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.

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Why Pragmatism Doesn’t Work

During the last session at the conference I tried to weave things together into a practical structure that people could take home and think about and implement. Maybe the most important idea in the whole conference for me was the contrast between propriety and pragmatism, justice and utility, nature and abstract object.

Modernist thought found its clearest and fullest expression in two late 19th century philosophers whose teachings have dominated 20th and 21st century practice: William James and Friederich Nietzsche. James was a Pragmastist. It’s hard to say whether any principle ordered Nietzsche’s thought. He once said that he despised the great systemetizers. For him, it was about experience, not thinking (though he did the latter a lot). I would probably call him a Perspectivist (one who believes that truth is not knowable as a thing in itself – we all just have a perspective or worldview), but even that implies a rational structure to his thought that he would laugh at.

Both of them are, strictly speaking, anti-philosophers, or at least, anti-metaphysicians. James wanted to know the “cash value” of an idea. Truth is what works. Nietzsche wanted to know how an idea would lead to life, to flourishing.

I’m sympathetic with both of them. They lived at the end of the “Age of Ideas” that had been launched by the Enlightenment, especially Kant and Hegel. Ideas had become ideologies, and no ideology had been big enough to order souls or society.

So they directed thought away from thinking and gaining knowledge to acting and gaining power.

I can see the sense in what they did. The trouble I can’t escape is this big question of Nature. James and Nietzsche (and virtually all Enlightenment and 20th century thinkers) didn’t believe in the Idea of Nature.

Reality is not determined by (is not equal to) a thing’s nature. It is determined by personal and social constructions, which is what they believed ideas are. So rather than focus on the appropriate ways to treat something based on its nature, they were concerned with adapting to one’s environment.

John Dewey, a good friend of William James and a co-Pragmatist, went so far as to develop a philosophy of education that was rooted in the concept that the world around is not knowable in the Christian classical sense. Instead, knowledge is the adaptation of an organism to its environment.

As this played out over the 20th century, it led to some stark ideas. For example, knowledge isn’t the end we should seek, but practical applications. We shouldn’t contemplate ideas, we should produce measurables. We shouldn’t read old books burdened down with Christian classical assumptions about reality (most of all, that things have a nature); we should read books that are “relevant” to immediate issues for children.

This isn’t the place, and it would take too long to develop this thought, but I will simply assert here that these commitments fall horribly short of the aspirations of the Christian classical tradition.

  • The pursuit of virtue is replaced by adapting to the environmnent, which is a polite way of saying, “seeking power.”
  • Reverence for human nature is replaced by the use of schools to bring about the Darwinian and meaningless world these philosophers believed in.
  • Love of learning (i.e. of knowledge) is replaced by fear of testing.
  • Great books are replaced by, forgive me, twaddle.
  • Liberal arts and classical sciences are replaced by subjects, all equal, all disconnected, all meaningless.
  • Christ the logos is replaced by …
  • Contemplation is replaced by production.
  • Ideas are replaced by constructions.
  • Nature is replaced by permanent change.
  • Propriety is replaced by utility.
  • Purpose is replaced by utility.
  • Wisdom is replaced by skillful adaptation.
  • Being as the foundation of thought is replaced by utility.
  • Change is exalted to the status of divinity.
  • Whatever cannot be measured is reduced to what can be or disregarded as irrelevant.
  • Personhood is swallowed up in futility.
  • Freedom is replaced by compulsive efforts to satisfy instincts.
  • Justice is replaced by measurable social criteria, under the guise of equality.
  • Community becomes an effective marketing buzz word because everybody wants it but nobody knows how to get it.
  • Truth is what you make it.
  • Goodness is what you determine it to be.
  • Beauty is what you like.

In the classical tradition, all these ideas were considered independent realities. In other words, truth was truth whether you discovered it or not. You could construct an idea that was wrong. But look at how reading is taught now, both to children and to college students. It’s seriously influenced by the philosophy of constructivism, which says you create your own meaning.

It’s not that they are entirely wrong. Of course, we see things from our perspective. Of course we construct meaning from our experiences. But that doesn’t mean that there is no knowable reality beyond our perspective and no knowable meaning to which we can compare our constructions.

We see through a glass darkly. But there is something that we see. And as our vision more closely aligns with what is actually there, the better we perceive truth and the wiser we are.

There’s all the difference in the world between teaching a child that what he sees is all there is to see and teaching a child that he can improve his vision through training.

But the educators who dominated 20th century practices systematically undercut the students’ capacity to perceive truth and their confidence that it was knowable.

As a result, we have schooled our children into the least educated people in the history of the world.

Pragmatism doesn’t work. It excludes too much from its vision. It cuts short the quest for wisdom. It disables the mind. It redirects our attention to power. We need to absorb what it had right, but we need to transcend it with a restored love for truth rooted in the nature of things.

It seems un-American, but if you want to train a mind, the only way to do so is to give it ideas to contemplate.

(recommended resource: 2009 CiRCE conference CD’s)

Choosing Heroes

We Christians have a different way of seeing things, of setting values, and that leads us to honor different heroes than those who see things more conventionally. We value God’s blessed creation, for example, so we honor those who make the great discoveries. But we don’t value it as an arbitrary, pointless thing that simply shows the depth of our brilliance by revealing its secrets to us. We value it as a delightful stewardship, so we honor those who care for it with wisdom and fortitude. We don’t value it merely as a tool by which we can reach our autonomous objectives (the love of money is the root of every sort of evil). We value it as a good in itself, the beauty and integrity of which must be preserved. So we honor those who reveal that beauty to us and call us back to an adoring stewardship not altogether unlike that which a father bears for his daughter.

 Somewhere at the top of our list of values is the long-forgotten human soul, that which we continually request God to save. As a result, we honor those who effectively care for the soul even more than those who care for the body. Apart from our Lord Himself, we honor his virgin mother above all humans. The angel himself declared that all generations would call her blessed, and we are certainly among those generations.

 In Mary we see a model of sexual purity, a virgin, let it never be forgotten. She was chosen precisely (though not only) because she was a virgin. In her virginity she exalts sexual purity to a pinnacle of honor. In her purity she becomes the model for every little girl to imitate and every little boy to honor. She becomes an image, a heroine, who lays the poetic foundation for what is now so crassly called “sex ed.”

Consider, sex cannot be understood apart from its purpose and its purpose cannot be understood apart from its Creator. Sexuality is not shameful; rather, it is good. But it is constrained. It is fulfilled only when it is offered up to God and one’s spouse is a covenental relationship that lifts it from the level of the animal to that of the spirit.

All of us are called to sexual purity. The blessed and sainted virgin, by offering hers up to God, became the mother of God. As we have forgotten her, we have lost ourselves.

And in Mary we see a model of pure motherhood. Our greatest hero is not the acquisitive, the power hungry, or the conqeror. We do not exalt the so-called manly virtues to an unmerited height. Our greatest hero is the one who turned the other cheek and went to His execution as a lamb to the slaughter. Second only to Him in our hearts is the one who was willing to be shamed before men, to risk her marriage and her sacred honor, and to have her heart pierced with a sword for the salvation of sinful men. The highest, most honored human being who is not God is honored by us for being a mother at tremendous cost to herself. She became the mother of sorrows for our sake.

 This is the “slave morality” of Nietszche and his reader, Dewey. This is what the last century has flung into the cesspool and has mocked heartlessly, replacing it with a culture of greed, vindictiveness, and nihilistic education and politics.

My hero was born like a slave. Maybe a little lower. His mother was treated like a slave. Maybe a little lower. They were chased into Egypt. They were dishonored and questioned everywhere they went. But they quietly worked diligently and faithfully. He took on the “lowly” trade of a carpenter, thus sanctifying and blessing the work of our hands. She raised Him, and prayed, and pondered what she heard about Him in her heart, thus sanctifying the most exalted role of motherhood.

As we celebrate the feast of the birth of our Lord over the next few weeks, let us not forget who our heroes are. Let us remember that she who was driven out of the inn and even out of Bethlehem is accustomed to flight. She is not surprised that she has been driven out of our state schools or out of the public places. She is accustomed to flight because of her devotion to her Son. Let us fly with her. Let us worship with her.

 And where she is welcome, let us attend to her. Let us honor her to honor her Son, to whom she continually points. Let us hear her words, when she says, “Do whatever He says.”

Let us present her honorably to our children. Let us not be ashamed to call our daughters to imitate her, which they will be much more likely to do when we honor her. Let us call our sons to honor her, which they will be much more likely to do when we do. And let us remember that, all Hallmark sentimentality aside,  there can be no higher role for a human being than that of mother, the highest qualification for which is a pure heart, soul, and body.

My heroes are a virgin, a mother, a carpenter, and an accused criminal. Those “slaves” who have been exalted above the Cherubim and the Seraphim, the mother in her Son.

Good solutions II

A good solution accepts also the limitations of discipline. Agricultural problems should receive solutions that are agricultural, not technological or economic.

This second of 14 entries listing Berry’s good solutions that allow for “solving for pattern” probably provokes controversy. We want to solve every problem using technology or economics. But if the problem is pedagogical (i.e. having to do with teaching), then to solve it technologically isn’t possible. The problem in America’s schools is not that we don’t have the means to get information into children’s hands. It is that we don’t know the purpose of education. And we don’t know the purpose of education because we don’t know what a human being is. Until we figure that out, no amount of technology can solve our education problems.

I would recommend a close reading of the Protagoras and The Gorgias and a little more critical approach to the way Nietzsche intimidates the half-educated that govern our philosophy departments and from them our school administration. Our half-baked nihilism is neither necessary nor a good idea. And it isn’t very compelling to people who can read The Bully Anti-philosopher with a spine.