The Revolt of the Masses (1932) by José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955) is a classic diagnosis of the modern condition whose diminished currency in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century fails to correlate with its increased relevance ninety years after its initial publication. Revolt ought to be better known than it is. Man against Mass Society (1951) by Gabriel Marcel (1889 – 1973) – addressing the same topics as Revolt but from a point in time twenty years later in the aftermath of the Second World War and at the onset of the Cold War – enjoys nothing like the reputation of Ortega’s masterpiece, but is equally relevant to contemporaneity and deserves, not so much to be better known, but merely to be known. The two books complement one another. Ortega, an adherent of the classical liberal principle, but with an aristocratic attitude, sees in democratization a decisive break with history and an inevitable dragging-down of inherited institutions to the lowest common denominator of their functionality. Marcel, a Catholic believer allying himself with the conservative faction in politics, sees in the metastasis of bureaucracy and the triumph of the managerial attitude an inhuman faux ordre that threatens the God-endowed dignity of the person. Both books examine the quantitative character of modernity – and the diminution of individuality in a world where millions or even billions dominate the scene. As two trends, the number of people and the pressure of number on the unique, gain in their dynamism, a degrading sameness assimilates the super-majority to a single pattern. For both Ortega and Marcel, the characteristics of that pattern include an overwhelming social orientation, a childish or primitive taking-for-granted of the civilized inheritance, an almost total lack of historical awareness, a concomitant presentism, and a moral vacuity that renders its thralls highly susceptible to fanaticism.
The blurb on the thirty-five cent Ace paperback likens Charles Eric Maine’s 1958 novel World without Men to George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Ordinarily – and in consideration of the genre and the lurid cover – one would regard such a comparison skeptically. Nevertheless, while not rising to the artistic level of the Orwell and Huxley masterpieces, World without Men merits being rescued from the large catalogue of 1950s paperback throwaways, not least because of Maine’s vision of an ideological dystopia is based on criticism, not of socialism or communism per se nor of technocracy per se, but rather of feminism. Maine saw in the nascent feminism of his day (the immediate postwar period) a dehumanizing and destructive force, tending towards totalitarianism, which had the potential to deform society in radical, unnatural ways. Maine grasped that feminism – the dogmatic delusion that women are morally and intellectually superior to men – derived its fundamental premises from hatred of, not respect for, the natural order; he grasped also that feminism entailed a fantastic rebellion against sexual dimorphism, which therefore also entailed a total rejection of inherited morality. In World without Men, Maine asserts that the encouragement of sexual hedonism, the spread of pornography into the mainstream of culture, and the proscription of masculinity are inevitable consequences of the feminist program, once established. The sixty years since the novel’s publication – as a thirty-five cent paperback – have vindicated Maine’s notable prescience as a social commentator.
Although World without Men might not measure up fully to 1984 or Brave New World, Maine, who was a talented storyteller, worked on a higher level than most of the genre writers represented in the Ace catalogue. Indeed, in its narrative structure, World without Men trades in at least one formally modernistic gesture. It gives glimpses out of chronological order of a progressive biological and cultural catastrophe so that the reader must reshuffle events into their actual, causal sequence. Part One, “The Man,” takes place in the Seventieth Century, and Part Two, “The Monkey,” late in the Twentieth. Part Three, “The Girl,” takes place seventy-five or a hundred years after part two. Part Four, “The Patriarch,” takes place sometime in the indefinite far future, but before 7000 AD. (References to Christ as having been born some “seven thousand years ago” permit specification of the date.) Part Five, “The Child,” recurs to 7000 AD and shares certain personae with “The Man.” Thus “The Man,” “The Patriarch,” “The Girl,” and “The Child” are long-term sequels to “The Monkey,” which chronicles the development of a birth-control drug called Sterilin, while probing the consciences of the pharmaceutical researcher, a man, who creates it, and the corporate mogul, a woman, who aggressively markets it. World without Men anticipates certain features of the current faddish ideology calling itself transhumanism, criticizing it in advance of its appearance.
Naturalism, physicalism, and materialism are synonyms. They are names for a truncated metaphysics that omits any notion of transcendence and divinity. Someone might try to take dualism seriously without God; a dualism that posits material reality, and consciousness as a separate substance with its own substantial reality. But this would mean recognizing that there is something nonphysical and invisible that cannot be explained by science and operates in independence from purely physical forces. In other words, a spiritual reality. Most materialists recognize this and have been leery of even using the word “consciousness.” At the present moment, for some reason, some percentage of analytic philosophers are willing to use David Chalmers’ phrase “the hard problem” to refer to the puzzle of how subjective awareness could arise from the lump of meat in a sentient creature’s head. Positing a giant mystery at the center of human existence is a dangerous game for a materialist. They will find the hard problem to be an indigestible lump that spells the death knell for their physicalist complacency. By accepting that it is a problem at all, they are effectively admitting defeat. If the hard problem were a gift, they would be wise to return to sender. Daniel Dennett puts it thus: “I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way that dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.” Continue reading
Either God, the divine, the supernatural, and the transcendent exist or they do not. If they do not, then what is left is alternatively called “naturalism, physicalism, or materialism.” These are all synonyms and they imply that all that really ultimately exists are atoms and molecules. A naturalistic universe is one that can be fully described by science, at least in principle. If something cannot be measured and quantified, it is not objectively true and should be eliminated from one’s ontology, in this view.
- Naturalism is irretrievably nihilistic. If naturalism is true, then value does not exist. Value cannot be measured. And neither can beauty, love, or goodness. None of those things can be measured or even clearly defined. Quotation from Anna Karenina, Part 4, Chapter 10:
‘But,’ said Sergey Ivanovitch, smiling subtly, and addressing Karenin, ‘one must allow that to weigh all the advantages and disadvantages of classical and scientific studies is a difficult task, and the question which form of education was to be preferred would not have been so quickly and conclusively decided if there had not been in favour of classical education, as you expressed it just now, its moral—disons le mot—anti-nihilist influence.’
‘If it had not been for the distinctive property of antinihilistic influence on the side of classical studies, we should have considered the subject more, have weighed the arguments on both sides,’ said Sergey Ivanovitch with a subtle smile, ‘we should have given elbow-room to both tendencies. But now we know that these little pills of classical learning possess the medicinal property of anti-nihilism, and we boldly prescribe them to our patients.… But what if they had no such medicinal property?’ he wound up humorously. Continue reading
No matter which class I am teaching, for quite some time the first reading assigned has been an article on Goedel’s Theorem. The reason is to emphasize that any attempt to make an axiomatic system of any moderate complexity consistent and complete (able to determine whether any statement within the system is either true or false) will fail. This is because, at least when it comes to mathematics, Goedelian propositions will be generated by the system that are true, can be seen to be true, but are not provable. Goedel’s stand-in for all such propositions is the statement “this statement is not provable within this axiomatic system.” If this statement is true, then it is not provable. If it were to be false, and was provable, then it would again be proved that it is not provable, since you would have just proved a statement that says it is unprovable! I add to this that the axioms upon which axiomatic systems are based are by definition, not provable, their truth being self-evident. So, axiomatic systems contain unprovable truths coming and going.
When teaching ethics, after covering Gödel, the first thing I do is to point out our intuitive understanding of the truth and validity of reciprocity/justice/fairness. If someone were to give you a cup of your favorite coffee at the appropriate time and you were to punch them in the face, barring some convoluted back story, this would be grossly unjust. The truth of reciprocity is captured by phrases like “one good turn deserves another” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In practice, no normal person doubts the truth of that notion.
Fairness and reciprocity are axiomatically true. Their truth is self-evident. If anyone claims to doubt their truth, this person is almost certainly a liar and a hypocrite, at least on this topic. When this hypothetical person approaches another in a spirit of friendliness and politeness, only to be greeted with unbridled rudeness and hostility, he is likely to feel offended or at least to question the mental stability of the other person.
Ludwig Wittgenstein had some sensible things to say on topics like these. He spends a few pages of his aphoristic writings wondering what it would mean to be mistaken that one was speaking or writing in English. There is not really a standard of certainty that goes beyond knowing such a thing. Part of his point is to throw a monkey wrench into the useless, theoretical musings of his analytic philosophy contemporaries. Continue reading
H. P. Lovecraft wrote his famous story, The Call of Cthulhu, in 1926 and saw it published in Weird Tales in the February 1928 number of that pulp periodical. The story pieces itself together through the gimmick of having its narrator, the nephew of a mysteriously deceased scholar of ancient Semitic languages, sort through his uncle’s papers – among which figure prominently a cache of documents under the label of “CTHULHU CULT.” In the last few years of his life Professor Angell had fixed his interest on this esoteric topic. Evidence indicates that the cult, traces of which appear worldwide, dates back to prehistory; it also manifests its existence in the archaeology of historical religions, particularly those that center on human sacrifice. The deceased scholar had concluded that the cult’s reality extends into the present and that, after a dormant period, it had resumed its activity. As the reader makes his way through Lovecraft’s deliberately fragmented story line, he learns that Cthulhu, the entity whom the cultists worship as a deity, belongs not to the category of the supernatural (nothing in Lovecraft does) but rather to that of the superhuman in an implacably materialistic and Darwinian version of the cosmos. In the immensely distant past, Cthulhu, one of the “Great Old Ones,” descended to Earth from a distant star and enslaved the primitive humanity through his faculty of telepathic manipulation. A rival power, indifferent to humanity, checked Cthulhu and condemned him to hibernation in the sunken city of R’lyeh in the South Pacific. In the final paragraphs of the story’s first section, the executor describes a sheaf of newspaper clippings that Professor Angell had collected. These items, the narrator avers, “touched on cases of panic, mania, and eccentricity,” which betoken Cthulhu’s return to potency. As the nephew records: “A fanatic [from South Africa] deduces a dire future from visions he has seen; and “a dispatch from California describes a theosophist colony as donning white robes en masse for some ‘glorious fulfillment’ which never arrives, whilst items from India speak guardedly of serious native unrest toward the end of March.”
A proposition that can’t be acted upon must be false, or even meaningless. So its contradiction must be true. Thus you can’t think that you can’t think, e.g.; so you can think, period full stop.
The corollary is that if you cannot avoid acting as if a proposition is true, then it must be true. You must at every moment act, willy nilly; so it is true that you can act. Your agency is real. There is literally no way around this operational presupposition. There is no way for us to be, except by an implicit presupposition of its truth. And the only way for us not to be – namely, suicide – is a way that, again, implicitly presupposes its truth. You can’t kill yourself if you can’t act. You can kill yourself. So you can act. QED.
You can’t act as if you can’t act, for example. So, it is not true that you can’t act. Likewise, you can’t think that you can’t think; can’t be aware that you can’t be aware; can’t mean that there is no meaning; can’t yourself suffer the illusion that your self is an illusion; and so forth.
This is the practical aspect of the fundamental epistemological criterion of truth, which is adequacy to quotidian experience.
Extending this notion a bit further: you can’t say that there is no such thing as metaphysical truth other than by asserting a putative metaphysical truth. Ditto for moral truths, and aesthetic truths: you can’t say that morals or aesthetics are relative except by asserting a moral or aesthetic absolute. Indeed, this holds for any sort of truth. You can’t say there is no political truth other than by asserting a putative political truth, for example.
Nominalism and positivism both fall before this scythe. Nominalism can be asserted only by means of the very universals it reprehends. Positivism itself is among the propositional systems that cannot be logically or empirically demonstrated, and insists are therefore meaningless; so that its assertion is its contradiction.
Also, of course, you can’t for very long successfully live as if an important falsehood were true. We’ve all proved this for ourselves a million times.
Thus the very rejection of God is an implicit recognition of him. You can’t rebel against a nonexistent Lord.
James Chastek’s Just Thomism is one of the sites I read without fail. I like it because he teaches me lots of things. He closed comments a while ago because responding to them took up too much time. So here is what I would have commented at his blog if he still allowed comments, in response to this post:
Many of the books in the “decline of the West” genre – which was already old by the time Weaver published Ideas have Consequences in 1948 but which still sells (Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed) – tell a curious narrative of decline over very large time scales. If Nominalism or Hobbesianism were as harmful as claimed, why is the diseased host still alive a half-millennium later?
Now that’s a good question. I myself have contributed a fair bit to the literature wailing and bemoaning nominalism. How do I answer the question?
On the train last evening I spotted – or perhaps I should say, I was assaulted by – a placard advertising a music festival. I thought: Is this what women really want for themselves? Is this supposed to be attractive?
Honestly, the woman looks like she’s being tortured. Fun!