Politics, Culture, the Public Square
“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton
Friday, May 16, 2003 Dear loyal readers:
I apologize for the sparseness of posts recently. With the assistance of my three-year-old, I spilled coffee on my laptop, rendering it unusable, which in turn makes posting from home difficult; more importantly, it makes writing at home more difficult.
I am also leaving town for my brother’s graduation in New Orleans from Loyola University, followed by a week at the beach, so it is unlikely that there will be any posts until after Memorial Day. New readers from Tacitus and Yglesias may be interested in some of my longer pieces, which I have collected on the right (scroll down a bit) under “Longer Essays.” All readers are encouraged in my absence to visit the fine bloggers and links on the right.posted by Paul Cella | 4:20 AM |
Sunday, May 11, 2003 A few more thoughts on optimism and conservatism. Below I wrote the decidedly controversial words: “I expect slow decline,” which are very nearly as controversial as saying “I expect steady advancement or progress,” but not nearly so controversial as saying “I expect open-ended stagnation and immobility.” Saying what I have said marks me, I realize, in a certain obscure but real way; my many protestations —- “I do not feel like a pessimist,” “I am not wracked by despair,” etc. —- notwithstanding. Therefore, I want to add a few remarks on that very statement which may, or may not, mitigate some of its inadvertent effects on my readers.
First, I expect decline. That is very different from saying I regard it as inevitable. If ever there was an abused word, it is that one: inevitable. I certainly believe that the decline I anticipate can be arrested if men set themselves against it. If a man were to awake from a long and torturous fever-induced nightmare, and discover with a start that he is rushing wildly toward a precipice, all he need do is stop; having committed his will to simple survival, his vista opens wide from there. He need not thoughtlessly turn, almost as if beguiled by a new fever, and march precisely backward in his own wild steps. To his left may extend a daunting though ultimately navigable path along the mountainous crags back to his home; to his right may open a broad and primordial forest, imposing but by no means malicious, through which he can arrive at the home of his fathers. He may even find it necessary and desirable, after careful deliberation, to attempt a risky descent off the cliff before him, anticipating that below, perhaps, there is a solid road around the mountains or the forest; and for this he will need sturdy and reliable equipment, which upon consideration is readily available all about him, though most of it was dreadfully concealed by shadows and monsters in his nightmare. The point is that what he must not do, what in fact only a man of terrible insanity would do, is commit to a fatalism about his rush toward oblivion, or fancy somehow that oblivion is desirable, and plunge headlong in silence.
The whole illustration could be complicated by the presence nearby of other rushing dreamers, even thunderous crowds of them, who have not wakened from their own personal nightmares, and will in all likelihood fall to their deaths. Some may be stricken by that feverish lucidity that sometimes grips the delusive, and insist, against all reason and all the evidence of the natural senses, that oblivion is indeed desirable, or that it is not oblivion at all but Utopia; that the crags to the left are only bloody death and the forest to the right merely frightful doom; and that the reliable instruments around them, the equipment that Man has employed for survival amidst adventure since the dawn of Time, are but the rubbish of ancient beasts, treacherous and unusable. In this complication, our hero may perceive a few moments for the action of charity toward his fellow men, during which he can implore them to free themselves from the fever and halt their rush; but those moments will pass rapidly, and he may well be unsuccessful, for his influence on the wills of free men, even free men frenzied by a dream, is quite limited. And then he must entrust their souls to the God of Mercy —- for thereafter the action of charity will be best used in steeling himself for the difficult journey to his home (or the home of his fathers) where decent men can be mobilized to discover the source of the fever and defeat it.
All this is to say that a man or a nation or a civilization, even once on the road to oblivion, need not end up there. To say something is inevitable only makes sense, in a strict literal sense, after the fact; we more often hear it said that something was inevitable, that looking backward on history events seemed to gather and point toward some conclusion, which, surprise of surprises, in fact occurred. The occasional prophet, aye, has appeared and flashed like lightning with his vaticinations across the arc of history; but even the greatest of prophets is wrong more than he is right, and usually right only in the broad strokes, not the details.
My second purpose here, which is, so to speak, on the other side of the problem, is to say that it is still valid for a observer to presage decline. Critics of such presages often scoff that every age has had its declinists, its doomsayers and pessimists; this jeer they seem to imagine to be the end of the argument. They seem to think that the mere fact that previous doomsayers have been wrong means perforce that today’s doomsayer is wrong; that he is disarmed and his arguments trussed. It is a strange logic indeed that animates this line of dispute; that a thing has happened (or failed to happen) before means it is happening (or failing to happen) now. America will not decline. Why? Because Whittaker Chambers in the 1950s said America would fall to the Communists but it did not. Or because Henry Adams made a presentiment of doom at the end of the nineteenth century and was wrong. The truth is, it doesn’t really have any bearing on the severe question of whether modern American civilization is declining, that other controversialists have fulminated against what they perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the decline of America or Rome or the Carolingian Empire or imperial Britain. In fact, now that I think about it, what bearing it does have might be gleaned from the plain fact that those older empires did actually decline and fall. Salvianus said Rome would fall —- “The Roman Empire is luxurious, but it is filled with misery. It is dying but it laughs” —- and fall it did. The very language of “decline and fall” I have borrowed from a famous book about Rome with that in its title.
All that is to say that there is nothing inherently disreputable about articulating a presentiment of decline —- anymore than it is disreputable to articulate an elated sense of advancement or improvement. The thing must be judged on its own merits. It will do no good to laugh that every age has had its pessimists, because every age has also had its optimists, and indeed its romantics. Frankly, I might persuaded to go further and say that the pessimists can often be the real idealists: they have an ideal, and perceive that their society is not approaching, but rather receding from it. Meanwhile the misguided optimists suppose that what is in fact decline is secure advancement instead; they are the real dreary realists.
My final note here is this; that I do not presume to set myself up as some towering prophet on the order of a Whittaker Chambers or a Salvianus. It is the duty of all serious men to contemn such arrogance where it to flows from the pen of one such as I. But I do presume to defend the privilege of writers great and small who envisage a period of decline, even a period of steep decline, to enunciate it; and to sound the alarums to others; so long as they do not succumb to the sin of despair. That privilege I will not grant to anyone. But there is a great deal of quite unseemly priggishness in the air, an atmosphere which suggests that to make profound criticisms of the trajectory of American society, or to be ill at ease with what is fancifully called the “American creed,” is to be unpatriotic or almost anti-American. This will not do; for what if some of the very ideas that make up this creed are part of the decline? part of the fever?posted by Paul Cella | 4:49 AM |
Saturday, May 10, 2003 Rich Lowry’s latest column on the horrifying ubiquity of prison rape is a must-read. This evil is, truly, the shame of our prisons. (Thanks to T. Crown for the link.) posted by Paul Cella | 1:33 AM |
Thursday, May 08, 2003 Wes Little has a provocatively brief post about Ronald Reagan and conservatives (his archive is not working: scroll down or do a search for Reagan). Perhaps it is most provocative in its very briefness, its hint of levity. He writes: “This again supports my prejudice that conservatives are American only insofar as America is conservative.” This is a profound criticism, and I’m afraid that there really is some solid truth in it. There is a very real tendency on the American Right to make patriotism an ideology, to, in other words, confer the Crown of the Patriot, or the Patriot’s Cross, or whatever medal one might imagine, only on those who assent to certain ideas. In my judgment, this is a dangerous and ill-conceived idea.
Mr. Little also chides another blogger for imagining that “hating the Russians and wanting war” was “was fundamental to Reagan’s supposed revival of ‘patriotism.’” To be indelicate for a moment, this is a traducement of a very low order. Substituting “Russians” for “Soviets” or “Communists” is a clever piece of legerdemain, but Reagan did not hate “the Russians”; he respected them and believed they deserved to live in a country where famine and death camp were distant, historical nightmares, not instruments of state policy. He did hate the Communists, because they were hateful, depraved creatures —- the most murderous band of thugs and plunderers ever to achieve political power in the history of mankind. They fashioned, as near as man ever has, Hell on earth; and then they spread it around the world through subversion and lies and terror.
Reagan didn’t want war; but he preferred it to subjugation by the sword of this armed doctrine.
It is said that the Czech hockey player Jaromir Jagr came to America knowing four words: yes, no, Ronald and Reagan. He still wears number 68 to commemorate the Prague Spring of 1968, where others who preferred war with the Communists to subjugation by the Communists finally got massacre instead.
In fact, you can have both. Communism can never work at achieving its ideals, or even its own stated goals —- precisely because those ideals are unachievable. Moreover, Communism cannot even approximate the Good Society because it wages war on human nature; because it empowers the wicked; because it annihilates what is human and organic; because it accomplishes the ruin of private property and crushes the creative impulses of men; because it consolidates and monopolizes wealth and power, and enervates and subverts each province of opposition to its concentration, unlike any other system of government ever devised. Granted all these things, Communism can still rule; for there is no law of nature forbidding tyranny from enduring despite its manifest flaws. Indeed, we might say that the flaws are what allow it to endure. There was nothing inevitable about Communism’s fall, because there is nothing inevitable in history.
Reagan had his faults, but cloudy thinking about war and International Communism (the two are nearly synonyms) was assuredly not one of them. To the extent that Reagan “revived patriotism,” it was in large measure because he knew exactly what was at stake in the Cold War, what was worth fighting, killing and dying for in it, and, finally, why Lenin’s demonic vision had to be obliterated —- and he knew these things at a time when so many others were unsure.posted by Paul Cella | 12:16 AM |
Saturday, May 03, 2003 An essay of mine, developed from material originally exclusive to Cella’s Review readers, is part of a “Point/Counterpoint” exchange between myself and James R. Harrigan, Visiting Professor of Political Science at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, at the first-rate website TechCentralStation. Comments welcome. posted by Paul Cella | 4:47 AM |
Friday, May 02, 2003 “Can conservatives be optimists?” The question attracted the considered reflection of several distinguished bloggers recently. Most answered, with some qualifications, Yes.
As loyal Cella’s Review readers might expect, I cannot answer so confidently. The following should be taken as a demurral, as a instance of “thinking out loud,” so to speak. My ideas here, taken as a whole, are tentative: while some are held with solid confidence, of others I am hesitant. But if a blog cannot be used for thinking out loud, what purpose does it serve?
First, it is my observation that conservatives tend to underestimate or overlook the real spiritual perils of prosperity. The Christian philosophy, illumined by Sacra Scriptura, makes no such mistake; indeed even the most pious of Christians might be forgiven for the occasional suspicion that Christian teaching overestimates this peril. Our Lord himself marvels at the shriveling effect of wealth on the soul: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Those are words, I confess, that lead me to tremble for our age. And indeed, at the same time that economic growth rates soared and Western nations, invigorated by the materialist enterprise of human science, prospered unlike they ever had before, men were slaughtered like cattle by the various armed doctrines of the materialist West. “Treat men like raw material and raw material they will be,” C. S. Lewis wrote. Materialism, where it slipped the harness of conscience, where it became the enemy of the Creator and fancied itself as embracing all aspects of the universe, did just that. And the corpses piled high like mountains.
All this is not to prejudice liberty, which I believe reason amply demonstrates is a gift from God to man; and among the most precious gifts it is, and surely the highest ideal for the secular order. But freedom is instrumental; it was provided that men might faithfully seek virtue, and seek God. That great material wealth has been a product of freedom is no small fact; and that too, rightly ordered, is a blessing from God.
Secondly, whenever I read of optimism, I perceive a host of specters gathering on the horizon, all signified by the dread word Progress. Conservatives have been speaking altogether too glibly of progress of late. We are full of enthusiasm of democratic revolution across the Islamic world, not unlike, to my ears, the cries of permanent revolution by the Trotskyists many years ago; when what Muslims might need instead is a regression, a retreat from delusion and fanaticism. It was precisely the Western idea of progress, in my admittedly limited reading, which transformed Islam from an austere faith in Fate, into a revolutionary fantasy; and it was precisely Western technology and Western decay which made that fantasy anything more than a trivial irritation. I worry that our fatuous and irresponsible rhetoric may haunt us for years to come. “Men have been sometimes led by degrees,” wrote Burke, “sometimes hurried into things, of which, if they could have seen the whole together, they never would have permitted the most remote approach.”
Perhaps my demurral here qualifies me as a pessimist; I do not feel like a pessimist. I am not wracked by despair, or doubt about the unparalleled nobility and worth of our civilization, despite all its manifest flaws. I do not expect catastrophe. I expect slow decline. My sense is that our vitality has left us; that we are a spiritually diminished people; that we are living on habits of enterprise and virtue borrowed from a previous age of vigor; and that, even as we depend on these habits, all the action of our own age is to discredit and traduce their principles. A civilization cannot long survive on habit alone, and cannot long sustain the sort of wild and maniacal hacking at the principles of those habits to which we so often bear witness. Our culture has come to despise the organic sources of its vitality; those who value their own heritage have become the outsiders. But vitality has not abandoned the world of men, for its Author still sits on the throne.
The role of conservatives, then, is more counterrevolutionary than it is “conservative” in the strict sense of the word; for to conserve the structures of decline and fall, the forms of cultural rapine and plunder, is to shelter a friend in lonely despond, and secure him from desperately needed succor in his moment of despair; it is to guard against the approach of solicitous physicians in the patient’s hour of agony; it is, in short, to make the civilization of the West safe for suicide. The conservative’s role is properly restoration, not conservation.
As an example, reflect on the following question: Should the Right reconcile itself to the French Revolution? Now, of course we must reconcile ourselves to it as a human historical fact; but should we reconcile ourselves to its principles? to its universalizing abstractions and utter intolerance for departure from in practice, and disagreement with in principle, those same abstractions? Should we reconcile ourselves, that is, to the logic of the Guillotine?
Or should today’s conservatives still regard themselves as opponents of the principles of the Jacobins? Well, I submit for consideration this vivid historical update depicted by the gifted John Zmirak:
Sort of puts a new face on what seems so distant a historical event, doesn’t it? (Click to the whole article: it is excellent, and includes convenient links to the actual historical events corresponding to each of Mr. Zmirak’s modern renderings.) If conservatives cannot bring ourselves to denounce this sort of collective madness, what standing have we to denounce all the other calamitous innovations of the Left? And surely we can concurrently acknowledge, even as we denounce the rapacity and insanity of the Jacobins, and their miscellaneous radical progeny, that the brittle ancien regime they broke up with such ferocity, was in plain fact a feeble and dismal despotism in its own right. Surely we can hold two true ideas in our minds at once; and yet hold up Reformation or Restoration over Revolution as our guiding principle.
If I am pessimistic, it is because (with apologies to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Orrin Judd) abstractions are in the saddle and ride the conservatives. Conservative circles seem all abuzz with talk of progress and democracy, words that should fall discordant on our ears. If conservatives are to be optimists, which I do think is possible, it must not be because we have simply capitulated to the ideas of the Left, and reproach only their excesses. It must be instead because we know our ideas to be superior; because we favor what is human to what is mechanical, what is organic to what is regimented, what is venerable to what is fashionable. Conservatives never hated Progress and Democracy until they became slogans on placards, catchwords to conceal the armed doctrines of the revolt against God.
The modern world is in revolt against the Augustinian reminder that Man cannot conquer Sin. My fear is that conservatives, influenced as we all are by the pressures of our age, have joined in the revolt —- or at least wearied of resisting it.posted by Paul Cella | 10:41 PM |
Thursday, May 01, 2003 The great John Derbyshire makes a point far, far too infrequently made: Where are all the romancers of privacy when the IRS comes around each year, demanding that each and every incoming-earning citizen lay bear comprehensively his financial activities from the previous year —- with the burden of proof in the event of a dispute resting . . . that’s right, on the citizen, not the state? Economic privacy has few champions; private property few defenders. posted by Paul Cella | 6:13 AM |
Wednesday, April 30, 2003 Peter Hitchens, right-wing brother of the famed leftist writer Christopher, once wrote a highly-praised book called The Abolition of Britain, a requiem for that once greatest of nations now reduced to ugliness and depravity by the Left. Theodore Dalrymple, a ubiquitous and indispensable journalist and prison doctor, reviews Mr. (Peter) Hitchens newest book, A Brief History of Crime, and concludes:
Now that is pessimism. Mr. Dalrymple is a bard of pessimism; or, more nearly, a bard of realism. He writes with authority on an astonishing variety of subjects. His value as an observer of Man, and a diagnostician of the fantasies and pathologies of his mind, is beyond measure. See, for example, his recent City Journal essays on France and Empire.posted by Paul Cella | 12:28 AM |
Saturday, April 26, 2003 The first thing to say about the controversy detonated by Sen. Santorum’s impugning of the decency and legality of homosexual sex is that Christian morality demands more of homosexuals than it demands of heterosexuals. Straight men and women are taught that sexuality is a gift from God, to be enjoyed within the procreative bounds of holy matrimony; while gays cannot, without falling into sin, enjoy this gift. This disparity cannot be ignored. But is it decisive? That is to say, does it end the argument?
No. I don’t think it does. “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’” The modern world has lost all contact with the great noble idea of self-denial or asceticism; it has forgotten the profound words of St. Benedict, who said, “Laborare est orare” —- to labor is to pray. Every man has a cross to bear. The Church does not condemn the pleasures of fine drink; yet a recovering alcoholic knows he can never again, without risking disaster, partake. Our Lord taught us to pray “lead us not into temptation,” because He knew the weakness in our hearts. Maximos Davies articulates some solid insights about self-denial in a recent First Things essay:
Nevertheless, we must not forget that homosexuals are called to a more exacting duty in the area of sexual morality.
The second thing to be said about this is that Sen. Santorum, in his most explosive comment, made a statement of unassailable logic:
I see no flaw in this logic. By enshrining so expansive a right as one which protects all private consensual sex, the Supreme Court will have made it functionally impossible for any legislative body to proscribe bigamy, polygamy or incest —- and indeed it will be increasingly difficult to “hold the line” on pedophilia, because of the very real difficulty of defining minority. If the Court inflates the already manufactured “right to privacy” to a size anticipated here, it will have effected an unprecedented usurpation of legislative prerogative. It will have made the whole huge question of sex a matter not for the people of the states or the American people, but of the federal government alone; more specifically, the federal judiciary alone.
A little constitutional history may, by analogy, be instructive here. To wit: Why did the framers of the Constitution neglect to include protections for free speech, assembly, worship, etc. —- that is, the liberties embraced by the First Amendment —- in the original document? Why did those rights have to appear as an amendment? It’s not as if they just didn’t think about them —- in fact, a proposal very similar to what is now the First Amendment was taken up during the Philadelphia Convention, and it was rejected unanimously. That’s right, unanimously. There were many reasons for this, but one in particular germane to our purposes here.
With characteristic brilliance, the framers perceived that such an itemized “free speech” clause (I’ll use that phrase as a shorthand for the bevy of rights encompassed by the First Amendment) would actually injure liberty, not secure it; it would effect not an expansion of individual freedom but a diminution. The reasoning is simple, if counterintuitive: By enumerating precisely what government cannot do, one installs within the very fabric of the Constitution the dangerous assumption that government is authorized to do everything else. We place the burden of proof not on the state to defend, on constitutional grounds, its use of any given power, but on the citizen who opposes that use of power, to explain why the state has no such authority. The principle of enumerated powers holds that there is no need for a “free speech” clause because the federal government has no powers not specifically granted to it. Why restrict the government’s power over things for which it has no charter to address in the first place? To do so is not merely redundant but dangerous because it begins to erode the crucial principle enumerated powers.
It is important to note that this doctrine of enumerated powers applied to the federal government alone: this is why the First Amendment begins with, “Congress shall make no law” and why the Bill of Rights included the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” It was only much later that the enumerated powers principle was effaced and the Tenth Amendment repealed, in practice if not in law.
I bring all this up in some detail to make the following point: Giving authority over sexual morality to the Federal Government of the United States, through its judiciary, is perilous business, even if it is accomplished by means which appear to expand individual liberty. To my liberal or libertarian readers I offer this question: What happens, after the final consummation of a sexual regime presided over and guaranteed by the courts, when the composition of the Supreme Court changes, to the detriment of our glorious notions of sexual liberation? The precedent set, if the Texas sodomy law is overturned, is a precedent that effectively nationalizes sexual morality, and, whatever your view of sexual morality may be, it makes the articulation and protection of it depend on the enormously blunt object of federal judicial rulings. Each such ruling will henceforth be applicable over the whole country indiscriminately, with no recourse by citizens to their august legislative assemblies. Have liberals already forgotten their dismay at momentous judicial rulings going against them? I had thought that a certain election several years ago opened liberal eyes to the perils of judicial usurpation. Once give the state power over some feature of life and that power remains to it for abuse. And few venerate in their minds, or respect in practice, the principles of federalism and of enumerated powers when they sit in positions of great power —- precisely because those principles act to restrain power.
My larger point is to affirm the merit of legislative over judicial authority. If Congress undertook to reduce, humiliate, and finally break up the power of the other two branches of government (a thing which, in fact, Congress has the instruments to undertake), we would still be in possession, most likely, of a free constitution and a free country, particularly if state legislatures yet retained to themselves a liberal range of authority. There are few institutional checks, for example, on the power of Parliament in Great Britain. I would not welcome such a course of action, as I agree with Publius that threat of majoritarian tyranny is a real one; and I revere the delicate system of equipoise between branches and levels of government assembled by the American Founders. I would not welcome such a course of legislative aggrandizement, but I would not greet its advent with loathing and dread, as I do the trend toward bleak despotism augured by the judicial usurpation, by steps of sophistry, of each aspect of controversy in our politics.
If the American people, acting through their duly-elected representatives sitting in deliberative legislative assemblies, cannot use the instrument of the law to enforce the moral standards of the community, can we still be said to live in a republic? “The restraints on men,” wrote Edmund Burke, “as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.” And if we are to continue to say, with the Founders, that governments are “instituted among men” to “secure these rights,” then we must trust their security to republican institutions. That is, we must trust them to the legislation of the people’s representatives; we must not yield them to nine robed attorneys in Washington in a fit impatience. The Supreme Court has no authority here; for it to arrogate to itself this authority is to accomplish a grave usurpation.posted by Paul Cella | 4:55 AM |
Friday, April 25, 2003 The culture of death, in all it's awful splendor, is on display here. (Via Mere Comments.) posted by Paul Cella | 6:19 AM |
Quicktakes: 1) I am fascinated by these two obituaries (1*2)for Ivan Illich —- it sounds as though he was an extraordinary individual. 2) Noah Millman has returned, after a short hiatus (it seemed interminable), with captivating posts like this one, which begins: “There is a reason that I consistently take a more optimistic line on Egypt than pretty much anyone else who is as pessimistic as I am about the Middle East. The reason: Egypt produced the Arab world’s only patriot.” Go, read up. 3) Will this devastating revelation induce the radical Left to even a modicum of self-examination? posted by Paul Cella | 2:21 AM |
Sunday, April 20, 2003 Please take a look at the comments section of this essay of mine. A colleague and I have engaged in an enlightening, civil and worthwhile debate (if I do say so myself.) posted by Paul Cella | 2:55 AM |
While we are on the topic of Imperialism (it does seem the topic of the day, doesn’t it?), let me say that there is no imperialism quite like the imperialism of Science. Its “tribal belligerence,” as one observer has christened it, is unrelenting; its arrogance at times bottomless. It seems to strive at all times, and in nearly all details, to bring more and more aspects of human life and society under its empire; and recognizes no scruples in this devouring enterprise.
Take the attempt undertaken by Science to subjugate Religion. It is the action of an empire: aggressive but anxious and paranoid; ignorant, but full of self-righteousness and total assurance. There is, first, the idea of Evolution and its attendant superstition The Big Bang, together the primary instruments of imperial aggrandizement, as it were. Now perhaps something like the Big Bang did occur, or is occurring, or is retreating; I do not know; and anyway the question is irrelevant. What is relevant is what happened before the Big Bang. If the answer is, Nothing —- if, that is, Science posits, against the Christian story of an omnipotent God who created everything out of nothing, that nothing just sort of turned itself into everything, as Chesterton wrote, like “an ever-increasing flood of water pouring out of an empty jug,” then what we have is indeed pure dull superstition; not even superstition, because superstition has a certain narrative élan, a poetic element to it, while this has nothing but tedious unreason. If, on the other hand, Science maintains that there was something before the Big Bang, something that generated or caused it, then the theory does not even approach the whole question of Creation; and God’s tremendous question in the Book of Job, “Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” remains unanswered, and unanswerable.
Notwithstanding this and a myriad of other problematics along similar lines (another is the, in many ways admirable tendency of Science to overthrow its own icons: Newton and Linnaeus have fallen, how long will Einstein and Darwin stand?), Science keeps rumbling on, an empire on the march. Objections based on the much richer, because much older traditions of philosophy and theology, when raised against efforts by the innovators of imperial Science to rend the fabric of human nature, or discard prescriptive institutions, are dismissed with derision, as when the arguments of human cloning opponents are disparaged as “emotionalism” or as “merely theological.” The ambition seems to be to swallow up each of the provinces of human enterprise under the exclusive privilege of Science, until the only admissible form of knowledge is the empirical, the only form of logic, the inductive, and the only method of thinking, the rationalistic. Intuition, sentiment, veneration, wonder, awe, instinct, even humor —- these things will diminish, because they are difficult to defend on empirical or rationalistic grounds.
What Science has forgotten is that it is fundamentally a instrumental entity: it does not choose its own ends. Theology, philosophy, ethics —- these things precede Science, and their authority over it, adjudicated through a political process, is final; thus also, of course, politics precedes Science. In practice, this means that one need not be a trained scientist to speak to its uses, and speak against its abuses. It is absurd to exclude the non-specialist from judgments about how we ought to use this instrument, just as it is absurd to restrict the driving of automobiles only to mechanics. One need not be a railroad engineer to identify a train wreck; nor to conclude that conducting a train blindfolded is criminal in its stupidity. Yet many of our practitioners of Science, from within the cacophonic rush of the train toward calamity, declare presumptuously that none can say anything against their wild rush, because they know not how a train works.
What this is, it seems to me, is not science but scientism; and when men argue that philosophical or theological objections to theory X or procedure Y ought to be discounted, and the decisions about its use made purely on the basis of “good science,” it is very difficult for a detached observer to conclude that they mean what they say. Some philosophical system must animate science’s interaction with human endeavors. There is no way around this: it cannot illuminate its own applications. The scientific method tells us how a discrete question is to be answered; it does not tell us how to apply the answer to life. We want to discover whether genetic cloning at the embryonic stage is possible: science can answer that question. But it can tell us almost precisely nothing about whether such technology ought to be used by men (the only assistance I can imagine science providing on this latter question is to inform us that cloning carries high risks of failure.) Bereft of first principles, Science is nothing but a decaying mass of unconnected facts, or an organ with no mind to command it. Practically speaking, the demand for decisions to be made on the basis of science alone has meant that while profounder schools of philosophy are excluded, a sort of gaunt and shallow utilitarianism reigns, a dull calculation of pleasure and pain which scorns all concerns about the wider social state, much less the wider moral order.
“Utiltarianism,” wrote Russell Kirk,
But imperial Science welcomes utilitarian ascendance, because it welcomes the doubt cast on all other orders of intellect; that it may more easily subdue and discredit Religion when young people are taught that to doubt authority is the first step on the road to wisdom. In fact, radical doubt marks a road to nowhere.
N.B.: I realize the above can be fairly described as a philippic. It was originally the product of exasperation over some now-forgotten piece of journalism; and it may one day come to embarrass me. Nevertheless, I let it stand. Readers should feel free to highlight my fallacies as necessary. I conclude with a long quotation from John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University:
Brilliant stuff —- a century and a half old.posted by Paul Cella | 2:53 AM |