mercredi, 09 mars 2016
Against Transcendence: Where Progressive Education Goes Wrong
Thomas F. Bertonneau
Modern education, taking it as an exemplary modern institution, fails, as we have seen, because it rudely repudiates the past and arrogantly proposes only to think forwards without first mastering the prerequisite skill of thinking, and therefore also of understanding, backwards. The essential fact about thinking backwards is that, before the subject begins his movement towards mastery, he must acquire the requisite tools for doing so on faith; in other words, education being a movement from ignorance to knowledge, it can never justify itself in advance, but requires of the learner the equivalent of discipleship or wagering. The learner must accept any number of premises and procedural formulas without understanding them, but on the understanding that those who have gone down the path before him have found them necessary and useful.
My present thesis is related to my previous thesis, which was that “when higher education – or any phase of education – repudiates faith it repudiates its own character as education, the structure of education being identical with the structure of faith.” I wish now to argue, while continuing the critique of the modern mentality carried out under that earlier thesis, that the structure of reality is the same as the structure of revelation, and when institutions repudiate revelation they repudiate their own raison-d’être, which is to constitute a meaningful human response to reality.
Because modernity rejects faith, it also rejects revelation. It assigns revelation to the genre of religion, against which, to protect itself from what it regards as a bane, deadly to its reason and secularity, it raises a vehemently guarded cordon sanitaire. An anecdote will suggest the degree of this vehemence and the glee with which it expresses itself. The philosophy faculty of the college that employs me annually hosts an endowed lecture the purpose of which is to bring to campus someone currently feted by the philosophical community for his or her outstanding, or at any rate notable, work. Some few years ago the invitation went to Dr. Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, whose mission entails standing vigilance over any attempt by “Creationists” and “Intelligent Design” advocates, those nemeses of Enlightenment, to infiltrate education. That particular year, the orator was celebrating the NCSE’s then-recent legal victory (Kitzmiller v. Dover, 2005) against the “Creationist” and “Intelligent Design” menace in Pennsylvania.
In an auditorium before the entire Philosophy faculty, representatives of numerous other faculties, and no small number of enthusiastic undergraduates, the much-anticipated speaker repeatedly earned herself rounds of robust applause for rehearsing in detail two specifics of the legal outcome that the NCSE’s lawsuit had forced. First, she and the NCSE had gotten a judge (yes, a judge) to decide what science is (applause); second, in consequence of this decision, a library came under compulsion to remove a particular book from the shelves (applause). The complementary Power-Point presentation to the talk incorporated a graphic component that began as a plain map of the United States across which in sequence little fires began to appear – the Beltane orgies of “Creationism” and “Intelligent Design.” This digital gimmick also earned an energetic outburst of hand-clapping.
The rule of irony never to explain itself will perhaps not suffer unduly by a temporary suspension, just for one paragraph. The occasion in honor of the intellectual crusader, sponsored by a faculty of professional rationalists, resembled nothing so much as Revivalist anti-liquor meeting or a Blue-Stocking rally to keep that wicked pool hall out of town. One half-expected a hysterical penitent to emerge from the audience, throw himself at the good doctor’s feet, and confess out loud that he had once fleetingly felt up the heresy – whereupon might he please receive absolution from “Sister Science” for his sin? That the audience could not see itself in such a light suggests that its constituent members had descended from intellectual commitment to a set of propositions, whose persuasiveness they would still be willing to debate, to emotive espousal of a Manichaean dispensation that consists only of true-believers in the righteous cause and the great unwashed. And yet insofar as those who applaud the authorization of judges to decide the scientific validity of claims are, indeed, modern liberals – that is to say, people who participate eagerly in the “deconstruction” of inherited, as they see it, falsehood – then they, themselves, are “Creationists.”
No one, after all, can deconstruct what has not previously been constructed. Modern liberals are also conformists, unable to resist peer pressure. On the occasion of the homiletic against “Creationism,” only two people in the auditorium withheld their approbation.
True, the reality in respect of which modern liberals are “Creationists” is the cultural, not the cosmological, reality; but it is precisely the cultural reality that most urgently concerns human beings – who over the millennia of their ongoing survival-experiment have created the webs of meaning that, if they never abrogated the cosmological reality, nevertheless stood in considerable tension with it, acknowledging that reality while enabling their creators to overcome the base elements of their animal nature through experience of the tension. Modern liberals thus concede that culture is a transfiguring artifact. They insist at the same time that nature is uncreated or that it is self-creating, but peculiarly they remain extremely reluctant to admit that the uncreated or self-creating nature is non-deconstructable. They treat nature as though it was the same as culture although of course their theory of culture (“constructivism”) remains defective because it has no anchor in the concept of a self-stabilizing reality. Modern liberals wish not to acknowledge that the nature, to which culture adapts itself, always by degrees of comparable failure or success, is fixed such that its structure precludes abrogation. If modern liberals acknowledged that fact, which would entail acknowledging that there is a non-abrogatable, human nature, then their argument that culture is generically so plastic that people may construct it or deconstruct it as they please would become dubious, even untenable.
The uncreated or self-creating, but nevertheless fixed nature, one aspect of which modern liberals celebrate and another aspect of which they elide, has a peculiar relation to the human intelligence that attempts to understand and respond to it. Either actively or passively that reality makes a demand. It reveals itself, as it is and what it is, whether or not the apprehending subject-consciousness approves of its quiddity or not; and concerning the subject-consciousness’s approval, in fact, that same external and objective “is-ness” remains cold and oblivious, declaring itself without apology. Like the river in the Jerome Kern song, it just keeps rollin’ along. The uncreated or self-creating, but nevertheless fixed nature is thus functionally the equivalent of absolute nonnegotiable revelation, as invoked by religion. That, incidentally, is how philosophy has seen it – from the Pre-Socratics to the Platonists, and, once again, from the Neo-Platonists and their Christian successors, right up to the incipiently Post-Christian Transcendentalists. I return to my thesis: That the structure of reality is the same as the structure of revelation, and when institutions repudiate revelation they repudiate their own raison-d’être, which is to constitute a meaningful human response to reality.
The philosopher of politics and history Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985) argued his impressive original of my own entirely dependent thesis in his massive study of Order and History (begun in 1956, carried forward in five volumes through to the 1980s). In Volume I of the series, Israel and Revelation, Voegelin began famously by observing the paradox that “the order of history emerges from the history of order”: That is, humanity comes to terms with the world, including itself, forwards, by what Voegelin calls the “symbolization of truth”; but only backwards, historically, will a later society be able to sort out and re-codify the cumulus of symbolizations “adequately,” thereby arriving at an “intelligible structure.” Voegelin argues, however, that the beginning of the process, where symbolization remains “compact,” and the later discernment of the “intelligible structure,” have the same revelatory, and in context the same entirely valid, character. Hesiod’s cosmo-theology in his Theogony would thus be as valid an attempt to come into “attunement” with reality as Heraclitus’ Logos of three hundred years later. That the Logos-philosophy is also an advance over the Theogony, a movement from compactness to articulation, never undoes Hesiod’s achievement
Voegelin sees the human situation as “paradoxical.” The reality that becomes a phenomenon, literally a shining-forth, for consciousness is, on the one hand, “a datum of experience insofar as it is known to man by virtue of his participation in the mystery of its being”; but it is also “not a datum of experience insofar as it is not given in the manner of an object of the external world but is knowable only from the perspective of participation in it.”
It belongs to Voegelin’s theory that societies form themselves according to a powerful founding vision, each of which constitutes a “leap in being” for consciousness, as it develops along the axis of history. It so happens that the earliest self-articulating and self-reporting societies, the ones that began to put themselves in evidence at the cusp of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages, drew their institutional structure from the powerful impression made by the heavens on human observation. These are the “cosmological societies,” based on what Voegelin calls “the cosmological myth,” familiar from the examples of Mesopotamia and Egypt but found also in the Far East and in Meso-America. Voegelin remarks importantly that “the cosmological myth arises in a… number of civilizations without apparent mutual influences.” Wherever the myth appears and forms the basis of the subsequent society, the experience that gives rise to it is the same, and this generic homogeneity suggests that the experience is objective, not an arbitrary fantasy of some gullible subject.
In Israel and Revelation Voegelin writes, “The cosmological myth… is [a] symbolic form created by societies when they rise above the level of tribal organization.” But what specifically is the “cosmological myth”? It is the discovery and the subsequent symbolization of order in the celestial realm, taken as the unavoidable model for a reorganization of life in the human realm. “When man creates the cosmion [the little cosmos] of political order, he analogically repeats the divine creation of the cosmos.” More than that, however, as Voegelin explains, “the analogical repetition is not an act of futile imitation.” Rather, the repetition is creative and arises from the intuition of “participating in the creation of order.” The repetition is furthermore conditioned by humanity’s “existential limitations.” Implicit in the emergence of the cosmological societies is the discovery of a human nature which must find “attunement” with cosmic nature. “Attunement” is necessary because the cosmic reality that reveals itself to emerging consciousness is an inalterable quiddity that makes a demand. Human nature is also an inalterable quiddity that makes a demand.
According to Voegelin, symbolization even in its early stages is aware of itself, as symbolization. The symbol-makers consciously attempt to know the directly unknowable by way of analogy; they thus concede that something exists beyond the horizon of empirical knowledge that indubitably is while at the same time remaining a mystery, which men at best can only adumbrate, and yet to which they must maintain orientation. As Voegelin puts it in his analysis of Mesopotamian myth, “Cosmological symbolization is neither a theory nor an allegory”; but rather “it is the… expression of the participation, experienced as real, of the order of society in the divine being that also orders the cosmos.” Voegelin remarks that differences in symbolization never bothered the Mesopotamians of the contending city-kingdoms, who were capable of seeing that the other city’s gods were functionally and therefore essentially the same as their own; in the hydraulic empires there existed a noteworthy understanding of symbolic equivalency. The image of extravagant spoils would have been thoroughly familiar to the Erechites, but the notion of a religious war would have struck them as nonsense.
When in The World of the Polis (1957) Voegelin turns his attention from the Near East, Egypt, and Israel to Hellenic civilization, he discovers a unique “leap in being” beyond the symbolism of cosmological compactness, but he cautions that the Greek insight into the structure of reality must not be characterized as abolishing the older insight. The “leap in being” is not “progress,” understood in the modern, parochial sense; rather it absorbs the previous insight, without which it could not have sprung into existence. Voegelin writes, “The philosopher must beware of the fallacy of transforming the consciousness of an unfolding mystery into the gnosis of progress in time” although that is typically what modern thinkers do when they invoke the “ultimacy” of their doctrines, “for such absolutism… involve[s] us in the Gnostic fallacy of declaring the end of history.” Try to imagine any modern discourse without its Greek vocabulary. It is impossible. Modern people, despite their rejection of transcendence, still live in the reality opened up by the Ionian “leap in being,” but they are less and less able to penetrate that reality.
At the dawn of the Hellenic consciousness, which is also the dawn of Western consciousness, Voegelin places “the prophetic singers who experienced man in his immediacy under the gods; who articulated the gulf between the misery of the mortal condition and the glory of memorable deeds, between human blindness and divine wisdom, and who created the paradigms of noble action as guides for men who desired to live by memory.” Hesiod never arrived at his idea of order by induction, nor did he deduce it syllogistically; he experienced it in the spontaneously self-organizing vision on Helicon that he reports in rich detail in the Invocatio of the Theogony. That experience enabled Hesiod to find the previously concealed order in the chaotic mass of inherited lore about the world and the gods, to be the organizing voice of which the Muses had nominated him.
The later philosophical development of the Homeric-Hesiodic theo-anthropology, whose earliest manifestation comes with Parmenides and Heraclitus, also originates in intuitions of order that deserve the epithet of prophetic. Concerning Heraclitus, Voegelin insists on the “deliberateness and radicalism” of his inquiry. Heraclitus discovered nothing less than a new dimension of human nature, the daimon or soul, the faculty wherewith the subject kens the sophon or wisdom in reality and comes into transcendent communion with the Logos. The Logos meanwhile is the principle that establishes the Order of Being; and which, one of the surviving fragments says, both does and does not wish to be called by the name of Zeus. According to Voegelin, while Heraclitus carried on the speculation of the Milesian physicists, and while his book must have included a cosmology, the Heraclitean Being should not be confused with the cosmos, which functions as its signifier in the constitution of the great sign. The Heraclitean Being is a level of order transcending the cosmos of mere things.
In Voegelin’s view, Heraclitus’ subordination of cosmology to ontology adds up to a towering achievement. Heraclitus, writes Voegelin, “speaks of the Logos, meaning his discourse; but this Logos is at the same time a sense or meaning, existing from eternity, whether proclaimed by the… literary Logos or not.” Unless cosmology were animated by the reservoir of meaning that the soul senses as lying beyond the congeries of mere things, its inquiry would be a futile activity; cosmology would be an endeavor of description without orientation or purpose. In Heraclitus’ vision, Voegelin continues, “the cosmos… is nature in the Milesian sense and, at the same time, it is the manifestation of the invisible, universal divinity; it is a universe given to the senses and, at the same time, the ‘sign’ of the invisible God.” Two thousand years later, Johannes Kepler sustained the same conviction, as his Mysterium Cosmographicum (1596) attests. To restate the first part of my thesis: The structure of reality is the same as the structure of revelation
These surveillances permit a re-visitation of the event that I discussed at the beginning of the present essay, the public lecture, sponsored by a university Philosophy faculty, during which the lecturer garnered plaudits for insisting that the cosmos is non-intentional and that those who would impute intentionality to it are destroyers of science whom the law should suppress. What a descent from Herr Kepler! What a descent from Heraclitus! But we must check ourselves. The guardians of scientific orthodoxy including the vigilant all-sniffing lady-proboscis, not to mention the Philosophy faculty of a state university and many faculty-members from other departments, are all more intelligent, perceptive, and educated than the gnomic Ephesian or his star-gazing spiritual descendant of the Reformation. They are critical thinkers. The present, being the culmination of progress, obviously possesses of a type of knowledge unavailable to the benighted ages, whose mentality at whatever degree of articulation modernity has obviated. Modernity disdains to call this superlative knowledge, held in absolute certainty, truth, because it rejects the concept of truth, but it nevertheless believes what it believes with adamant conviction.
The knowledge which scientistic Puritanism so aggressively publishes, and which the Philosophy faculty so vigorously applauds, is a peculiar but typically modern species of knowledge. It is less a positive assertion of anything than it is a denial or, better yet, a denunciation of a longstanding prior assertion, and as such its character is largely if not entirely negative. Such knowledge is not sufficient by itself, offering its theses for impartial examination, but rather it requires a public performance to validate it. It must sweep up the crowd into a mood of unanimity. Such a performance, its rationalistic appurtenances notwithstanding, is essentially a cultic ritual: The spokeswoman’s presentation corresponded to an archaic exorcism, whose action banishes the smut of profanation from the boundaries of the community. And what specific bane fell under banishment? “Creationism,” according to the organization’s website, “refers to the religious belief in a supernatural deity or force that intervenes, or has intervened, directly in the physical world.” In sum, matter, in its uncreated purity, must never be contaminated by spirit. But why should an inversion of the classic Gnosticism, which remains Gnostic for all that it is an inversion, be a requirement?
If the universe had an author, if it were created rather than uncreated, its structure would be authoritative; its order would be that of an intentional and immutable creation whereupon all modern utopian schemes that depend on the premise that nature may be deconstructed and reconstructed however one likes would appear in the fullness of their common petulant impossibility. The scientistic assault on Transcendence resembles what Voegelin, in The Ecumenic Age (1965), identifies as the Gnostic rebellion against reality. Because a certain type of mentality responds to any limitation, including the natural limitations, with irrational resentment, the entirety of nature can become an object of rage and vituperation. The quintessentially modern campaign of de-symbolization is tantamount to the new creation of an illusory but comforting “second reality” in which the limitations inherent in the Order-of-Being disappear and men begin, as they believe, to correct the intolerable structure of reality. I end by reiterating and slightly modifying the second part of my thesis: When institutions repudiate revelation, which is the same as the Order of Being, they repudiate their own raison-d’être, which is to constitute a meaningful human response to reality.
Thomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.