Open Letter to the Readership of The Celt Independent and the UST Community
I am indebted to the editors of this paper for their invitation to respond to a recent move of student government to fund ‘welcoming events’ for the LGBT community.
For every story there is a backstory, and this is true of the news item just mentioned. The backstory is long, and its origins are somewhat old, and even precisely ancient, but the old story must be told if present events are to be understood.
Before returning to remote but highly relevant sources, though, it’s worthwhile to cite a rather simple observation by the late Neil Postman, then of NYU, who saw and remarked that the present day has no comprehensive, coherent, metaphysical and religious understanding of the world – of the real; from this fact it must be inferred, that therefore man and his place, role, and destiny are also bereft of explanation. Other writers, from psychiatrists to politicians, philosophers, historians, and poets will name this plight an ‘existential vacuum,’ a condition in which there is no center to hold, and ‘things fall apart,’ and ‘anarchy is loosed upon the world.’
This has not always been so. The Bible, the civilization of the ancient Greeks, and in fact every prior civilization have held the contrary.
This question, ‘Does life have any meaning’ or simply, ‘What’s it all about?’ is both coeval with mankind, and immediately pressing now, especially to both young people and to old people — both of which groups might be more inclined to ponder the whole of their lives, either as before them or behind them. It serves us to ask how human affairs have come to this condition, not inaccurately by many named a new dark age, an air-conditioned revisitation of the Roman 6th century.
To answer this question is somewhat akin to solving a murder-mystery. We are witnesses to the dead body, and ask, ‘Who are the culprits?’
Because we live in a changed era, as contrasted against ancient and Christian and medieval men, it is plain to see that there has been an anthropogenic cultural climate-change, and its anthropogenesis lies in a revolution of ideas, because ‘ideas rule the world.’ The interior world of thought and choice are prior to the external world of action.
Scholarly historians of ideas have among themselves lively debates about exactly by whom and when this revolution was perpetrated, but scarcely anyone will disagree about the cast of characters: William of Occam (d. 1347, Niccolo Machiavelli (d. 1527), Francis Bacon (d. 1626) Rene Descartes (d. 1650, and still playing on the same team, somewhat later, Thomas Hobbes (d. 1679) and John Locke (d. 1704). Their many differences notwithstanding, all these consciously and explicitly rejected their forebears, the ancients and the medievals, especially the scholastics, judging them the fruitless ‘boyhood of knowledge . . . barren of works,’ and as hopeless, merely ‘the false opinions that had been instilled . . . prior’ to perhaps 1619. The antagonism and even aggression against the ancient wisdom is in their work palpable. About this there can be no dispute.
The ancients, to use this expression broadly, consistently and insistently taught perennial themes: The real is intelligible, the human mind to be able to know the real by the impact of the real on the senses and on the intellect. Rocks are hard; water is wet. Nature and the things of nature – including human nature are knowable in their species by observation and insight. Therefore also known are the natural law and the natural human rational imperative to develop via the exigencies of natural law and virtue, which develops by continuity into the principle of political order. None of this whatsoever was possible unless there were an absolutely First principle of the real, that is, God. (Sts. Thomas and Augustine in principle agree with Jean-Paul Sartre, that without God, everything is meaningless.)
Severing all links with the past, and rebelling against it, the moderns, as a group, although with different versions and different emphases, the new philosophers prefer power over virtue (Machiavelli, virtu); material production over wisdom (Bacon and Hobbes, the ‘relief of the human estate’ and ‘commodious living’); intellectual isolation and power over nature (Descartes, cogito and the ‘mastery and possession of nature’); freedom without identifiable purpose (Locke), and finally, by 1804, the divorce between human knowledge and the real (Kant, reducing knowledge to subjectively confected phenomena).
In short, citing C. S. Lewis: ‘For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the primary solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique, and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious . . . ‘
These ideas and their kin have come to inherit the earth, at least for the time being. The modern doctrine has become a body of assumptions that are regarded as self-evident first principles. This modest little outfit of ideas has become the common currency of our ‘pocket of history.’ In ours as in every time, there are, often unbeknownst to its denizens, such altogether unexamined rules of the mind that govern all subsequent judgments.
Notwithstanding the nearly-universal assent, not everyone even in our time agrees; there is a short but significant roster of counter-revolutionaries that includes, for example, JRR Tolkien, Alexander Sozhenitsyn, Dorothy Sayers, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and Arnold Toynbee. While a revolution of thought and life has been undertaken and seems largely to have been won by the moderns and their progeny, these are remnants from and even prosecutors for the cultural ancien regime. To cite but one of the examples, it is a great paean that Tolkien was given the epithet, ‘the greatest 13th century man of the 20th century.’ The Lord of the Rings was a bold work, and vituperously denounced by the literary establishment.
To understand the modern rebellion, in any case, is impossible unless one also understands that against which it rebelled. Most of our contemporaries remain without this knowledge. Instead, they naively believe in falsehoods and caricatures.
Together, then, the large-scale victory of the modern and the vigorous remnant of the old identify ours as a time of cultural warfare, as has often been noted. This not only a war, and a war with only two combatant forces, but it a war of the very highest stakes: Life and death, Heaven and Hell are on the line. In philosophical terms, is the real intelligible? Aristotle or Nietzsche? God or Nothing? Creed or Chaos? There is no middle ground; there can be no compromise.
Making discourse even more difficult today is the proliferation of cant – of undefined and usually meaningless buzz-words that substitute for thinking, as well as rendering efforts at thought hazy at best. Antony Esolen provides a sample of such: democracy, diversity, equality, inclusivity, marginalization, racism, sexism, homophobia, progressivism, autonomy, and I humbly add innovation and mercy. The very language of our day is foggy. Peter Kreeft remarks that the greatest misnomer in the history of thought is ‘the enlightenment,’ which ought to be named ‘the great darkness,’ and given that imagery, we live not only in a dark age, but create a dense fog in our verbiage. We do well to recall from G. K. Chesterton: ‘Evil always takes advantage of ambiguity.’ In argument, not only are premises ambiguous, but this ambiguity invites the fallacy of equivocation – the ‘fallacy of four terms.’
What is the implication of all this anent same-sex-attraction? In the ancient way, things have knowable natures, and these natures act for ends according to their natures. The natural end fulfills the thing, any natural thing, according to what it is, and is the very point of its action at all. Men and women are ordered each to the other unto the end of the generation of progeny. This is why sexual differentiation exists, and why it makes sense.
Of course, in humans there is a spanner in the works, which spanner uniquely among the things of nature allows a great nobility, as well as threatening a great ignobility: free will. While triangles must be triangular, and grass must be grassy, and dogs must be doggy, humans can be inhuman. Humans alone can abdicate their nature by choosing to act contrary to it. Each of us is daily poised between mensch and unmensch – between man and ‘un-man’ as Lewis has it in his Perelandra.
Further, remaining in the concrete, where the abstract is incarnated, humans are very weak. Chesterton remarked that, as he considered conversion, that of all the doctrines of the Church, he could understand the unbeliever’s doubt – with one exception only: original sin. The manifest evidence is before everyone’s eyes daily. A century after Chesterton so-remarked, you and I live in a country where crime, aggression, addiction, depression, suicide, broken families, and corruption of all kinds are the stuff of the daily news. Plato and Aristotle might, alive today, be astonished by the extent of the results, but not by the principle here at work. The principle is the human nature is not perfect, and not perfectible. Sin we have always with us.
Hand in glove with sin is the temptation to sin – the inclination to choose the merely apparent rather than to the genuine good. The ‘line between good and evil that runs through every human heart’ is easily and disastrously crossed. This is especially unsurprising in when the ‘culture’ offers little in the way of beauty, moral exemplars, and passionate commitment to truth. The drab and the garish have replaced the beautiful, celebrities have replaced saints and heroes, and relativism, the universal solvent of all things human, has become dictatorial.
The temptation to act contrary to human nature itself, in this case to human nature as rational animality, but always concretely male or female, masculine or feminine, will differ from person to person; many are tempted to fornication, many to adultery, some to sexual activity with others of the same sex. No one is responsible for that which attracts his fancy; some are as though driven to lie, or to steal, or to damage the reputations of others (gossip). Responsibility is incurred by choice, and executed in action.
Precisely because the truly good is often if not always difficult, the strength of courage, whose principal act is perseverance, must attend every good action. For this reason it is impossible to live well without courage. It is to be noted carefully, then, that courage is not the sole province of the combat soldier or the trauma center nurse, but of everyone. Courage is difficult itself; we might be reminded of Theodore Roosevelt’s words, ‘Courage is not the strength to go on, it is going on when the strength has left.’
It is courage that allows liberation from circumstances; courage conquers the self-misconception of victimhood. The adult, who embraces his own personal agency and takes personal responsibility for his own actions, knows that circumstances challenge, and they sometimes challenge mightily, but circumstances do not coerce.
To have the weight of certain disordered inclinations is not of itself evil; to choose to act thereupon is. This is no doubt a very difficult circumstance of life. It is a heavy burden to bear, and for exactly this reason it is the precondition for an even nobler life than might otherwise be the case.
So, what about ‘inclusivity/diversity welcoming events?’ Both because of the deliberate vagueness of the terms themselves, and because of their metaphysical, epistemological, anthropological, ethical, and political modern pedigree, to approve such events, and to carry them out, implies a prior and implicit ratification of their premises – a weak, dubious, dangerous, and highly ambiguous undertaking.
All of this said, we may draw several lessons:
- The culture war is intimately with us, and we engaged in it, wittingly or not.
- Modernity and its existential sequelae must eventually collapse from their own internal irrationality; the simulacrum of wisdom that is the modern revolutionary spirit is as it were the genesis of the abolition of man.
- The day of the collapse is unknowable, but it is today twilight at best, and darkness is upon us, that is sure.
- Reasoning from the meaningless cant vocabulary of the day faintly derived from the failures of principle that mark the modern age, from ‘inclusivity,’ from ‘diversity’ from ‘equality,’ and the rest, is unwise, imprudent in the precise sense, if even possible.
- Long before any such deliberations are engaged, the nature and history of the present culture war must be known; to decide this ‘small issue’ otherwise is to take shots in the dark firing a lethal weapon.
- This cultural war is itself a great issue that has been present in UST for as many years as I can recall, and more. Now is an opportune moment to allow it to surface for serious reflection.
With my most genuine regards,
PS Sources: I have named only a few sources because this is not a formal academic work. I am not stupid enough either to imagine that I have original ideas of my own, nor am I stupid enough to ignore the ideas of classical and Biblical antiquity. I presume the classical, Biblical, medieval, and modern sources are known and recognizable by everyone. Contemporary background reading other than those named includes, in no order: Richard Weaver, John Senior, E. F. Schumacher, Robert Nisbet, Riszard Legutko, Josef Pieper, Chad Ripperger, Henry Veatch, Alasdair MacIntyre, Mark Mitchell, James Schall, Joshua Mitchell, Patrick Deneen, Joseph Pearce, Dorothy Sayers, Robert Cdl. Sarah, Theodore Dalrymple, and many others.