What’s Wrong with the World Part I — Introduction

Author’s note: The following is an essay of many parts first published in this space in 2010. I may be away from my computer for a while, and so I have scheduled the parts to be republished automatically over the next several days.


Do not suppose, you Greeks, that my separation from your customs is unreasonable and unthinking; for I found in them nothing that is holy or acceptable to God. For the very compositions of your poets are monuments of madness and intemperance.

And I say nothing of the masculine character of Minerva, nor of the feminine nature of Bacchus, nor of the fornicating disposition of Venus. Read to Jupiter, you Greeks, the law against parricides, and the penalty of adultery, and the ignominy of pederasty.

Why are you, being a Greek, indignant at your son when he imitates Jupiter, and rises against you and defrauds you of your own wife? Why do you count him your enemy, and yet worship one that is like him? And why do you blame your wife for living in unchastity, and yet honour Venus with shrines?

—Discourse to the Greeks of St. Justin Martyr

It has long been a puzzle to me, a puzzle indeed I recall pondering all my life, why the era into which I was born happens to be so singularly illogical, hypocritical, ignorant, un-virtuous, barbaric, craven, ugly, foolish and confused.

The ancient world, to be sure, had its share and more of evils: infanticide, piracy, imperial conquest and oppression, slavery, gladiatorial games, witch-hunts and Inquisitions, and general tyranny, superstition, plague, famine, and the abominable treatment of woman in all ages, but particularly in ancient Greece and Rome, where women could be beaten, or divorced without cause by their husbands. And yet my youthful reading of history was one of gradual but certain improvement in the West, and a more torpid but still upward progress in the East toward civilization, scholarly, medical and technical accomplishment, wealth and grandeur, and enlightenment. Human liberty and weal seemed the goal of all the grand drama of history.

And then, suddenly, sharply, and without precedent, at about the time of the industrial revolution, midway in the Victorian Age, the world inexplicably went insane.

Instead of glorifying human liberty, the world called it ‘Capitalism’ and gathered a whole hemisphere against it. Free and civilized people rushed madly to embrace the guillotine, the gulag, and the legs of risibly incompetent or mentally unbalanced tyrants. Poetry died. Music, art, novels, plays, all shriveled into grotesquery. Honor was dishonored. Femininity and Masculinity, romance and chivalry, courage and self-discipline, all were mingled into a dripping lard of unisex nonbeing. Discourtesy was standardized, and political goodthink and herdthink replaced courtesy. Even such movements toward continued enlightenment as the Civil Rights Movement were somehow involved in an attempt to deconstruct and destroy the very institutions that assured those rights, ushering in a new movements of collective rights and identity politics, which could not possibly be calculated to do more to undo the gains of desegregation. Segregation was reintroduced, this time as race-quotas and as hyphenated-American pride movements. The family unit was crippled, dishonored, deterred, and sexual license and sexual perversion were lauded as the norm, if not heroic.

Philosophy passed through the hands of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, various schools of Positivism and Postmodernism, descended through stages of slovenliness, to cant and rumfuddle, to ranting, to nonsense, to the mere irrationalism finally to reach nihilism. Philosophers abolished philosophy. All educated minds were trying to empty themselves of all reason and learning: scholars were as book-burners, seeking to bury the legacies of learning rather than maintain them.

It was as if the entire civilized world had suffered a violent allergic reaction to modern civilization and was trying to vomit it back up, and to return to the vices and deformities of tribal barbarism. Having reached the pinnacle of civilization, no one seemed to want to be here.

The world was engaged in a vast and continuing revolt against reason, against liberty, against the mind, against the soul. The world was rotted from its heart, and the disease afflicted each aspect of civilization it could reach.

In my youth, I attributed this rot to a lack of philosophy in the general culture.

Philosophy is the application of reason to the several fundamental questions or paradoxes of the human condition, therefore is the study of reason, of knowledge, of virtue and of civic virtue. Philosophy is also the exhortation or the schooling of the passions to follow virtue: we still speak of a man bearing privation or pain “philosophically”, that is, with undisturbed equanimity. Finally, philosophy includes the study of beauty; philosophy includes the study of nature; and philosophy culminates in the inquiry into the fundamental nature of being.

In other words, the disciplines of philosophy include logic, ontology, epistemology, ethics, politics, hortatory, aesthetics, physics and metaphysics.

In my youth, I though the era was illogical because my contemporaries (for some reason unknown and unknowable) did not have the grit or good sense to study the classical logic of the schoolmen. I thought so much illogic was on display merely because no one knew the rules of logic.

The era was hypocritical, lacking honor, honesty and good character, because hypocrisy is illogic manifested as human action: acting by a double standard means, in effect, acting arbitrarily, which means, ignoring the meaning and consequences of one’s acts, which means ignoring reality.

Ignoring reality causes ignorance: it takes a particular art of avoiding or eluding thought, a self-imposed self-deception, to remain blissfully ignorant in the face of blatant facts.

The era was vicious because vice is the inevitable product of hypocrisy combined with ignorance in the conscience: it is ignorance when the conscience does not know right from wrong, and it is hypocrisy when the conscience does not apply any standard of right and wrong.

The era was barbaric, because civilization demands the practice of civic virtue; and a people without private virtue cannot pretend civic virtue. The savagery we associate with savages is an absence of justice, moderation, temperance and fortitude on the part of the customs, cults and laws of the people in general.

The era was craven, because cowardice is the vice caused by a defect or deformation of the passions, especially the passion of courage.

The era was ugly, because ugliness was the aesthetic manifestation of a deformation of the passions.

The era was foolish because it abhorred the wisdom tradition had painstakingly gleaned, grain by grain, over the eons, preferring instead to utter paradox and self-disproving nonsense. Sufficiently deformed passions, such as love of novelty and pride of intellect, deform the reason.

The era was confused, because it had lost its center, lost its soul, lost its reason, and lost its innocence.

To regain its reason, (or so I reasoned in my youth) the era should study logic; to regain its character, the era should study and practice virtue, including the unpopular virtues of self-control and obedience to reason and nature, and including the civic virtues; to regain its ethos, the era should house-break the passions to the commands of the conscience; to regain its courage, the era should school the passions to detest cowardice and love the noble and heroic, chaste and pure; art should likewise follow beauty and truth; to respect one’s ancestors and read their words would bring sobriety and wisdom; to study metaphysics would inform the era of the nature of reality, and thus would silence those tiresome and clumsy excuses for immorality and illogic based in unreality which define modern intellectual life.

The study of metaphysics would silence the claims that language causes thoughtcrime or that genetics excuses vice or that poverty creates crime or that goods can be consumed before they are produced or that empirical science disproves the existence both of cause and effect and of free will.

I look on back on this belief that the special ills of modernity could be solved by an education in classical philosophy with avuncular condescension at my own youthful optimism and naivety.

You see, there are basically only two theories as to what causes human evil: the Socratic and Pauline.

Socrates thought virtue was a matter of instruction, and therefore that a defect of virtue could be cured by instruction and education. You will encounter this language frequently among intellectuals, who speak of teachable moments and re-education camps. St. Paul thought virtue was a matter of inspiration: he speaks of how we can know the good and yet still not do the good—the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. The Socratic theory is the more optimistic of the two, and, in my opinion, a foolish optimism. As Socrates himself would be the first to tell you, he knows nothing. The pagan commandment written on the doors of Delphi, ‘know thyself’ was one the pagans in their gloomy hubris could not follow, but St. Paul in his glorious humility could.

In my youth, I was a follower of Socrates, not of St. Paul, and I thought the rot could be cut out, purged, scorched and scotched.  I am now convinced that even St. Paul was too optimistic. What follows here is an explanation of this conclusion, presented as a memorial of in intellectual journey and not as a persuasive argument.

In what follows, let me describing what is wrong with the world, mentioning when and how that particular ill came to my attention, and why I no longer believe that philosophy, nor any human force, can cure it.

But first, a word about qualifications and definitions.