Wednesday, February 18, 2009

God, Prayer and Making a Difference III

The third part of this thread, the first two parts being here and here.

In this third part, I consider the proposition "The future of our society as one of honor, decency and virtue does not depend on religious faith." The more detailed version, from the Secular Right blog, is:

"We take for granted that parents will teach children manners, or assume that if they don't, schools will act as a back-stop. But what if neither the family nor schools perform the duty? I see no connection between belief in a supernatural being and public etiquette. Rather, the cultivation of manners rests on an understanding of how fragile social order is, and how it needs to be constantly buttressed by instruction and correction."

How will this cultivation of manners take place? It must be the instruction of those without manners, by those who do have manners. But why should the unmannered take instruction from the mannered? The ill-mannered are, at least in that respect, poorly educated. So the question resolves itself into the general question of why the uneducated should submit to an education by the educated. Now even the uneducated can see the value of a technical education, for the products of our empirical sciences are manifest to the ignorant, but technical education is not at issue; the question is one of the education of manners and morals, or what was once the point of education classically understood. It is only the wise, however, who understand the value of wisdom. The most serious aspect of ignorance is that it is ignorant of the evil of ignorance - which is why the Socratic breakthrough, which involved not only the knowledge of Socrates' own ignorance, but his understanding of its deep significance, was necessary to the founding of true education.

There can be only one reason why the uneducated should submit to education: faith. If they could see and understand the benefits of education, see the connection between manners and the fragility of society, to that extent they would not be ignorant. Heather MacDonald has it backwards. It is not the cultivation of manners that rests on an understanding of the fragility of the social order, but the understanding of the fragility of the social order that rests on the the cultivation of manners.

Faith is a virtue. I am not here speaking of the supernatural virtue of Faith with which we may be infused by the grace of God, but of the ordinary, mundane virtue of faith. Faith is not an intellectual conclusion, or an arbitrary act of the will, but a virtue - a quality of character that contributes to the fulfillment of our nature. Faith is necessary to education because the ignorant cannot see the value of education prior to being educated. So they must believe that education is worthwhile until the point comes that they can see that it is worthwhile. Faith, even faith bordering on or passing over to religious faith, was the keystone of classical education. When Socrates heard that the Oracle of Delphi had proclaimed him the wisest of men, he was puzzled because he knew himself to possess no wisdom. Were he a man of no faith, he would have simply dismissed the Oracle as mistaken and forgotten about it. But his faith - his belief that the Oracle would not speak falsely - led him to hold in tension the Oracle's prophecy and the knowledge of his own ignorance. He embarked on a quest to resolve the tension by finding a man wiser than himself. Of course, the result of his quest was the discovery that the supposed wise men thought they knew many things they did not, while Socrates was not subject to this vice, this being the basis for the Oracle's proclamation. The faith of Socrates was not a consequence of the self-education that occurred on his quest, but a pre-condition of it.

Aristotle typically begins his works with a review of the history of thought on the question he is addressing. This is a testimony of faith, a record of the fact that Aristotle, like Socrates, researched all the wise men he could find in the belief that they had something to teach him, before assuming the audacity to add his own novel contributions. St. Thomas Aquinas, the apex of the the tradition of classical thought, began his career in an act of faith in a vow of obedience to the Dominican Order. He spent his life absorbing everything anyone could teach him, not just from Christian teachers like Albert the Great or Duns Scotus, but also from pagans like Aristotle, Jews like Maimonides, and Moslems like Avicenna and Averroes. In expanding and correcting the tradition, he spoke as the voice of tradition, a result of his original act of faith.

The modern world, which I will arbitrarily take as beginning in the sixteenth century, self-consciously removed the central place of faith in intellectual life, and, eventually, in life in general. In fact, it has come close to making faithlessness (for which it misuses the word "skepticism") its supreme virtue. Descartes can be compared to Socrates on this score. After receiving a modest education, Descartes, as a young man, concluded it was all drivel and dismissed the intellectual tradition at a stroke, an act of breathtaking intellectual pride. Instead he searched for a principle on which he could hang his life and thought with absolute certainty; in other words, in complete independence and without a scintilla of faith. Socrates embarked on a quest for the wise man, Descartes on a quest for the indubitable first principle of philosophy that would relieve him of any need for wise men. The result, of course, was the cogito ergo sum and, more significantly, the establishment of faithlessness at the heart of philosophy.

Descartes did not succeed in constructing his philosophy of certainty, as thinkers after him were soon to point out. But instead of concluding that Descartes was mistaken in his original act of faithlessness, they joined him in it, concluding only that Descartes had not been faithless enough. Since then, the story of modern philosophy has been the story of philosophers undermining each other, with each proclaiming a newly discovered set of "first principles" that undermine all prior philosophers, with succeeding philosophers returning the favor by dismissing that philosopher as "naive." Thus Kant undermines both Descartes and Hume, Hegel undermines Kant, and Nietzsche undermines everyone. Hobbes proclaims the sure foundation of civil order in the discovery of the "state of nature", only to be told by Rousseau that he didn't really discover the state of nature - a feat that Rousseau, naturally, feels he himself accomplished. What they all have in common is the original Cartesian principle that philosophy starts in faithlessness. Albert Camus distilled the modern tradition (if a tradition that is defined as a continual undermining of itself can really be thought of as a tradition) when he proclaimed in The Myth of Sisyphus:

After so many centuries of inquiries, so many abdications among thinkers, we are well aware that this is true for all our knowledge. With the exception of the professional rationalists, today people despair of true knowledge. If the only significant history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotences.

Camus, like Descartes, wrote this as a young man. This was how he started his career, not how he ended it. Socrates began his philosophical career by asserting his own ignorance and searching for the wise man;  the modern man asserts the ignorance of anyone who might teach him, and like Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, and the rest of the dreary train, sets out to "revolutionize" thought by reconstructing Thought from the ground up, in his own image. Finally we reach Camus who does not attempt to reconstruct Thought - having surveyed the wreckage - and simply tries to find a way to live without thought. The modern thinker prides himself on his "skepticism", but he is not at all skeptical of the one thing needful - himself. Socrates is the philosopher so desperately needed by the modern world. 

It is easy to see the effect of all this on education and the transmission of manners and civility. It has taken a long time to play out, but destructive ideas held initially by an intellectual elite eventually filter down and through society as a whole. Finally we reach the point where the average person absorbs the faithlessness that was once an intellectual vice restricted to a few intellectual "pioneers", and massive cultural damage ensues. Everyone is a Cartesian ego now, a self-subsisting intellectual principle that demands that everything submit to it on its own terms. The decrease of civility is only a symptom for which modern philosophy is the disease; the cure is a return to faith at the center of culture.

We have lost the virtue of faith that is vital to education. Why should a student put faith in a teacher, when the teacher holds faithlessness as a first principle? A student will place faith in a teacher to the extent that the teacher has faith, and for that the teacher must relate himself to a being worthy of faith; for a grown man, that can only be God. That is the connection between belief in a supernatural being and public etiquette.

"Criton, we owe a cock to Asclepios; pay it without fail."
 - the dying words of Socrates.

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