Hart: Introduction, Part Two

I noted Hart’s positive ambition and thesis in his introduction, but there is also a “negative side” to his argument, which is his rejection of the “ideology of ‘the modern’” and his rejection, “especially of the myth of the ‘Enlightenment.’” And by modernity, he doesn’t mean modern medicine, flight, space travel, running water and the like. He means:

…rather…the modern age’s grand narrative of itself: its story of the triumph of critical reason over ‘irrational’ faith, or the progress of social morality toward greater justice and freedom, of the ‘tolerance’ of the secular state, and of the unquestioned ethical primacy of either individualism or collectivism (as the case may be). Indeed, I want in part to argue that what many of us are still in the habit of calling the ‘Age of Reason’ was in many significant ways the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value; that the modern age is notable in large measure for the triumph of inflexible and unthinking dogmatism is every sphere of human endeavor (including the sciences) and for a flight from rationality to any soothing number of fundamentalisms, religious and secular; that the Enlightenment ideology of modernity as such does not even deserve any particular credit for the advance of modern science; that the modern secular state’s capacity for barbarism exceeds any of the evils for which Christendom might justly be indicted, not solely by virtue of the superior technology at its disposal, but by its very nature; that among the chief accomplishments of modern culture have been a massive retreat to superstition and the gestation of especially pitiless forms of nihilism; and that, by comparison to the Christian revolution it succeeded, modernity is little more than an aftereffect, or even a counterrevolution—a reactionary flight back toward a comfortable, but dehumanizing, mental and moral servitude to elemental nature. In fact, this is where my story both begins and ends.

Which is to say that the new atheists and secularists can do little more than parrot a conventional wisdom that is wrapped up in an almost unbelievable historical ignorance. Not a pretty package.

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11 Responses to Hart: Introduction, Part Two

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Let me get this straight- the people who call themselves sheep and avowedly base their theology on faith rather than reason see fit to accuse others of a “massive retreat to superstition” and “unthinking dogmatism” and “moral servitude”. I see.

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  2. frthomas says:

    Burk,I would suggest that you read “Men Without Chests”, the first essay in C.S. Lewis’ classic, “The Abolition of Man”, before you venture into the deep water in which Darrell is swimming with great skill and grace. You are over your head as is indicated by your “lame” response to Darrell’s post…Fr. Thomas

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  3. Burkhard says:

    Dear Thomas-I have found the essay you mentioned available online, and have to say that I side with the authors of The Green Book. However clumsily they have approached the issue, values are our reactions to the world, not inherent in the world. They are, as beauty, in the eye of the beholder, and if one era stones homosexuals and another gives them civil rights, it is not homosexuality that has changed.I believe C.S. Lewis has made an error in claiming that the book implies that all values are unimportant. I think what the snippets he points out are really saying that it is often desirable to be dispassionate, and especially to be able to control one’s passions (a typically British theme, which Lewis himself approaches towards the end with his pean to reason and intellect). It should be possible in any debate about values to set our emotions aside briefly and consider other sides to the issue. Lewis takes the slippery slope argument to absurd lengths in claiming that the schoolboy will naturally extend the observation mentioned here to “all values”.“The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others.”Lewis is having problems picking out a word here for a very good reason.. which is that the word he is groping for is “normal”. Which is to say, that Coleridge’s measure of merit is how normal such a response is among humans in his circle of normally raised romantic Victorians. Why not respond that way to a train, or a snake? An engineer or a biologist might have just such responses, based a different affective training.“The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions.”This is a distinction without a difference. The object merits the emotions because I have those emotions, and thus you should as well. That is what he is saying here, and it is the classic problem of social control … how I respond to X is also how YOU should respond to X, because … well, so that I can be secure in thinking that my feeling is universal (indeed objective), not personal. It is insecurity that breeds this need to share one’s values- the evangelizing self-deception that my values are TRUE. The British had had quite enough of this emotionalism after world war 1, and I think that this green book is written in that disappointed-romantic spirit. Lewis is right that children require cultivation in their values and emotions in order to function in our society, but we should not kid ourselves that we are giving them anything other than our own, conventional and subjective values, some of which have fine rational reasons (given human nature as a premise), but others of which do not.“For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”This was very well put, but I think the evidence goes just as much in the opposite direction, since sentiments that are vulgar are still sentiments. Sentiments, once aroused, can be easily misplaced. Many who grew up on Catholicism transferred their sentiments to Nazi-ism. My vote goes to skepticism as the better vaccine against gullibility. But no vaccine is perfect, and reasoned criticism from all angles is generally all we have to go on, as we are doing here. “In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality. “I could not have put the conventionalist, subjective nature of values any better myself! Conformity is the end-all and be-all. The reality spoken of here is the reality of human nature.“This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘theTao’. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”What is common to all of them is their reflection of human nature- that we generally respond similarly to the world around us. One can have a doctrine of objective values, but that does not make them objective. The need to inculcate them, and the need to argue about them, and the need to fight culture wars about them richly demonstrates that they are not objective at all. Lewis admits that he does not like small children, but views this emotion as a defect. Its only defect is that it is for his era unconventional. Perhaps in other eras, it would not have been out of place, and thus would not be counted a defect. Apart from utilitarian aspects, all else is subjectivity.“Hence the educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists.”And here he at last admits exactly what is the case, that the issue of values is not one of finding and discovering elements of the external world, but of having responses to the world which are cultivated according to human nature and the conventional lights of the time. A matter of the nature of man, not of the nature of external reality. Likewise in his example of the Roman father, Lewis is at pains to erect the straw man of grammatical literalism to avoid the far more obvious lesson, which is that the boy is being inculcated with the emotions of the father for no better reason than that the father and most other Romans think they are good and proper. Again, the lessons of World War 1 should have made Lewis a bit more reticent about this example, being one of clear cultural relativism and subjective values.“It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism.”Quite correct- so the lesson is once again that our emotions are the object of training and the locus of values. How exactly did we get to the dimetric opposite point from the beginning of the essay? Anyhow, to repeat, it is our emotions that carry our values- it is a subjective, not objective, “e-valuation” of the outside world. We do the valuing, whether emotionally or rationally.Lastly, I can see that Lewis is opposed to “debunking”. But this only makes the point at the core of the issue, which is that values are subjective, and can be drained by rhetoric just as they can be inculcated by rhetoric. There is surely a great deal of good in learning rhetoric and learning to express one’s wishes and values. But there is also good in learning that the very contest of values is one of subjective conceptions, which is, after all, why rhetoric is useful in this area at all, rather than, say, mathematics. They are matters of emotion and viewpoint, and that is not bad or unimportant, but it is worth knowing, is it not? The battle between debunking of value and enchanting with value is a constant one, within each person and among us in community. Each direction can go too far, such as the rampant enchantment inherent to animism and other pantheisms. At base this is another observation on human nature, which has the wonderful variety of producing some people with the gift of enchantment and filling with value, and others with the equally important gift of incisive and often dis-illusioning analysis. Both personalities and types of thinking have their roles and moral function- one to give inspiration to the human enterprise, the other to keep it tethered to reality.I really have to say, Lewis is far from deep, he is confused and self-contradictory.

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  4. frthomas says:

    Burk,Excellent. Now we are getting somewhere. If, in fact, as you say, there is not such thing as an inherent beauty of a thing or person, then there is no such thing as an inherent anything regarding a thing or person. Of course, this leads us down the “slippery slope” toward a valueless universe. I have no inherent value or rights for that matter. Neither do unborn children and on and on and on… If you “perceive” something as valueable you have no right whatsoever to share that sense of value with anyone. To do so would be to impose your completely subjective emotionally fabricated sense of value on me or someone else. As a result, we can have no laws or make any judgements or live together in any “meaningful” manner. What we end up with is complete subjective isolationism. This of course is not the case, since you and I and Darrell and everyone else in the universe believes it is worthwhile to speak their sense of value to each other. If you have a blog, then you have contradicted your convictions. You can only consistently write a blog for one reader — you. If you say that what you are writing has any value beyond your own “active imagination” then you have contradicted yourself. So, I really appreciate your suggestion to completely discount everything you write as worthless by your own logic. Now that is clear thinking !!Fr. Thomas

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  5. Burkhard says:

    Dear Thomas-You seem to be getting closer, despite some wild extrapolation. “I have no inherent value or rights for that matter.” That is true- to focus on rights for the moment, these are something we give to each other. They are a matter of negotiation. In the state of nature, no one has rights, and nor does anyone have rights in the eyes of, say, extraterrestrials, or insects. We give rights to each other as a matter of political accommodation and moral community. They are simply not inherent, however studiously we cloak them in divine authority and rhetorical objectivity. Just witness the last eight years- how can rights be eroded if they are objective?

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  6. Burkhard says:

    Just to follow up, here is a topical < HREF="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/09/opinion/09kristof.html?ref=opinion" REL="nofollow">example<> of just how non-objective rights are. Rather they are matters of continual negotiation and subjective evaluation. Note that subjective does not mean that we can never agree broadly on communal values, only that these values are always changing as our feelings and perceptions change.

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  7. Darrell says:

    Father Tom,Burk gave the game away sometime ago when he admitted that the areas of spirituality, ethics, the good, the true, and the beautiful are to be understood as “better illusions.” His assertion that all these areas are subjective is based upon his faith that there is no God. He mistakes the notion of “objective” in the context of this conversation as something like a rock or a superman somewhere occupying physical space. Of course, God is not a rock or superman somewhere. We know that the good, the true, and the beautiful are real because God is real and outside of us; God is, as Barth put it, “wholly other” than creation or us. We also know this is what makes “rights” or human dignity real or objective—because they are based upon a God who creates and grants such by God’s very being. Further, if values or ethics are subjective “illusions” then there is no reason to choose Burk’s over anyone else’s. Each is equally untrue then, because they are not real. Finally, if these areas are “better illusions” then so is “reason.” “Reason” like the good, the true, and the beautiful is simply a word that stands for an abstract understanding, a process, a way of looking at the world and processing information. Therefore, if we follow Burk’s logic, “reason” itself is an illusion that is completely subjective and so one view of reason is then as illusory as any other and ultimately meaningless. It is a self-defeating position. I would not spend too much time here as Burk’s account makes all this quite plain and he is his own defeater here—he has down our work for us. Simply stand back and behold it. As an aside, regardless of whether they agreed with him, even Lewis’s critics knew he was a deeply intelligent and creative person whose logic and reason were impeccable given his belief in God. He was respected by all. For someone not to see this and at least be charitable to a man whose work and influence far exceeds their own is to reveal a certain smallness; a pitiful poor taste and bad form. Embarrassing really. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C.S._Lewis

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  8. frthomas says:

    Darrell,Thanks for the perspective. I really appreciate it. I wrote a response to Burk that shows that if you take his reasoning out to its final destination, it arrives at tragic absurdity. Thank you for articulating it in such an “objectively beautiful” manner.I agree. It is staggering to have someone discount the work of a giant like C.S. Lewis. As you said, even his critics regarding him with honor…Fr. Thomas

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  9. Burkhard says:

    Good heavens! You don’t think Lewis was some kind of critical philosopher, do you? A stylish and inventive writer, yes, but .. well, < HREF="http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/11/21/051121crat_atlarge" REL="nofollow">here<> is a thorough review.

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  10. Darrell says:

    Oh my, yes, you are right, wow, if a philosophical giant like Adam Gopnik writes it–it must be gospel. Are you kidding? Gopnik couldn’t carry Lewis’s typewriter and I’m not saying Lewis was a philosophical scholar of high order–something he would never claim anyway. Here is a great quote about Gopnik:“It isn’t that Gopnik is ungifted or imperceptive, or a slickster trickster like his colleague Malcolm Gladwell, who markets marketing. He is avidly talented and spongily absorbent, an earnest little eager beaver whose twitchy aura of neediness makes him hard to dislike until the preciosity simply becomes too much.”-James WolcottWho would even care what someone like Gopnik thinks about Lewis?The point remains, bad form. Small. It is enough to simply say as to Lewis, “I respectfully disagree,” then stop.

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  11. Burkhard says:

    Fascinating, I must say. It is as though you have decided you live in Narnia and won’t hear a word to the contrary. Next you will be telling us that Aslan is just around the corner, just as Mr. Beaver said!

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