WESTERN CIVILISATION by Brian ComanNews Weekly
The owl of Minerva: the signs of times past
, February 11, 2017
I take my title from a famous line given in G.W. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “The owl of Minerva takes its flight only with the coming of the dusk”. Hegel proposed that the philosopher or historian (Minerva’s wise owl) can come to understand a particular era of human history only once that era is drawing to a close or, indeed, has passed. Implied in his statement is the corresponding notion that, in such a twilight condition, rejuvenation is impossible. Like old age in humans, the process is irreversible and inexorable.
Resetting the clock
Consider, for example, the condition of the Roman Empire in the mid fourth century. The Emperor Julian, who reigned from 361 to 363 AD, attempted to restore the old Roman religious beliefs and traditions, sensing that the Empire was decaying. He carried out many reforms and made strenuous efforts to bring the Empire back to that condition of power and glory that it had enjoyed in previous centuries.
But, of course, the tide of history was against him. Within the space of 50 years, Rome itself was to be sacked by the barbarians. Moreover, out of the ashes of that Empire there arose, albeit gradually and with many setbacks, Christian Europe – a very different Empire with its own prodigious achievements. The Christianity that Julian opposed was the very catalyst needed for a renewal of a very different order.
If you've seen Minerva's owl, it's too late.
Predicting the end of an era has always been a favourite human pastime. There are several reasons why this is the case. In the first place there is the natural tendency of the old to denounce the times in which they live and to look back fondly on the conditions prevailing during their childhood – laudator temporis acti, as the shortened version of Horace’s famous dictum has it. Again, even if one is living in an age of unrivalled prosperity and peace, there is a natural human tendency to exclaim “these good times cannot last”.
Older Australians will recall with great fondness, that poem of P.J. Hartigan’s (“John O’Brien”), Said Hanrahan. Here a group of farmers gathered outside a little country church after Mass predict disastrous drought when it is dry in summer, mammoth floods when the long-awaited autumn rains come, and all-consuming bushfires when the spring growth leaps exuberantly from the earth. Meanwhile, of course, they remain oblivious to the felicitous play of the seasons. At a more general level, we all tend to look back at the record of history and note the rise and fall of past empires and surmise that our own empire will one day suffer the same fate.
These general tendencies in human historical consciousness are by no means confined to the West or to the modern era. The notion of the “Four Ages” and a theme of degeneration come to us from classical antiquity and, in the Hindu tradition, the great cycle of the Yugas conveys a roughly similar notion. Plato, of course, famously discusses the degeneration of the state from an aristocracy, through timocracy, oligarchy and democracy, to tyranny. Even the “Four Kingdoms” mentioned in the Book of Daniel have been interpreted in terms of a universal history.
What is it that prevents us from a correct diagnosis and remediation of any declining historical condition from within that particular era? Perhaps it is simply that the resources required for such action either lie outside our purview or are completely overlooked. When, in any historical era, intimations of decay arise, perhaps it is natural for people to look back at their own history and fasten on to those attributes that, they suppose, raised their civilisation to its zenith. These, they further suppose, are what is needed for rejuvenation.
But, of course, these solutions will no longer work because they themselves, in the inexorable working out of the historical process, are now part of the problem. They have, as it were, not just a built in senescence but a capacity to turn upon their hosts like a cancerous growth. The agents of progress may begin as benefactors but often end as tyrants. Think, for instance of the modern stockmarket. It began simply as a means of supplying capital needed for projects of improvement but has now achieved a sort of independent life, such that we are in the habit of daily checking upon its activities, fearful that it may ruin us. The last few decades have delivered us ample proof that the stockmarket controls us and not vice-versa.
To a techno-problem we seek a techno-solution
In the case of our own Western civilisation, which a great many people now sense is in decline, the attributes we look to as a means of rejuvenation are typically technology and education, the former encompassing both theoretical and applied sciences, and the latter including those notions of secular moral philosophy which arose after the Enlightenment.
Recall, for instance, that familiar catch-cry of the recent past in Australian politics, “the clever country”, or our current Prime Minister’s frequent statements concerning our need to meet new challenges via technological innovation. Recall, too, that universal salve proffered almost daily for all the social ills of modernity – “better education”. People need to be “better educated” so as to avoid all manner of problems, ranging from family violence, through traffic accidents, to racial intolerance, obesity, unwanted pregnancies and carbon emissions.
Importantly, the implementation of better technology and better education are both linked to a particular view of human nature that arose during and after the Enlightenment and are heavily dependent upon certain notions of individual freedom and economic freedom exemplified in the utilitarian philosophies of John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith. It is noteworthy, too, that the proposed solutions to the ills of modernity specifically omit any reference to adherence to a religious creed – it is an optional extra which can be exercised provided it does not interfere with the free market and the absolute autonomy of the individual.
These attributes or goals were, after all, the ones that raised us from an assumed condition of ignorance, superstition and degradation during what is commonly called the Dark Ages – once a term describing the early Middle Ages but now often applied to the entire pre-modern era. They are summed up in the notion of progress – a term which refers in its entirety to human physical wellbeing, it being assumed that the latter will automatically procure social and psychological wellbeing.
Any notion of spiritual wellbeing is conveniently omitted and this is hardly surprising since almost the whole corpus of spiritual teaching, both East and West, places little importance on material progress and, indeed, often supposes it to be an impediment to the spiritual life.
But even if one looks at supposed advances in psychological wellbeing, the whole proposition is doubtful. According to a recent report in an authoritative American medical journal, the percentage of Americans on anti-depressants increased from 6.8 per cent in 1999 to 13 per cent in 2012.
It is also worth noting that these supposed solutions of better technology and better education are recommended by all shades of modern politics. Some may urge their uptake via private initiative, others by government intervention, but none questions their assumed efficacy. Moreover, when we look at conditions in the so-called “Developing” countries, we immediately assume that the solution to all their problems (or more correctly what we perceive to be their problems) is better technology and better education. In other words, we tend to universalise our own solutions.
Let us begin with the notion that secular education provides an important key to human improvement. It is immediately obvious that, when applied to social and political matters, it invokes the ancient, Socratic idea that evil is simply ignorance. Socrates argued that when people do the wrong thing – when they choose evil over good – the cause of their mistake is lack of knowledge. He believed that no human being errs voluntarily, or voluntarily does evil and dishonourable actions. So too, does the modern social engineer, who simply cannot accept the possibility that evil is real and that the most evil people in the world might well also be among the best educated.
And yet, the whole of the Christian tradition maintains that evil is real and ineradicable, and its reality is everywhere abundantly and clearly seen. As G.K. Chesterton remarked in Orthodoxy: “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
That evil is unconnected to lack of education is simply proved by casting our attention back to earlier times in the West when the vast majority of people were poorly educated. There is no sound evidence to suggest that they were any more prone to evil deeds than their better-educated superiors. Indeed, if we think of the failings of late Medieval and Renaissance society, we have a great deal of evidence to the contrary. We also have that famous quote, attributed (perhaps falsely) to Louis Pasteur: “I have the faith of a Breton peasant and by the time I die I hope to have the faith of a Breton peasant’s wife.”
Since Christian faith aspires to human goodness, the quotation given (which simply summarises the virtues of simplicity and innocence) stands in stark contradistinction to the modern notion of the virtue of “cleverness”. The successful modern is anything but simple and innocent. “Streetwise” is a term that comes to mind.
But there is a further and darker reason for the modern secular state to place much of its hope for a “better world” on education. Given within the idea that evil is simply ignorance, lies the much more dangerous notion that people can be “engineered” for good behaviour. I do not refer here to any Brave New World scenario of soma, or overt psychological conditioning, but rather to a more subtle use of the vast resources of the modern media.
Consider, for instance, the traditional understanding involved in the use of words liked male, female, mother, father, and marriage. The traditional meaning of all of these words has in the last few decades been radically attacked and contrary minority views given a massively undue prominence by the media. For it is the case that, in our age, the media “mediates” reality for us – our views of the outside world are increasingly dependent on newspapers, television and the internet. And the prominence given to minority views is disproportionate because the very people espousing their minority view are very often those media pundits themselves. And so, what began as a minority view very quickly becomes a majority one, verified by opinion polls. The whole process becomes self-fulfilling.
This attack on tradition has been carried out under the banner of “individual freedom” and “equality” and it is simply assumed that in pursuing such an agenda, the greatest social good will ensue. But, of course, the freedom of some individuals is obtained at the expense of others for whom the new order is not freedom but tyranny. Typically, those subject to this tyranny are religious believers who attempt to uphold traditional notions of human nature and human teleology.
If we now turn to the “technological fix”, similar problems present themselves. The whole thrust of technological innovation since the Industrial Revolution has been to replace human labour with machines. The initial and very worthy aim, first espoused by Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon in the phrase “the relief of man’s estate”, was quickly overtaken by the profit motive and, despite assurances to the contrary from the devotees of the free market, this gave impetus to massive social disruption as traditional village societies were dissolved.
That social disruption continued on and is still with us today. Of course, we cannot deny the great benefits that we enjoy as a result of technological innovation, but it is naïve to suppose that they have come to us without any deleterious side effects. Recent demographic studies in America, for instance, confirm that there is a widening gap between rich and poor and that the middle class – once a source of America’s social and economic success – is rapidly disappearing. Indeed, the recent election of Donald Trump as President is widely seen as evidence of a growing dissatisfaction, among blue-collar Americans in particular, with an economic and social system that no longer delivers on the claim of equal opportunity for all. In large part, rapid technological change is at the heart of the problem.
In fact, education in its modern form can be seen as a form of technological thinking itself. Certainly, it is biased towards technology – just ask any of the few survivors in traditional humanities departments at universities. But, at a more fundamental level, modern education is underpinned by a particular understanding of human nature that is part of the technological Weltanschauung. Technology is not just a methodology or a process, but a way of understanding the world. That particular way had its genesis in the famous phrase of Lord Bacon – “the interrogation of nature”. It is a “knowing by doing” which takes experience apart and analyses it. Under this system everything in nature, including human nature, becomes an artifice.
Beginnings and ends
In the tradition that came before the scientific revolution, a very important distinction was made between nature and artifice. Natural things, in the Aristotelian tradition of the West, had their own entelechia, or end, with an accompanying purpose to achieve that end. To put it another way, a natural thing is its own project. An artifice, in the traditional sense, was human-made and lacked its own internal purpose. This was the distinction between nature and art (that is, artefact) and why art could only ever imitate nature.
It is perfectly easy to see just how and when this view of nature changed. With the rejection of Aristotelian philosophy consequent upon the Reformation (a reaction against the perceived subtleties of the Schoolmen), came a corresponding rejection of the notion of a human telos. Final causes were rejected because they seemed to imply that humans might be able to contribute towards their own salvation, directly contradicting the notion of sola fides – “faith alone”.
The traditional idea that each person has an end or telos attained by the practice of the virtues is now defunct. There is no common “end” in human life, and no common means of achieving it.
As American philosopher Michael Hanby says, we now decide questions of truth under the guise of settling contests of rights. And the modern notion of rights has everything to do with the modern notion of freedom.
In the traditional understanding, freedom was a perfection – the fulfilment of our rational human nature realised in the enjoyment of goodness and truth. Freedom today simply means the capacity to act or refrain from acting.
To quote Hanby again, freedom becomes “indeterminate possibility which is tacitly opposed to every given limit. A life of freedom … eventually becomes a kind of rear-guard action against all those claims that threaten to define me prior to my choosing.” Hence the modern “rights” industry.
In like manner, the very concept of truth has been demolished. Historically, one valued Truth simply for what it is. For modern science, however, one values truth only for what it can do.
C.S. Lewis predicted the final result many decades ago – it is not we who have “conquered nature” but, rather, nature has conquered us.
We have sold our birth right for a mess of pottage.