TCS Daily


The Opium of the Professors

By Edward Feser - February 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: to read part one of this series, click here.

It is said of Woodrow Wilson that when asked what the purpose of a liberal education is, he replied "To make a person as unlike his father as possible." He was, at the time, merely the president of Princeton University, and had not yet become schoolmarm-in-chief of the United States or waged the war that ended all wars and made the world safe for democracy.

But as with his better-known schemes of social uplift and gauzy internationalism, so too with his philosophy of education, Wilson was the very model of the progressive academic. Whatever bland official statement of purpose might appear in the introduction to a modern university's college catalog, its true raison d'etre is in practice nothing other than to destroy utterly whatever allegiance a young person might have to traditional conceptions in morality, religion, politics and culture, to "do dirt" on the faith of his fathers, on his country, and on what most human beings have historically understood to be the imperatives of decency. It is, in short, to propagate Leftism.

In an earlier article, I surveyed various theories put forward to account for this phenomenon, and found them inadequate. Here I want to develop what seems to me a fuller, deeper explanation. We can note first that the de facto function of the modern university is precisely the opposite of the traditional idea of education, which was to socialize the young by instilling into them, at a higher intellectual level, the culture they have inherited from their forebears. The professor was the guardian of a tradition greater than the student and greater than himself, a tradition which it was his duty to impart -- not uncritically, to be sure, but at the same time with a reverence and humility appropriate to the grandeur of a civilization that has existed for over two and a half millennia, and for the wisdom that its institutions embody and its thinkers have articulated.

The civilization of which I speak is, of course, Western civilization, whose origins lie in Greece, Rome, and ancient Israel, and whose characteristic modern elements include the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, the political ideals of individual rights, limited government and the rule of law, and a free-market or capitalist economic order. One would expect, then, that a curriculum designed to impart to the young a sophisticated understanding of the intellectual foundations of this civilization would emphasize, for example: Plato and Aristotle, the Old and New Testaments, Augustine and Aquinas, Locke and Smith, Burke and Tocqueville, Oakeshott and Hayek. But of course, it is extremely easy to acquire a bachelor's degree from a modern university without having encountered a single one of these figures or texts. It is also extremely easy for the student's sole encounter with the issues dealt with in such serious sources to be mediated instead by a steady diet of such spiritual poison as the shrill screeds of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, works which amount to little more than vulgar political pamphlets devoid of intellectual heft, third-rate even by left-wing standards.

Fully to appreciate this shift in institutional purpose, let's imagine a young man just entering the contemporary academy, at great cost to immigrant parents of simple religious faith, who fled foreign tyranny to find in the United States the political liberty and economic opportunity that have always been its hallmark. Their ambitions for him are: that he comes to love his new country as much as they do and makes the most of the freedoms it offers him; that he thanks God continually for the great blessing He has provided in making that freedom possible; and that he strives to live his faith in a way that is worthy of that freedom -- a way that will make of him an asset to his country and to his fellow citizens, and that will bring honor to his family. In short, they dream of him returning from school an educated gentleman, whose piety and patriotism have been enhanced by an exposure to learning and high culture. Yet what remains after four years at the contemporary university, after the professors have had a chance to mold him according to their own vision of New Progressive Man? A dope-smoking, Che-Guevara-T-shirt-wearing foul-mouthed serial fornicator, whose conception of the higher moral life comprises recycling and voting a straight Green Party ticket, and whose idea of "spirituality" is hanging out with other New Age flakes at a Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. He has been taught nothing about his religion except that it is a repressive sham, nothing about sexual morality except that there isn't any, nothing about his country and its history except that it is "racist," "sexist," "homophobic," and insensitive to people in wheelchairs, and would be much better if only if it was more like the country his parents had crawled under barbed wire to escape from.

The leftist orientation of the contemporary university is thus merely a corollary of its tendency toward subversion of tradition. As noted in my earlier article, however, it is not merely this subversive left-of-center bias of the curriculum that is curious, but the sheer perversity of it -- the manner in which it positively thumbs its nose at common sense, refuses to learn anything from the actual historical record of communism and other revolutionary movements, and, despite its purported interest in "diversity" and "critical thinking," resolutely ignores the many serious and sophisticated arguments given, historically and by contemporary thinkers, in defense of traditional attitudes and institutions. What accounts for this?

Older Ideals

The beginning of the answer lies where one might expect it to given that the older ideal of education I've described was most fully realized in the Middle Ages. The standard story about that period is this: for more than 1500 years after the advent of Christianity, European civilization lay in darkness; then came modern science, and all was light. The story is, of course, merely a fairy tale of the sort PBS viewers tell their children -- in fact the scientific revolution was largely a natural and gradual outgrowth of Medieval intellectual trends, and the Medievals were more enlightened, and the moderns more superstitious, than either is given credit for -- but it has had a mesmerizing effect on the minds of contemporary intellectuals. That the sun turned out to be at the center of our solar system and man possibly descended from apes has seemed to them to invalidate, or at least cast serious doubt on, pretty much anything anyone ever said or thought before, say, the time Voltaire uttered his first blasphemy.

As the philosopher David Stove has argued, the modern tendency toward hyper-skepticism seems largely to be the result of a massive overgeneralization from a mere handful of cases where common sense turned out to be mistaken. Another philosopher, Michael Levin, has given a name to the peculiar form this error in reasoning has taken in modern thinking: the "skim milk" fallacy, the fallacy of assuming, in the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, that "things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream," so that common sense can in general be presumed to be wrong.

Now where phenomena remote from everyday human experience are concerned -- the large-scale structure of spacetime, the microscopic realm of molecules, atoms, and so forth -- it is perhaps not surprising that human beings should for long periods of time have gotten things wrong. But where everyday matters are concerned -- where opinions touch on human nature and the facts about ordinary social interaction -- it is very likely that they would not, in general, get things wrong. Biological and cultural evolution would ensure that serious mistakes concerning such matters would before too long be weeded out. The details of why this is so need not concern us here -- they comprise the conservative justification of tradition and common sense associated most closely with Burke and Hayek, which I have defended elsewhere. Suffice it for present purposes to note that there are powerful reasons to be skeptical of the skepticism about commonsense and traditional attitudes that so permeates modern intellectual life.

That modern intellectuals themselves half-recognize this is evidenced by the fact that they are unfailingly solicitous toward the traditional ways of non-Western cultures: even such hard cases for the Burkean-Hayekian thesis as African ritual clitorectomies find apologists among a few very culturally sensitive (though apparently not very corporeally sensitive) Western feminists. It is, in fact, only the traditional attitudes of the average Westerner which get the academic cold shoulder. So the "skim milk" fallacy can't be the whole story behind the phenomenon we're trying to explain: modern intellectuals commit it too selectively for it to be merely an honest mistake.

Unique Hostility

What then is the source of this unique hostility toward Western traditional and commonsense attitudes? Let us look more closely at the fairy tale alluded to above. For it to have any semblance of truth, something absolutely crucial to the worldview of the Age of Faith would have to have been refuted by modern science; and for it to justify a unique bias against the Western tradition, that something would have to be a peculiarly Western idea or set of ideas.

So what was it exactly? The obvious answer might seem to be the traditional idea that the human race began as a direct result of Divine action in the Garden of Eden, an idea famously challenged by Darwin's account of evolution. But there are problems with this answer. For one thing, the hostility of intellectuals to the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West, though it reached full throttle only in the twentieth century, began long before Darwin ever set sail for the Galapagos. For another, the Western religious tradition was hardly the only one to take a supernatural view of human origins. Yet while no Western intellectual takes seriously traditional Hindu, Chinese, or Native American accounts of human origins as scientific theories, neither do they scorn these traditional accounts -- on the contrary, such accounts form part of the gorgeously diverse multicultural salad-bowl mosaic (or whatever the hell it is) that we are required unceasingly to "celebrate." Even the most belligerent non-Western religious traditionalists who resist the modern scientific study of man are treated with the greatest deference: think of the US Army's Corps of Engineers obligingly burying possible "Kennewick Man"-related evidence against certain American Indians' views of their ancestors' origins. By contrast, the fundamentalist Protestant who politely suggests at a PTA meeting that Darwinism ought at least to be open to debate is treated as if he ought to be in a museum display, alongside the other Neanderthals.

Moreover, the Judeo-Christian tradition, which had after all always taken human beings to have pretty lowly material beginnings -- Adam was made from "the dust of the ground" -- and had never denied the evident anatomical continuities between men and animals, was never primarily interested in the origins of the human body in the first place. Man's being made in the image of God was always understood instead to be a matter of his having the unique capacity for abstract reason, a capacity which has in the Western tradition been regarded as the essential attribute of the human mind; and the mind's immateriality or inexplicability in purely physical terms has -- from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Aquinas to Descartes and Leibniz to Popper and on down to a growing number of contemporary thinkers -- always been a purely philosophical (and thus rationally demonstrable) conclusion as much as, or even more than, a theological presupposition.

Metaphysics and Science

Here we come to the true crux of the matter. The assumptions central and indispensable to the traditional Western religious view of the world are in fact not the origins of human beings qua organisms, nor the position of the earth relative to other heavenly bodies, nor any other matter of purely scientific concern. They are rather metaphysical in nature, and their truth must accordingly be determined, ultimately, by philosophical argument rather than empirical investigation. The immateriality of the human mind -- or the soul, to use the more traditional language -- is but one of these assumptions (an assumption usually referred to as dualism). Another is the existence of a Necessary Being who serves as the ultimate explanation or First Cause of the world of our experience and of the scientific laws that govern it: the existence, that is to say, of God (belief in whom is referred to by philosophers as theism). A third is the reality of a realm of abstract entities (mathematical truths, Plato's Forms, and the like), i.e. of objectively existing, immaterial, unchanging essences or natures of things, of which everyday material objects and organisms are merely imperfect realizations (an idea known as Platonism).

If each of these assumptions were established, the Judeo-Christian religious worldview would be largely vindicated, whatever empirical science might discover; and if each of them were refuted, that worldview would itself be decisively refuted, even if the biologists all got de-converted from Darwinism tomorrow. So the findings of science per se are in fact irrelevant.

Have these crucial assumptions been refuted by philosophers, though, if not by scientists? No contemporary philosopher could honestly say so; quite the contrary. Each of these assumptions is, among philosophers, as much a living issue today as it ever was. Anyone cognizant of what is going on in contemporary philosophy knows that the central focus of debate is whether such phenomena as the human mind and its capacity to represent the world beyond itself, our knowledge of the world in general and of mathematical truths in particular, and our general metaphysical account of what are the basic constituents of reality, can be "naturalized." That is to say, the main debate in each branch of philosophical inquiry is over whether such phenomena can be explained or accounted for in purely natural terms, in terms that make no reference to non-physical or immaterial entities or principles. And the reason why this is such a hot topic of debate is that no one has been able to show that any of them can in fact be so explained. Of course, this or that philosopher may well have his own pet theory; and most contemporary philosophers, being the modern intellectuals they are, think that these things eventually will -- someday or other -- be "naturalistically" explained. But there is a general understanding that no one has yet pulled it off in a decisive, convincing way.

Whence their confidence, then? You might say it is a matter of faith; for there is definitely no rational ground for it. Indeed, the arguments given by contemporary "naturalists" (as materialists -- those who believe that material reality is all the reality there is -- like to call themselves these days) are little more than variations on the same arguments that materialists have been trotting out for millennia, and are subject to (variations on) the same objections that dualists, Platonists, and philosophically minded theists first formulated in ancient Greece and Medieval Europe, and which have plagued materialist accounts ever since.

My point is not that those objections are absolutely decisive (though I do believe that they are -- but this is, of course, a claim that would require far more than a short essay to establish). It is rather that they are serious and formidable objections, and are recognized even by materialist philosophers to be so: that is why such philosophers write book after book trying to refute them (again, unsuccessfully, in my view; and certainly inconclusively, seeing as the "Refuting dualism, Platonism, and theism" business has been a going concern for centuries).

The hoary "science vs. religion" conflict is, then, a myth. What exists in reality is a dispute between rival metaphysical systems: the theism, dualism, and Platonism of traditional Western philosophy and the modern naturalism or materialism that is less a result of modern science than an ideologically secularist interpretation of it. But for contemporary intellectuals there is, we might say, public relations value in maintaining the fiction that there is a war between science per se and religion, and that religion is losing: it is easier thereby to insinuate that in the real battle -- the philosophical one -- the "naturalists" rather than their opponents ought to be given the benefit of the doubt. There is, again, no rational justification for such an attitude; but there is a motive, which the philosopher Thomas Nagel has given voice to in a moment of frankness rare among the members of his profession. In his book The Last Word, he acknowledges that it is a "fear of religion" among contemporary intellectuals that keeps them from facing up to the deep problems facing naturalistic attempts to account for the nature of the human mind and human knowledge:

"I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind."

Hostility to Judeo-Christianity

But again, why the unique hostility to the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular? And how do its philosophical presuppositions make it more odious to the modern intellectual than those of any other religion? Consider some of the implications of these presuppositions. If there really is an objective realm of essences or natures of things, then man has an objective essence or nature, and this entails that there can be no sound morality that does not recognize this nature: it entails, that is, that the moral law is the natural law, and that man's rights are natural rights, the demands of both being absolutely binding and not subject to alteration according to the whims of libertines or the designs of social engineers.

If the seat of man's reason really is an immaterial soul, then man is in principle capable of grasping these objective natures and their moral consequences; furthermore, he is capable of living in accordance with those moral consequences, for having an immaterial soul he is not merely an animal, completely subject to biological drives and material forces, but a being with free will. And if there is a God in whose image man's soul -- with its reason, free will, and capacity for goodness -- is made, then this God may well judge human beings according to their compliance or non-compliance with the moral law.

Non-Western religions generally lack these elements: the ultimate reality in Buddhism and Hinduism, say, is not a personal God or moral lawgiver, but an impersonal Absolute utterly indifferent to us; there is in these religions no soul in the Western sense of that term, because there is no permanent or abiding self at all, the individual being an ephemeral and insignificant illusion; and there is, as a consequence, no ultimate significance to our compliance or non-compliance with moral requirements. To be sure, the traditional Hindu or Buddhist can be as austere a moralist as any orthodox Jew or conservative Christian; the point is that this moralism is not guided by a vision of a Last Judgment or the hope of personal immortality and eternal fellowship with one's Maker. It is, accordingly, easier for a Westerner looking for an "alternative spirituality" to take on the exotic Eastern metaphysics and chuck out the morality without fear of seeming inconsistent. Eastern religion just does not pose the same moral challenge to contemporary Western decadence that the traditional religion of the West itself does.

This moral challenge is, I suggest, the aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition that is hated by the modern intellectual, and that the challenge follows from the unique metaphysical vision of the West is the reason for his hostility toward the latter. Disputes over Darwinism are tangential, and even a creationist who was sufficiently "pro-choice" would, I daresay, be welcomed as part of the great multicultural smorgasbord. The real target is the idea of a metaphysically implacable natural order to which one must submit, with all that that implies about human nature and moral law. Its rejection is the deep source of the perversity that so dominates modern intellectual life.

So strong is the modern intellectual's hatred for the traditional morality of the West and the metaphysics that justifies it that he goes as far as to treat the Leftism that is defined by opposition to them as a dogma, an unchallengeable posit that must be propagated, and its opponents crushed, at all costs and in the face of all evidence against it. He treats it, that is to say, in exactly the way he accuses the Christian fundamentalist of treating his own religion.

Opium of the Intellectuals

In fact the modern intellectual is no less a religionist: Leftism is, in Raymond Aron's words, "the opium of the intellectuals," their faith-based commitment to the possibility of a world without the demanding moral vision of the Western tradition and the God Who has always been seen as its Author and Enforcer; and this, in addition to the factors cited in my previous essay, accounts for its hold over them.

Leftism is the distorted mirror image, the evil twin, of the great Western religious and cultural patrimony that used to be fostered in the universities, and the Doctors of the Counter-Church it informs are the professors of the modern academy, who are no less committed than were the Medievals of legend to indoctrinating the young into their favored creed. Yet they are not academic doctors so much as the worst kind of physicians: for if liberalism is, as James Burnham put it, the "ideology of Western suicide," the professors are cultural Kevorkians. The "medicine" prescribed in the university curriculum reflects this: "critical thinking" is always and exclusively criticism of traditional Western notions in religion, culture, politics, and morality; "open-mindedness" is always and exclusively open-mindedness toward ideas hostile to these same traditional Western notions; and so forth.

"But does this thesis not have one glaring defect," one might ask, "in that the common man, too, often considers traditional Judeo-Christian morality burdensome, yet nevertheless does not endorse the Leftist vision of the intellectuals?" But in fact the common man now does largely share this vision, at least in spirit, and that is one reason it continues to dominate the universities despite decades of conservative protest. This is true even though he maintains also, and inconsistently, a sentimental attachment to the older traditions of the West.

As the intelligentsia has gotten progressively more "progressive," so too under its influence -- via the universities, media, mainline churches, etc. -- has the average non-intellectual, just not as thoroughly or ideologically. He thus lives in a state of cognitive dissonance, torn, to use the argot of commentators on the 2000 presidential election, between the "blue state" devil whispering enticingly into his left ear and the ever more desperate pleadings of the "red state" angel at his right ear. The call to self-reliance and self-restraint, to family and faith, still has for him its charms; yet the prospects of ever-expanding government handouts at others' expense, and of endless sensual indulgence without consequences (except to one's children, ex-spouses, the unborn, and future generations, but never mind them) -- such prospects exert a pull too powerful for the average citizen of the modern West to resist, flabby and desiccated as he is already from half a century or so of welfarism and sexual "liberation."

The New Religion of the intellectuals is something he is already half-converted to. His great-grandparents would have recoiled in horror from it and all its works; his great-grandchildren seem destined to swallow it wholesale, and even to extend its anti-traditional and anti-commonsense perversity to lengths the contemplation of which would, even at this late stage of Western decline, boggle the mind.

Sin can cloud the mind of any man. In most, the result is a bad character and a bad conscience. But with an intellectual, given his greater powers of imagination and rationalization, it can generate an entire worldview. For though intellectuals are not always to be trusted where first principles are concerned, they are, unlike non-intellectuals, remarkably proficient at drawing out consistently the implications of such principles.

That is why Leftism has gotten, with the passing decades, ever closer to sheer lunacy; and also why, as such lunacy has permeated ever more deeply into modern Western society, the ideas of conservative thinkers have come to seem to the common man increasingly romantic, unrealistic, and unattainable. If the typical contemporary Westerner does not quite resonate to the ravings of Marxists and postmodernists, neither is he much drawn to the doctrines of Thomists, Burkeans, or Hayekians. He is too far gone for that. He wants his conservatism heavily watered down, at least enough to leave room for a Federal prescription drug benefit and easy access to pornography, should the mood for it strike him. If this makes for inconsistency... well, he's happy to let the professors worry about such things.

And if what they tell him is that he ought to discard the conservatism altogether and opt instead for a worldview specifically designed to justify the benefits and the porn, he is, with the passing years, ever increasingly ready to listen. The modern intellectual plays just the role his Medieval predecessor did: justifying, propagating, and systematically working out the consequences of a worldview the common man is already committed to in an unsophisticated and inchoate way. The opium of the intellectuals promises to become the opium of the people.

Edward Feser (edwardfeser@hotmail.com) is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and author of On Nozick (Wadsworth, 2003).


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