Homecoming

In the Fall of the year alumni of our many, many colleges and universities across this great land of ours prepare to return to campus for a day or two, party a bit, watch the homecoming parade and, perhaps, take in the homecoming game on Saturday. I remember this, because I was at Northwestern for four years and recall all the hoopla and, I must admit, I enjoyed myself thoroughly, though I never attended Homecoming as an alumnus. But while I was a graduate student I never missed a home football game with the “Wildcats” then under Ara Persigian and surprisingly successful.

But I now receive annual notifications in the Spring of homecoming at the small college of several hundred students I attended before going to Northwestern. That college is located in Annapolis, Maryland — we used to say the Naval Academy was in our shadow, but we all know it was the other way ’round. The college was St. John’s College and it is centered around the reading of “the hundred Great Books,” a marketing ploy that was designed to attract students. Today I suspect  it would turn them away! But we read many of the Great Books, however numerous they were. In any event, I thought I would share with you some of the events of this year’s homecoming at the Annapolis campus and the Santa Fe campus as well — there are now two campuses where the exact same program of studies is pursued. All classes are required; there are no electives to speak of. The assumption is that the faculty know better than the underclassmen what will be of most benefit to them as they go out into the world.

Alumni are requested to arrive on Thursday, September 27th where they are invited to sit in on a regular Thursday night seminar. Undergraduates attend seminars every Monday and Thursday evening for at least two hours each. On Friday the alumni are invited to sit in on a class in session, foreign language or mathematics, as I recall; attend a session on “Admissions and Career Services,” where their input is heartedly invited; attend a “conversation with college leaders (?)”; eat an evening meal with fellow alumni, after which all are invited to attend the Friday night lecture — the weekly lecture is the only lecture the students at St. John’s are required to attend during their four years! All classes and the seminars, of course, are based on discussion, not lectures.

On Saturday the fun begins! There are alumni Seminars at 10:00 AM. Past seminars have involved such topics as Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath,” Shakespeare sonnets, Plato’s Meno, Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book IX), Goethe’s “Metamorphosis of Plants,” Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Books 8 and 9) Plato’s Phaedrus, and Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. Alumni are encouraged to re-read these before attending the seminar. After that there is a lunch break followed by soccer on the back forty (which is participatory. The college does not have a soccer team. Or any other intercollegiate team, for that matter.) The strenuous activities of the soccer match (which resembles to a large degree a caucus face, as described by Lewis Carroll) are followed by a discussion of Ptolemy in the planetarium, followed by a session on career planning, including alumni involved in Finance, Consulting, and Business. St. John’s alumni can be found in all walks of life, including medicine. Such are the advantages of a liberal education! At the end of the day there is an outdoor movie on the back campus. On Sunday there is a brunch and folks take their leave — after an exhausting, but exhilarating, couple of days.

That’s Homecoming St. John’s style. And a good time will be had by all!

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So What?

I have been kicking a dead horse of late in the form of the movement that started in the 14th century and which has been called “humanism.” This movement went head-to-head with Christianity for many years — especially in the form of the Protestant Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries, which, for all intents and purposes humanism defeated. But humanism also died. Following John Carroll’s lead I made some pithy comments about the death of humanism which he and I both lay at the feet of thinkers like Charles Darwin and Karl Marx — both of whom played pivotal roles in the scientific revolution and in the growth of capitalism which in many ways define our shallow “commodified culture” and certainly lay to rest any notion anyone might have about the possibility that humanism still lives. It does not.

But a comment by a reader of the last of three posts on that topic said, in effect, “so what?” The reader feels that the humanities in the colleges and universities. for example, are dead because there is no longer any call for them; students don’t want to study esoteric subjects that will not lead them directly to jobs, etc. To be honest, I wasn’t writing about the death of the humanities as academic disciplines in the colleges and universities which have been dying for many years. I will simply say that the humanities, and liberal arts generally, were designed to help young people think, to help them gain possession of their own minds, regardless of what job they undertake. What has happened as they died out is that education has been replaced by training, the academies of higher learning, generally speaking, have become trade schools. Let’s leave it at that.

I would rather turn to the larger question of the humanistic movement. So what if this movement has also died out?

The problem lies not so much with humanism itself but with what humanism brought to the table, historically speaking. Let’s focus exclusively on the fact that humanism generated the Enlightenment and at the height of the eighteenth century, when humanism was in its glory the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote his monumental works defending the role of human reason in ethics. One of his books, in fact, was titled Religion Within The Limits of Reason Alone. He defended the place of reason in determining right and wrong which he thought were no longer capable of being defended by the Roman Church or its Reformers. Christianity may have died out as a cultural force, thought Kant, but we no longer need it to do the right thing. With reason alone, following the categorical imperative, human beings were capable, Kant insisted, in determining in any given case which course of action was “in accordance with duty” and therefore morally right. The Kantian ethic, together with remnants of the Christian ethics combined to create in the Western world a moral high ground from which it was possible for anyone who made the attempt to determine in a given case what he or she should do.

With the death of humanism — and anything like the Kantian ethics — the notion of the moral high ground was leveled. Virtues such as courage, wisdom, justice, human rights, all notions that the humanists regarded as self-evident, were replaced by “values,” which were regarded as relative if not subjective. No longer universal in their appeal, values come and go with the winds of change and the level moral high ground provided no one a place to stand in order to see clearly what is right and what is wrong. Indeed, right and wrong have disappeared along with the moral high ground. And with it such virtues as courage, civility, honor, and chivalry, the virtues that Don Quixote fought to defend, have been lost — perhaps forever. Thus, even before Kant took up his pen the hero of Cervantes’ novel was made to look ridiculous, even mad, in his attempt to defend the virtues that were already beginning to disappear.

Today there are no more Don Quixotes. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the last man to defend the moral high ground. All around us lie the dead husks of that humanism that gave those virtues and indeed morality itself breath. What we have today is pragmatism, a careful calculation as to which course of action will turn out best for me in the short run. Reason simply calculates and for growing numbers of people compassion for our fellows has been lost along with  those virtues that were predicated on helping others, or as Quixote would see it, helping those who cannot help themselves.

There are remnants left of the Kantian and the Christian ethics, to be sure. But they pale in comparison with the virtues that Quixote defended. Humanism died and along with humanism the commitment to human reason that can lead us, along with centuries of tradition and various religions, to universal truths about right and wrong also died. So when we ask “so what?” we ask “why be moral?” The two questions amount to the same thing.

 

Cultural Parallel

 

Lately I have been reflecting on the demise of the humanities and of Western culture generally. I have expressed my disappointment and even my dismay. But several years ago I had already begun to note the problem and in reading a number of novels written by great Japanese writers came to realize that what we are going through is very much like what the Japanese went through after World War II. Granted, the parallel is not exact, but we are seeing the gradual replacement of Western culture by a shallow commodified culture where everything has a price. Our present situation is not unlike the experience of the older generation in Japan after the war who watched helplessly as their culture and values were replaced by Western ideas, movies, dress, baseball, and above all, materialism. They, too, were becoming a commodified culture. The problem is that this indicates the death of spirit and this is why the problem is worth exploring, though I must apologize for the rather long post as the issue is complex and I have added a bit here and there.

I have been somewhat immersed of late in the writings of such great Japanese authors as Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, and, most recently, the satirist Nakae Chomin. What all of these authors have in common, despite their many differences of style and approach, is a shared concern regarding the trauma Japan suffered in leaping from a Feudal age into the modern world in a very few years. While they knew that the modern world would bring benefits to the Japanese people, they also knew that something precious might be lost in the process. The parallel with our own history struck me and seemed worth reflecting upon. This is not to say that the history of the East exactly parallels that of the West. After all, our escape from the Feudal age was gradual and we did not undergo the sudden shock of alien ideas overnight. Nor did we suffer the devastation of more than five hundred bombing raids setting our world on fire, followed by the dropping of two Atom bombs that brought our nation to its collective knees. None the less, the concerns of these remarkable authors are the same ones many of us share in this hemisphere, especially the worry that in breaking with centuries-old traditions we may be leaving our world devoid of meaning.

In this regard, the delightfully satirical book by Nakae Chomin, titled A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government, is especially interesting. Chomin lived during the Meiji era, from 1868-1912, and was witness to the rapid changes that were taking place around him. In fact, he was responsible for many of them himself, given his fascination with ideas he picked up in France, especially, where he became an expert in European philosophy and political thought. He wrote copiously about enlightenment ideas and, especially, about the necessity for Japan to embrace democracy, if not all European ideas. Japan’s despotic government was not entirely convinced that democratic ideas were palatable and Chomin’s idea of universal suffrage was especially anathema to those in power who were suspicious of liberal thinkers like Chomin. He was for a time expelled from his native city of Tokyo and was repeatedly silenced by a government that feared his keen wit and outspoken writings. His Discourse, especially, came under government scrutiny and as a result became extremely popular and quite effective in helping to bring about many of the changes that Chomin thought Japan needed to embrace.

But, at the same time, Chomin was aware that these changes were diametrically opposed to a great many ancient Japanese traditions that he himself revered and realized were essential to Japan’s national identity. He was the son of a Samari warrior and was of two minds when it came to agitating for change in Japan — as his Discourse points out. In that book two protagonists, hosted by Master Nankai, who acts as something of a referee and (more importantly) keeps filling their empty drinking cups, wage a war of words about the pros and cons of radical change in Japan. The Gentleman of Western Learning, a philosopher/idealist, embraces Western ideas and argues somewhat naively that linear progress is inevitable and of unqualified benefit to the nation as a whole. His opponent, the Champion of the East, is a conservative, hawkish character who embraces war as a manly activity and worries that Japanese culture is on the verge of annihilation at the hands of the West (especially Western materialism) and young Japanese activists. This concern is echoed in one of Mishima’s novels in which a group of young idealists plot the murder of several key Japanese capitalists. Chomin himself at times embraced both of these views, which is what makes the Discourse so compelling. It steers away from simple solutions to complex issues and reveals the heart of the dilemma that Japan faced at the time.

As hinted, many of the issues raised in Chomin’s Discourse are also raised in the novels of the other authors I mentioned above, which simply demonstrates the truth that poets see problems more clearly and sooner than the rest of us. And the fact that these thinkers wrestled so strenuously with real-world concerns that also trouble us in the West is remarkable. They saw, for example, that democracy was inevitable but that in its Western guise it was inextricably bound to free-enterprise capitalism and that the ideas of economic and political freedom would become conflated and at times impossible to separate. In fact, like Chomin’s Gentleman, there are a great many so-called “conservative” thinkers in this country today who still maintain that freedom necessarily entails free-enterprise capitalism, while the stunning example of the Scandinavian countries demonstrates the fact that political freedom can be blended nicely with a socialistic economy. Indeed, recent studies show that the people in those countries are among the happiest on earth.

Thus, the fact that a number of Japanese intellectuals wrestled with what we would like to call Western ideas and, especially, that they worried that the modern age would mark the end of traditional values such as honor and duty and replace them with the pursuit of pleasure and a preoccupation with creature comforts, while at the same time they embraced democratic ideas and worried about the dangers hidden within a materialistic world view, must give us pause. It was, after all, honor that was at the center of humanism in the West at the outset and honor that began to dissolve as capitalism gradually expanded its influence. The hints can be found in both Shakespeare’s plays, especially Julius Caesar, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote where the Don’s sense of honor is made to appear comical if not a bit mad.

But in the end we must note that many of the problems we face are also seriously pondered by people on the other side of the planet. And they seem to be caught up in the same quandaries we are. It is certain that they face the same problems of survival as we do on a planet that is under attack by greed and corruption and populated by increasing numbers of bellicose humans.

Wasting Time

It would appear that I have been wasting my time. If John Carroll is right, and I think he is, the humanities I attempted to pass on to the younger generation are dead. Indeed, they have been dying for some time. I have suspected this, but Carroll’s argument in The Wreck of Western Culture is very persuasive.

Bear in mind that I do not agree with everything I read. Indeed, I have been trained to read with a critical eye. But Carroll makes a persuasive case and given that the signs he points to are all around us and I have even noted many of them myself, there’s little more to be said.

The humanities have traditionally included the fine arts, literature, philosophy, history, and other endeavors now regarded as “elitist” and generally ignored. And there’s the rub. Carroll saw the creations flowing from those endeavors grow and thrive as Western Civilization worked its way from ancient Greece through Christianity, especially during the Dark Ages, to the Reformation which sought to bring new life to the basic tenets of Christianity that were dying from the intolerant nature of the Catholic Church with its purges and Inquisitions. The Renaissance and then, especially, the Enlightenment brought about an explosion in human creativity and invention; in the process it was insisted that religion is superstition and man is free and capable of solving all problems with his reason alone. In Descartes’ words, we need only heed “clear and distinct” ideas to answer all the questions that can possibly be raised. The avenue to absolute certainty does not lie with revelation; rather, it lies with mathematics and empirical science.

With modern science came longer, less painful lives, but also the industrial revolution, and eventually capitalism and all have transformed culture while at the same time disenchanting our world, dismissing out of hand all of the things in heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in science.  Humanism, as it came to be called, lasted several centuries and eventually was given a death blow by such thinkers as Karl Marx and Charles Darwin who insisted that humans are not truly free and even reason is not sufficient; economics and natural selection govern everything. Regarding Darwin, Carroll notes,

“The new scientific picture of the world is utterly dispiriting. . .. . in the shoes of Darwin the joyful bird song at dawn is transformed, at best, into intellectual curiosity about a species sending his warning signals in defense of its territory. Once one begins to think like this — about birds, newborn babies, romance, death — the magic is compromised.”

Marx’s influence may have gone even deeper. As Carroll put it:

“The cultural consequences of Marx were that selfishness and economics rule, that culture is merely a cloak disguising base bourgeois motives; unconsciously, the gods of culture have betrayed us, so let us annihilate them. . . .No honor, no trust, no fidelity — nothing but greed.”

Now whether or not one agrees with Carroll’s rather bleak pronouncements, they do give us pause. Careful studies back up the signs I have pointed to in numerous blogs, especially of late, making it clear that those of us who have been teaching the humanities (in my case for over 40 years) were fighting a rear-guard battle, because the humanities were expiring even as we tried to breath life into the dying corpse. Students, and a great many professors simply do not care. The colleges and universities are now overrun by barbarians who have embraced a nihilistic attitude toward everything in the past. It is time to “do-over.” And their behavior, including their unqualified postmodern commitment to such thing as political correctness, has become the way to do things. We will eliminate the dead, white European males and replace them with like-minded men and, especially, women who will indoctrinate the young properly. Meanwhile the streets are overrun by self-absorbed seekers of more and greater profits who couldn’t care less about the past or the heights to which the human spirit can aspire.  Brace yourselves: we have entered a new era.

To be sure, we see around us the decaying corpses of the dead, white European males and the great works they created and which are now regarded as past their prime and not worth our effort. At best, they will be museum pieces visited by a decreasing number of people as time passes, those few who still care. So along with a Christianity that was based on love of our fellow humans and adherence to those virtues that make it possible for us to lead a good life, we turn our backs on the humanism that raised humanity to great heights, created extraordinary works of beauty and imagination while influencing a great many people and giving birth to, among other things, modern science — which survives independently, largely reduced to technical expertise and invention. And never asking moral questions.

So it goes. I guess I have suspected it for some time now. But it is hard to admit that the things one fought for have “come a cropper” as the Brits would say. The humanities have had their day. But what really rankles is the obvious fact that what is taking the place of the humanities and Christianity is nothing more and nothing less that a vapid nihilism, a new barbarism, nesting comfortably in an egoism that seeks only pleasure and which cannot see beyond the eradication of what has been in the name of the new and the now.

The time has come to accept the facts that have been announcing themselves loud and clear for some time now.

 

Humanism Revisited

I recently posted a blog that focused on John Carroll’s remarkable book The Wreck of Western Culture, which is more about the death of humanism than anything else. I now want to explicate what I believe are some of the central tenets of Carroll’s thesis. I find them most interesting and thought provoking.

Carroll correctly views humanism as the heart and soul of Western Culture — at least since the Reformation and until quite recently. The Protestant Reformation itself was an attempt to revitalize a moribund Christianity in the form of a Catholic Church that had become corrupted beyond belief and rested on bland formulas and empty promises. When Luther visited Rome as a young man he was horrified and he attempted to bring new life to what he believed to be the central beliefs of Christianity. He insisted that reason and free will were vapid notions and that we can only find our way if we follow God totally and without question — blind faith, if you will. Calvin later emphasized those same principles, but in the meantime the Renaissance was aborning with its total commitment to the very things that Luther and Calvin denied: free will and human reason. The result was humanism and it dealt what was for all intents and purposes the death blow to a fragile Christianity though there are faint traces of the faith here and there — especially among the poor.

The Renaissance gave birth in turn to the age of Enlightenment which brought us the liberation of the individual — the “I” of Pico della Mirandola. This is the “I” that can achieve greatness through the community and in partnership with others of like mind. And without supernatural assistance. This is the “I” that embraces such values as honor, courage, and integrity. The result was modern science, the industrial revolution, modern medicine, free education for all, democracy, and “widespread prosperity.” Unfortunately, as Carroll sees it, the “I” has degenerated into “me” — the self-absorbed individual who feels no need of another and assuredly not God. The industrial revolution has brought us polluted air and water and a planet at risk; science has degenerated into technology; medicine has become a business, as has education; and democracy has become oligarchy as the wealthy make the decisions that are largely ignored by those who don’t understand the duties of citizenship. And “widespread prosperity” has devolved into a very wealthy few and a great many deep in debt.

Modern culture, if we can call it that, is therefore, in Carroll’s view, the remnant of a barely breathing Christianity and a dead humanism that has degenerated into an incoherent melange. The free will and reason of the humanists has become license and calculation as reason is no longer prized but has been replaced by a mind that figures profit and loss while playing mindless games on electronic toys (that’s my addition of Carroll’s thesis, but I think it is in the spirit of what he had to say in 2008.

Carroll has provided us with a careful examination the corpse, as he sees it, and is a bit short on prognosis. But he holds out little hope for a disenchanted culture centered around the self and its pleasures. However, there is more to be said and it was put nicely in a comment by one of my fellow bloggers, John Fioravanti:

 I understand the definition of humanism presented here, but I have always associated the term with a genuine concern for the well-being of humanity. I rejected organized religion over a decade ago, but I’ve not rejected the belief in a superior being and creator. If our lives are empty and meaningless it is because we don’t focus our attention or our efforts beyond ourselves. I believe we need to become a real human community, obliterate the silly, artificial political borders and establish a global government that will prioritize the environment and more equitable distribution of the world’s wealth. It is a dream.

I think John is right. We need to come out of ourselves and help build communities that care about one another. It is not clear how we go about this or how we can do this with a population that has turned its back on fellow-feeling and on reason itself which is simply a small candle in the darkness which we must in the end acknowledge. In the end, we must come out of our selves and admit that there is something beyond the self, something greater than any one individual, something through which we can find meaning and purpose. It starts by reaching out to the others around us.

In Pieces

In his remarkable book, The Wreck of Western Culture, John Carroll paints a bleak picture of what he sees around him:

“We live amidst the ruins of the great, five-hundred-year epoch of humanism. Around us is that colossal wreck. Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble. It hardly offers shelter from a mild cosmic breeze, never mind one of those ice gales that regularly returns to rip us out of the cozy intimacy of our daily lives and confront us with oblivion. Is it surprising that we are run down? We are desperate, yet we don’t care much any more. We are timid, yet we cannot be shocked. We are inert underneath our busyness. We are destitute in our plenty. We are homeless in our own homes.”

He might have also noted, our children in school hold their heads under their desks in fear as they regularly practice the latest drill to thwart maniacs who, demanding loudly their right to bear arms, arrive with automatic weapons and start to shoot.

Disturbing as is Carroll’s picture, it is not overblown. Much the same thing was said many years ago by Jacques Barzun who warned us to lock up our treasures because the barbarians were about to arrive. Well, they have arrived and they have taken over. They now have rank and tenure in our major universities and control matters of curriculum and edit the prestigious journals. They prance on our streets in outlandish garb insisting that we look at them rather than to the beauty that surrounds us all. They use social media to demand that we think about them and not about anything of real importance. They have provided us with toys we hold in our hands or which greet us upon entering the room with constant reminders that the corporate world is the real world. As the inheritor of a humanism that began with an attempt to raise medieval human beings from the mud to greater heights, the world of business and corporate profits has placed itself firmly at the center of a commodified culture. And we are told repeatedly that we are the most important thing in the world.

Humanism was born at the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance when humans began to see themselves as the center of the world. Not God. Certainly no longer. The corruption within the Church coupled with the invention of the printing press and growing literacy among the population at large all led to religious revolutions coupled with the industrial revolution and the birth of modern science which have engendered general prosperity and long life, reinforcing the notion that human beings no longer need to lean on God or any other “superstition.”

These are the stepchildren of the Humanism which, Carroll tells us is now in tatters around us. This is because we are learning of the terrible mistakes that come with the riddance of something greater than the self. We are seeing around us, if we look with Carroll’s eyes, the reductio ad absurdum of the Self as God. Medieval men and women, living in terrible times, knew that death was the beginning. Humanists insisted that death is the end, as we learn if we read Shakespeare’s Hamlet carefully. That was the problem: could humans replace God? They could not. What began as a powerful movement to empower the human spirit, to allow it to express itself in extraordinary works of philosophy, art, and science, soon degenerated into the “Cult of Me.” What resulted was  a fearful, industrialized world polluting the air and water and producing an economic system that equated wealth with success. But there’s more.

Among other things, we have come to confuse freedom with license, to descry restraint and self-discipline, to stress human rights and ignore human responsibilities, to see law as nothing more or less than a curb on the impulses that, being human, are ipso facto a good thing. “Let it all hang out!”  We wallow in a sea of self-importance while at the same time we dimly sense that something is missing, that there is more to life than pleasure and the “stuff” of which George Carlin makes delightful fun.

John Carroll sees the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 as a symbol of the destruction of our puffed up sense of self that has morphed from humanism; it reveals to us all that human beings are not worthy of self-adoration, that there needs to be something more in our lives than our own selves. It seems trite somehow, but it is profound. For all its beauty and intellectual splendor, humanism was hollow at the center.

As Carroll notes,

“humanism failed because its I is not the center of creation in the sense of being creature and creator in one.”

The times demand greater self-awareness, the admission that humans are not the center of the world and that we need something greater than ourselves to provide our world with meaning if we are to avoid the continuance of what are essentially meaningless lives. It need not be God and it certainly need not be organized religion. But it demands an acceptance of the fact that we are a human community bound together by a common purpose, living on a fragile planet, and aware that there is something beyond our selves.

True Conservatism

In the spirit of reposting, a spirit that has moved me of late, I repost  here what I wrote seven years ago. A reminder that words have meanings.

It has always struck me as strange that those who call themselves “conservative” are so often violently opposed to environmentalism, especially in these times when the survival of the planet is in question. They love to throw stones at the “tree huggers,” even though the tree huggers are also conservatives, which is to say those who want to conserve what is important and beautiful. The stone-throwers are simply what my thesis adviser at Northwestern called “dollar conservatives.” These people just want to hang on to their money and watch it grow. Dante placed them in Hell with a bag of gold hanging around their necks forcing their heads down and their attention directed to the bag — waiting, presumably, for it to grow even larger.

This all goes back to the loose ways we use words, a theme I have visited before in my blogs. And one of the loosest words is certainly “conservative.” There are a great many types of conservatives among whom I number myself on occasion. Like George Eliot I enjoy it when

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

I am indeed eager to conserve tradition and the great works of the human spirit; I am no devotee of progress for its own sake. Such people, I am given to understand, are called “intellectual conservatives,” as distinct from “dollar conservatives.” The latter want to lower taxes by cutting social programs, such as education, social security, environment, energy, and science, and even veterans’ benefits while at the same time increasing “defense” spending which already comprises 58% of this nation’s “Discretionary Spending” and is a misnomer if there ever was one (speaking of words and their meanings). I hesitate to suggest that it is possible that dollar conservatives are more interested in conserving the contents of their own pocketbooks than they are this nation and the world around them.

That is, those who seem preoccupied about lowering the taxes don’t seem to realize that lowering taxes might just destroy what is essential — not just social programs, which they would as soon see dry up, but the fiscal well-being of a solid middle class which many would regard as the backbone of a healthy society. In fact, lowering the taxes — without, say, reducing such things as defense spending, which is currently 15 times larger than the amount we spend on education — would put is in even deeper debt to nations like China and India to whom we now owe billions of dollars. The notion that we can save the country by reducing taxes is not only short-sighted, it is incredibly stupid. Like it or not, taxes are a necessary evil and we actually benefit by paying more, not less — as we know from the years after World War II when the dollar conservatives paid their fair share and the economy was booming.

Thus, dollar conservatives are not true conservatives at all. The true conservatives are the tree huggers and those who want to save life on this planet together with those who refuse to let go of the beautiful and magnificent works of the human mind that have defined Western civilization for hundreds of years. In a word, conservatives are preservationists who are focused on things they regard as more important than their pocketbook.

Seeing Is Believing

Years ago I wrote an earlier version of this post and it fell on deaf ears. While I admittedly have written a number of rather weak posts,  I thought this one of my better ones. In fact, I included the earlier version in my book, Alone In The Labyrinth. In any event, I found it especially relevant in these trying times when we seem lost and face an uncertain future with a purblind leader on a planet that is under attack by greed and self-interest.  

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a small child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story,

“I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.”

These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the return of Christ to Spain during the Inquisitions. The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming back to earth a second time. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation created by his first visit, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom.  As the Inquisitor says

“Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.”

Indeed we have. If not to the Church then to the state on which we have come to depend.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply look and see or draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do because we think we have all the answers. We have become, indeed, disenchanted.

Ironically, the point was made brilliantly by Cervantes in his monumental Don Quixote. When a merchant questions whether Quixote’s beloved Dulcinea “really exists” and wants visual proof, the Don, who was much maligned and ridiculed by the fools around him, says:

“Were I to show her to you what would you have accomplished by acknowledging so obvious a truth? What’s important is that you believe without seeing her, that you acknowledge, affirm, swear, and defend the truth. . . . “

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith, when we started to insist that we need to see in order to believe. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment, though, if Cervantes is correct the process had begun years before. In any event, it surely came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare — and the benefits accruing from scientific and industrial revolutions that prolonged human life and refocused man’s attention on the here and now. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of  Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was completely insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices and promised rewards in an after-life became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices. Ivan Karamazov would understand this because he, too, returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.