On Being Civilized

Until we accept that we are not a civilized people, and that it matters, we have little hope of becoming one.

Knowledge, Love, and Civilization

Francis Bacon said “Knowledge is power,” and I know of no record of him ever apologizing.

What sort of disposition would lead a person to saying such a thing. It’s not as if people prior to Bacon did not realize that knowledge gave its possessor power. But they had good manners and higher values, so they didn’t come right out and say it.

But Bacon did.

Worse still, people embraced this statement.

When Francis Bacon said “Knowledge is power,” he introduced a scientific revolution. But what even the experts often fail to see is that he initiated an intellectual revolt that introduced a new intellectual temper.

Prior to Bacon people believed that it was possible to know things for what they were. In Plato and Aristotle, Moses and Solomon, St. Paul and Erasmus, one finds a consistent awareness that knowledge is not justly said to be power.

For the great western Christian classical tradition knowledge is apprehension, perception, relationship.

Such an awareness makes civilized life possible.

But in Bacon we hear the destructive philosophy of an elegant barbarian.

Let me draw an analogy to present times to explain my point. You will often read in the New York Times or USA Today or Wall Street Journal about how civilization has advanced over earlier western society or sometimes even over, say, the third world, because we have more advanced technology.

The widely held assumption of people who believe that such a thing as civilization might conceivably exist is that, if it exists, it is measured by technological advance, which is another phrase for power.

This is utter rubbish. Genghis Khan was amazingly advanced in some areas technologically. The gang-leader in LA has access to more advanced technology than Erasmus was able to conceive.

A person who believes that technology is the mark of civilized society is a barbarian himself. A person who believes that knowledge is power is both profoundly and utterly ignorant and a barbarian.

That knowledge gives power one cannot deny. The claim that knowledge is power is a revolt against the entire Christian and classical tradition.

I don’t want to imply that Bacon himself held to such a thoroughly barbaric conception of knowledge in all his thinking.

Nevertheless, after Bacon British thought embraced his axiom and developed an anti-philosophy under the name of Empiricism that has undercut civilized thought everywhere in the world.

I mean these claims to be taken quite seriously and not as mean-spirited ad hominems.

In fact, I might go so far as to claim that the difference between barbarians and civilized people is that the former lives by Bacon’s axiom and the latter live by something higher, richer, less easily coined, and more human and humane.

For example, in Plato, we see the groping of a mind for something beyond power, something that will harmonize the soul and the community. In Aristotle we read in his Metaphysics that “All men by nature desire to know,” and he goes on to explain that knowledge is an end in itself because knowledge itself is a delight to the soul.

What Aristotle meant, at least in part, was that, since our nature desires knowledge, we derive pleasure simply from knowing. We do not need to apply it, make it “relevant,” or derive some practical application from our knowledge.

Simply knowing gives us pleasure. So we keep our eyes open – and we don’t only look at the things that we might trip over. Sometimes we look at the stars in the sky even if they don’t provide any practical guidance.

Bacon’s axiom, on the other hand, would lead us to look at the stars only as astrologers or sailors.

Which might explain why we don’t teach astronomy much any more even though a cursory study of the history of science will reveal that all the natural sciences as studied in the western tradition developed out of the study of the stars.

Civilized people use things rightly. In other words, they deal with them according to their natures.

Bacon’s axiom (for which I will use the name Bacon from now on) led to the conclusion that things cannot be known in their natures. We can only “know” them from the outside.

The culmination of this teaching was reached in Dewey’s doctrines and is the unknown core principle of teaching in America.

He argued that knowledge in the Christian classical sense does not and cannot exist. Knowledge to the benighted Christian or classicist was derived from a hang-up on permanence.

But Bacon’s revolution was secured by Darwin who showed us that nothing is permanent.

Things don’t have a nature, Dewey argued (he used the term “species” following Aristotle). Things are like they are now, but their environments will cause them to become something other than what they are now in time.

There is no human nature. There is only the present state of the offspring of human parents.

The nature of things, therefore, cannot be known, since it does not exist.

Thus to set limits on things, which is a precondition for knowledge in the Christian and classical tradition, is both unnecessary and counterproductive.

Why set limits on what humanity can become? If people as smart as Dewey can only rule us, they can make us into something better than what we are now. So give us the schools and let us have our way.

Why set limits on what a word can mean?

Why set limits on what a text is saying?

Why set limits on what the state is allowed to do?

Why set limits?

Limits imply natures, and natures don’t exist.

The problems with such a horrific idea are manifold and would merit an encyclopaedia of their own. Our age is that encyclopaedia.

If you don’t set limits on what a word can mean, the word doesn’t mean anything. Take marriage for example.

If you don’t set limits on what a text can mean, the text doesn’t mean anything. Take our constitution for example.

If you don’t set limits on what the state can do, the state can do anything.

If you don’t set limits on what the object of your attention can be, you can’t give the object your attention.

To define is, by definition, to set limits on meanings. To remove the limits from meanings is to overthrow meaning itself.

To live a life without meaning is to be a barbarian.

Thus we delude ourselves to think we represent civilization. We live in a barbarian country.

We are all barbarians.

We don’t love civilization; we love meaningless equalities and limitless liberties and undefined powers.

What then is needed? Is it possible for us to become civilized?

It is possible, though it isn’t likely. Civilization is difficult and it requires submission.

First, it requires submission to reality. Civilization’s core principle is that all things must be treated according to their natures.

But the rewards are unspeakable, and the first of those rewards is that our souls can escape the lust for power that led Bacon to his foolish axiom and Nietzsche to his extension of it in his doctrine (much more worth reflecting on than Bacon’s) of the “will to power.”

Our souls can return to a right understanding of knowledge. For in the Christian classical tradition, knowledge is not power.

Knowledge is perception.

Knowledge is apprehension.

Knowledge is relation.

Civilized people recognize that right knowledge requires love because to perceive something for what it is we need to receive it into our souls as it is.

To receive something into our soul requires that we will the thing we seek to know.

Thus knowledge requires, first and foremost, a pure will in relation to the thing we seek to know.

Love does not feel good about its object or even desire, first, to be united to its object. Love wills its object – it wills the perfection and well-being of its object.

And this is possible only when the nature of the object is acknowledged and known.

Thus love alone makes accurate knowledge of the object possible.

The Problem with Form

I have a problem with people who are obsessed with form and can’t get it past it to the spirit of the thing. A long time ago a man named Mahaffey wrote a little book called Conversation that carried some wonderful counsel on how to be a good conversationalist.

In it he said:

The man who parades his logic is one of those poor and narrow thinkers whose over attention to form mars his comprehension of the matter and so leads him astray.

Exactly!

That is why I want students to learn form early in life, mastering as much of it as possible during the middle school years.

Otherwise one of two things will happen: one, they’ll disregard it more or less completely or two, they’ll overly attend to it.

For example, contemporary writers and readers are obsessed with form. If a sentence extends beyond two clauses they lose their minds. To use hyperbole (a little bit): every joint in the skeleton of a modern book is swollen with arthritis and you are made to stare at the joints when what you want to see is graceful movements.

You can’t. You have to stop for the period. After each clause. Or you will have to think too many thoughts. Too fast. And your mind can’t take it. You need a commercial break. Your brain has arthritis too.

This overly scientific and analytical mind, lost in its lack of self-awareness, is the plague of the common grammar class.

On the other hand, early training in form enables the student and writer to internalize the forms, to attain second nature reflexes, and thus to transcend mere form and follow it to the spirit of the idea expressed.

It my seem ironic, but the neglect of form in schools leads people to an obsession with form even as they think they are free of it. It’s a bit like a person who dresses like his peers to show that he is independent.