Civilization Is A Conversation

The popular philosopher Stefan Molyneux (https://freedomainradio.com) often reminds his audience that “civilization is a conversation. ” I read about the same idea before in a blog article by John C. Wright (www.scifiwright.com) about the Great Books. A philosopher himself, as well as a novelist, Mr Wright is an alumnus of St. John’s College of liberal arts. I gather the school’s Great Books program was inspired from the writings of philosopher Mortimer Adler on “The Great Conversation” and his editing work for the Encyclopaedia Britannica Great Books series.

According to classical philosophers and other classical writers who had to know philosophy as a general foundation for their field, philosophy and science, literature and arts, civilization in a word, is a great conversation, and philosophy is its common language. It began to spread from Greece some six centuries before Christ.

Metaphysics, or philosophy properly so called, is the conversation about the fundamentals of everything that is or may be, especially the “why”, the causes. The “how” is more particularly the domain of empirical sciences and mathematics.

Ethics is the part of philosophy that examines the use of practical reason, or moral conscience. Why is there a sense of right and wrong? Why is conscience attracted to the good and repulsed by evil? Why is happiness connected to the good? These are some of the main questions of moral philosophy.

The moral questions are of course paramount also to religion and theology. Philosophy is the greatest achievement of the human mind unaided by faith, since it derives its information from the senses, external and internal. But the self-revelation of God being at the same time the revelation of man to himself (e. g. John 2:25), the Judaeo-Christian revelation is a very reliable source of information for philosophy, particularly for natural theology (or theodicy) and ethics.

Christian theologians, philosophers, and authors of literary or scientific writings were the ones who kept the conversation ongoing and timeless. It is timeless because philosophia perennis, the common philosophy of humanity (as philosopher Jacques Maritain would say), known also as Aristotelian-Thomism, or classical theist philosophy, is true in all essentials and those essentials are not subject to time. True philosophy is therefore capable of organic, continuous development upon this perennial basis.

Up to the 1960s, every generation educated by learned masters had access to the great works of the past and to a common philosophical framework. Scholars and writers could thus contribute to build on and transmit the intellectual and moral treasure of civilization, the treasure of human wisdom.

 

Conversation Slows Down

However, from Reformation and Renaissance in the West, many intelligent and educated people began to reject the Church’s moral authority, then God’s authority and, finally, the belief in God from the institutions of high learning.

There would be nothing to complain about if academia had kept a real scientific and objective worldview in humanities and science. But history has proven by now that it is impossible to do so without sound belief in the Christian God and a sound philosophy in harmony with it.

Historically, the scientific method and scientific objectivity were attainable only because the first and foremost belief of the classical theist worldview is that truth is knowable and is the objective measure of human knowledge. This is so because the supreme and immaterial principle of all things, the One God, is absolute truth. This belief was reinforced by Revelation, which is indirectly a great help in securing the treasure of philosophy.

Note the word “indirectly”. The help of theology to philosophy can indeed be only indirect, since their respective objects differ substantially. The object of philosophy is to know all things (omnes res) by their causes and principles, including the prime principle, God, and the few attributes that can be discerned about Him from the natural order of things, without supernatural help. Aristotle is proof that it can be done and that philosophy is dependent only on philosophical truth, including natural theology truth, and not on religious belief, since as a polytheist he should have arrived at multiple, or contradictory, or unsound principles, as all religious philosophies do.

True religion does not absorb or eliminate philosophy, since it has not the same object, but it exerts a negative control on its conclusions to keep philosophy within the truth. The object of theology is the supernatural order, and how it intersects with the natural order. Most supernatural truths are inaccessible without Revelation and the theological virtue of faith. Nevertheless, and in spite of the fact that we cannot grasp all of it while we are in the flesh, the content of the faith is entirely intelligible and is the object of theology.

Consequently, philosophy done within the authentic Christian worldview is better informed and more coherent than pagan philosophy, since the hierarchy of truth a well-trained mind can grasp is further ascertained by Revelation. Deists, agnostics and even some atheists who have a sense of truth can acknowledge the quality of classical theist philosophy and Christian morals, as long as Christianity still informs the culture.

The intellectual frame of all sciences, including theology, is laid out in the language of classical theist philosophy. Moreover, except for theology, philosophia perennis gives their principles to all other sciences. It might have no meaning to college students or teachers nowadays, but a Ph. D. is a philosophiae doctor in a science because all sciences have a common philosophical basis, as well as philosophical particular principles.

 

Untruth Halts the Conversation

The common metaphysical basis of sciences is a foundation scientists need not bother about in their field, except not to deviate from it, especially the obligation to truth. Unfortunately, this is what many in humanities and empirical science have been doing for well over a century, not to mention regular encroaching on philosophy and religion, by means of pronouncements where errors are substituted for metaphysical or religious truths.

Numerous scholars and scientists invoke a radical skepticism about truth itself, which is very far from the healthy skepticism of the scientific method about what is true or not in the natural world. They feel entitled to profess whatever error they happen to sincerely believe, or whatever seems permissible under the pressure to conformity in academia. They never question their own premisses and objectivity in the first case, nor the premisses and objectivity of their masters in the second. To evade the obligation to truth, the argument (if argument is not also evaded) boils down to self-contradictory assertions such as “metaphysical reasoning is futile word games” or “objectivity does not exist.”

When the belief in God as absolute truth has been obscured long enough, the reverence for theological, then philosophical truth is lost. The mind loses its grasp on the other metaphysical principles, the axiom of finality being the first to be put aside and hidden as much as possible.

When finality, or another of the metaphysical axioms, is denied, the first of them, the principle of identity (A is A; A is not non-A), is automatically denied at the same time. Everything becomes doubtful. The certainty of our knowledge in all sciences erodes. Nihilism ensues.

Around 1900, a growing number in academia was already teaching fads of little or negative value in philosophy and theology. As an example of that time, the young couple Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, both atheists, were so affected by the intellectual and spiritual void of the intelligentsia in Paris that they decided to commit suicide. Their discovery of a less wrong philosophy under the influence of Henri Bergson, and, shortly after, their conversion under the influence of Catholic essayist and novelist Léon Bloy, prevented them to carry out the plan.

The renewal of Thomism, in which Maritain took an important part, certainly helped to save Aristotelian-Thomism from being lost altogether, but the reaction, even in the Catholic Church, was too weak to prevent the metaphysical disease from spreading, in the course of the 20th century, to arts, literature and humanities, and even contaminating the way of doing empirical science.

The Marxist egalitarian leveling of merit has since lowered the curriculum value on every subject and hollowed out independent thinking in many institutions. I  witnessed this personally between the two periods I spent in university, one in the seventies, the other in the nineties.

 

Will Against Intellect

The Great Conversation has now almost come to a halt as a consequence of the loss of intellectual tradition in all places where cultural Marxism has crushed the classical Western worldview. It has reached the point where protesters can shut down speaking events, either by shouting the speaker down or by having the authorities cancel the talk, or worse, with riots, beatings and vandalism.

The problem is not however an intellectual problem, because social and political problems are ethical issues and take root in an ill-trained will and an ill-formed practical reason (conscience). The rare arguments invoked to go down the path of barbarianism and unreality may sometimes pretend to intellectuality when they are well-worded on the surface, but upon examination, the substance is poor and they arise purely from feelings and willpower, that is, from subjectivity.

When the human mind departs from truth, it is always because the freewill has departed from rationality before, over the pretext that truth is relative, or does not exist, and that what is true or good for someone else is not necessarily true or good for oneself. The conscience so obscured will gradually lose its connection to reality. The intellectual power of discerning the truth and reasoning correctly will follow.

The fallacious Marxist dichotomy of rich and poor, oppressors and oppressed, for example, is nothing else than a contest of willpower. Conscience, reason, natural rights are trampled at every step in that system, because it is mere irrational indoctrination. Indoctrination is essential to establish a totalitarian rule and, especially for a malevolent and lying one, to postpone its death for some time. Like a virus, it will die when the host either dies or rids itself of the disease.

 

From Theism to Naturalism to Atheism

How was the disease contracted in a world that was in relatively good metaphysical health, at least up to the Reformation?

A reasonably good system of moral philosophy, Stoicism, was prominent in the Greco-Roman civilization before Christ, but classical theism developed to a much better stature in Christianity, reaching its peak in the 13th century with saint Thomas Aquinas. To better understand the moral and metaphysical healing Christianity effected in the ancient world, the reader might refer to Father Henri de Lubac’s introduction to his book The Drama of Atheist Humanism, reproduced in my post “Atheism and Human Dignity”.

The success of the Christian upheaval might be summarized in this idea: “Truth will set you free.” And it has. Slavery, for example, was eliminated in a few centuries because freedom from sin was achieved in a large number of people who believed and practiced their faith. This is the only “liberation theology” that ever worked.

But human nature being what it is, a fallen nature, there was a pushback in the form of a return to deist naturalism. This came first among the Jews who refused to acknowledge the Messiah and accept the fulfilled Revelation. Within Christianity, the pushback began from the start with the great heresies, more strongly in the Eastern Empire. Western Christendom resisted fairly well to heresies until the 15th century, but slowly gave way to naturalism, theological and philosophical errors through Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment philosophy and Romanticism.

Classical theist philosophy has always been carefully transmitted in the Church by those who understood it reasonably well, so the loss it suffered is not in fact internal decay, it is rather due to the ignorance and carelessness of the majority of scholars, abandoning important points of doctrine or substituting them with unworthy accretions. This was worsened when the heresiarchs began, in the 16th century, to tamper with religious doctrine, and to muddle philosophy and theology.

Among other things that heresy corrupted, the doctrine of liberation received from the Logos incarnate was, without it ever being said clearly, substituted with the resurgent pagan custom “cujus regio, ejus religio,” which can be transposed as “truth is what one’s religious leader, or prince, decides.” The subjective modern version of the same belief, “truth is as one sees it,” was already present in germ in Luther’s doctrine with the private interpretation of religious truth, as Maritain explained in Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau (full text).

Parallel to the Protestant naturalistic dilution of theism, materialistic atheism took hold through modern philosophy, itself marked by the Protestant errors, as Maritain pointed out in Moral Philosophy: Historical and critical examination of the great systems, chapter 5 “The Impact of Christianity on Moral Philosophy,” and chapter 6 “The Ethics of Kant.” (Full text here: https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/jmoral.htm) See also the essays on Descartes and Rousseau in Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau.

 

From Atheism to Nihilism

Seeing that the ills of the world were still strong despite the discoveries of science and the overall growing wealth of naturalistic Western societies, the atheist malcontents styling themselves as revolutionaries launched, in France, a Neo-Pagan religion pretending to rationality. The “goddess” Reason was put on the altar in place of Christ, and the ideals of love of truth, justice and charity were replaced with deformed concepts of “Liberty, equality, fraternity,” Christian ideals gone mad, as Chesterton said.

The cult of Reason pieties were not enough to change the belief system, and the current “theology of liberation” remained the same as before: the truth was as the leaders said it was. However, the leaders being illegitimate and the proposed concepts irrational, the revolution, instead of ushering an age of rationality, could only bring about chaos and mindless violence. It failed.

The following wave of atheist revolutionaries latched their utopia to the working class seizing political power. Their theology of liberation could be termed as “Labor will set you free” (Arbeit macht frei). It was proclaimed by fascists as well as the other leftists. However, in spite of its internal logical coherence, Marx’s philosophical system lacked metaphysical axioms at the basis, since it was predicated on Hegel’s dialectics.

Dialectics being merely a logical tool to form an opinion on disputed matters, it cannot lead to certainty on matters of principle. In addition, every erroneous proposition negates one or more axioms, thus undermining the support for other truths. Saint John Paul II used to say that the weakness of communism was its anthropology, its erroneous philosophical conception of man’s nature. Anthropological nonsense made loss of freedom and misery worse every time communism was tried. It failed.

 

Nihilism

But committed Leftists are never discouraged in their blind and misled idealism. They adapted their theology of liberation by pushing it further from reality and promising liberation to vague and ever-changing groups of supposedly oppressed victims, saying in effect: “Victimhood will set you free”, where the status of victimhood is granted by the Nanny State, and can be changed at any time when expedient for the totalitarian rulers to remain in power.

“Cultural” Marxism does not have defined rules, defined classes, even a defined utopia as there were in the Marxist and Hegelian systems. It is defined only as the contrary, the inversion, of whatever values were held in the civilized world. It looks much like Nietzschean despair, so nihilism would be a more proper term to name the main philosophical consequence of a century and a half of militant atheistic materialism.

Nihilism, no more than communism, can sustain a functional society. But in spite of repeated failures it survives, because it fills the void created in its victims by the destruction or abandonment of Christian religion and morals. Marxist rulers, bureaucrats and zealots are in fact missionaries of anti-Christianity. This is why they can ally themselves with probably the most authoritarian and violent religion in existence, the one that almost wiped out Christianity from the Near East and North Africa in the Middle Ages. Authoritarianism is not at all their problem, only the authority of Christian truth.

Nihilism, however, has not failed yet. It has been rampant even in the Catholic Church, which tried without much success to repel the waves of modernism and lefty liberation theology at work in it since the mid-nineteenth century. It is no coincidence that the naturalist and Protestant-like theology current of modernism was born at the same time communism was, and that the leftist current that advanced its proponents to the highest echelons in the Church, as is now very obvious in Western Europe and the Americas, has grown steadily from the communist revolution in 1917. This is no doubt what historian Hilaire Belloc called, in his book The Great Heresies, “The Modern Attack” on the Faith. It might very well be worse than the Arian crisis, since most people, atheist or theist, lay or clergy, believe some mix of the naturalist-socialist-nihilist utopian creeds. It has become the official religion of the secular world. And the secular world does not know it.

 

“Beauty Will Save the World” (Dostoevsky, The Idiot)

Since Marxism-nihilism is religion, philosophy cannot be the answer, as Stefan Molyneux believes, but only part of it. Philosophy is the language of civilization, the necessary condition to understand each other, from person to person, from field to field. Our problems being not primarily philosophical, but moral, the answer is the same one that remedied the main problems of paganism: the one, true and rational, and morally good religion.

The Church’s teachings are revealed with certainty and transmitted by a leadership endowed with certainty in matters of doctrine and morals. All this teaching tradition has been remarkably rational and a great help to philosophy. As truth is one, theology needs and must guard philosophy, which in turn guards the other sciences so that they do not deviate from the truth.

Despite the fact that all her members, including the hierarchy, are sinners, the Church still teaches the true doctrine of Christ and the moral good, helping her children follow the path of holiness they are called to take. Why and how so? Because of the saints.

The saints are the Beauty of the Church. They are conformed to Christ, they reflect Christ, beautiful above all children of men, His countenance shining with the splendor of truth and goodness. Only He, through His sacraments, and through His saints, especially holy priests, and despite the failings of men, can heal the souls and draw them to the heavenly kingdom, which is already present in the world everywhere Christians are united with Christ in charity.

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