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The Demise of Human Understanding

 

Claud Polin

 

Note: Emphases are almost entirely Ed’s and not in the original article.

 

Who is modern Western society has not heard of that category of citizens honorably known as intellectuals?[1]  They profess to be the thinking part of the nation, the people whose special calling to ponder public or private matters.  Not possessed of a particularly low opinion of themselves, they even lay claim to a spiritual power forfeited, in their eyes, by all former clerics.

 

I would like to set the record straight.

 

There was a time when most people believed that the world was ruled by some transcendental Reason (the Stoic creed), or that it was not only ruled but created by that Reason (the Christian Faith).  So it was only natural that those who were deemed to have some access to its designs be revered and ranked among the most useful officers of the commonwealth.  This was the case in all Western societies for centuries.  Philosophers (or theologians) were the keystone of society.

 

But then a cataclysm occurred, which in three centuries, from the 16th to the 18th, wiped out all but traces of the previous civilization.  Whatever its causes (which range from the development of trade to the Reformation), this upheaval amounted to a stark denial either that there might be a sort of ideal blueprint for men to follow in their acts or in their thinking or, if there was, that it would be their lot to know it.

 

But this meant the death knell had tolled for philosophy and theology, at leas such as they had been known.  Of what use was human reason if there was no reason at work behind observable phenomena, or if man no longer had the means to decipher it?

 

I think there were basically two answers, which I shall call the pragmatists and the intellectuals.

 

There is something striking about the Anglo-Saxon mentality: It amounts to thinking man may be a God-forgotten animal, but not a godless one.  By committing sin, men forfeited their God-given nature but not their capacity for faith in God’s love—a dual assessment of man’s nature that obviously bears Calvin’s diluted but distinctive trademark.  The very fact that men can take such a pessimistic view of themselves, that they may be so utterly aware of their sinful condition, bears testimony to their belief in God’s existence and in their inability to understand His will.[2]

 

Hence a natural (supernatural?) propensity among such men to give up their dream of a perfect society while at the same time striving to live the life that God gave them, without trying to transform it into a life of delights, but also without deploring being forced to live it.  The next-best society to a perfect one is one in which the citizens try to obey the commandments of God (though they don’t understand them) but are not loath to build lightning rods, telephones, trains, or establish savings banks.  Or devise laws to protect the honest citizen and punish the evildoer.

 

In other words, there is hardly any room in such an intellectual climate for any other use of human reason that as a tool to make the best of things as they seem to be (only God knowing what they mean) and of men as they are (since they cannot be as they should).  Reason in this world means utilitarian rationality.  Men infused with more or less articulate, or diluted Calvinism will be outstanding engineers, craftsmen, or careful managers of their properties and businesses, eager for past experience, or wise and learned legislators, wary of sheer novelty, bent not on creating perfect citizens but on maintaining a balance between their actual different interests.  They will be poised pragmatists!

 

What took place in the world that had renounced Catholicism without becoming Protestant is altogether different.  The Calvinist inspiration maintains an absolute faith in God (or in God’s love for mankind) even as it assesses that men’s sin has made God’s will totally unintelligible to them.  Man’s freedom tends to be an ordered one.  But in the formerly Catholic Europe, the offensive against Christianity was pushed to its logical outcome: the pure and simple demise of religion.  From Machiavelli’s Renaissance to Diderot’s Enlightenment, atheism spread through Europe until the French Revolution made it acceptable.  So what then confronted man was the possibility to create a world anew, to recreate man himself: Man had chosen to play God.

 

On what was the new world order based?  The answer depends on what is left in man when he refuses to see himself as part of God’s world and forfeits his pars divina.  It is a matter of simple subtraction: if one dissociates man’s freedom from God’s imperatives, what remains is man’s unqualified and absolute freedom.  And this freedom cannot be but each man’s total freedom, for the reference to an essence of a free man presupposes a model of humanity that each man must follow to be free.  What is left is subjective freedom, the freedom of each individual man to “obey only himself,” because he is “an absolute, a naturally independent being,” “a perfect and solitary whole,” in Rousseau’s exemplary words.  In a nutshell, the axis around which the novus ordo seclorum began revolving is the sovereignty of the self (the ego), its basic principle that each man considers himself his own god. 

 

That this is indeed the case is fairly obvious to anyone bothering to skim over the most famous philosophical systems devised in modern Europe.

 

The only topic of Montaigne’s essays is, in his own words, himself, and his only aim is to “jouir loyalement de son être” and “to “être tout à soi,” (“loyally enjoy one’s being and “be entirely devoted to oneself”).  Descartes’s Discours de la Méthode begins with the claim that there is only one science worth anything, “the one which is inside me.”  I have just mentioned Rousseau’s utter self-idolatry.  The economists’ rendition of man, like Hume’s or Smith’s, is that of a rather self-centered being who relates to his fellow man at the most through inner, subjective sympathy.  Subjective feeling is for Kant the only basis of religious beliefs.  Romanticism revels in the intricacies and the self-centered suffering of one’s heart.  Anarchists like Stirner proclaim each man to be unique and entitled to exclusive ownership of himself, while Nietzsche applauds the individual who is not afraid to stand alone above the crowd.  Freud stresses the sovereignty of a hidden inner-self.  Socialism starts with the rantings of Fourier, devising a society that would put each individual’s passions to use.  Marx, in his wake, dreams of communism as that stage of human progress in which every individual can expect to be fully himself, whereas in the meantime he exonerates each individual for his own failures.  Marx’s dream was revived by hippies and radicals like Reich and Marcuse, indicting the bourgeois leveling of individualities.  The more one thinks of it, the more modernity sounds like a hymn to the absolute originality and value of one’s own ego and the virtues of being one’s own self.  One might be tempted to include Christianity also, since every man was created by God as a unique person.  A Christian world, however, is one whose perfection results from each man’s intimate knowledge  that his uniqueness is meant for the perfection of the whole; it has nothing to do with a world that is only the sum total of parts nobody knows how to combine, and God least of all.

 

 It then becomes possible to understand this new kind of Western cleric, the intellectual.  Being one is not to deny that man’s intellect may be put to scientific use—the discovery of means of action—after the prevailing manner of Protestant countries.  But the modern intellectual was born when it became difficult to conceive of any other use at all for human intellect.  Not only is there no design of God’s to discover anymore, but each being a god unto himself, there is very simply not much to say, beyond the study of man’s animal or physical being, about man or man’s behavior, and particularly no way to judge it.  So what is left for people who are no scientists but claim to understand what is going on in human affairs?  They face a simple alternative:  Disappear or go along with the consequences of the new creed they have partly initiated, and in any case enthusiastically supported—the religion of the ego.

 

Which means all that is allowed in the way of thinking is to eliminate all possible restraints on the sovereignty of the ego.  These restraints can be material, or course (a good reason to be “the master and owner of nature,” in Descartes’s words), but even more crucial are those of a moral and spiritual nature.  Even though they may not all have fully realized it, under the flag of freedom and the battle cry of liberation of all mankind from all oppression, the intellectuals had willy-nilly embarked on a crusade against all restraints to the fulfillment of the ego’s whims supposed or real potential, whether it be whims, passions, desires, interests, etc.—in other words, against all norms, against the very idea that there might be something beyond the limitless subjective will of the ego.  By assuming the individual was a “perfect and solitary whole” they had doomed themselves to equating thinking with criticizing a world that by definition is not the ego’s, and therefore is a constant source of dissatisfaction to it.  Goethe would have defined the modern intellectual as “the spirit who always says no.” 

 

Let us list a few of the most famous of these restless, wandering, cosmopolitan antinomians.

 

Montaigne’s prevailing and only preoccupation is to deny there may be any universal or eternal norm.  Que sis-je” (“What do I know?”) is his motto, and skepticism his doctrine.  Descartes denies the worth of all ideas except mathematical (utilitarian) ones.  Spinoza claims it is as natural to be a criminal as not to be one.  Voltaire, and behind him all the French Enlightenment, denies belief in truth (like the Catholics’) to be anything but fanaticism.  Montesquieu denies there is any universally valid political regime, while Rousseau denies even democracy, which is for him the only legitimate one, to be fit for all men.  (“It demands a people of gods.”)  Kant denies man can have any insight into the nature of things, and so will all idealists after him.  The French revolutionaries deny there are any men who know better than others (kings or aristocrats, in particular).  Romantics deny the worth of anything that does not stem from each individual’s heart.  Marx (and with him all socialists) deny the legitimacy of all supposedly objective ideas, including of course bourgeois values.  His anarchist siblings, such as Bakunin, deny the legitimacy for an organizing principle for men to live together, and Stirrer the value of anything that does not stem from the self.  Freud denies the validity of all human thinking, since it is subjected to the omnipotent irrationality of the subconscious.  André Breton and the surrealists deny common-sense reality.  Heidegger and the existentialists deny that there is any sense or essence of things.  Even the modernist Catholic Church refrains from mentioning the sinful condition of man!

 

But, mind you, beyond the criticism, what do they propose?  Nothing. These denials are the gist of doctrines whose single underlying purpose is the ego’s slaking of its unquenchable thirst for being whatever it feels like being.  Hence their latest output: a “culture” obsessed with the fulfillment of the self (the Me Generation), whose prevailing slogans display nothing but negativity.  Permissiveness speaks for itself.  Feminism is the refusal to acknowledge the insuperable difference between the sexes, and homosexuality the denial that there are only two.  Abortion is the superior right of the ego (of the mother) over the right of any other human being.  Drug addiction is an open sesame to limitless (if illusory) subjective freedom and power, or to happiness through total immersion in oneself.  Behind racism is the dream of Marx’s generic man or Freud’s polymorphic pervert, the universal half-breed with no particular nature to accomplish, the man who is a total man for the simple reason that he is a non-descript one, comprising all possible features of all possible men.  (He is also the perfect consumer.  The intellectual unwittingly works for the multinationals.)  And finally, what is democracy if not society turning the individual into a sovereign, a person entitled to consider that his fellow citizens are his subordinates.  Does tolerance stem from a respect for the other, or does it constitute a claim for each to have the right to be what he wants to be?   Are the famous Rights of Man the rights of other, or the self’s rights (as appears in the right of the mother to kill her baby)?  No wonder the intellectuals of our day increasingly comprise narcissistic filmmakers and actors, pretentious journalists, mediocre writers, second-rate academics, self-professed artists or gurus: To violate taboos is the only feat required to he hailed as a remarkable mind.  Whereas inquiring into what may be the nature of things or of man is the only intellectual activity (typically conservative) that deserves to be called thinking.  

 

Is this much ado about nothing?  Certainly, were it not that the typical intellectual of our times flatters the average citizen’s animal propensity to think of himself as the center of the universe.  Which makes the intellectual a regular plague.  By encouraging men to forget what they should be, he debases them all, as he makes each one the potential enemy of the others.  He should not be forgiven, even though he does not know what he is doing.

 

Reprinted from Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, July 2010, pages 45-47.



[1] One group within this category is that of being an expert.  Our society looks to experts in virtually every area of life from dieting to medicine to economics to sports.  But experts have led us greatly astray, even to our destruction.  See Wrong: Why experts* keep failing us--and how to know when not to trust them *Scientists, finance wizards, doctors, relationship gurus, celebrity CEOs, ... consultants, health officials and more, a book by David H. Freeman (Little, Brown, and Company, 2010).

[2] It is curious here that Polin limits this understanding to Anglo-Saxons for it is Biblical reality for all Christians with a simple understanding of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

 

 


 

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