The Suicide of Thought (Part Three)

Part Three: Strolling Down the Bookshelf

So to answer our greater mystery, the reader is invited to turn to his bookshelf. If the reader happens not to have a bookshelf to hand, let us imagine yours is stocked by Mortimer Adler. He has put handsomely bound editions of what he (and a great many others) hold to be the Great Books of Western learning, those with the most profound thoughts and the most profound influence on the course of Western history. Mr. Adler shelves the books in chronological order:

Look at the works of philosophy and ignore, for now, the literature, math, and astronomy. As you scan from the top shelves, where the ancient writers rest, and draw our eyes down the titles on the spines through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the so-called Enlightenment, and the Modern, a certain unease should come across you.

On the top shelf is Plato and Aristotle and also Lucretius, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius; nearly the whole second shelf is Thomas Aquinas, perhaps with Boethius tucked in a corner behind the bookend; third is Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Pascal, Descartes; lower still, is Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel; on the bottom is Marx, Freud, Nietzsche; and in a heap on the floor or in the dust bin are volumes of William James and Wittgenstein and other moderns.

You notice that the works of the top shelf address deep and fascinating topics, including metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics. The writing is clear and lucid, and, in the case of Lucretius, is poetry. The thoughts are given in rational order. Plato writes in dialogs of questions and answers, Aristotle in lecture order, Marcus Aurelius in meditations. All, but most particularly Epictetus, write on the topic of ethics to put heart into the disheartened. The ethical precepts are examples of masculine boldness, profound prudence, iron self-command, uncorrupted integrity and fairmindedness. The writing is inspired and inspiring.  You could read these books and decide, based on them, how to face your death and live your life.

The rigor seen in the top shelf comes to bloom in the second shelf. A final topic is added to all the ancient branches of philosophy, namely, theology. No one aside from Euclid achieves such pristine logical discipline of thought as St. Thomas Aquinas. Again, the topic of ethics is central. Philosophy is a practical science of learning how to live. But another and deeper layer is added to the old pagan stoicism: faith, hope and charity are appended to the classical virtues, and songs of thanks and joy.

Suddenly, a darker note. Machiavelli argues in favor of pragmatic corruption of laws and morals, and introduces the excuse that the ends justifies the means, the tyrant’s plea, into political discourse. Hobbes scorns the concept of limits on monarchic power, and boldly and cynically argues that the king can do no injury to his subjects. Descartes introduces the method of radical skepticism, deduces the existence of himself, God, and the world, but severs soul from body. In him, all writing on the topic of ethics among philosophers comes to an end.

The next shelf contains the writings of what seems a different race of beings written for a different purpose altogether.

Nothing useful for the question of how to live one’s life is here, nothing to the purpose of how to learn theological truths, very little to the purpose of how to learn scientific and physical truths, and nothing about politics except as a mechanism to secure one’s rights. The concept of politics as an organic, living means to inculcate virtue in the citizens is left by the wayside.

Hume states that all everything not confirmed by empirical knowledge is worthless, which means, since his own statement is non-empirical, it is worthless.

Rousseau abolishes all talk of original sin, and introduces the concept of the noble savage, that brilliant exemplar of human nature as it would be, shining like a demigod, if only human institutions of law and morality did not hinder it. Of course, one wonders why Rousseau in writing books protected by copyright for which he was paid in a nation and day when his words were allowed did not revert to his nobler state merely by working a passage on ship to some wild area, striping down to a loincloth, and running in among the aborigines and natives.

Kant makes a Herculean effort to erect some fashion of philosophical model without any metaphysics, and he manages to express his thoughts in a fashion almost comically elliptical, technical, and obscure. He holds forth the antinomy of reason as an example of the futility of philosophical reasoning, which, alas, undermines his posture. If all philosophy is vain, then Kantian philosophy is vain.

Hegel, in turn, reads like a parody of Kant, achieving impenetrable obscurity. For Hegel, A can also be non-A when the thesis and antithesis collide in synthesis. This abolishes logic. Abolishing logic abolishes Hegelian logic, for by his own terms, Hegel must evolve by encountering an anti-Hegel doctrine, and in an act of mutual destruction, give rise to a new synthesis, at which time Hegelianism is no longer true.

Each pares off another branch of philosophy. Hume rejects all abstract thought for reductionist empiricism.  The sciences that rest on abstractions, mathematics, geometry, ethics, politics, are therefore left without any intellectual framework: all are matters of arbitrary opinion, except empirical facts, that are certain and reliable. Kant rejects metaphysics, substituting instead a theory that human thinking is restricted to inescapable categories, which, oddly enough, introduces a dichotomy between phenomena and noumena (seen reality and true reality) which makes empiricism doubtful and unreliable. Hegel rejects the concept of fixed conceptual definitions in favor of theory of an ever-evolving mental process of dialectic that abolishes and changes concepts over time, mingling them with their opposites. This renders all thought merely a pointless flux.

On the bottom shelf is an angry book by Marx that says the human laws, customs, and history are the byproduct of an inhuman and mindless flux of material forces. These forces also erect the ‘ideological superstructures’ of men, that is, the content of their consciousness; next, a rather supercilious (and unscientific) book by Freud which says that the content of that consciousness is a confused, dark maze haunted by drives and instincts ergo not under human control, and that God is a myth produced by these vapors in the brain; finally, an angry and supercilious book by Nietzsche that rejects all ethics and declare God is dead and life is meaningless, so that by mere strength of willpower, the human mind can create reality to suit itself.

Any student pondering these books on the bottom shelf cannot help but be reduced to utter confusion, for apparently the mind is an illusion produced by material factors of history; and the mind is haunted by the repressive ghosts of attempting to live by a moral code to control the sexual appetites; but finally the mind is an all-powerful godlike organ able to create reality by will alone, and erect new forms of morality beyond good and evil.

God is dead and all things are allowed.

What happened? Looking back along the bookshelf, you try to find the point where the clear, clean, noble and, above all, useful philosophies of the ancients degenerated into gibberish.

The answer rests on what happened between the second shelf and the third.

It is fascinating to read the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, because it is the last point in time at which the intelligentsia of society believed the same things the lowest peasants believed. There was agreement from most scholarly to the basics of reality, art, ethics, politics, and metaphysics. God was complex enough for a child to grasp in wonder and simple enough to baffle and fascinate the most venerable and subtle scholar.

Yet no later philosopher matches Aquinas for rigor or clarity. Their writing is inferior and lazy, their methods sloppy. Another mystery rears its head: why is the most rigorous, noble, and useful of philosophers dismissed unread by the moderns, whereas inferior writing, some of it appallingly inferior, is lauded as profound?

A second fascinating point is that, with the passing of Thomists, the last generation in which the world described by the philosopher and the world seen by the peasant was the same world. Common sense was always the starting point for the Thomists. They took what was commonly agreed as the starting point, the axiom, and deduced what else must necessarily be true if the starting point is true.

Not so later philosophers. Each indeed seemed intent on proposing increasingly Buddha-flavored assumptions that the human world, or human thought, was not what it seemed, but actually far different than its first appearance. Thomists concentrated on explaining why what common sense said at first was reasonable and sound. Those who came next concentrating on explaining why common sense is illusion.

It starts with Machiavelli saying that the common man’s common notions of decency are useless to a pragmatic prince attempting to quell rivalry to his reign. Ethics known to the elite is no longer part of the same world the common man knows.

The illusionists grow and grow as generations pass until all philosophy is dead. Apparently sound thinking or profound philosophy is not allowed: this generation enters enthusiastically into the notion that the human reason is powerless except as an engine of self-deception.

Freud and Marx both introduce what will become the leitmotif of the modern age: an irrepressible desire to write philosophy and mythology, but counterfeit it to be science, and to claim one’s vaporing, daydreams, idle thoughts, and unmoored speculations are actually a rigorous demonstration of objective science.

Marx claimed to have discovered the scientific basis of history and economics, but a close reading of his writings turns up childish errors, simple mistakes of fact, footnotes that refer to works that do not support the point being made, and so on. Each of his elements of his theory (the labor theory of value, the iron law of wages, the progressive immiseration of the masses, the inevitability of monopoly, calculation of factors of production without a price system) had previously been exploded by sober economists. His only innovation was the popularization of the ad hominem attack.

By claiming that all economists who argued against him were possessed of a false consciousness, mesmerized by the class interests whose ideological superstructure their means of production had erected, he has a get-out-of-jail-free card to elude any argument without answering it or addressing it. He merely refuses to address or correct errors in his theory, and instead attacks whoever dares point out the errors. This also becomes the leitmotif of the modern age, the one substitute for rational debate that grows and grows until rational debate dies.

Freud, it must be noted, when Jung criticized his theories, did not defend nor answer the criticisms, but invented a psychotherapeutic reason, unbeknownst to Jung, to explain Jung’s allegedly irrational and neurotic desire to attack, hence not to admit, the truth of Freud. It was as open an admission of fraud as anyone can imagine, yet Freud’s fame and prestige grew steadily.

And with Nietzsche, there is no reason to be honest to an opponent in debate, or even to be honest with yourself in your own mind.   The superman makes his own reality. Contradictions in terms do not concern him. Nonsense becomes sense if he merely wills it hard enough, in much the same way the Tinkerbell will come back to life if the children clap hard enough, and really, really do believe in fairies. This reality-warping willpower is manifested only in one fashion: sneering at those with whom one takes a dislike because their philosophy makes more sense than yours. This also becomes the leitmotif of the modern age. Civility is abandoned. Reason is dead. Talk is noise. Everything is boring.

The books on the floor are hardly worth mention. One rejects not only all philosophy, but all abstract thinking for what is actually an abstract and philosophical reason, and the other uses words to say the all words are without meaning.

These is, of course, many more nuances and subtle layers of thought to all these writings, far more than my curt summary is meant to convey. But the summary does sum up the main point of what happened to Western thought.

Perhaps a passage from your favorite children’s book appears in your mind at this time, scene where children visiting a dead world see a line of the images of their kings and queens throned in order from ancient to modern:

“Both the men and women looked kind and wise, and they seemed to come of a handsome race. But after the children had gone a few steps down the room they came to faces that looked a little different. These were very solemn faces. You felt you would have to mind your P’s and Q’s, if you ever met living people who looked like that. When they had gone a little further, they found themselves among faces they didn’t like: this was about the middle of the room. The faces here looked very strong and proud and happy, but they looked cruel. A little further on they looked crueler. Further on again, they were still cruel but they no longer looked happy. They were even despairing faces: as if the people they belonged to had done dreadful things and also suffered dreadful things.”