Two excellent essays:
- Alan Roebuck’s Why do people believe what they believe? Because of the authorities. Yes, it’s absolutely true: people believe what they’re told to believe. Liberalism’s uncontested hegemony itself disproves the liberal belief that people naturally rebel against established orthodoxy. Even what passes for rebellion in the Western world (e.g. teenagers) is in fact people doing what they are told is expected of them.
- Lydia McGrew’s Picking our models carefully. It’s not that Wendell Berry is wrong about something that makes him an unfit guide; it’s that he’s wrong about the most important things, and wrong in not even realizing that they are the most important. See also the comments where Lydia ably defends herself from the usual “but commercialism is bad too” objections and convinces me to add Thomas Fleming to my list of “Worthless Pseudoconservatives”.
A common theme is intellectual authority, which I mean to distinguish people who we trust to influence our beliefs from people whose commands impart moral obligation on us. Government officials and military superiors would be examples of nonintellectual authorities; they can command the will but not the intellect. Who are our intellectual authorities? The conceit in these liberal times is that we shouldn’t have any, that we should trust no one but judge every claim on the strength of its arguments alone, but in reality this is neither possible nor desirable. No one has the time to think deeply about everything, and even if he did, an external authority is important for opening our minds to unwelcome ideas.
Let us call these authorities “teachers”. How is a teacher distinguished from anyone else whose arguments you consider?
- A teacher has the authority to immediately change your judgment about what is a reasonable opinion. That is, if you thought belief X is crazy, you will immediately change your mind (without necessarily deciding that X is true) when you learn that Y believes X even before you hear Y’s reasons.
- If a teacher’s reasoning seems obviously wrong, your first assumption is that you’re not understanding it properly.
We generally grant experts–at least in technical fields–this level of authority when speaking in their field. The idea that billions of neutrinos are streaming through our bodies may sound fantastic, but the uneducated layman is willing to trust that the scientists have good reasons for being so sure of it. However, when these same scientists start talking about art or ethics, the public would not be wise to give these pronouncements any special weight. One can imagine higher levels of teaching authority.
- A trusted teacher is regarded as reliable on those questions deemed most important. He is an “expert” on fundamental truths and on the good life. That is, he is wise.
- A trusted teacher is trusted to determine for himself the range of his expertise. That is, you may not think of of Y as having any special knowledge of subject X–say, he has no formal training in it and hasn’t talked much about it in the past–but you know Y is smart enough to see the subtleties of any issue and conscientious enough to not issue an opinion without properly doing his homework. Thus, all his opinions are automatically regarded as reasonable and worthy of serious consideration.
Note that “trusted” doesn’t just mean “trusted to be honest” (dishonesty would of course be a complete disqualifier) but “trusted to be right”.
It occurs to me that this higher level of teaching authority is what Catholics are supposed to grant the Pope in his non-infallible, and even non faith-and-morals, pronouncements. I don’t know any Catholic who actually does this. When His Holiness praises world government or American democracy, I don’t re-evaluate my opinions of these things. Actually, I don’t even give the Pope deference on theological issues in his non-magisterial writings. I never ridicule his nonofficial writings (in fact, I think most of them are pretty good), but I don’t take the attitude that whatever I find there is probably right even if it clashes with my prior opinion. This is a shame, because it would probably be good for me to have my mind expanded by a trusted teacher.
Is there anyone you trust in this way?