Category Archives: philosophy

Sophists and Therapists and Politicians, Oh My…God!

The always thought-provoking First Things website has an interesting article, “Managers, Therapists, and Saving Democracy”, by Dale Coulter.  Addressing the question of whether Western society can survive its present moral collapse, he begins with the origins, observing that:

the scientific method translated into the burgeoning role of the social sciences, particularly psychology, and thus gave rise to the therapist. Human flourishing was stripped of a moral center and replaced with psychological well-being. To achieve such well-being, the mantra of “be true to yourself” reinforced the consistent claims of social scientists that non-conformity was the path to self-realization.”

Coulter offers an excellent perspective, especially about the essential sophistry of the politically-created, agenda-driven “social sciences”.  I recommend that you read it. He references several thinkers who have contributed useful analyses. George Marsden, Cristopher Lasch, Reinhold Niebuhr, George Weigel, and the much-missed former-pope Benedict XVI.  I would add two others who have done much to make the current collapse understandable: Eric Voegelin and Philip Rieff.

Voegelin wrote (In The New Science of Politics):   [In contrast to] “the classic and Christian science of man”, [Max Weber assumes] “a social relation between scientist and politician, activated in the institution of a university, where the scientist as teacher will inform his students, the prospective homines politici, about the structure of political reality.”

And in his Plato and Aristotle, “Philosophy thus, has its origin in the resistance of the soul to its destruction by society…The Sophist proclaims his disease (of the soul) as the measure of human and social order.

Another interesting perceptive is presented by Philip Rieff in The Triumph of the Therapeutic:

“Freud taught lessons which Americans, prepared by their own national experience, learn easily: survive, resign yourself to living within your moral means, suffer no gratuitous failures in a futile search for ethical heights that no longer exist – if they ever did….The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.

“We believe that we know something our predecessors did not: that we can live freely at last, enjoying all our senses – except the sense of the past – as unremembering, honest, and friendly barbarians all, in a technological Eden.”

Voegelin also noted the inherent dishonesty in all this: “When Weber built the great edifice of his ‘sociology’ (i.e., the positivistic escape from the science of order), he did not seriously consider ‘all values’ as equal…In the absence of a reasoned principle of theoretization he let himself be guided not by ‘values’ but by the auctoritas maiorum.”

The difficulty is that philosophy, “the classic and Christian science of man” with “its origin in the resistance of the soul to its destruction by society,” seems powerless against the present disease of the soul in either its political or its sophistic-scientistic forms. The battle must be waged on moral, religious grounds as well. Plato and Aristotle must once again lock arms with St. Thomas Aquinas.  The Catholic Church under John Paul II and Benedict XVI was putting up a good fight; but now we seem to have a Pope who is all too often “guided by the auctoritas maiorum“.

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LUCRETIUS – The Consistent Atheist

I have just read a book that has achieved a rather impressive audience recently: The Swerve, by Harvard Professor of Humanities Stephen Greenblatt.  Accurately subtitled “How the World Became Modern”, it is a look at the re-discovery and modern embrace of Roman Epicurean philosopher-poet Lucretius and his epic work On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura).

Little is known of Lucretius’ life. One historian writes that “Lucretius was probably a member of the aristocratic gens Lucretia, and his work shows an intimate knowledge of the luxurious lifestyle in Rome. Lucretius’s love of the countryside invites speculation that he inhabited family-owned rural estates, as did many wealthy Roman families, and he was certainly expensively educated with mastery of Latin, Greek, literature, and philosophy.”

In chapter 8, Greenblatt  summarizes Lucretius:

Everything is made of invisible particles, eternal, infinite in number but limited in shape and size, all in motion in an infinite void.  The universe has no creator or designer.

Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve [i.e. random motion]; the swerve is the source of free will.

Nature ceaselessly experiments. The universe was not created for or about humans; humans are not unique. Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.

The soul dies; there is no afterlife; death is nothing to us.

All organized religions are superstitious delusions, and invariably cruel.

The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.

Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

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Morality without God

I have often heard the adage that “Morality is what you do when no one is watching.” I now think that is more a definition of immorality.

What got me thinking about all this is that recently I saw Mel Gibson’s movie What Women Want. The plot involves an advertising executive who experiences an electrical accident that somehow leaves him with the ability to hear the internal thoughts – of women. Unsurprisingly, he uses this ability to seduce, steal ideas from, and finally understand women.

My first afterthought was: what would it be like to have this “superhero” power? But then I wondered: what would it be like to know that MY thoughts were being heard?

Morality – moral behavior – has its basis in the sense that someone is always watching my actions and hearing my thoughts. Not just any random person, not a government agency with spy cameras; those breed fear, not morality. Societies that try to enforce all morality with fear end up in totalitarianism or (if they lose their nerve) in anarchic chaos.

No, the watcher/listener must be a loving person, and one who knows us well. It must be God.

Those of us who have lived in both small towns and big cities have noticed the difference in (among other things) drivers’ behavior. The bigger the population, i.e. the more drivers, the ruder their behavior. The reason seems plain. Driving in a big city, you are surrounded by strangers you are unlikely to see again. In a small town, the driver in the next car may be a neighbor, or friend, or even relative. Honking and fingering to show disapproval of their driving may boomerang into a real embarrassment.

We all tend to censor our actions and speech to some extent when dealing with others, but not our thoughts, since they remain private. But what if our thoughts were heard, and by someone who knew us and loved us? Would we not try to learn as a habit not to pursue thoughts that we are ashamed of? Anger, greed, lust, envy…all the Deadly Seven?

If Big Brother were listening, we would be self-censoring out of fear. But if a truly loved and loving one were listening, it would not be fear we would feel, but sadness at causing hurt.  Abraham Heschel, in The Prophets, explains the importance of the Jewish vision that God suffers from our sins.

That is why a loving God, rather than a punishing God, is what wise parents teach and children respond to best.

Atheists reply that they, too, can behave morally, despite the loneliness of existing without watchers/listeners. They rely on an inner conscience which they cannot explain, and on a well-run and affluent society they inherit. They argue that society evolved morality for evolutionary reasons, despite the fact that Darwinian Survival of the Fittest has no place for The Good of the Species.

Morality is the atheists’ stumbling stone.  They know that human society cannot survive without it, and they know that morality not based on a higher authority (religion) seems unattainable for most common folk.  So they are forced to the uneasy conclusion that society must be based on a lie unrecognized by the masses but encouraged by the rulers.   Or, to avoid this ugly conclusion, they take refuge in a theoretical evolution of society in complete contradiction to real evolutionary science.

But the question remains: Can there be morality without God?  Or was Dostoevsky correct, that “if God is dead, everything is permitted?”

Burke, PABGoo-ism, and Sophistry

Front Porch Republic has an excellent essay by Mark A. Signorelli entitled “A Burke For Our Times.”   It is worth a read.   Edmund Burke’s politics were based on an unblinking understanding of the reality of human nature, an understanding now sadly in decline.

It is generally assumed that a recognition of the dark side of human nature gives to conservatives a sour, gloomy, negative view of human society.   Even the briefest reading of Burke makes it clear that the truth is the opposite.  As Reinhold Niebuhr put it,   “Both the majesty and the tragedy of human life exceed the dimensions within which modern culture seeks to comprehend human existence.”  Rawls is certainly a case in point.

In contrasting the Rawlsian concept of human nature as unimportant on the one hand, and multiculturalism on the other, Signorelli fails to note the shallowly-thought but deeply-ingrained underpinning of multiculti thought.

This is, of course, the cheery world view which believes that “People Are Basically Good” (hence “PABGoo”; see below). PABGoos believe that all our problems are caused by bad political or economic systems, or not enough social science grants or psychotherapy or public education or whatever. The fact that it is publicly refuted countless times a day in every city on the globe has not stopped PABGoo-ism from becoming the default feel-good philosophy of our age.

Niebuhr:  “No accumulation of contrary evidence seems to disturb modern man’s good opinion of himself...The question therefore arises how modern man arrived at, and by what means he maintains, an estimate of his virtue in such pathetic contradiction with the obvious facts of his history.  One possible and plausible answer is that the great achievement of modern culture, the understanding of nature, is also the cause of the great confusion of modern man: the misunderstanding of human nature.”

In other words, our respect for the accomplishments of science has led us into the false worship of the sophistry that goes by the name of “social science”.

Signorelli skillfully posits the difference between a “principle-based” philosopher like Rawls and a reality-based philosopical citizen like Burke.  Rawls’ belief in the eventual promise of science explaining man to himself is an unacknowledged act of charming, childlike faith.  But the effects on society are not so charming.

“Social science” is in fact a uniquely modern form of sophistry.  It takes the forms, language, and prestige of science, and puts it to use in the service of any political, economic, or social movement willing to pay the “research” bill.  Plato’s Republic describes the Athenian sophists in terms that make clear their kinship with the modern social-scientific advocate.

The role of “social science” in overthrowing all the accumulated understanding of human nature is clearest in our modern judicial lawmaking.   When a social element wishes to overthrow an institution firmly established throughout human history, it does so on the basis of “social science.”  When the Iowa Supreme Court decided that marriage is not an institution between man and woman and that society has no interest in the traditional family, it cited

“”an abundance of evidence and research, confirmed by our independent research, supporting the proposition that the interests of children are served equally by same-sex parents and opposite-sex parents.  On the other hand, we acknowledge the existence of reasoned opinions that dual-gender parenting is the optimal environment for children.  These opinions, while thoughtful and sincere, were largely unsupported by reliable scientific studies.  The research appears to strongly support the conclusion that same-sex couples foster the same wholesome environment as opposite-sex couples and suggests that the traditional notion that children need a mother and a father to be raised into healthy, well-adjusted adults is based more on stereotype than anything else.”   (April 3, 2009, p.54; my emphasis)

Burke would have known what to say about such social-scientific nonsense put forth by sophistic advocates whose major goal is the destruction of all natural law and inherited wisdom.  In fact, he did say it.  Reflections on the Revolution in France is a truly great work.

UPDATE:

As if to drive home the point about the convenience of “social science” and its ability to prove whatever you need it to prove, read this from yesterday’s Science Daily.

College professors and students are in an arms race over cheating. Students find new sources for pre-written term papers; professors find new ways to check the texts they get for plagiarized material. But why are all these young people cheating? A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests one reason: income inequality, which decreases the general trust people have toward each other.

Got it?  Schoolkids cheat because of rich people!  Thanks, social scientists.

Conservatism, the Enlightenments, and Religion

The Enlightenment of the 18th Century was the birth of the movement to articulate a rational basis for society and the freedom of the individual.

 

The French Enlightenment (Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire, Robespierre)  was directed against the church, seeing religion as mankind’s primary oppressor.  And it took a strongly ideological form from the start, being largely ungrounded in experience of local institutions that actually grew a sense of individual freedom.

The British Enlightenment (Locke, Hume, Smith, Burke) saw its task as the creation of a theoretical framework for the balancing of individual freedom and community interests.  Based on common sense and actual experience of freedom, the British recognized the importance of tradition-buttressed community institutions as the only soil in which freedom can grow.

 

The common philosophical ground of both Enlightenments was the necessity of basing theory on natural philosophy untethered from religion.   And in this they succeeded, so that the modern western world has broadly accepted as self-evident truth the illegitimacy of any reference to religion in the public square.

 

The modern-day heirs of the French Enlightenment are on the left, the range of humanist liberals from Democrats to Communists.

 

The British Enlightenment flame is kept alive by the conservatives and neo-conservatives, from Republicans to …

 

Liberals and conservatives act and argue as if their principles were well founded.  But they generally avoid discussion that gets too close to core principles, for fear of being asked the inquisitive child’s questions: Why?  Why is every human life sacred?  Why do we each have a right to freedom?  Why shouldn’t I steal?  Who says I shouldn’t?

 

Push them too hard and they must confront the fact that much, perhaps all of our ethical framework is founded in the leftover remnants of our family and community religion.

 

The fundamental question is just how long civilized societies can survive when their morality is a shell of a house whose foundations eroded away long ago.

 

Meanwhile, locked away in an intellectual ghetto, Christians and Conservative Jews continue to argue from biblical principles.  Their house alone seems to be built on solid foundations.  Biblical principles may be mistaken, of course.  But they provide a basis.  What about the rest of us?

The Gratitude Problem

I feel grateful for all I have – for so much.  For my wife, my daughter, my life, my health, my friends.  The beauty of nature, music, poetry.

But…to whom?  One cannot be grateful to nothing or no one.  “Thank you” demands an identifiable “you”.

My wife? I thank her.  And her parents, for having and loving and raising her.

My daughter?  I thank her, and her mother for having, loving, and raising her.

My life?  I thank my parents, for having and loving and raising me.

My health?  This is a little trickier.  I thank the medical professions, in part.  And Big Pharma for developing the medicines that keep me well.

But whom do I thank for the beautiful world around me?  And for my ability to see it and appreciate it?

I have heard some of the assertive “New Atheists” claim that they, too, feel gratitude for their many blessings, but they don’t think that creates any kind of problem for their atheism.  They’re just grateful, that’s all.  They as no further questions.

But I question. Is my natural gratitude an internal proof of God’s existence?  Or simply another superstitious hallucination?   Must I outgrow gratitude to be a well-adjusted atheist?  Can I?

Leszek Kolakowski Remembered

One of the greatest of modern thinkers passed away 2 years ago this month.  Leszek Kolakowski was rightly known for his searing critique of Communism, embodied in his magisterial 1978 survey, the 3-volume Main Currents of Marxism.  The 20th century had crushed his every favorable illusion about Communism (as it did for virtually every other Pole).  He exposed the ugly philosophical reality of Marxism as thoroughly as Alexander Solzhenitsyn exposed its hideous physical reality.  With Main Currents and Gulag Archipelago on a bookshelf, and only The Black Book of Communism between them, no library really needs another volume on the subject.

He was a fine prose stylist, with a vein of incisive wit. Here is his summary of the “New Left”:

“While the ideological fantasies of this movement, which reached its climax around 1968-69, were no more than a nonsensical expression of the whims of spoiled middle class children, and while the extremists among them were virtually indistinguishable from Fascist thugs, the movement did without doubt express a profound crisis of faith in the values that had inspired democratic societies for many decades.  In this sense, it was a ‘genuine’ movement despite its grotesque phraseology; the same, of course, could be said of Nazism and Fascism.” (Main Currents, vol. 3, p. 490)

Kolakowski lived long enough (he was 92) to be recognized for his brilliant contribution to the debunking of Communism.  The eulogies from Roger Kimball (New Criterions) and Christopher Hitchens (Slate) (among many others) make the point well.

But in his later years, LK made equally brilliant contributions to the understanding of liberal, secular modernity’s crippling of our civilization.  In books like Modernity on Endless Trial (1990), he made clear the extent to which a post-religious world is incapable of sustaining moral standards.  He understood the magnitude of failure that resulted from what Alasdair MacIntyre has called “the Enlightenment project of providing a rational vindication of morality” and “the secularization of morality” (After Virtue, 1981).   LK realized that without religion, morality, human rights, human dignity, and therefore civilization itself were all unsustainable.  They are edifices built on eroded Judeo-Christian foundations, waiting to be knocked down by the next strong wind.

Although he was able to see the dead end inherent in secular society, LK was not himself able to embrace what he knew to be the only solution: religious revival.  But religion does not exist because it is effective; it exists because believers have faith in God.  Faith in the power of religion is no substitute for religion.  (He states this beautifully in Modernity on Endless Trial, but I don’t have my copy handy to quote it.)

And he as much as stated that he himself could not embrace faith itself; he was not a believer.   So, like many of us, he must have stared into the abyss with a sense of profound sadness and pessimism.

The Great Sophist

Eric Voegelin’s Plato and Aristotle (the third volume of his Order and History) studies Plato’s exposes of the Sophists, especially in The Republic.

It has become clear to me that these clever men, whose inherent corruption so troubled Socrates/Plato, were the true models of much of modern Western society.

“Plato described the Athenian society in which he lived as the Sophist written large, explaining the peculiarities of Athenian order by referring them to the socially predominant sophistic type,” says EV, and it seems to be true again in our own day.  The inter-connectedness of the Advocate, the Social Scientist, and the Community Organizer seem to me to be most meaningfully placed under the umbrella of the Sophists, all in more or less open, contemptuous rejection of the search for truth of the philosopher and the religious believer.

In EV’s words, “In Plato’s immediate environment the sophist is the enemy and the philosopher rises in opposition to him; in the wider range of Hellenic history, the philosopher comes first and the sophist follows him as the destroyer of his work through immanentization of the symbols of transcendence.”

These “symbols of transcendence” seem to me the rhetorical use of reason, the existence of truth and right order, and the concept of justice.  These are the classic tools of the Advocate, taught in law schools and embodied in politics.  But they have also become the tools of the mass media and higher education, among others homes of the elite.

Again EV paraphrasing Plato: “The general social environment in courts, assemblies, and theaters is the principal formative influence on young men, not the teaching of this or that individual sophist.  The many who exert the continuous pressure are ‘the Great Sophist’.

Plato/Socrates, The Republic:  “The individual sophists who teach for money have no doctrine of their own but echo the opinion of the multitude; and that is what they call their wisdom.  The professional sophist is rather comparable to a man in charge of a ‘great beast’;  he will study the habits of the animal and find out how to manage it.  Good will be what the beast likes, and bad will be what arouses its temper.”

Another “type” which seems to characterize modern society is the Therapist, as ably articulated by Philip Rieff (The Triumph of the Therapeutic).  But I begin to suspect that the Therapist is yet another variation on the Sophist.  He is an Advocate for the person paying the bills, spinning arguments to demonstrate that the subject is not responsible for his own problems.   (Consider the modern role of defense psychiatrists in courtrooms, invariably arguing for a frame of mind that renders the accused person less than fully responsible for his crimes.)  As EV put it, “The sophist proclaims his disease as the measure of human and social order.”

Flannery O’Connor wrote that “Plato’s enemies were the Sophists, and Socrates’ arguments against them are still today the classical arguments against that sophistic philosophy of existence which characterizes positivism and the age of enlightenment.”

Plato puts the contrast between philosopher and the sophist in the starkest possible light when he writes in The Laws: “God is for us (philosophers) the measure of all things, of a truth;  more truly so than, as they (sophists) say, man.”

Or, as EV put it, “The validity of the standards adapted by Plato and Aristotle depends on the conception of a man who can be the measure of society because God is the measure of his soul.”

The “Mere Flabbiness” of the Elites

by Ben Finiti

I came across a passage which seems to describe in remarkably succinct terms the process of the “avant garde” elite’s degradation of our culture.  It is in a 1940 book on Aeschylus by the classical scholar Gilbert Murray.  He is contrasting his subject with the turmoil raised by the Sophists of Athens.

“The development is one which has often been repeated in ages of great intellectual activity.  Vigorous minds begin to question the convention in which they have been brought up and which they have now outgrown.  They reject first the elements in them which are morally repulsive, then the parts that are obviously incredible; they try to reject the husk and preserve the kernel, and for a time reach a far higher moral and intellectual standard than the generations before them or the duller people of their own time.

“Then, it seems, something is apt to go wrong.  Perhaps a cynic would say – and it would be hard to confute him – the element
of reason in man is so feeble a thing that he cannot stand successfully except when propped in the stiff harness of convention. At any rate there is always apt to come a later generation which has carried doubt and skepticism much farther and finds the kernel to consist only of inner layers of husk and then more husk, as the place of George IV’s heart, according to Thackeray, was supplied by waistcoats and then more waistcoats.

First come inspiration and the exaltation of breaking false barriers: at the end comes the mere flabbiness of having no barriers left to break and no talent except for breaking them. “

(Gilbert Murray, Aeschylus pp. 79-80)

I must confess that, not being a classical scholar myself, I found this only by reference in Eric Voegelin’s Plato and Aristotle, the third volume of his Order and History.  EV’s analysis of Plato’s exposes of the Sophists has made it clear to me that these clever, clever men were the true models of much of modern Western society. ”Plato saw Athenian society as the Sophist writ large”, says EV somewhere, and it seems to be true again in our own day. The inter-connectedness of the Advocate, the Social Scientist, and the Community Organizer seem to me to be most meaningfully placed under the umbrella of the Sophists, all in more or less open, contemptuous rejection of the search for truth of the philosopher and the religious believer.

I am working on a larger exploration of this subject.  But I felt I had to share this amazingly apt quote.

My Life Among the PABGoos

I have traveled a long road from my Methodist childhood, into my atheist, Marxist radical youth, and into the world.  There I battled through a lifetime of real-world practicality comforted and cushioned by the shreds of an ideology that no longer worked or made real sense of anything.  And I end up here.

I now find myself on the doorstep of a return to the truths of my childhood belief, still unable to cross the threshold.  (Of course, I wonder just how fully I ever really believed back then.  Tolstoy wrote somewhere about his religious beliefs evaporating in an instant when his older brother, seeing him kneeling by his bed, asked “You don’t still pray, do you?”)

Anyway, here I am.  Like Chesterton, I wanted always to be in the vanguard of new thought, always ahead of my time, only to discover that I was 20 centuries behind the truth.

I now find that there are only two consistent philosophical standpoints that are not in serious conflict with the facts of human nature.  Two tenable views.

Either God made us with souls, with a purpose.  Or we exist as accidental results of random materialistic evolution.

If we have souls and a purpose, then morality is a possibility, a choice that our souls can make to be in conformity with our purpose.  If we are evolutionary accidents, then we have no souls, no real purpose, and morality is whatever works.  So real morality, with legitimate authority, becomes impossible.  Moral anarchy is the only possible outcome.

There is of course another, much cheerier world view, one which believes that People Are Basically Good (hence “PABGoo”).  PABGoos believe that all our problems are caused by bad political or economic systems, or not enough social science grants or psychotherapy or public education or whatever.  The fact that it is publicly refuted countless times a day in every city on the globe has not stopped PABGoo from becoming the default feel-good philosophy of our age..  Every time you hear John Lennon singing “Imagine” on a store Muzak system, you are being PABGooed. By now you probably don’t even notice.