Otherwise, events have been conspiring against my best intentions to blog on the things I’ve been reading, and I have quite a backlog. One item:
Intellectuals, by Paul Johnson. A no-holds-barred expose of the moral shortcomings of our cultural heroes, including Rousseau, Shelley, Ibsen, Marx, Tolstoy, and Russell. Normally this would amount to a cheap ad homines, but Johnson gives a pretty smart justification in the introduction:
One of the most marked characteristics of the new secular intellectuals was the relish with which they subjected religion and its protagonists to critical scrutiny. How far had they benefited or harmed humanity, these great systems of faith? To what extent had these popes and pastors lived up to their precepts, of purity and truthfulness, of charity and benevolence? The verdicts pronounced on both churches and clergy were harsh. Now, after two centuries during which the influence of religion has continued to decline, and secular intellectuals have played an ever-growing role in shaping our attitudes and institutions, it is time to examine their record, both public and personal. In particular, I want to focus on the moral and judgmental credentials of intellectuals to tell mankind how to conduct itself. How did they run their own lives? With what degree of rectitude did they behave to family, friends and associates? Were they just in their sexual and financial dealings? Did they tell, and write, the truth? And how have their own systems stood up to the test of time and praxis?
I detect here a bit of crypto-theologizing. Pride is the greatest sin, and sin darkens the intellect. In assembling this parade of megalomaniacs, Johnon wishes to tell us that modernism is, to put it bluntly, satanic ignorance. For modernism, on this selection of characters, is imbued with the worst of man. There's no convivial Hume here, no epicurean Franklin, no ebullient Mozart. Instead, Johnson's parade is to represent the heart of modernism, filled with men so blazingly talented as to blind us to the ugly features of their personalities, features which in fact were inseparable from their lasting influence.
Marx is an exception here. Johnson portrays him as a pseudo-intellectual hack, with little to no direct understanding of his subject matter (e.g., he had never been down a mine, or visited a mill) and an angry disdain for working class reformers who really were in the know. We read how Marx deliberately cherry-picked, doctored and distorted facts in the teeth of counter-evidence, flying into a rage when the inconsistencies were pointed out to him. What ultimately mattered was his eschatological vision of the coming revolution, in the light of which anything was fair game. As Johnson describes it, it is hard to imagine why Marxism gained any traction at all. The next natural task is to figure out, then, why so many smart people did buy into it. Or maybe to jettison Johnson's opinion entirely whenever he gets too close to figures on the socialist/communist end of the spectrum. His allergies prevent him from doing them any justice.
Apart from Johnson's tacit theology, we see in Intellectuals a (another?) standard conservative trope emerge. Human nature being roughly constant, utopian hopes are in vain and often result in situations far worse then those they aim to replace. There is bad, and there is worse. When we free ourselves from a cultural inheritance on account of its perceived injustice, we often give ourselves over to a far worse master: the tyranny of the mob, of “progress”, of technology (where ‘can’ implies ‘ought’), of entertainments and distractions, and of our incessant appetites. For there is always an authority, always coercion and injustice. Mitigation, and not elimination, ought to be our aim.
Of course, by itself this is a mere principle and does not, cannot, come with instructions for its proper application. ἀρχή and φρόνησις are different birds. When does the status quo become so noxious that resistance via legitimate channels is bootless? When, and how, do we then forge a new way? Are there some issues that must remain non-negotiable in the process? One problem with Burkean conservatism (though I doubt Johnson is a strict Burkean - project?) is that it does not, as I understand, offer guidelines for this last question. It only says: move gradually. In effect this amounts to nihilism in slow motion. In this regard it is more like than unlike the progressivism it opposes.
There is a lot more to be said here. For one, the principle that there is always an authority and always coercion, has a near relative in the principle that, for any smattering of facts, there is always an interpretation, just as, for example, for every church there is always a denomination. On this principle, any claim to non-denominationalism in science, in history, in politics or in religion is self-deceptive. On cannot confront any assertion without taking a stance as to whether (a) it is true or false, or barring this, (b) it is or is not demonstrably true or false and, probably, (c) it is or is not relevant. Ockham had his Razor and Hume and his Fork. Let's call this "Thorne's Wedge".
So for instance, if a "non-denominational" Christian were to sit across from you at lunch, say maybe during your freshman year at college, and say, "we don't recite any creed so it's not as exclusive as being at a Catholic mass" they are asserting that:
(a) at least some articles of the creed are false and to be avoided, or
(b) at least some articles of the creed are undecidable, or
(c) at least some articles of the creed, or perhaps the whole notion of a creed, are irrelevant.
Now things get really interesting when you bring the truth-decidibility-relevance wedge into other areas of inquiry - but this I must leave off for another time.