What We Need to Know

R. V. Young wrote a book that ISI published under the perfect title At War With the Word. I say the title is perfect because in it, Dr. Young expresses in five words the essence of the post-modern, conventional mind. These words capture the dominant literary theory of the age, the one that led to living constitutional interpretation; they express the dominant presupposition behind far too much conventional pedagogy; they express the reflex of most children in our schools and colleges.

In two and a half paragraphs beginning on page 60, he summarizes the issue as follows:

… the word “logos” [is] surely one of the key terms of western civilization. it marks the convergence of Hellenic conceptions of ground, reason, and discourse, with the Hebraic personification of the Word and Wisdom of God, in the New Testament identified with the Second Person of the Trinity, incarnate in Christ Jesus. Regarded as the formal principle of the cosmos in one perspective and the means of its creation in the other, it guarantees that in western civilization reality will be endowed with an intelligible, purposive structure; that is both the material nature of the world and its historical development will be meaningful. In conjunction with the Greek tragic sense and with the Judaeo-Christian concept of original sin, this conception of the order and purpose of the universe provides an explanation both of meaning and absurdity, of joy and sorrow, of triumph and tragedy. In other words, it furnishes the basis of all normative criteria, which culminate in our understanding of good and evil.

Thus much the positive Greco-Judaeo-Christian contribution, that which gave us western Christian civilization. But there is a worm in the apple:

As the author of Beyond Good and Evil (a rubric appropriate for virtually all of his writings), Nietzsche is necessarily the enemy of all norms and standards – not, mind you, of this or that rule or law, but of the idea of the normative, even of the normal. A further consequence is that Nietzsche must be the enemy of meaning, for to have meaning is to have significance; that is, to bear a sign, to be marked, to be this thing and not another, to be distinguished from and placed in relation to other things. The meaning of an entity is thus the basis of its identity, which entails definition, discrimination, judgment. It is intellectual law and order. To know these distinctions and to know the reason that unites them in an overall reality, is to know reality, and the actual nature of reality is, then, the truth. The central religious tradition of the west teaches that knowledge of the truth is freedom (John 8:32), but Nietzsche teachers, to the contrary, that truth is an obstacle to “real freedom.” For if truth exists – if things have meaning and purpose; if they have ontological integrity – then everything is not permitted.

That states the crucial points, but Dr. Young wants us to see the significance of his words:

Nietzsche’s crucial importance in the unhinging of metaphysics is that he went about it so explicitly. It is plausible to assign responsibility for the disruption of the classical and Christian tradition to various philosophic developments, from the nominalism of William of Ockham to the subjectivization of metaphysics by Immanuel Kant; but it was Nietzsche who openly declared war on the western understanding of reason. The contribution of Jacques Derrida was to make Nietzsche’s call for intellectual anarchy into a viable academic research project.

When the colleges and schools promote intellectual anarchy and the empty freedom of escape from truth, it becomes difficult to see how a society that adopts these ideas can survive. I would argue that our writing programs have been some of the earliest victims of Nietzsche’s anarchism. Apart from The Lost Tools of Writing, can you show me a writing program that teaches Invention? Why has it been discarded? Because it revolves around “definition, discrimination, judgment”, precisely what classical rhetoric handbooks were designed to cultivate from the beginning.

I could go on and on about the effects of Nietzsche on the way our children and most Christian leaders think, but for now, let me enter into some shameless self-promotion, thereby vindicating Nietzsche’s claim that all communications are power moves but undermining it by my explicit expression.

You can teach the virtues of the Christian classical tradition simply by being aware of them and following your sound instincts as a thinker following conscience; however, there is no tool of which I am aware that deliberately, systematically, and patiently cultivates the tools of reason and integrates them into the wider curriculum than The Lost Tools of Writing. You need to examine it.

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