Saving the World From the Bigs

The mind rooted in faith operates differently from the mind rooted in doubt.* Doubt, interestingly, comes from the Latin “dubitas,” which can as easily be translated “fear.” In Elizabethan times, that correlary was not obscure, as you can see when you read, for example, Hamlet.

A few years ago, Joss Whedon wrote a TV series about a big corporation trying to take over the world. They developed the technology to implant new personalities into people, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure that an abuse (abolition) of human nature like that will lead to trouble and tyranny.

One of the most interesting elements of the show to me was the way they ran their computers. If I understood it correctly, they didn’t use electricity: they used mental energy, specifically: fear.

Consequently, they had to ensure that people were in a constant state of fear.

Whedon is generally pretty good for creating middle-brow, post-modern fairy tales that give us metaphors and imagery to think about our age. They are caricatures, of course, but they can be worth contemplating.

It’s obvious to me that we live in an age of anxiety and that the powers that be trade on that anxiety to gain power and make sales. I’ve read enough marketing material to know that fear is up there with lust as the most marketable emotions (not that I needed to read anything more recent than St. Paul or Aristotle to know that).

So the “liberal” offers himself as the solution to the fear of big business, big oil, big pentagon, big home school, etc. while the “conservative” offers himself as the solution to big government, big government, and big government, etc.

The gentleman, the true liberal conservative, the one who seeks order, freedom, and love of neighbor, is opposed, in principle, to any concentration of power, including when it is being concentrated in his own hands. He is full of doubt, but that doubt is directed at anything or anyone that slips its bounds and tries to make decisions he, she, or it does not need to live with, that separates the authority to make decisions from the responsibility for those who are affected by them, and that does not allow the nature of the thing or person he governs to limit, direct, and define his governance.

Two passages stimuate these reflections this morning, one a quotation in Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker, chapter 11. She quotes LP Jacks from his 1926-7 Stevenson Lectures:

I am informed by philologists that the “rise to power” of these two words, “problem” and “solution” as the dominating terms of public debate, is an affair of the last two centuries, and especially of the nineteenth, having synchronised, so they say, with a parallel “rise to power” of the word “happiness”–for reasons which doubtless exist and would be interesting to discover. Like “happiness,” our two terms “problem” and “solution” are not to be found in the Bible**–a point which gives to that wonderful literature a singular charm and cogency…. On the whole, the influence of these words is malign, and becomes increasingly so. They have deluded poor men with Messianic expectations… which are fatal to steadfast persistence in good workmanship and to well-doing in general….

May I urge you to print that quotation and review it from time to time, especially if you are in a school or any other leadership position?

The second quotation comes from Lee Pearcy’s book The Grammar of Our Civility: Classical Education in America:

In a bureaucracy, also, the linguistic virtues imparted by classical liberal education will be disadvantages. Any suggestion that an unelected governing class exists in a democracy is to be deprecated or denied. Bureaucrats, who form sucha class, gain power and longevity by rejecting any imputation that their actions are based on individual acts of judgment, discrimination, or evaluation. They claim effectiveness, efficiency, and an ability to predict events based on what are seen as necessary laws of human behavior, impersonally interpreted. Yet clarity, even by something as simple as establishing a preference for active verbs, may compel an official to acknowledge his individual responsibility. Accuracy and precision may leave little room for future maneuver or negotiated compromise.

Perhaps it is a stretch, but it seems worth it to take the trouble to ask whether people of faith would create a world so reduced. More practically, it also seems worthwhile to explore the degree to which this anti-classical bureaucratic approach governs our environments, leadership, assessment, curriculum, and teaching practices.

This is no trivial question and to challenge the zeitgeist would be no easier than it always is, but perhaps classical education nevertheless requires that we ask the question and throw down the challenge.

We need to rid the world of messianic expectations, which we cannot, of course, do. But at least we can set aside our own drive to solve the problems of the age, make a difference, change the world, etc. After I figure out how to love my wife, my neighbor, and my children, then I’ll give advice on these other matters.

So I return to LP Jacks, and complete his quotation included in Sayers’ book:

Let the valiant citizen never be ashamed to confess that he has no “solution of the social problem” to offer to his fellow-men. Let him offer them rather the service of his skill, his vigilance, his fortitude and his probity. For the matter in question is not, primarily, a “problem,” nor the answer to it a “solution.”

It might not be possible to exagerrate the weight of those words.


* As Josh thought it necessary to clarify that he is not contending with Devin, so I must now clarify that I am contending with neither Josh nor Devin. To doubt and to be rooted in doubt are two very different things. I can and do doubt what I know constantly. I’m not sure the mind rooted in doubt does that.

** He is refering to the King James Bible, I would expect, since it was what everybody read in the 1920’s, but in this he is more prudent than many modern translations. When, for example, the beatitudes are made more friendly for the modern reader through the careless amiability of the words “Happy are the poor in spirit,” the translation might be easier to “understand” (though I doubt it – it strikes me as less understandable, though certainly more welcoming), but the translator has placed a barrier between the reader and the meaning of the original text – which describes such a person, not as happy, but as blessed.

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