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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Criticism, Self-Criticism and Antisemitism

A common thread of modern leftist anti-Israel anti-Semitism is the claim that Israel has only itself to blame for Jew-hatred. If only they had been “nicer” to the Arab armies and terrorists committed to their annihilation! A preposterous but familiar excuse for leftist racism.

But in another sense, anti-Semitism does indeed have roots in Jewish history. For Israel, in addition to discovering monotheism and the concept of a meaningful history, also invented self-criticism. The first references to Jews as a stiff-necked, materialistic, ungrateful people may be found in the words of the Prophets of ancient Israel, quoted in the Jewish (and Christian) bible.

In a PBS series on Jewish history, host Simon Schama (a respected historian) cited as proof of St. Paul’s anti-semitism his claim that the Jews had often slain their own prophets. Schama seemed unaware that Paul was quoting Jesus, and Jesus was quoting the Prophets Nehemiah and Elijah, criticizing Hebrew ingratitude:

“They were disobedient and rebelled against Thee, and cast thy laws behind their backs, and slew thy prophets which testified against them to turn them to thee, and they wrought great provocations.” (Nehemiah 9:26)

“They children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword.” (1 Kings 19:10, quoting Elijah)

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Why “Mother’s” Day? Why not Parent #1 Day?

[As usual, my friend Hans Moleman (at mistermoleman.com) has made a good and timely point: in an age when the benefits of motherhood have been scientifically and legally debunked, refuted, and declared non-existent, why do we still celebrate “Mother’s” Day?]

It is time to put an end to this outrage.  “Mother’s” Day is an abhorrent, anachronistic vestige of heterosexist oppression.  In barely concealed homophobic code, it implies that a child needs and/or benefits from having a mother, and that motherhood is something other than an outdated social construct.

Sure, motherhood may have been revered in the Dark Ages.  But as Enlightenment has spread across the land in recent years, social scientists and learned judges have patiently explained to us that “mothers” are now quite redundant.

Wise judges such as Vaughn Walker, ruling that the voters of California have no right to decide so important a question, wrote:

“The gender of a child’s parent is not a factor in a child’s adjustment… The research supporting this conclusion is accepted beyond serious debate in the field of developmental psychology…Children do not need to be raised by a male parent and a female parent to be well-adjusted, and having both a male and a female parent does not increase the likelihood that a child will be well-adjusted.”

See?  It is “accepted beyond serious debate”.  As Al Gore likes to say, the debate is over, we know all we need to know.

The judge did admit that things were different in the Dark Ages: “When California became a state in 1850, marriage was understood to require a husband and a wife.”  But, as they say in California, that was then and this is now.  (On retiring soon after ruling against Prop 8, Judge Walker said ““I have done my part.”  Indeed he has.)

The Iowa Supreme Court was equally patient in dismissing the folly of mother-fixation.

“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 father to be raised into healthy, well-adjusted adults is based more on stereotype than anything else.

There you have it.  This whole motherhood thing is just a stereotype.

And think of the emotional pain inflicted.  Every “M-word” Day is a gross offense to the self-esteem of gay male couples who are thinking about raising children.

It reminds one of a heart-breaking episode from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.  Stan, a young rebel with gender issues, announces that he wants to have a baby:

Stan (also known as Loretta): It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.

Reg:  But you can’t have babies.

Stan:  Don’t you oppress me.

Reg: Where’s the fetus going to gestate? You going to keep it in a box?

Well, Reg, modern science has finally come up with effective gestation boxes, so Stan’s dream (actually Loretta’s dream) can now come true. And the courts have said that gay adoption is OK, because all that a child needs is “parents”.

So we can leave this motherhood fetish back in ancient Judea where it belongs.

The obvious thing to do is to rename the holiday.  Federal and state governments are quickly replacing the anachronistic “Mother” and “Father” lines on government forms and birth certificates with the more sensitive “Parent #1” and “Parent #2”.

The calendar can and should do the same thing.  May 11 is Parent #1 Day, with Parent #2 to be celebrated later.  (Don’t get me started on the whole “Fatherhood” outrage.  That can wait until P2 Day.)

Boycott Hallmark until they correct this archaic macro-aggression against the differently gendered parent!

Reminder: Did you call your Parent #1 today?

“Blind, pitiless indifference”

As I have written below, I have spent many years trying to find God.  I have found much Judeo-Christian theology coherent, consistent with reality, and therefore highly plausible.

But I still cannot convince myself that the other coherent, consistent worldview, atheistic materialism, is not also plausible.

Many authors have helped me along; I will list and discuss them sometime.  But nothing so far has been quite so compelling as this quote from atheist guru Richard Dawkins:

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

This chilling statement, offered in support of Dawkins’ atheism, is from his book Rivers of Eden, which I found quoted in Francis Collins’ The Language of God.  (I recommend Collins’ book highly.  He was the director of the Human Genome Project as well as a Christian.)

Dawkins is wrong, of course.  He omits the fact that the observable universe includes humanity, and humanity is somehow endowed with every property he enumerates as absent from the universe.  But the importance of his statement is that, as an atheist, he is comfortable with this as his “Truth”!

 

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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Progress Report on the Search for Faith

[Written November 11, 2013]

Still searching.

The best result so far is that I can accept the Thomist logic of a plausible God.  But I cannot make the leap from this Philosopher’s God to a loving, caring, father God; and only such a God can offer Hope for what I love. (see previous posting)

The Catholic Church attracts me, calls to me.  Its commitment to Faith and Reason is essential: I cannot believe in a God who makes no sense.  This Thomist thought is one of the Catholics’ greatest contributions to humanity.  (Not to mention other gifts such as clarified morality, organized charity, and the sanctity of marriage.)

But sometimes the church seems to know too much.  Too much confident Dogma where it seems only Trust can serve.  Too much certainty regarding details of God’s thinking.

On this too-great certainty the Church has constructed a demand for trust in its own thinking; and the Church has too often been too wrong.  It has been the fountainhead of anti-Semitism.  It has massively and brutally inquired into individual souls.  It has criminalized heresy and apostasy.

To its credit, the modern Church has purged itself of these errors (sins).  This has been late in coming and grudgingly accepted, but it has happened.  The heroic efforts of the modern popes (from Pius XII to Benedict XVI) deserve honor.

I cannot oppose myself to the Catholic Church of today.  Indeed, the Church today stands as the leading champion in defense of almost all that I hold dear and that is now under such attack.  Family, Life, Truth.

So I find myself standing with the Church…but apart from it. Continue reading

Hope for the Hopeless, O, Abide With Me

 

News today from the Mideast – all bad.  The Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” drag on, with the US Secretary of State publicly blaming Israel for the lack of success.  In Geneva the US is on the verge of giving Iran the kind of deal the Mullahs want; in response, the Saudis are ready to buy their own nukes from Pakistan.  It will take a miracle to prevent a truly horrible all-out war in the region within a year. (My friend Mr. Hans Moleman has an insightful take on all this at his site mistermoleman.com.)

Back home, the trend towards undermining of the family continues at a rapid and yet accelerating pace.

Meanwhile, I continue my lonely search for Faith. And I sometimes wonder why.  What is so imperative about Faith?

I could, like many good people I know, put the Big Questions aside. Without Faith I could live a relatively moral, or at least decent, life, and when the time comes die a bravely accepting death.  It mightn’t be too bad.   I have lived an extremely easy life; with luck I could just continue on until it ends.

But without Faith there is no Hope.  And that I cannot do without.

As a young man, I saw the world as do most young men fresh out of (liberal arts) college: a cesspool of suffering and misery, caused by greed and folly, and just waiting for some brave, bright young man like me to set all things right.

The course of my adult life was one of gradual discovery (re-discovery, some might say) that there was much to love and value in this world.  The beauty of art and music, as humans re-capitulate the wonders of nature. The courage shown throughout history by those fighting (what they believed was) the good fight. The endless search to find the truth about ourselves and our world.   In a word, the great culture we have been blessed to inherit, and graced with the opportunity to hand forward to the future.   (In a word, I became conservative.)

But all this appreciation brings with it fear – the fear that every parent feels when gazing into his child’s future.  Can it possibly be safe, in such a dangerous world?

What if everything exists by accident, constructed on nothing, the result of an inexplicable chance pinpoint explosion called the Big Bang?  If we are accidental, then all we have done and built is doomed, if only by the force of Entropy.  We see these forces of entropic doom all around us every day, and we keep our sanity only by extreme mental exercises.

Some place their hope in mankind and science as the forces that will save us.  This is a fool’s hope, available only to those who haven’t looked into it too deeply.

Some avert their eyes and seek constant distractions to avoid thinking about it.  This works well until it doesn’t.

And some find Hope in their Faith in a loving God who cares about us and has a plan for us.

I have tried the first two, and they no longer work for me.  So I keep knocking on Door Number Three.

I still don’t know if God exists. But I know that without God, there is no Hope.

And I don’t think I can live without Hope.

Predestination: If True, Why Try?

Of all elements of Christian belief, predestination is perhaps the least acceptable to me.

For one thing, it undermines the strength of one of the great realisms of biblical faith: free will.

If predestination is true, then why bother resisting temptation, or seeking God, or … anything?  If God has ordained my success or failure at finding Him, at being saved, then I am Home Free (or the opposite).  And my Free Will, which I now struggle to direct in the right way, is all for nought.  It is an illusion.

Predestination seems to me as foolish and hopeless as the atheist philosopher’s materialist determinism.

I am undoubtedly missing something here.  But for me, the relevant question is this:  Is Predestination a necessary belief?

 

Visiting the Valley

Recently I have spent some time volunteering at our hospital’s cancer treatment center, where folks come as out-patients  to receive their regular chemo-therapy.  The patients and nurses are grateful, and we seem to make things a little easier. We help with ordering and serving lunch, fetching drinks, blankets, pillows, and things like that; what would be orderly work in the wards.

Most of the volunteers are themselves cancer survivors.  I am not.  And I got to thinking about the significance of that reality.

My wife is a cancer survivor – a very successful one.  Twenty-eight years since her cancer, with no recurrence!  But I know the fear of it never entirely leaves her.  Her annual screening is always a time of some anxiety, for me as well as for her (though she hides hers well).

While working at the center, I had a thought: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” The 23rd Psalm. And I understood it, in a way I never had before.  Every patient in there was walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  And the fortunate ones, the survivors like my wife, never entirely leave the valley.  They just make it to the brighter side of the valley.  But they never entirely leave the shadow behind them.

Of course, the rest of us are just as mortal; we all live with the daily possibility of death being around the next corner.  Car accidents, heart attacks, whatever – the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.  But we don’t think about it.  The shadow of our mortality does not block our sun.

But cancer is different.  No doctor will ever tell you that they got all the cancer cells.  You know there may be some in there, lying in wait for you.  You know their name.

I suppose heart attack and stroke survivors may be in a similar situation.  The chance of recurrence of those seems never to go away either.  Maybe they dwell in the valley too.

What is remarkable to me is how well most cancer survivors deal with the shadow.  Judging by the ones I know, they may be the least depressed people around. This is courage, no doubt, but also something else.

The awareness of the near presence of death has often been regarded as a morally salutary thing.  “Memento mori” (“remember death”), the Romans were told in their moments of greatest triumph.  Yet I think no one really does that except those dwelling in the valley of its shadow.  I know my wife cherishes every birthday as a gift, a gift of time, of life.   I try to emulate her attitude.  She is a constant example to me, of the courage to live life to its fullest.

When I volunteer at the center, I am visiting the valley. I find the valley-dwellers to be for the most part surprisingly cheerful, yet never frivolous.  They are serious about life, but never somber.

And when I sit at a bedside vigil for a dying patient, I watch them exiting the far end of the valley. I bid them farewell.

This volunteering is an invaluable gift to me, a memento mori as well as a memento vivere: “remember to live”.

Roger Kimball, Modern Art, and Flabby Elites

Roger Kimball of New Criterion has an excellent essay up at PJ Media, entitled “Annals of the art world: everything old is new again“.  He portrays the sad emptiness, the hollow pretensions, the “mere flabbiness” of modern “transgressive art.”

It reminded me of something I wrote a while back, in 2011, about something else written even further back,by classicist Gilbert Murray in 1940 (that’s how these things go, some time).   Murray pithily sums up the art world, and much the rest of culture, from around 1900 or so.

“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.

Here is “The Mere Flabbiness of the Elites”.

________________________________________________

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.

At any rate, Kimball’s book sounds like it will be worth the pain of reading it.

A tip of my hat of the hat (or at least a touch to the brim or knuckle to the forehead) to Jay Nordlinger at NRO’s Corner for pointing me to all this.