John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright
johncwright

Modernism and the Rejection of Reason

Part of a continuing discussion. We were discussing a story of mine that a reviewer disliked, and I suspect part of that dislike was because he interpreted the tale as a Christian message praising faith. To my knowledge (and one must consult the Muses for a clear answer) this tale was not Christian message but Stoical message praising skepticism, self-command, courage in the face of death. The symbols used were symbols of Stoic philosophy, since the writer professed Stoicism.

A reader comments: "One thing about Stoic thought is that in many respects it is more like Christian thought than it is like modern thought in general. If the reviewer is unfamiliar with Stoicism then the mistake would not be entirely surprising to me."

Aha! Your thought I fear is true and right. Modern thought is so eager to reject Christ, that it ends up rejecting paganism as well, not to mention logic, philosophy, objectivity, faith, hope, charity, temperance, moderation, fortitude and justice. It rejects everything, and leave us with nothing.

Modern thought is composed, with innumerable minor variations, with two great main streams: the revolt against the Church in the name of Reason, and the revolt against Reason in the name of Nothing. The first revolt we can call, with no violence to the term, Modernism. The second we can call Postmodernism. There may be more accurate uses of these two terms, but for the purposes of this essay, these are correct in denotation and connotation. The sum of these two streams taken together produces an odd, indeed a horrifically ironic, modern movement. Christianity so successfully adopted an explanation of the world and heaven, that the postmoderns find they cannot reject the heaven they loath, the place of mystic revelation, without also rejecting the world, the place of reason. They are left with an abyss, where neither revelation nor reason reach, a place of pure Nietzschean willpower, a void where the meaningless Self is utterly free to shape the meaningless Nothing into whatever form the empty Self desires. This void is fitliest called Hell. As if they cannot burn down the Cathedral without burning down the Academy.

Why should this be? In every bumper sticker slogan pasted to every half-empty brain, in every television show, paperback novel, and quip by Carl Sagan, science is proposed as the enemy of the Church and the victor over her. Why in the world would the pagan idolaters of science smash their own idols in the fury of their iconoclasm to trample our Christian icons?

The short answer is that the scientific worldview is as Christian as the Great Mass of Mozart, as Christian as Michaelangelo’s David, as Christian as Christmas. I submit that the one cannot be degraded and dismissed without degrading and dismissing the other.

The era of the first stream, Modernism, reaches back (depending on how similar we consider the intellectual paternity) to optimistic belief in Progress of the Victorian Age, or, further back, the sublime confidence in human reason in the Age of Rousseau and Voltaire. That optimism and that confidence, as well as the ancient regime in Europe, and the American Way in America, were slowly or quickly wiped away during the World Wars. Both were replaced for a time by Progressivism in the modern sense, an all-intrusive welfare-state adopting more or less of the program of Socialism more or less swiftly.

The era of the second stream, the postmodern, reaches back (depending on where we pin the blame) on the French Revolution, the Nazi movement, their twin brothers the Russian Revolution, all the astronomical immensities of pain and bloodshed these utopians spilled. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, and the slow rot of Western Europe that even leader a like Margaret Thatcher could not reverse have put paid to the Grand Dream of Socialist Progress.

That idea is dead. The idea is nowhere proposed that abolishing the price structure and centralizing all major industries produces wealth. The people who call themselves ‘Progressives’ mean nothing what their fathers meant by that word: they merely mean to be in rebellion against the laws of economics and the laws of men.

With the death of the Age of Reason as announced by Tom Paine, and the deaths, the tens of millions of grinning skulls piled up to block the sun, from the Age of Progress as announced by Karl Marx, we are finally left in the despair of Macbeth, for whom the narrative of the world is full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing. The only Progressive causes the Progressive progress towards these days is preemptive surrender to Bronze-Age troglodytes among the Mohammedans: a regress to A.D. 642, and the establishment of the Caliphate.

We enter the Age of the Postmodern, a term in use in the arts long before, having its roots in Dadaism and Surrealism, but being essentially a revolt against all form. In literature, postmodernism is the abandonment of any pretense of rationality, standards, meaning, language, because it essentially says you can put any words you like into an author’s mouth, and make him say whatever you want, and then dismiss his work via argumentum ad hominem.

But before addressing these deep philosophical issues, let us pause for a refreshing sip from the wine of poetry:

DOVER BEACH

By Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

We can take Mathew Arnold as a typical modern man, perhaps one with more insight than normal. He agrees with Nietzsche on this one point: that when the sea of faith recedes, it leaves behind a world without joy, love or light.

Arnold draws the despairing yet perfectly modern conclusion that, in the tumult of a meaningless roar, the two lovers should cling to each other, because there is no comfort in the world, only in each other’s arms. We can imagine the lovers in Arnold’s poem clinging in embrace as desperate as the lover in Dante’s poem, where Francesca and Paolo are born aloft in the stormwinds of Hell, seeking each other’s arms, in a world whose gates, like Arnold’s words likewise say of our world, bid all hope be abandoned.

This despair is the link between Modernism and Hedonism. The reason why mere pleasure is regarded as sacred by modern thinkers (or, to be precise, thought-avoiders) rather than dismissed as the animalistic weakness stern pagan thinkers, men like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, held it to be, is because in pleasure, in the embrace of one’s beloved, is the only divinity to be found in the godless secular cosmos. Humans are not psychologically built for selfishness, but for love. This is the reason why a loveless and selfish person is found repellent by normal humans. (Even Ayn Rand, a perfect example of a modern thinker, an atheist seeking to use nothing but reason to establish her moral code, even though she praised selfishness in her philosophy, even she regarded love as something so sacred that, illogically, she felt the sacred nature of romantic love gave warrant to the desecration of marriage.)

The postmodernist, however, will not even allow the Hedonist his embrace with his beloved. Postmodernism parts the lovers with one additional bit of post-logical reasoning, and says that rape underpins all romantic love, and that the man imposing upon and exploiting the woman is what lies behind all Romance. Freud might say that incestuous love for the man’s mother, merely displaced by a type of subconscious fraud, is what Romance really is. Marx could say it is part of an ideological superstructure tied to economic interests. Others, less coherent than Marx (if that can be imagined) would say romance is merely chemicals. We are robots, the postmodernist will mindlessly repeat like a robot, and science has proven that neither consciousness nor free will exist; and if no will, no love.

Our Dantean lovers are now reduced to a condition entirely less dignified than hell of lust, because they are now merely animals programmed by Selfish Genes; no, they are less than this for, they are molecular robots, never really alive at all; no, they are less than this, for they are merely aggregations of atoms like sand dunes blown by random wind into a certain shape that has no consistency and no fixed boundaries, sand grains entering and leaving like aimless thoughts, until the dune is blown apart. There are no entities and no words to define them.

Romance, I hope I need not pause to say, is a Romanish invention, something that springs out of Christendom and is as unique to it as the polyphonic diatonic music sung at Mass.

Now, if you are a Modernist, and are devoted to overthrowing the Church in the name of Reason, your reasoning faculty will rebel at this medley of nonsense. You will say: but if there are no words, the statement that there are no words refutes itself. You will say: but if there are no entities, the statement that there are no entities has no subject matter, ergo the statement refutes itself. You will say: but the statement that men are not self-aware, or possess no reason, or have no free will, if uttered voluntarily by a human being refutes itself: and if uttered involuntarily, it has no more truth value than an oath taken under duress. You will say: but if the Selfish Gene forces all human behavior, including love and reason, that the statement affirming this, if uttered by a human, is such a behavior, and once again has no truth value. A statement that a man is merely an animal, if taken seriously, is no more meaningful than the chattering of a monkey. The statement that there is no truth, if true, is false.

In other words, if you are a modernist, you will see that the postmodernist is like the cartoon-clown of carpenters, who sits on the branch he is busily sawing off. A like a cartoon-clown, he finds he will not fall as long as he does not look down and see that he is standing in midair. He pretends he has a coherent philosophy, but it is based on an error a schoolboy can see through. All of his axioms are self-refuting. We need not call any other witness to the stand once the prime witness takes an oath and confesses that he is lying, and all his testimony is a lie.

You may have noticed, O Modern thinkers, what happens when you ask simple questions of postmodern thinkers. They simply blank their minds, like a cartoon clown who dare not look down. They say “A paradox? Well, I am large, I contain multitudes!” or they wink and shrug and say, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Or they say, “In the long run, we are all dead!” Which perhaps has no more to do with your questions than it did to the question that originally prompted it.

This is why the Postmodern must throw out reason along with religion: natural philosophy made that promise that, if the discussion struck to matters that could be proved and disproved empirically (that is, material matters and nothing but) that nature would arbitrate the discussion, and experiment and observation would distinguish true from false, and the endless wrangling of schoolmen be left aside as unanswered.

And this bargain was kept, at least, as far as physics is concerned. With Newton and Kepler the most astonishing revolutions imaginable of the natural world were put forth, and with Einstein and Heisenberg and Schrodinger, revolutions beyond imagination.

The sciences that were somewhat less open to empirical investigation, naturally, kept the promise somewhat less well. Biology, for example, has not been neatly reduced to something like Maxwell’s four laws or Lavoisier’s Periodic Table. Economics cannot be reduced to empiricism at all. Pseudo-sciences like Freudian psychology or Skinnerian psychology have even less empirical methodology than Astrology. (At least astrologers look at the biographies of famous babies born under the same star-signs as their clients, and attempt to guess by this what are the astral influences which will affect their clients' fates.)

Each of the paradoxes listed above, where the clown saws off the branch on which he sits, is based on the application of the scientific method to man. Darwin found a regularity in nature, and proposed that higher forms descend from lower through a blind natural selection akin to horsebreeding: horsebreeding without a horsebreeder. Hegel then applies Darwin’s idea to philosophy, and seeks to find a regular progression of schools of thought, produced by something like a natural selection of thesis and antithesis. Nietzsche applies Darwin’ s idea to man’s moral character, and reasons that, if man evolved from sub-man from apes, ergo continued evolution pressures will force men into higher forms, the supermen, whose supreme and transhumant moral code, conveniently enough, would allow Nietzsche to continue visiting whores.

The political revolutions of modernity were as successful as the scientific ones. The World Wars wiped out the ancient regimes of Europe, and the ideals of the American and French Revolution, the ideals of George Washington and Napoleon, overswept the world. The colonies granted independence by the Great Powers did not seek a monarchic system of government, but embarked, for the most part, on Socialist experiments, with the result that the Twentieth Century will be the bloodiest in history until the Second Coming. The belief in progress was so strong that the poor and barbaric places of the globe were not called poor and barbaric, but, optimistically, “underdeveloped nations” or “developing nations” as if such development were as inevitable as the human evolution of Hegel and Nietzsche.

Each political revolution either was, in the case of the American colonies, a step forward for human freedom, or was a step backward ironically performed in its name, as in the case of the French and Russian revolutions. The French under their Monarchs or the Russians under their Czars certainly enjoyed nothing like the liberties once known by Englishmen, but even a favorable interpretation of history cannot portray the terrors that followed as anything but a loss of what little liberty they had.

Philosophy meanwhile, like the Phantom of the Opera scalded by acid, was subjected to withering skepticism by Hume. Despite valiant attempts by Kant to place metaphysics back into her proper place, without religion Kant could not make the final step, and could not assert that certainty in the reason allowed the thinker to find true and original knowledge. Empiricism had swept the field. Then, like Saturn at his feast, Empiricism declared that the metaphysical roots of Empiricism themselves were invalid: from this springs the nonsense of the logical positivists, who boldly make the universal metaphysical statement that there are no universal metaphysical statements. Logical positivism is more likely to be studied in the future by psychopathologists than by philosophers.

Empiricism having invalidated empiricism, we are left with nothing. There is neither joy nor light, nor, it seems, is there truth, validity, or honesty left.

What is left is raw willpower, raw rebellion, raw iconoclasm. In the same way that the British taxes and arrests without warrant, or the censorship laws were a limitation on human freedom to the American Colonists of the Enlightenment, now enlightenment is regarded as a limitation on human freedom by those dark dwellers in what can only be called a Post-Enlightenment, a Benightenment.

Thus Nietzsche and his epigones no longer even bother to define their terms, identify their axioms, and establish conclusions that follow from those definitions and axioms, oh no! That is too too last season, darling! Instead Nietzsche tells parables and Sartre writes plays, and they inspire or cooperate with Nazis, who told stories of their own, stories about the dark gods of the blood, but none of these parables, plays, or stories is ever compared with the cold objective reality of fact. After Marx, it was merely the lazy habit of thinkers to accuse facts of being artificial constructs or “narratives” invented with the dishonesty of Madison Avenue hucksters to bedevil and bewitch the unwary. The cunning and superior brain henceforth (and with considerably less effort than it would take to write a structured Summa Theologica) need only expose the hidden psychological springs, the class interests, or the racial hatreds motivating any opposing argument, and owner and manager of the superior brain is relieved from the duty to answer any opposing arguments rationally, or to think, or even to keep his temper.

Example: we are currently engaged in the United States in a quite serious and solemn discussion as to whether a male can mate with a male, and celebrate a mating ritual called marriage, to gain those legal recognitions that man and wife have enjoyed under Common Law and Canon Law. The fact that man and wife is not the same as man and man is dismissed as a type of racism: it is called something that exists in speech, a bigotry, not something that exists in existence, a fact. In the Benightenment, to refer to facts is not merely unfashionable, it is a hate crime.

Because the topic of the Christian religion is surrounded with a hellish fog of misbelief and disbelief, let us emphasize that the rationalism of the pagan world, the law of the Romans and the logic of the Hellenes, exists, if at all, in the modern age because of Christian adoption of these things. Christian monks assiduously copied Aristotelian manuscripts; Christian saints assiduously merged it with Jewish doctrine to produce the unique combination of natural and supernatural, rational and mystical, that informs the Christian spirit. Christianity is Hellenized Judaism, that is, like the child of a rational Aristotelian philosopher, and a mystic Jewish prophet.

The Age of Reason is a specifically Christian heresy. It is an attempt to erect and defend a Christian World View without Christ. It can almost be done, as long as the Christian axioms, such as the rationality of the universe and the sacredness of the individual, the belief in free will and the dignity of man, et cetera, are accepted without question by the non-Christian philosophy. The mystical religions of the East do not have sufficient respect for logic to attempt to erect a logical version of their world without their mysticism (I do not include Confucianism as a mystical religion: but on the other hand, Confucius has no respect for the individual, nor does he propose the universe is rational, so the system that springs from his logic is rather less human and humane than the attempt of the Age of Reason.)

Once the attempt to erect a world of Christian values on a non-Christian basis is proved futile, once history cruelly has demonstrated the folly of socialism in a fashion no honest man can deny, we are left with nothing but nihilism, an assertion that the world is meaningless and that the Ego is all. Unfortunately, no man can serve two masters. One cannot have a world erected on reason and also a world erected on blind emotion. Once the paradoxes and folly of the Modernist attempt to have empiricism without metaphysics, or Christian conclusions without Christian axioms, shows itself to be illogical, then the only two options possible are (1) return to the Church and (2) abandon logic.

That, and no other reason, is why Reason, the idol of the Modernists, must go overboard when the Modernists throw Christ overboard.

What this means is that the modern world is intellectually dead. The last two people whom I, at least, ever read advocating a life based on Reason were Ayn Rand and Cicero. One of these is from circa 1950 A.D., the other circa 50 A.D. No one speaks of reason these days. Even the difference between a pop culture icon like Mr. Spock from STAR TREK shows a change in the role of logic in the public discourse. In the original show, he was a paragon of logic, striving against the human half for self-control: whereas in STAR TREK: VOYAGER, Mr. Tuvak of Vulcan is dismissively criticized by Captain Janeway with the words, “Logic! You can prove anything with logic!” In 1776, Thomas Paine triumphantly announced the birth of the Age of Reason, and proposed a religious variation (or, to use the technical term, heresy) where the Christian world view could be upheld without Christ, without reliance on the Bible or the Church for teaching revelation: the mere rational investigation of the surrounding world was sufficient to prove the Deity’s existence and benevolence. These days, those who look at scientific evidence and see the hand of Intelligent Design are lambasted as unscientific fools, peddlers of obscurantism, if not making war on Science.

What do we have instead of reasoning? We have a generation trained to avoid reason, except, perhaps, in technical matters. We have a political and philosophical movement that goes under many names, but is actually nihilism. There is nothing but the Void, the nihilist implies: no truth, no moral code, no purpose, no meaning.

Here is the voice of nihilism: JUST DO IT! Why? BECAUSE I CHOOSE TO! The Void exists merely to give me a blank slate on which to project my unique personality. Anything that stands between me and the Void, such as law and order, custom, tradition, morality, convention, group loyalty, decency or sanity — including that One I dare not name —are enemies and prison bars I must break and trample.

Here is the Voice of Postmodernism: The Four Winds blindly blew me together like a sand dune, and I must seek to mate for pleasure with willing women, and then abandon them as it please me, making sure they kill my children in their womb, or perhaps I can keep the children and have her (or a daycare provider to whom she delegates the responsibility) raise them. I must also seek advancement in business, money, anything that satisfies and suits me, as I am a creature that consumes goods produced by other men as hollow as myself. Upon death, the wind will blow me as dust once more to the four quadrants, and there is no forgiveness of sins and no hope of life.

Yet, strangely, the one group who opposes absolutely everything for which I stand, the Mohammedans, these bright-eyed homosexual-killing women-stoning fascist theocratic fanatics, this one group willing to blow themselves to bloody bits merely to hurt me and halt my pleasures, they are not my enemy. They are my ally. My enemy is Christ and His Church. It is my harmless neighbors who go to pray on Sunday that I regard as theocratic fascist killers, and must take bold steps to silence, intimidate, boycott, slander and abuse.

Why is that, do you suppose? What draws the heretics known as Nihilists and the heretics known as Mohammedans together? Should they not oppose and hate each other at every turn?

Let me draw your attention to some ideas:
  • There is a passage in the writings of Islam which promises that the blood of the Jihadist committing suicide will act as an intercessor for seventy of his relatives (This is from the hadith or commentary of Hassan-al Banna called 'Risalat ul-Djihad'. It was quoted by Bin Laden’s Fatwah, against America. (http://faculty.smu.edu/jclam/western_religions/ubl-fatwa.html) Catholics regard this is mere blasphemy, because it puts the murdering jihadist-bomber on the same level as Our Lord and His Saints and Martyrs. The Holy Blood that intercedes with Holy God, in this case come not from the five wounds of Christ, but from the self-willed act of the Jihadist. The Jihadist, by his own act, is trying to make himself Christ.
  • Dostoevsky's Kirilov from THE POSSESSED said it this way: "If there is no God, then I am God."
  • Michael Valentine Smith from Robert Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND proposed that a substitute for the foolish institutions of matrimony and monotheism would be to declare yourself to be God. The motto of the Church of All Worlds is ‘Thou Are God.’
  • Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? … And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
I cannot find a more feasible explanation as to why these two groups, who should hate each other with an absolute hatred, seem to borrow support from each other.
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