The formal class part of RCIA has begun for this year. I’m the go-to guy for history & theology (how profoundly frightening this is has so far escaped our beloved DRE). All this means is that if anyone wants, or, more likely, I decide on my own that anyone needs, a more formal definition or some historical context, I’m the guy who provides it. Such as I might. This leads to me thinking about how to talk about various dogmas in a way that isn’t too hoity-toity yet gets the essential nature and purpose across.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts on Free Will. Where angels fear to tread, and all that.
While we were created in the image of God, God is still very different from us. God’s freedom is part of his eternal Being – it is not so much something He does, bit rather is a fundamental part of Who He is. Nothing outside constrains God; He freely acts in accordance with His infinite goodness and love. Every action of God is utterly free, and completely an expression of divine goodness and love.
While God is not compelled or constrained by external thing, it might be said that He just can’t contain Himself – His loving kindness boils over in His creations. All of creation is a free expression of God’s nature as a loving Father and Creator.
Creation is thus an expression of God’s life and profound joy. It is not like a clock, built once, wound up, and then left to play itself out. Rather, God loves the world into existence at every moment. In Him we live, and move, and have our being. Each of us is a unique expression of His boundless joy.
Out of this joy, God gave man and the angels freedom. This created freedom is a reflection of God’s nature, perhaps the key aspect of our being made in His image. It is a gift from God, loved into being by God, and as an aspect of God, as sacred as God Himself. As an essential aspect of this gift, God will not overrule us.
But to be free in our own little way, our acts must participate in God’s freedom. God’s freedom is always expressed through overflowing love and goodness. Thus, we can only be free when we, too, act in harmony with that divine love and goodness. Acting against God is choosing slavery; once enslaved, we have lost our freedom. Yet God, in His mercy, will always, as long as we live in this changeable world, hold out to us the opportunity to repent, to turn from the slavery of our sins back to the freedom of His will.
An example: A man on the edge of a giant cliff is free to step off the cliff. If he does so, he has lost all freedom: he is subject to the laws of physics, and will fall to his death, shattered on the rocks below. God did not give the man freedom so that he could jump off a cliff. Rather, He gave us freedom so that we, too, could share in His joy as joyful, loving creators in our own little way. Yet that freedom means that we just might choose to step off the cliff.
The moral law, another creation of God, is, in effect, a warning: don’t step off the cliff! As long as we work to avoid sin and repent of the sins we have committed, we have the freedom to act in accordance with God’s loving Will. We stay away from the cliff. Reject the law of God, and we at best court disaster. Without God’s loving guidance as expressed in His law, we will, sooner or later, fall off the cliff of our own free will!
That we are free is a gift and a miracle. The saints, who have surrendered their wills to God’s Will, who have willingly died to themselves, paradoxically enjoy complete freedom. It is when we humbly recognize that we don’t really know what’s good for us and don’t always want what’s best for us that God can show us the Way to complete, joyful freedom.
So, do you think this would be helpful to someone investigating the Catholic Faith?
Aristotle, on a couple of occasions (Nicomachean Ethics, for one, I think) mentions how poorly raised men are incapable of philosophy, while well-raised men love excellence, beauty and truth, and are therefore well-prepared for at least undertaking philosophy. He recognized, from an unredeemed pagan perspective, that men could be ruined.
Aristotle was also famously not a democrat, in the sense that he did not think men in general, nor women, children and slaves, were fit to rule. They could not rule themselves, but were subject to passion and impulse. A city that promotes happiness, defined by the Stagirite as the activity of the soul in accordance with excellence, could not be governed well by those who did not understand, appreciate nor desire excellence.
One might say his dim view of the common man, let alone women, slaves and children, reflects the world he grew up in and not so much how people are in and of themselves. The problem with that view is that we still inhabit that same world Aristotle observed. Check the news lately? How many of your friends and coworkers and acquaintances would you feel good about being ruled by, unchecked? I mean, where they are making all the calls, not constrained by other, perhaps better, men such as the authors of the Constitution? How soon before summary executions and the payment of tribute in the form of nubile youngsters? By the second generation, tops, and that’s assuming some residual decency that takes a generation to dissipate. Tyranny doesn’t stop just because you have 1000 tyrants rather than 1. (1)
Thus, the idea of a Republic, which considered from this perspective is the required universal acknowledgement of a common wealth of morals, traditions, and aspirations (which often boils down to religion), plus some of the following: territory, language, stories, heroes – culture. This commonwealth, shared and enforced by all, shapes the laws and reigns in the sociopaths leaders who inevitably arise. Within a Republic, you can have democracy – a democracy in which all the truly important stuff is off the table, and the voter and candidates and issues all fall within the bounds, in both senses of the word, of the Commonwealth. (2)
In this sense, Aristotle and the Founders pretty much agree: only men who love truth, beauty and excellence are fit to rule. The Founders thought, or hoped in the face of thought, that a free people who nurtured and handed on an American Republic could be such a people as could rule themselves. Aristotle’s requirement of the love of truth, beauty and excellence are concretely expressed in those morals, traditions, and aspirations that form the core of the Republic – learn and love your Republic, and you could be trusted to rule as well.
I can just see Aristotle raising an eyebrow and saying a very dubious: maybe. He would, I think, completely understand Franklin’s ‘if you can keep it.’
Men can be ruined. This is the underlying truth behind the damnable half-truth of the Marxist/Gramsciite dogma of social oppression: it is true that people can be ruined by the wrong influences and the lack of proper guidance, and, ultimately, the lack of love. But all these things are, ultimately, personal. Parents and family, teachers and neighbors and priest are supposed to help us to know and love the true, the beautiful and the good and to want them above all else.
They will fail to a greater or lesser degree, and there is always the mystery of Free Will. What there is not is Society or some other abstraction acting as an agent. Society is a collective noun, a description, not an actor. The people within a society act, and by their actions sustain or change ‘society’.
Shifting the emphasis from individual people to collective abstractions means that personal behavior no longer matters: “the individual is nothing, the collective everything.” You see this everywhere. Refusing to look at individuals as individuals but rather seeing each of us only as instances of ‘Society’ stands the world on its head, and dictates the crazy and crazy-making efforts to change ‘Society’ in order to change the people in it. It’s a wet sidewalks cause rain problem.
There is a divide between ruined and not ruined people, with plenty of gray area between – a divide between those who just might be able to rule themselves and their country, and those for whom such tasks are asking far too much. At the far end are sociopaths, who never should but often do lead. Even the most pessimistic estimates put them at ‘only’ 5% of the population – one in 20 people have no empathy, no hesitation to use people, and often take pleasure in manipulating and lying. (3) On the other end are great saints and lovers of truth (4), who characteristically want nothing to do with ruling, or, more properly, nothing more than is strictly necessary. (5).
In the middle are 7 billion sheep. Me, you, anybody. Some sheep try to follow the Good Shepherd. Some, as stated in the seed quotation to this series of posts, follow anything that moves. Setting aside for the moment miracles, even while acknowledging that all true conversions are miraculous, what seems most often to be the case: those raised with love, who see the true, the good and the beautiful recognized and honored, have a better chance to become the sort of reasonable and responsible people who stand some chance of governing themselves well, and therefore might have a chance to govern the polis well. Those who are raised among The People of the Lie will not be able to govern themselves, and will misgovern the polis horribly if given the chance. They have been poisoned. They have been ruined. They are unconstrained by traditions they neither know nor love – family and personal honor, the law as a positive good, a life among family, friends, and neighbors directed to something other than self-fulfillment. Lacking these and similar things, and lacking a miracle, there’s simply no chance that the rule of such as these will result in anything but envy run amok, tyranny, and chaos. In short order, they will be lead by the most unscrupulous and violent, whether they like it or not. Their personal slavery to their passions will soon become a physical slavery to ‘anything that moves’.
That love of tradition, of place, of family, friends, neighbors, and the shared life in which human beings find expression for their freedom and personal genius is a key part of the Commonwealth. I’m not sure the two are not the same in practice. Lacking such roots and the humility that comes with gratitude for them, there simply is no chance a person could rule well.
I’ve long contemplated how there is always ruin in any culture, always those who through no fault of their own come from a situations without the basic love and support needed to grow up healthy. The difference today is, first, such people used to grow up in a culture where everyone understood that the orphan, the abandoned child, the broken home were wrong. Thus, even if I drew the short straw, I knew I’d drawn it and that there were better fates, better expectations, and that I could aspire to them. The result was that even those from horrible circumstances would often try to behave like people who had been properly raised. In other words, the idea that one could be properly or improperly raised was understood by everyone.
Second, today dysfunction is not only not recognized as dysfunction, it is positively cultivated. It only takes a few leaders to lead millions astray. Today, the critical theorists and their useful idiots disparage all healthy behaviors and beliefs, and promote anger, envy and bitterness. Marxist end up creating something like the world they hate, with hatred, bigotry, alienated individuals, oppressive structures, and a yearning for totalitarianism. The delusion is that this evil, oppressive world is Out There, not merely a reflection of their own emotional and mental states. (6)
For people so damaged, projection is irresistible: the flip side of Goebbels’ rule to always accuse your enemy of what you’re doing is that people will willingly ignore what they are doing and know is true in order to hate the enemy. If this were not so, Goebbels’ rule wouldn’t work – yet it does.
This hatred of happiness and normalcy is completely insane. Attempts at reason, appeals to fact and objective reality, application of logic: not only do these not convince, they are taken as signs that anyone who uses them is the enemy. Peopled are ruined; they have built defences against anyone who could really help them.
By these standards, I should not be allowed to rule, as I am largely a failure in ruling myself. By this standard, few, indeed, would rule. The choice is not available to me and probably never has been to anyone, but if it were, I would humbly submit to being ruled by sane, good people. As it is, representative democracy within a solid Republic is the best we can get.
That Republic, that American Commonwealth of shared morals, traditions, and aspirations, if it ever really existed, is gone. A huge percentage of people are ruined, in that it would take a miracle for them to submit to any set of consistent and non-self-refuting morals, traditions, and aspirations such as a Republic could be built upon. Their ruiners run loose, and run our colleges and universities. Poison is everywhere. It’s gotten to be a cliche to post pictures of happy high school seniors, fresh scrubbed and smiling, next to their pictures as sullen, angry (and blue-haired and nose-ringed) college students.(7)
Where do we go now? Speaking theoretically, we can only have a Republic if we’re willing to enforce a certain minimum uniformity (this is where the Ruined scream ‘fascist!’) or willing to break the country up into two or more territories in which some set of shared morals, traditions, and aspirations are pervasive. Failing that, we fall back on 1) Empire: imposed rule on sets of people who each may or may not have a commonwealth. Empires tend to rule without an interest in enforced homogeneity, at least for a while; 2) Totalitarianism, after quick pit stops in ‘true’ democracy and anarchy; or 3) Aristocracy, where all pretext at equality before the law is jettisoned, and our betters simple make the rules outside the reach of the people.
Or we pray for a miracle, which I would recommend in any case. Interesting times, indeed.
The infighting is the only potential positive, knowing the pigs will fight to the death. However, I don’t know if the grim satisfaction of knowing many of the leaders of the French Revolution were themselves guillotined outweighs the disgust at knowing some weren’t. But, overall, there can be only one, so most people will die fighting to be that one.
We don’t have this anymore, here in America. I wish we did. But the Marxists who control our schools and all the non-RAD professions explicitly reject the Commonwealth. Objective reality being a social construct and history and religion tools of of oppression, ya know.
A genius move by Kazantzakis was making St. Matthew a sociopath in The Last Temptation of Christ. Matthew just figures the odds: he’s seen the miracles and seen the effect Christ has on people, and figures the best angle is to be a follower, which he then does unto his own martyrdom. Kazantzakis wrestled, in other words, with how that 1 in 20 might be saved.
C.S. Lewis portrays, almost as comic relief, such a one in That Hideous Strength: Andrew MacPhee is a sceptic to his core, but can’t quite let go of Ransom, an old friend, who is true be believer and surrounded by Divine Evidence great and small – and MacPhee sees, but remains skeptical, and stays! He is on the side of the angels whose existence he doubts.
Footnotealanche! A Thomas More or a King St. Louis of France found it necessary to wield great political power, but remained heroically detached from it. That alone – having great power yet not clinging to it – should merit beatification. Well, and that Jesus thing.
There is real oppression, of course. If Marxism were defined as an effort to redirect attention away from actual oppression toward delusions of oppression, there would little data to contradict it.
On the flip side, over the last decade, we’ve had 5 children pass through their teenage years under our roof, and 4 go to college. To my surprise, they were and are each fun, helpful and pleasant. I’m nothing special as a dad, except for one thing: we kept them away from the ruiners. No graded classroom schooling; Newman list colleges. I was surprised because I had uncritically accepted the idea of the rebellious teenager. Truth is teenagers want very much to become adults; help them, and that rebelliousness may not surface.
Got some good feedback On Followers & Humility. Commenter Billy Jack raised some good points, and I of course have some further thoughts. So here we go:
One of the interesting wrinkles here is that the idea that it is inherently oppressive for a marriage to be chosen by fathers (or anyone else) rather than the spouses themselves comes not from “Modernity” or “Modern People” but from the Church. Trent, for example, was pretty clear on this. And I think Luther disagreed.
While it is true that the Church, in the face of Frankish and Germanic tribes that tended to treat women as disposable and in any event not fully human (1), taught that, for a marriage to be sacramental, both parties had to freely submit to it, that just gives the woman, in theory, veto power. It does not mean she was expected to go find a husband on her own. It’s a huge difference, it seems to me, to say that one cannot be forced to marry against one’s will and saying that every daughter was now a free agent who needed to find her own mate. What the Church’s teachings put a stop to, or at least slowed down a bit, was the bartering off of women. So, as I described in the last post, a Christian father, who loved his children and wife and so would not want to run roughshod over their desires, was assumed to have a heavy hand in the selection of mates for his children, for their own good. The shadow of this practice persists in the fading tradition of a suitor asking his beloved’s father for her hand.
Nothing here is meant to suggest that all arranged marriages were smooth and the process was never abused, just that the idea that a good father would arrange for the marriages of his children is not an outrageous idea. I know a couple of Indians here whose marriages were arranged, and I asked them, and they weren’t bitter about it. They felt more like Tevye and Golda in Fiddler on the Roof who grew to love each other even though they hadn’t even met before they were married.
Women gained immensely from the Church’s many-century-long efforts to protect them from being viewed as less than human and bargaining chips to be sold for political gain or to the highest bidder. It’s not for noting that all those 12th & 13th century cathedrals were named after Our Lady. Nothing in this effort contradicted or disputed the practice of fathers, in conjunction with their family and other fathers and families, from arranging the marriages of their children.
So it’s funny for progressives who are dislike the Church to pride themselves on this view as an accomplishment of secular progressives, but it’s also funny for Catholic bloggers to be down on the idea.
Up until current times, it would have been scandalous for a woman in a Catholic country to arrange her own marriage in defiance of her father. Romeo & Juliet is a cautionary tale against just such presumption. The nurse and the friar are the villains of the story, overstepping their rightful duties. Until modern times, readers of the play all understood this.
That Progressives and American Catholics (in so far as those two categories are different) don’t understand this is not surprising.
The case with religion vis-a-vis tribe or family is not identical, but it’s similar. Sure, we can point to villages and nations converting together. But while conquered pagan cities typically adopted the conquerors’ gods, conquered Christians generally didn’t, or at least knew they shouldn’t. And sometimes the leaders converted first but in other cases individuals converted first, and faced persecution and ostracism. The same goes on the family level. On the Christian view, religion is not something that a father or king has complete authority to choose on behalf of children and subjects. As Jesus said: within a family, it will be three against two, father against son, etc.
Certainly, I over-generalized quite a bit. You are correct that conquered or proselytized people responded in a variety of ways, and that Christians seem to have generally put up a better fight than most against forced conversions. My point was that, for much of mankind over much of history, it would not seem at all outlandish or unusual for a family or tribal leader to make a decision of what religion he and his would follow, and that the members of the household, village, tribe or even nation, would see that as appropriate and go along with it. That it didn’t always happen that way is not the point, really, it’s rather to highlight how we moderns tend to automatically recoil at the very thought, when, in fact, our ancestors at least for a good part didn’t.
The more general point I was trying to make: we all very much tend to overinvest in our own autonomy. We aren’t really nearly as ‘free’ as we thing we are, in the ways we think we are. And further, that this dependence on the wisdom and decisions of others is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in a family or tribe or village in which we have well understood mutual duties, rights and privileges.
More generally, sure, some of things that Catholics inveigh against about our time–and often rightfully so!–are just a return to things that were common before Christianity. Killing unwanted children, for example. But most of the unique characteristics of modernity, good or bad, would be unimaginable without the influence of Christianity, and I tend to think that much of the radical individualism that we see today falls into the category. A huge number of saints flat-out disobeyed their parents to follow their call. Did the ancient Chinese venerate that sort of thing? The Iroquois? Do any of the Bantu peoples have pantheons of people who told their parents to get lost? Well, I do think that Siddhartha Gautama did something like that, now that I think of it.
Both/and is the key Catholic teaching that is being lost. The radical part of radical individualism is placing the individual and his naked will first. The Church’s view is rather that we are each individually precious children of God AND members of the Body of Christ, and that these roles are not in conflict but rather arise one from the other. To paraphrase Paul from 1 Corinthians 12, we don’t get to choose if we are a hand or an eye or a foot. We are given those roles, and find our happiness and fulfillment in them, and should not envy any other roles. The whole point of that passage is that we do not get to be whatever we chose to be, but find ourselves when we surrender to the role we have been given.
So, I would disagree with the notion that radical individualism is a byproduct of Christianity, except in the sense in which it is a perversion of Christianity.
Right, I think the Buddha rejected his parents, I don’t know of any other such traditions.
The traditional Catholic stories in which a child defies his or her father tend to fall into 2 classes: the child having heard a call from God to a religious life, or cautionary tales. I can’t remember a single traditional story in which the defiant child is a hero, except those where that child follows a religious calling, obeying his Father over his father.
St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, a bunch of the early virgin martyrs and a scad of others – these folks defied their fathers in order to follow Christ. For a traditionally catechised Catholic, these stories are all familiar. The point of these stories is not that one should not obey one’s father, but rather that the authority of our fathers comes from the Father, of which they are only a vague, tiny shadow. It is the both/and teaching: we are virtuous to obey our fathers on earth AND our Father in Heaven, right up until that obedience conflicts – then, and only humbly and cautiously, we may defy our fathers to obey the Father.
I think part of our individualism comes from economic conditions, too, but that’s another story.
Yes, it is. I’d love to hear it. Once family, village and church are gone, what’s left but the individual? Not a happy situation, however.
See, for example, ‘Merovingian Divorce’ as described in A History of Private Life, v. I, where the Church’s teaching against divorce was taken by the Franks as mandating the murder of any undesired wife.
(My weekly reminder that I need to take better notes, so I can link to sources for my musing – they exist! Honest!)
Quick thoughts, not sure what, if anything, to make of this: It was said somewhere that Plato, who wanted his academy to train up the future leaders, or at least, advisors to leaders, used math as a filter: the students who had the smarts and dedication to master state of the art circa 300 B.C. Greek math were the ones he wanted to train up as leaders. This, despite how rarely the properties of conic sections and the ability to construct regular solids figured into the proper direction of the polis. Such math was a proxy for the smarts and focus such direction requires.
That’s the theory, at least. Plato did help a few of his star pupils get gigs in some Greek city-states, with some success. The question is rather: would some of those who couldn’t hack the math have made as good or better political leaders? We’ll never know. However tempting it is to impose a basic math test on our elected officials as a requirement for office, that won’t roll back the clock. (1)
My man Feynman famously delivered a series of lectures on physics, accurately if unimaginatively known as the Feynman Lectures. Story I heard is that, at the first lecture, the hall was packed; by the last lecture, the majority of the audience was fellow professors with only a few students. Even Caltech kids, the best of the best of the best, for the most part couldn’t hack Feynman-level physics. Feynman himself considered the lectures a failure, noting that only 2 or 3 dozen students understood them.
I would contend that the lectures were not so much a failure as a filter. What those lectures did was identify the 2 or 3 dozen students who had what it takes to be a top notch theoretical physicist like Feynman. Caltech seems to have naively supposed that Feynman, who has a well-earned reputation as a great teacher, could bring an entire class of students up to somewhere near his own level over the course of a year’s worth of lectures. To catch up to Reds. That didn’t happen, and, in retrospect, was vanishingly unlikely from the get-go.
Turns out that a smart enough kid can grind his way to a fairly high level of competence in physics, just not the way presented in the Feynman Lectures. But such a kid is unlikely to end up a top notch theoretical physicist. Then again, that disclaimer applies to just about all of us. It’s unclear that such a harsh filter, which likely convinced at least a few such kids that they could not hack it, did more good than harm.
In the first case, the filtering was conscious on the part of Plato; in the second, it does not seem to have even been intended. In both cases, the outcome was that at least some of the people with elite potential for very specialized, high value tasks were identified. I’m generally more concerned and aware of the filtering that goes on merely to ensure conformity, such as in schools, especially in colleges, where the chances a student who rejects the current political uniformity on campus will ever get very far in academia. Part of this is self-filtering: who with any integrity would want to fit in with such a crowd?
Not coming up with any more examples of this sort of elite filtering at the moment. You?
Somewhere on this blog I’ve also floated a theory which is mine that the Dialogues were similarly used, probably earlier in the process. They each present at least 3 layers of activity: a superficial one, such that you can say “the Republic is about Justice and Good Government”; a second layer where you notice the setting – outside the city walls during occupation by the victorious Spartans, a victory only made possible by all-but-unimaginably bad decisions by the Athenian leadership; and a third level, where you wonder what all those things taken together mean, where Socrates is concerned with the polis as a giant man, wherein Justice, so enlarged, could be better seen, and then tosses that idea when his buddies point out that they (understandably) wouldn’t want to live in a city that was just as Socrates himself was just – and poor, and despised, and powerless, and so Socrates spins them a yarn that is, basically, Sparta. I’m imagining here that Plato could discuss this dialogue with a newbie, and get a pretty good idea of his intellectual depth within a few minutes. (I’d have gotten Silver if I were lucky. Probably Bronze.)
Background for those who lack the sports gene: Beginning in 1977, a guy named Bill James, a baseball fanatic with a degree in economics and a flair for statistics and writing, began compiling a slew of new metrics used to evaluate baseball players and teams. Over the decades since, he has become a widely recognized guru on this topic, and has inspired many followers and imitators.
Among James’ main goals was finding ways to statistically evaluate players using only objective measures. Historically, baseball players were evaluated mostly by feel, or by a few relatively arbitrary statistics: for example, batting average (hits/official at bats), home runs and earned run average (‘earned’ runs per 9 innings pitched). Batting average can vary a lot depending on who is hitting in front of you or behind you, and the field where your team is playing. Same with home runs, earned run average and other ‘box score’ stats: a lot of variables can give misleading numbers if not taken into account.
Crowds of smart people worked to address these and other issues. More and more variables got baked into the numbers. Eventually, people came up with the idea of a ‘replacement-level player’ – usually imagined as the equivalent of a player in the top tier of the minors, the guy a team would replace an injured major league player with. In other words, somebody just below what the team considers a major league talent. For hitters, VORP counts how many runs a player produces above what a replacement player would produce; for pitchers, it is runs prevented.
With a little more math, a team can figure out how much it is costing them to get or prevent each extra run by subtracting the minimal salary of a replacement player from what they pay the big leaguer, and dividing by VORP. Building on this basic idea – and there are evidently layers and layers of refinements and sophistication – you get Moneyball: you can figure out what actually contributes to winning, and what players and skills are undervalued relative to their contributions. By judiciously spending on what the other teams undervalue, you can up your team’s chances of winning while spending comparatively less money.
This process, which has taken over professional baseball, has had some tragicomic outcomes: teams discovered they were paying millions, sometimes, to players who added little or nothing they couldn’t get for cheap elsewhere, or had some guy in the minors whose skills failed some eye-test (subjective valuation) who was worth quite a bit in terms of wins. Age adjustments were added: for example, it seems a hitter’s ability to hit really fast fastballs, say 95+ miles per hour, falls off pretty dramatically starting in their early 30s. Thus, the value of young pitchers who throw very hard has gone up, and hitters entering their 30s has gone down. And a million other things. And, of course, aspiring player know all this, and work to shape their skill accordingly.
In the end, math wins.
It occurs to me that this sort of analysis should be applied to academia. I’d bet that maybe 80-90% of college professors have a VORP near zero – the next available candidate could deliver as much value as they do. It would seem that both the administration and the professors themselves understand this on some level: all those graduate assistants and adjunct professors are, in a sense, minor leaguers providing major league value at much lower cost.
This understanding also explains a lot of the psychology one finds among academics: they know, in their hearts, that a goodly percentage of the students in that graduate class they are teaching could do their jobs with no drop off in value from everyone else’s view. (The drop off in value from their own subjective view, of course, is enormous!) That’s why academics are so often touchy when challenged on even trivial matters, and so often disproportionately vehement in their prejudices views.
I once, years ago, came across an amusing summary of a study (obviously, buyer beware here) that found that academics were less emotionally developed than non-academics of the same age. The amusing part: the authors speculated that the cultivated habit of keeping an open mind tended to make academics less fixed in their beliefs, thus more easily disturbed by day to day events than the more relatively closed-minded non-academic.
Suuuure. That’s the ticket.
I propose, rather, that two factors might explain this phenomenon: first, that academia itself is a very tenuous environment, as most of the people in it know in their hearts that some punk could, and likely as not eventually will, replace them with no drop off in any performance anyone besides they themselves cares about, Second, such an environment is unattractive to more well-developed personalities, who want to get on with their lives instead of cultivating eternal adolescence. (1)
So, yeah, an academic VORP would be a good thing, for everyone except the zero-VORP professors out there. Maybe I should put together a grant proposal?
Also, Critical Theory both attracts and creates miserable people. That could have something to do with it as well.
Here I wrote about how I’m trying to help this admirably curious young man for whom I am RCIA sponsor on his intellectual journey. I’m no Socrates, but I do know a thing or two that this young man is not going to pick up at school, that would be helpful to him and, frankly, to the world. Any efforts to get a little educated and shine a little light into the surrounding darkness seems a good thing to me.
I figure I’ll give him a single page every week or so when I see him, with the offer to talk it over whenever he’s available. Below is the content of the second page; you can see the first in the post linked above. We started off with a description of Truth and Knowledge. I figure the idea of a cultivated mind might be good next. We’ll wrap it up with a page on the Good and one on the Beautiful, and see where it goes from there.
Any thoughts/corrections appreciated.
A Cultivated Mind
A cultivated mind can consider an idea without accepting it.
What is meant by a “cultivated mind”?
Like a cultivated field:
Meant for things to be planted and grown in it
Weeded of bad habits and bad ideas
Is cared for daily
A cultivated mind
is what a civilized and educated man strives to have.
is not snobby or elitist.
Is what is required to honestly face the world.
Is open to new ideas, but considers them rationally before accepting them.
How do you cultivate your mind?
Reexamine the ideas you find most attractive:
Have you accepted them because you like them, or because you examined them and believe them true?
Carefully review all popular ideas:
Have you accepted them because to reject them might make you unpopular?
Have you really examined them before accepting them?
Double your efforts to be fair when considering ideas you do not like:
Can you restate the idea in terms that people who accept it would recognize and agree with? If not, you are not able to truly consider the idea.
NOTE 1: To engage ideas, listen to and read what people who hold those ideas say, especially when you don’t like them or already disagree. Hear and understand what the idea really is before you can consider it.This takes discipline and time.
NOTE 2: This is a life-long project, always subject to revision. Guard against over certainty, avoid exaggeration. Do not pretend to know what you do not know. Acknowledge that some things are difficult, and can only be known partially.
Follow the Dominican maxim: “Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish.”
As mentioned in previous insufferable biographical posts, I am a blue collar kid. Dad grew up on a farm in Oklahoma and worked in sheet metal, mom was the granddaughter of Czech immigrants whose father, coincidentally, also worked sheet metal – most all her relatives were farmers, so she got a full set of farm skills, too. (1) Neither had more than a high school education, apart from dad doing a lot of night school – he was certified in all types of welding and learned bookkeeping, etc. He was a real go-getter, with that farmer’s mentality that, if there was something to do, spending 16 hours a day doing it was how life worked.
The adults I knew as a child leaned strongly toward welders and other blue collar folks, and housewives. Later, when I was a teen and dad had made a successful go at running his own little company, he started hanging out a bit – golf (his doctor told him to get some exercise), that sort of thing – with a doctor friend and the pastor at our church. But I never got to know these people. I knew Billy Joe, Roy, Jose and Delbert down at down at dad’s shop. Guys who got their hands dirty. Starting at age 12, I spent many of my Saturdays and much of my summers working for my dad with these men, so these guys were my adult male role models.
Nonetheless, I managing to get into St. John’s College. They were pretty desperate, back then – basically, if you showed the initiative needed to complete the application essays, they’d give you a shot.
College was different. Not at all like my first 18 years.
I dimly expected college to be filled with smart people, at least, smarter than the folks I’d grown up with. Isn’t that what everybody thinks, having heard it from the cradle? Instead, I met lots of people not noticeably smarter than the people I knew from my childhood, but with markedly different expectations. The sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers and other professionals came to college so fully convinced that college was how they cemented their place in the ‘smart’ world that it never rose to the level of consciousness. They might agonize over whether to become a lawyer before or after doing a stint in the Peace Corps, or even consider becoming an artiste, or living the life of the communist agitator – all perfectly within the realm of smart people careers – but they didn’t consider becoming bricklayers, say, except as some form of protest (irony as a goal had not yet reached St. John’s as of the late 70s).
No, whatever course they chose, their place among the professional elite was assured. Of course, there are exceptions – me, for example – but we exceptions, insecure of our place in that particular world, lacking the automatic graces and attitudes growing up like that seems to create, we – I – really didn’t and don’t assume we have any place among these folks. (2)
In highschool – and St. Paul’s in Santa Fe Springs, CA, considers itself college preparatory – there were still plenty of people who did not expect to be part of the elite. One of my basketball buddies, for example, got his girlfriend pregnant in his senior year – and graduated, married her, and got a job. That an 18 year old dude would get married and have children and get a job to support them was not out of the realm of acceptable behavior, circa 1975, in my little bubble. (Getting her pregnant before marriage was frowned upon, but much less than people now imagine – that he did the right thing afterwards made it only a minor, easily forgiven and forgotten slip up.)
I remember this dude because he was clearly smart, easily as smart as the typical St. John’s student. His expectations were wildly different, however.
Let’s talk about those experiences, whatever it is that corresponds in the lives of the sons and daughters of the professional class to my experiences of growing up with blue-collar people. I acknowledge up front that I’m arm-chair psychoanalyzing people here, because, obviously, I don’t know firsthand. The appearances do seem to support this analysis.
There’s the simple assumption, possibly unspoken but possibly not, that the people in our house and our friends are smarter than the people we hire to fix it when it breaks.
This can also take the form of false comradeship: we are brothers with the workers. That they don’t recognize it is because they are unenlightened. No, no, no – you think we’re insufferable snobs, and maybe that you hate us, but you really only hate the *bad* rich people! We’re your buddies! Nobody really believes this.
There are certain jobs approved of in our social network. They are the better, more worthy jobs held by the better, more worthy people. The classics would be doctor and lawyer (and college professor), but the right kind of politicians and businessmen are also admired, as well as do-gooder fields that make us feel good about ourselves. Community organizer, say.
We prove our own virtue and goodness by how we encourage and welcome the little people into our ranks.
This attitude has been institutionalized in colleges and universities. Look at all the gyrations colleges go through to get ‘diverse’, how the question: “would this person benefit from what we offer?” never really gets asked. Of course they would! What kind of nut wouldn’t want to be one of us!
Since it’s painfully obvious they belong to an exclusive clique, these members of the professional class are desperate to show they don’t, to keep that cognizant dissonance at bay. That’s why a character like Obama, who I have accurately described as a ‘towering mediocrity,’ gets canonized in advance of any actual positive achievement (for which we are still waiting). He’s the proof! See how good and sharing we are! It’s also worth noting in this context that it’s all optics – I’m closer to being from the ‘hood than O is. Dude grew up overseas and in Hawaii, for crying out loud! He’s the son and grandson of the 2nd most privileged class (to use language with which they are familiar) in America: academics. These are the folks that think, for example, they by rights can simply redefine any words they like – for our own good. Talk about power and privilege.
That’s why they are much, much more committed to getting black kids into Harvard than they are to helping black kids get some jobs training. Black kids with jobs and families don’t reinforce the professional class’s goodness, while sending people to college in order to welcome them into the tribe does.
Low, low risk economic environment. I’ve long thought of wealth as being most accurately measured by how big a problem, expense wise, you can take care of without it destroying your standard of living. Most people live in the 4 to 5 figure range: Need 1st & last for a new place? Need a new car? Need bail money? These can usually be taken care of by most people without breaking the bank, maybe through borrowing from mom. Need $200K to go to college? We have many people today who fully expect mom and/or dad to spring for this. Real economic want is just not a concern. Then, they’ll eventually inherit a house or two worth maybe 7 figures, which they will at worse have to split with one sibling (and maybe a few half-siblings).
These attitudes are absorbed with their baby formula. As Chesterton said, it’s the things simply assumed that are the most reliably learned.
Membership is the achievement, such as it is. Since it is just expected that the sons and daughters of the professional class will become professionals themselves as a consequence of being in the group, actually getting that career is more an affirmation of group membership than an actual achievement. Just as Uncle Billy can get you a job down at the docks if you show up on Thursday, 6 a.m. sharp and dressed to work, Uncle Chad has a spot at the law firm ready for you, if you check the right boxes. Every effort will be made to help you check those boxes. (3)
Thus, we get the participation trophy culture we now live in. It’s not a new thing brought about by mush-headed and guilty parents, but rather a simple expression of the true nature of the world, as they see it. There is little if any achievement in their lives. It’s all just group membership. Their college life, their careers, perhaps even their families are not experienced as an achievement, primarily, but rather as the all but inevitable outcome of group membership. (4)
We also get – or don’t – a whole set of group signifiers. In my day, the late 70s, the college boys owned a sports coat, some khaki slacks and a few button down collar shirts – except for the few of us who would have never had an occasion to wear that sort of gear prior to college. One of the young ladies I knew commented that her boyfriend at the time was the only man she knew who kept his $10,000 wardrobe on the floor. (She, presumably, kept her $10,000 wardrobe hung neatly in the closet.) I think I could have replaced every item of clothing I had with me at school for under $500. (This, even though my dad by that time was probably worth as much as most of their dads, after 15 years of 16 hour days at his shop. It really isn’t about money. He got his hands dirty.)
More subtle signs: what I will call a New York Times Book Review approach to learning. If you subscribe to the NYTBR and skim it every week, you will know what the cool kids are talking about and – more important – what the New York Times considers the proper attitude towards those books. You’ll have something to say when another group member (who, himself, is unlikely to have read the book) name drops. This confirms group membership while conveniently reinforcing you shared world view, giving you predigested acceptable responses while avoiding the risk of meaningful exposure to opposing ideas. (5)
Outcomes are essentially irrelevant. For people secure in their group membership and not having any real sense of economic risk, failure emotionally means something like having to borrow money from or move back in with mom and dad. It’s sad it didn’t work, but you gave it a good shot, that’s what matters! Next time, it will work! Thus, it’s bad form to harp on how everything from civil rights legislation to affirmative action to Prohibition to Obamacare to Communism have failed. As long as it reinforces group membership, it can’t fail, or, more to the point, it doesn’t matter if it fails. (6) Supporters of Obamacare truly did not care if it had any chances of providing what it promised to provide, even less that that whole ‘you can keep your plan’ was a bald-faced lie. The important point was that we good people support everybody getting healthcare. That the actual bill did nothing of the sort means nothing, and you’re a bad person and not of the tribe if you keep pointing that out. Just move along.
A corollary: real successes, real improvements in people’s lives are also dismissed or simply ignored insofar as such successes happen outside the bubble. When one is so uncool as to point out the direct correlation between free markets and improved welfare of the poorest people under such systems, as opposed to the relationship between communism and extreme repression and poverty, one get a knowing smirk or some sort of outrage, similar to what one gets if the similarity between fascism and communism is pointed out. Nope, the group accepts that the economy must be managed by the good, smart people – for the sake of the poor! – and that Nazis and Commies are *totally* different, so you must be crazy, evil, or both to suggest the opposite.
In some sense, our current little culture war is the reaction of people who accept this group membership as the obvious goal (if the the question ever reaches consciousness) of all good, enlightened people. Who doesn’t want to sit in the front of the class? Who wouldn’t want to be a lawyer or doctor or elected official from the proper party? Who doesn’t want to be behind all the progressive steps on the right side of history. Who would not want to have their thinking done for them by our hive mind?
The pain, the cognitive dissonance, of having to face a world of people who reject all of that is too much! Such people must be Eeeevil! They must be Literally Hitler! The weaker members flee for their literal (or figurative: college) safe spaces. The less weak roll their eyes hard when they’re not expressing group-approved heartfelt fear for the Future of the Nation. Beneath this range of reactions is the cultivated disbelief that anyone smart could possibly really disagree.
Heads are exploding. Bring popcorn.
Final note: perhaps we are on the verge of a collapse into barbarism, during which all the infrastructure, both physical and cultural, upon which civilization is built, will be destroyed by the mob. Dark Ages, cannibalism, cats and dogs sleeping together – you know the drill. Could be. But it also could be a Soviet Union style collapse, where the rot just got to be too much, so much so that a former B actor and a Polish bachelor in a funny hat could end it just by standing up to it and pointing. Recall how unlikely that scenario looked before it happened. Unfortunately, if there is a just God, that outcome is much, much better than we deserve.
Mom could reduce a live animal to dinner with surprising alacrity. Glad she was on our side.
Yet, by attending college, we lose our standing in the blue collar world. Was once a volunteer on a construction site, in college. I approached one of the foreman, who started speaking, in Spanish, before he’d turned around to see who it was. “Sorry, I thought you were one of the boys.” I am clearly not one of the boys (although the boys couldn’t do much of anything I couldn’t do). That 3 second encounter has stuck with me for 40 years now.
Met a charming gentleman last week, who told how he, another son of the working class, had applied to illustrious Wall Street firms upon graduation, thinking: shoot for the top. He discovered that all the other men in his area were sons of prominent political or business leaders, CEO of this, cabinet secretary of that. For him, that job was a huge achievement; for them it was an entitlement, just another step in world they belonged to.
Also, this may explain the odd deification of the tech geek billionaires, who are pretty much exclusively from this class. They are forward thinking, progressive and brilliant! They talk not about their vast wealth, but about how they are going to change the world! Good Lord, spare us from these people!
Had this happen to me the other day, which is why I’m reading Polanyi’s Great Transformation: in catching up with a long-time college buddy, I asked about Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, I’ll admit it, to tweek him a bit. He asked if I was aware of Great Transformation. Later, in the course of reading and subsequently reading about that book – silly me, I thought that’s what one did! – I ran across the NYTBR review of Deneen. And – surprise! – the reviewer pretty says Deneen is way behind the times, that Polanyi explained all about how Liberalism, understood as Capitalist free markets, failed and continues to fail. So, we can safely dismiss any concerns over liberalism failing, because that’s not what we mean – we mean the good stuff! The NYT says so! Chances this buddy of mine has read Polanyi? Too close to zero to measure.
Knew a man who said he always voted for the party that promised to take more of his money. The idea that that party might do either good or evil with the money thus taken didn’t enter into it.
That title is a wee bit over the top. A bit. Here’s the real deal: I am the RCIA sponsor this year to a very bright young man, 16, who asks a lot of good questions and really seems to want to understand things. But he, alas, is a product of the schools, and therefore has systematically been denied any whiff of real education.
So, I thought to myself, I did, that maybe I could hook him on some basic logic and philosophy and steal him from the clutches of those who would dumb him down and control him. I could feed him just a bit of real, honest thought. Seemed like a plan. But given the realities of modern ‘education’, I should keep it real short.
Here it is: a one page outline of Truth. What do you, my esteemed readers, think?
An Introduction to Truth, Facts, and Reasoning
Truth: A man is said to have the truth when his understanding corresponds to reality.
Necessary Truths: Those things which must be true if anything is true. Or, put another way, those things that must be true if you know anything at all about reality. Necessary truths do not depend on anything in particular you see, hear, feel, smell, etc., but rather must be true IF you see, hear, feel, smell or touch ANYTHING AT ALL.
The study of Necessary Truths is called metaphysics. (Today, the term metaphysics is applied to all sorts of stupid ideas, but this is what it means when used correctly.)
Necessary truths include:
An objective world exists. We call this world ‘reality’.
Truth exists. We can understand reality, at least some parts of it, at least a little.
The law of noncontradiction: A thing cannot both be and not be in the same way at the same time.
All the other rules of logic. We use those rules to understand the rest of reality, but the rest of reality doesn’t help us in any way to understand those rules.
The rules of math. Same as the rules of logic.
Conditional or Contingent Truth: Truth that depends on conditions or assumptions. Conditional truths all take for granted the necessary truths. You can’t have any conditional truths without the necessary truths.
Conditional truths are very important. Almost everything we know are conditional truths.
Facts: Units of conditional truth created when the necessarily true rules of reasoning are validly applied to observations.
Conditional truths include:
All science. All science begins with observations and measurements, which are conditional because we can get them wrong. Science applies the rules of logic and math, which are necessarily true, to those observations and measurements to create scientific facts.
All theology. Because it includes revelation and observation!
All philosophy besides metaphysics.
Informed Opinion: A kind of conditional knowledge that has not been thought through completely, such as what a good craftsman knows about his craft. He hasn’t worked through all the logic or examined all the assumptions, but he ‘knows’ what works.
Let’s kick off the new year with a list of lies and the truths that contradict the lies. Then, in the comments, you, my beloved readers who by now number well into double digits (like 12 or maybe even 13!) can add ‘favorite’ lies of your own. Needless to say, this or any such list is seriously incomplete by nature.
Since that process would be too straightforward for the standards of this blog, here is a framing note before we start:
Like all human beings, I lie. All lying begins with lying to yourself, otherwise known as pride. The ancient command to know thyself, or, in religious terms, to fear God, are calls to humility, which is nothing but recognizing reality: I’m just not all that. So, going in, I’m a liar on the wagon. I will fall off. I hope to get back on when I do.
The religious aspect of truth-telling is subtle, often unknown to the truth-teller, and often denied. Loyalty to the truth is a metaphysical commitment, structurally on a par with religious beliefs.(1) It has long been understood by Christians that there is great honor and grace in seeking the truth, because in the end (and ‘In the beginning’) the Truth is a Person. What this doesn’t mean is that arriving at any particular moral or metaphysical or any other kind of truths is necessarily dependent on accepting the revealed truths of Christian dogma. In the case of this list, the list maker – me – became convinced of the truth in many of today’s contrived controversies quite apart from any religious beliefs I hold, and should hope I’d hang onto those convictions if I were to tragically lose my particular religious beliefs. For example, that a new human being comes into being at the moment of conception is so blindingly, obviously true that I’d hold that position regardless of my belief in, say, the Incarnation. (What it means that a new human being is created at conception is another question. It truly is a religious belief as moderns use the term that human life matters at all.)
This is the sense in which I assert that seeing the truth denied in the following lies is not a result of religious belief. A logical man would hold to these truths regardless of his religious convictions, if any.
Finally, there are better and worse lies, in the sense of how well the liar can fend off the truth. Good lies in this sense are *almost* true, only some last minute twist makes them lies. Good liars in this sense lay out many points no one would argue against, (2) save the twist for the end, and then accuse you of hating, oh, peace, love, and understanding if you dare challenge their lie. Needless to say, therefore, good lies come in attractive packages full of convincing truths. Good lies are constructed to make any who oppose them seem as mean-spirited (Nazi!) and dense (stupid!) as possible. Thus, if you mention, for example, all the exceptions carved out of Obamacare for the politically favored, you are not smelling a rat, but rather hate poor people. And so on and so forth.
A: Lie: History is moving forward. History has a right and wrong side.
Truth: History is a description, not an actor. It is rank superstition to think history does things, such as progressing, let alone has a right and wrong side.
A.1: Lie: The world is progressing toward some (undefined) better future. Good and bad actions can only be judged by whether they help or hinder this progress.
Truth: Progress is not the same as change. When the Mongols invaded the lands of the Slavs and sold tens of thousands into slavery, or Islam crushed the 1,000 year old Greco-Roman civilization of North Africa, these were great historical moments, and great changes – but were not in any sense progress, let alone Progress. (3) Neither is every change in the last 250 years progress. Progress is a judgement and a description. Belief in ‘Progress’ is built upon the same lie as the belief that History is an actor.
B: People’s actions result from their class consciousness. People are guilty of whatever acts their class commits, and suffer whatever oppression their class experiences, regardless of what actions they personally take or oppression they personally suffer.
Truth: In a similar way, classes, however defined, do not act or have consciousness or suffer. They are simply people grouped for convenience. Some of the people in class may act or understand well, some may not. When members of a class act, they act as people, not as members of a class. This remains true regardless of how much money, power, or status a man may have – those things will affect the nature of the opportunities for good and bad action a man may have, but the action is and remains his own. Classes do not act. (4)
C: Lie: People are defined by the class or classes they belong to. Classically put: the individual is nothing, the collective is everything. You cannot escape your class.
Truth: In the modern West, class barriers are very permeable, and have been for centuries now. That’s how, for example, a German Jew can move to London, sponge off rich friends and write pseudo-Hegelian nonsense about class consciousness. If real class barriers existed, such a man would be a shopkeeper or worse. In fact, if classes really existed as determinate actors, Marx would never have been able to ‘transcend’ his class and write his BS. Unless of course History was making Progress through him, in which case, he’s the chosen prophet of his god, sent to preach that the day of judgement is at hand. Considered as a philosopher, he’s a self-refuting charlatan.
D: Lie: Gender is a social construct.
Truth: Sex is a biological fact in all sexually reproducing higher life forms. Male or female are the only categories for mammals. The existence of a tiny, tiny sliver of twilight (genetic mutations and errors) does not disprove the night and day of man and woman. On the other hand, ‘gender’ is a term of the philologist’s art. As anyone who has ever tried to learn a language knows, it does not have much to do with biological sex. A table is neither female or male, but it does have a gender in many languages. Pretending the concept of gender applies to members of the human race, a sexually dimorphous, sexually reproducing species, is a risible exercise of raw power. (5)
Oh, heck, that’s enough for now. If my honored readers like this enough to add to the list, maybe we can make a series out of it. In any case, have a happy New Year!
Think of Augustine’s ‘Believe so that you may understand.’ Or think of Pilate’s ‘Truth? What is that?’ You have to want to understand, you must value the truth, before you can accept religious teachings. Then, one subjects them to Aquinas’s test: that they are not unreasonable, and to Chesterton’s: does the key unlock the lock? Wanting to understand and loving the truth are not logical, in the sense that they are not the result, but rather the basis, of any logical thinking.
Tom Lehrer’s Folk Song Army intro: “It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffeehouse or college auditorium and come out in favor of things everybody else in the audience is against, like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on.”
OK, if Progress, a term as wildly undefined in practice as fairness and oppression, is taken to mean ‘destruction of the west and a return to barbarity,’ then, right, the Mongol and Islamic invasions were Progress.
The truths in which this particular lie is wrapped: people tend to look out for their own interests, and people, being tribal or, even more fundamentally, pack animals, will tend to favor the course of actions they perceive as favored by their tribe. Calling this tendency, shared with rats and tuna, ‘class consciousness’ is putting an entire Mary Kay sales professional’s inventory on a pig.
Not getting into privilege here, except to point out that, if the children of the very rich are the most privileged people in the world, the children of academics – both natural and adopted – are the second most privileged. These assume the power to simply change the definitions of words and outlaw language by fiat, and to condemn any who fail to go along with it to the outer darkness. These are also the people who fail to see that Brave New World and, indeed, 1984 are meant to be distopias. As long as they are the ones in charge, what possible objections could right-thinking people have?