Life Amidst the Postmodern Ruins
I was very impressed with how Chesterton, although writing in 1907, had already diagnosed the pathologies of the left. In fact, his ideas mirror exactly what Polanyi wrote some 50 years later about the "moral inversion" of the left, i.e., the dangerous combination of radical skepticism and an unhinged, ruthless moral perfectionism unbound from tradition.
Chesteron writes of the socialist that although he may have a "large and generous heart," it is "not a heart in the right place." And only a human being can have a heart dangerously set in the wrong location. It generally occurs "when a religious scheme is shattered" as a result of their intense skepticism. When this happens, "it is not merely the vices that are let loose." Rather, "the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage." Just because someone has a moral code, it hardly means that they are moral.
I have written a number of posts on the dynamics of this pathological process, which I thought that Polanyi had been the first to recognize. But Chesterton also writes of how "the modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone." Most every destructive policy put into place by the left can be traced to some Christian virtue gone mad -- i.e., feed the hungry, so steal from "the rich" and call it "giving," or defending abortion on the basis of the sanctity of "liberty," or encouraging every manner of deviancy under the guise of "tolerance." They have the bizarre idea that it is "easier to forgive sins" if "there are no sins to forgive" -- except for the sin of believing they exist.
Or the leftist might extract and focus upon a single virtue to the exclusion of others, which creates a dangerous imbalance, for example, "a merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity." John Edwards' campaign is based almost solely upon this idea, but again, what he calls "charity," the rest of us call coercion. And boundless charity in the absence of any obligation on the part of the recipient is a recipe for anthropological disaster.
Schuon would agree with Chesterton that the leftist is "really the enemy of the human race -- because he is so human." Of all the animals, only a human being can sink beneath himself -- and even beneath the animals. And he does so primarily by imagining that an animal is all he is, for when human intelligence is in the service of animal instinct, the result is hell on earth -- and bear in mind that Chesterton was writing before the great atheistic movements of the 20th century -- the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Communist China, et al, so he clearly grasped the principle before it actually played out in history.
And Chesterton could prophecize in this manner because he could see directly into the "principial" world of timeless truth embodied in revelation. Again, revelation instantiates metaphysical truths with which it is possible to "think beyond the surface," both in space and in time, interior and exterior. Thus, unlike postmodernists who believe that "perception is reality," he writes that "man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert -- himself." This leads to the erosion of universality and the elevation of particularity to the ultimate -- which quickly devolves into nihilism.
Conversely, the part that a man doubts "is exactly the part he ought not doubt -- the Divine Reason." But this inversion obviously persists -- indeed, it is practically the fault line that runs between left and right -- and is responsible for a range of pathological ideas, from multiculturalism, to moral relativism, to the belief in "self esteem," to reducing standards in general to achieve some preconceived end.
The left also practices a "false humility." After all, it can sound like a plea for humility when the postmodern multiculturalist asks, "who am I to say that I can possess the truth, or that one culture is better than another?" But this attitude is a "more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic." That is -- and this is apparently a subtle point, so listen closely -- "The old humility was a spur that prevented man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether."
This is one of the reasons that the left habitually attacks motives instead of substance, for they first undermine the idea that you can know anything objectively, and then insist that the purpose of knowledge is domination and oppression anyway. For the last several years, "job one" of of the left has been to make us doubtful of our aims in Iraq, in the hope that we will simply become demoralized and surrender.
But they do this so selectively that it is mind-boggling. For example, surely there was more credible evidence that Saddam had WMD than that the earth is undergoing catastrophic manmade warming. But in both cases, their main argument is that people who disagree with them have venal motives. In the case of President Bush, he really wanted to invade Iraq because he thought it would somehow enrich his already wealthy "friends." And in the case of global warming, those who reject the theory are simply on the payroll of Bush's wealthy friends. So for all practical purposes, humility is not possible on the left, since their conspiratorial form of thought means that they always have the answer. And it sounds humble to the stupid, since they are always opposed to the intrinsically racist-sexist-homophobic America.
So, just as the left engages in the moral inversion of detaching virtue from tradition, they engage in a weird "cognitive inversion" that combines "intellectual helplessness" with a kind of monstrously arrogant omniscience. This is how you can spend some $100,000 plus on an elite university education, only to learn that truth doesn't exist and we possess it.
Once again, Chesterton was a prophet with regard to the problem of the "tenured radicals" who have hijacked our higher educational system: "The peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought." How did he know about the narcissistic boomers 40 years before the first one was born?
Chesterton writes that "there is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped." It is the thoroughly irrational thought that our thoughts have no relationship to reality and that truth is therefore inaccessible to human beings. This radical skepticism was "the ultimate evil against which religious authority was aimed," which is why, "in so far as religion is gone, reason is going. For they are both of the same primary and authoritative kind. They are both methods of proof that cannot themselves be proved. And in the act of destroying the idea of Divine authority we have largely destroyed the idea of that human authority by which we do a long-division sum. With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to pull the mitre off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it."
For if the converse were true -- i.e., the blind materialism of natural selection -- "it does not destroy religion but rationalism," for it nullifies the mind that can know truth. It is the equivalent of "I am not; therefore I cannot think."
Thus, "it is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin." For we have already seen the effects of this gloriously unbound, "free" thought, since the results are strewn all around us. Indeed, we must try to get through the day -- and our lives -- by making our way through its ruins.