the least of these!

Only if despair is considered cowardice and treason will we persevere in our efforts to help the needy. Only in a culture of hope and duty to one another can material progress become the norm. Such material progress is a side effect of a change of heart.

To the nihilist, relativist Progressive, technology is a tool of power, and science is a bother when it does anything but serve politics. True science, which is no respecter of men if it is science at all, is a threat to power. It follows where it will – and we can’t have that!

But we can have more and batter gadgets, and live an ephemeral life. Until we don’t.

The State and Revolution

The State and Revolution (amusingly referred to as TSAR – hilarious, if you’re not a Romanov) is a short book by Vladimir Lenin that I have not read, but intend to read. The indomitable Amanda Green has begun a series of posts discussing it here. 

Which post triggered the comment below, and, sticking to my policy of making sure I’m not read in as many places as possible, I repeat here:

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the fundamental Hegelian roots of all this: Hegel teaches that the world is becoming, not being – in the philosophical senses of the terms. This means that simple statements of fact, of being, are always fundamentally nonsensical, as nothing really *is* but rather is *becoming*. Therefore, logic doesn’t apply, because a fundamental claim of logic is that a subject can *be* something and *not be* something else (law of non-contradiction). Things, for Hegel, are always becoming something else, so they’re not really being anything!

So, what’s really going on for Hegel (a practicing Lutheran) is that the Spirit is ‘unfolding’ in History – that some few enlightened people (specifically, people who agree with Hegel) gradually come to see the new state of becoming coming, as it were, into the next stage of transient being (that whole synthesis schtick). The people who more or less consciously get on board are on the right side of History. Everyone else is consigned to the dustbin thereof.

Marx tosses almost all the sophistical subtlety of Hegel, but latches on to the whole History and becoming nonsense. This is why arguing that no real people will go along with money-free socialism (“The reality, ignored by all too many, is that the producers of the world would become the slaves to the takers.”) is pointless – 1st, because argument with Marxists is by their own definitions pointless, but also because ‘human nature’ as a claim of being is irrelevant – “human nature does not exist” – because what those who survive the purges, those on the Right Side of History, will *become* New Soviet Men.

How do we know this? Just asking the question puts you on the Wrong Side of History and marks you for culling.

That’s why there’s no arguing with convinced Marxists.

In the 105 (!) draft posts currently cluttering up the YSOTM backlog is one addressing these issues in more detail. You know, summarizing my amatuer understanding of thousands of pages of philosophy from writings spanning millennia in a blog post of a couple thousand words ripped off between dinner and bedtime.

One classic philosophical mistake, one seen explicitly and implicitly in the arguments of New Atheists all the time, is thinking of eternity as ‘a lot of time’ or ‘all time’. Instead, eternity is the realm of the unchanging, within which, as Paul says, we live and move and have our being. (That the Eternal is God – that the Eternal is the One Whose existence is of His essence, is the compelling result of a long string of arguments in Aristotle’s Physics and is expanded on in his Metaphysics – which is why, I think, those tomes are consistently ignored or misrepresented. That, and they’re really hard.) Who better to tackle such a topic than an armchair intellectual poser such as me!

Clearly, it will be a masterpiece worthy of your exquisite attention. As Chesterton once quipped, like all things I’ve never written, it’s the best thing I ever wrote.

Maybe I should get on it, clawing it from perfect potential into crass, flawed actuality.


Happy New Year & Epiphany Update

First off, please pray for the repose of the soul of Mike Flynn’s father and for comfort his family and all who love him.

Been feeling weird. My wife offered ‘Painless Migraine’ as an amateur diagnosis of whatever it is that has slowed my brain to molasses. Description seems about right – dizzy, a little nauseated, can feel all the little biological mechanisms working that keep you from falling over and convert binocular vision into a seamless 3-D representation of the world. I’m an observer of some of the base biological underpinnings of my own human consciousness. A little unnerving.

Be that as it may, kicking off 2018 in a bit of a fog. Weirdly (seems weird to me, anyway) while writing and even reading are difficult, playing the piano is OK up to a point. So, when I’m up and about, tend to wander over to the ivories and tickle away. Gonna have some Bach and Beethoven down if this keeps up.

Twitter, as a low-attention-span medium, has risen to the top of my low attention over the last week. Odd snippets of thought.

Once you’ve thought of Keanu Reeves as Gilligan in the gritty reboot, there’s no going back.

Then, a thought over 3 tweets about how Hegel’s baleful influence manifests in the current mishegas:

1 Just had a thought: if being exists transiently in a world of becoming (Hegel) vs becoming existing in a world of being (Aristotle, Thomas), then it is meaningless to speak of defending a culture. There is no eternal good, true & beautiful for a culture to reflect. All is grass.

2 We who think the good, true & beautiful can be present in a culture, however imperfectly, might think the culture war is a battle over what culture we’ll have, when it’s really over whether there will be a culture at all.

3 With no external referent, culture can only be the arena within which the will to power plays out. Battle is over whether we get to have any culture at all, or are merely pawns in somebody’s power trip. (Twitter is a poor place for this sort of ramble!)

And…. That’s about as deep and coherent as I’ve managed. You know, same old.

Distant kids save one have returned to distance. The one, younger daughter, will be with us for another week until heading back to frigid New Hampshire and Thomas More College.

I miss them already.

Vacation was hardly. Had plans to write a bunch, finish some stories, but with 30+ relations in town for grandmother Brilliant’s 80th and a couple events happening at our house, ended up prepping and cooking for days at a stretch. Then, this lingering ‘I don’t feel exactly right’ thing made writing pretty much impossible.

So, hoping things pull together. I could use some prayers about my job and other issues I need to address. Stress level is high.

But, hey, Happy, Holy & Blessed Epiphany! It is a beautiful and moving time, when the veil is near and sheer.


A Triad & A Ponder

Here are two not-quite-complete yet compelling to me thoughts that haunt the windswept hallways of my head. Or something like that. When I consider history, especially the history of philosophy, it seems that certain ideas fall into stages: somebody forcefully, if not particularly logically, takes a position that sticks it to a particular concept of The Man. Then, thinkers come along who like the earlier forceful statement or its consequences, and they back-fill and scaffold it so that it can claim some respectability. Finally, the respectable-ish philosophical positions get reduced to slogans or New Think or something like that. Sets like this – old, forceful idea; philosophical back-fill; slogan – occur to me regularly. Of course, now that I sit down to type, I can only recall this one Triad. More later as events warrant.

I think that, for the people who believe them, these thoughts occupy the same strange emotional landscape, even if the logical connections are hidden (they’re there, but hidden).

Lot of drivel for a 3/4 baked idea. Anyway:


Post-Modern: You don’t understand because you aren’t woke.

Hegelian: The Spirit is not constrained by the rules of traditional logic.

Luther: Reason is a whore.

Ponder.  There really is a subset of people who get things done – leaders, we often call them – whose defining intellectual and emotional trait is defining and fixing on a goal, and then backing into the steps needed to achieve it. You see this, if it is the sort of thing you notice, at every level of life: the business and political worlds, certainly, but also the school meeting and church cleanup committee, and everywhere in between.

Many people, most people, it seems, rarely if ever notice what leaders are doing, but rather just notice who it is they’re following. They hear a heavily abstracted version of a goal – affordable health care, a great America (again) – and that’s all. Only a minority ask how, in detail, we are to achieve the goal, or even for a clear definition of what the goal is. All they do is decide which heavily abstracted vision they will accept.  It has taken me, a very small ‘l’ leader, a lifetime to understand this, and has caused me a lifetime of frustration – I want to explain, people don’t want an explanation. But they will follow.

Weird. I wouldn’t and don’t follow in that sense. Odd duck, me.

The constant regurgitation of Hillary’s popular vote ‘victory’ by her, I suppose, shell-shocked supporters is getting almost as pitiful as it is telling. They just don’t understand how Trump & his team would do what they obviously did: simply back into what steps were needed to win according to the rules in place at the time, and then execute the hell out of them. So, for a fraction of the money Hillary spent, they won. And Trump’s claim that, had the rules called for a popular vote victory instead, he’d have won that, too, ring true in light of the evidence at hand.

This state of things is, I think, simply inconceivable to a large number of people. They want to believe, and therefore do believe, there are essentially magical forces at work, forces that reward Right Thinking on the Right Side of History. These are the mental processes needed to be a socialist True Believer – the concepts break down at every step once you consider the real world so the true believer never considers the real world. Every failure is the fault of some other factor – not True Socialism; every success, however problematic upon examination, is conclusive. Sweden must be a paradise; Venezuela  is not Real Socialism.

What to do about the resistance of the real world to beautiful theory? We’ll just make New Soviet Men to replace the recalcitrant and unwieldy people we actually have, and everything will be wonderful! This seems practical and doable to certain people.

That such thinking is common would be even more panic-inducing if it weren’t for the mitigating grace that such thinkers don’t lead. On the flip side, it is terrifying to realize the people who do lead in this direction don’t think this way – they merely want power, which includes the power to eliminate those persistently recalcitrant and unwieldy people.


The Everlasting Man: Bay Area Chesterton Society Reading Group

My beloved and I have been driving to San Jose or thereabouts to attend these monthly meeting for the last few years whenever we can – good people, and, hey! Chesterton! I thought my regular readers, who, to my surprise, are well into double digits these days, might find our current reading interesting.

Reading groups of the local instantiations of the American Chesterton Society have often, I’m told, focused on shorter works, as they are trying to have a discussion over dinner involving people of quite varied ages and backgrounds. So Fr. Brown Mysteries and selections from this awesome and highly recommended collection of essays and similar shorter readings have most often been the works under discussion.

However, enough of us wanted to read Everlasting Man, and the indomitable John Rose had a reading plan already in hand that broke it into suitable segments, that we were able to jump right in! Thanks, John! We’ll be taking it a dozen or 2 pages at a crack.

July, first meeting: Prefatory Note & Introduction, about 14 pages. You can find it online free here or here.  In this short 14 page introductory section, Chesterton calls out H. G. Well’s Outline of History, which can be found here (I have not read it yet).

As I have more than once differed from Mr. H. G. Wells in his view of history, it is the more right that I should here congratulate him on the courage and constructive imagination which carried through his vast and varied and intensely interesting work; but still more on having asserted the reasonable right of the amateur to do what he can with the facts which the specialists provide.

Amusing side story: when Well’s work was first published, Belloc, who is the bad cop to GKC’s good cop as far as smacking down nonsense goes, reviewed it rather harshly, Wells responded with a piece titled “Mr. Belloc Objects to “The Outline of History.” Belloc then responded to the response with “Mr. Belloc Still Objects.”  Apparently the exchange got rather heated, various partisan publications wouldn’t print the responses, names got called. Belloc was an actual historian, and took umbrage at Well’s playing fast and loose with the evidence. Belloc’s Europe and the Faith. which takes a view very much opposed to Wells’, was first published in 1920, the same year as Outline.

So Chesterton starts by praising Wells for being an amateur – in other words, highlighting Belloc’s central claim. He’s charmingly paradoxical about it, as is his style, but there’s little doubt whose side he’s on.

Some Historical Context: This dispute about how history is to be understood is just a tip of a particularly large iceberg, one still very much afloat today. For the century leading up to 1920, popes and other leaders had been descrying the threat of Modernism, the relevant aspect of which is stated in bold below:

Wells published his Outline in 1920 as a universal history – one that deals with more than “reigns and pedigrees and campaigns”.[1] Wells had embarked upon his Outline as a result of his work with the League of Nations[2] and a desire to aid world peace by providing the world “common historical ideas”.[3] The Outline proved to be an expansive, all-encompassing work. Wells had a panel of specialists at his disposal to review and check his work. Although the panel revealed many inevitable “gaps, misjudgments and misproportions”,[4] Wells reserved the right to “maintain his own judgments”.[5] As a result, The Outline contained what were alleged by Belloc to be a number of biased statements, intolerant statements and false assumptions. Materialistic determinism was viewed as a central philosophy underlying the Outline, with Wells portraying human progress to be both a blind and inevitable rise from the darkness of religious superstition to the light of scientific utopia. (my emphasis) Unfortunately, Wells’ judgments and perceived bias left his work open to heavy criticism.

Wells was a Fabian Socialist for a while, at least, right around the time he wrote this book. The Fabian’s coat of arms:

Wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Fabians, like Gramsci and Alinsky and all their spawn, believe in doing whatever it takes to promote the agenda. Truth be damned in the name of Progress.

To Wells and his besties, the League of Nations was an obvious means to promoting Communism, if only as a tool to bring about destruction of the status quo. If you believe that materialistic determinism is true, and human progress is a blind and inevitable rise resulting therefrom, you will feel (I daren’t say ‘think’) that any steps may be taken to destroy the current system – because something better will *inevitably* result! There is no going back, it’s forward all the way! The magic fairies of materialistic determinism say so! The larger truth of inevitable progress forgives in advance all the little lies perpetrated in its honor. And also forgive the murder of many tens of millions by the Communists, history’s sterling example of blind faith in Progress, for the sake of a glorious future.

In 1920, the battle between the Hegelian/Marxist faith in Progress (differing chiefly in what, if any, role one gives religion) and sanity (the understanding that progress is a highly contingent and often intermittent result of individual human actions) had been raging for almost a century. Pope St. Pius IX had issued his Syllabus of Errors in 1864, containing a number of anathemas against modernist ideas. Pope St. Pius X had issued Pascendi Domini gregis and Lamentabili sane exitu in 1907, and his Oath in 1910.

This is the environment in which Chesterton published Everlasting Man in 1925. Similarly, his essays collected in  In Defense of Sanity are defending, under the name ‘sanity’ the notion that ideas and the free choices of men matter, that the understanding of what is true, beautiful and good by a common man is to be valued, and that preposterous preening and self-importance of the Progressives are empty, futile yet dangerous.

The chief characteristic of progressive thought is that it doesn’t have to make sense. This is the fruit of Hegel, who in turn is best understood in this context as a Lutheran theologian more so than a philosopher. Certainly, he tries to describe an intellectual universe where discontinuity and contradiction are not signs of intellectual failings, but rather clear indications of intellectual progress. The Spirit (Hegel found ‘God’ too loaded a term) unfolds itself through History. Being is too limiting.  A real philosopher must consider Becoming.  What the Spirit is Becoming can be seen in the world in His actions – History. It will make sense when and to the extent that the Spirit has unfolded itself, but not before, and only to the enlightened. Inconsistencies and contradictions are just par for the course.

Hegel could not – no one can – hold the field against the Thomists when the game is reason and logic.(1) Therefore, Hegel begins by attempting to discredit ‘propositional reasoning’ (in Phenomenology of Spirit) and logic as understood since the ancient Greeks (in Logic). He substitutes for reasoning and logic insight and enlightenment.  He dismisses the Law of Non-Contradiction, and replaces it with the notion of contradictory ideas being suspended in a fruitful opposition within a synthesis. (As with most of Hegel, that last statement makes as much sense as it sounds like it does. Which is, after all, the point.)

In the hands of lesser(?) intelligences such as Marx and Freud, the idea was quickly shed that there’s a Spirit revealing itself in History, and instead it was just assumed History is moving itself forward – making Progress. We also lose Hegel’s charming humility in disavowing any knowledge of the future, since such foreknowledge would require guessing how the Spirit was going to unfold next – which is as close to sacrilege and heresy as an Hegelian can get.  Marxists and Progressives in general know where we’re going: some flavor of a worker’s paradise. That’s why it’s so important to ‘be on the right side of History’ and not to ‘turn back the clock’.

Marx is the poster boy for that materialistic determinist Wells was getting on about. He knows what he knows not through reasoning, but rather through Enlightenment. He is woke. Any attempts to reason with him are in themselves conclusive proof that you don’t get it, are laboring under false consciousness, and need to be educated.

Wells knows there is no God. Yet he also knows there has been progress. Therefore, to provide a mechanism by which this observable progress has been made, he has to make a god out of Progress itself.

Chesterton’s goal:

There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place; and I tried to trace such a journey in a story I once wrote [Manalive]. It is, however, a relief to turn from that topic to another story that I never wrote. Like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I have ever written. It is only too probable that I shall never write it, so I will use it symbolically here; for it was a symbol of the same truth. I conceived it as a romance of those vast valleys with sloping sides, like those along which the ancient White Horses of Wessex are scrawled along the flanks of the hills. It concerned some boy whose farm or cottage stood on such a slope, and who went on his travels to find something, such as the effigy and grave of some giant; and when he was far enough from home he looked back and saw that his own farm and kitchen-garden, shining flat on the hill-side like the colours and quarterings of a shield, were but parts of some such gigantic figure, on which he had always lived, but which was too large and too close to be seen. That, I think, is a true picture of the progress of any really independent intelligence today; and that is the point of this book.

The point of this book, in other words, is that the next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it.

Hegel and especially Marx are in some real sense heretics. They are not pagans, but people who have left aside some parts of Christianity while still clinging to its central claims of redemption from a fallen state through the intervention of the Divine. They are too close to see how much their beliefs are still Christian, no matter how twisted, like how a human form can still be recognized in the rubble of a ruined statue. But they are too close, and do not want to see.

Next month: 2. the first half of The Man in the Cave up to “Art is the signature of man.”

  1. What about scientists and mathematicians? They make progress, insofar as they do, by deploying exactly the musty old reasoning and logic familiar to and beloved by the Thomists. Hegel consigns them to the philosophical outer darkness: their work is OK, as far as it goes, but not exalted like what real philosophers do!  Irony alert: the very fields that give Wells the most ammo for his claims of self-propelled Progress are those Hegel had to toss out in order to make his claims that enlightenment trumps reason. Ouroboros.