Monday, April 11, 2011

On Opinions and Other Worthless Things

“Senor, I speet upon your opinion” –imaginary character in an imaginary story.

Since I started teaching writing (1961), I have assigned essays and heard students ask, as if taught by some mythical parrot in the student subconscious, “you just want our opinions, right?”

Well, no, it is the last thing I want. Why would I? Opinions are worthless, including my own. Each of us can manufacture opinions by the second on any topic whatsoever. What, for example, is my opinion of aliens in outer space or of the latest ramblings of a demented movie star? My opinions of most things in physics, other than the verifiable pull of gravity on my body, are worthless. Endless coffee chats on such topics may be entertaining, but we know, we do know, do we not, that we are blowing air?

At present in class, we are considering one kind of truth, moral truth, the kind of truth we speak of when we are thinking about things as just or unjust, good or evil, right and wrong; in short, on all those things that have to do with moral choice, or the way we live. On the very foundations of civilization, in fact. Hammurabi, Moses, Muhammed, Confucius, Charlemagne, Lycurgus, Solomon, Sequoyah, and our own founding fathers—all were moral absolutists who handed down moral laws by which peoples live in societies.

Truth. Generations of teachers have now mocked the word, just as did the sophist philosophers in the streets of ancient Athens. “What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate. And as Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “what is truth, asked jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” The answer was, of course, standing right in front of him, and he sent Him off to be whipped.

One can, a bit, sympathize with Pilate. He had seen the streets of Jerusalem and Rome jammed with teachers from a hundred nations, each claiming to have the truth. And when a starry-eyed or drug-glazed neighbor or friend shows up in our kitchen late at night with the breathless announcement that he or she has found “the truth,” we want to run for the hills.

Our response to that neighbor, under our breaths, may be like that of Ecclesiastes, “all is vanity,” or as one translation has it, “all is breath.” And we try to talk them into coffee or sports talk.

Fact is, the greatest philosophers spent most of their thinking in knocking down falsehoods. And false definitions. The great philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas followed the path of via negativa, that is, he was busy defining away things that were not true. Philosophically he knew that we could not say that we know God, we could only be intellectually sure of what is not God, which is a very useful thing indeed.

Earlier, the father of philosophy, Plato, created the myth of the cave, in which opinions are shadows on the wall, vague and erroneous copies of copies of the real truths, which we can know only by long study and ascetical lives. Those who live in the cave are prisoners and slaves to these false images, these mere opinions. In his other dialogues, such as the Meno, Plato distinguished radically and sharply between opinion and knowledge. Opinion is also shifting and false, real knowledge gives us certainty.

“Opinio” comes ultimately from Latin, but in English via a medieval French version of that word which means “believe.” In this sense of the word, we “opine” that something is true, possibly because it accords with our wishes or desires. (“An opinion is a subjective belief, and is the result of emotion or interpretation of facts. “–Wikipedia article on “opinion.”)

This purely subjective element may therefore run exactly counter to truth, for the latter may be experienced as limiting, constricting, unfair, harsh. A prisoner sitting in a prison may be there for a lifetime of theft, and may now be reluctantly coming to the conviction that thievery is wrong. As Plato saw it, if the prisoners of the cave are led into the bright light of the sun, they will experience shock and pain. Only later may they come to delight in the truth.

There is such a thing as the experience of truth. One may compare the kind of certitude delight in absolute “rightness” that one gets from learning the axioms of Euclidean geometry, as in “Two planes perpendicular to the same line must be parallel to each other.” There is no disputing these truths.

Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century English writer, loved certain truths. As the author of the first English dictionary, on which all subsequent dictionaries have been based, he also loved precise definitions. Like the philosopher discussed above, he knew the importance of knocking down false definitions in order to get at the solidity of truth. Listen to him:

“. . .to see things as they are. . . .the consolation which is drawn from truth, if any there be, is solid and durable; that which may be derived from errour, must be, like its original, fallacious and fugitive.” --Samuel Johnson, in a letter to his friend, Bennet Langton, 1758.

“The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile, by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.” –Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare, 1765

“The mind can only repose on the stability of truth,” he says. This great moral philosopher (read his short novel Rasselas) did not speak lightly.

I would suggest that you test your thinking in Essay # 6 against his standards: is the absolute truth you are defending one that gives you a sense of stability, solidity, durability? Is it universal, for all time?

Otherwise you will not be able to write about it with conviction, sincerity, and logic.

Preparation for Essay # 6

The following essay and the preceding one were written for my "developmental" writing students at Nashville State Technical Community College in Cookeville, Tennessee. Their meaning may be transferable to many other contexts in the spiritual and cultural wasteland of the dying West.--RKC

This little essay is entitled “preparation for essay # 6,” but it is also a sort of farewell to the college classroom. After thirty-some years of teaching in colleges and universities across the country and around the world, I am hanging up my professorial hat with these desultory thoughts on the “Z” generation, the students that currently sit in front of me and who, I believe, are fairly representative of college students across the country and in western countries generally.

As to their ignorance, I have little to add. Scores of articles have been written on what they don’t know. For example, many born in 1992 have never heard of the Soviet Union or the fall of Communism or the Gulag Archipelago or the Cold War or Pol Pot. For that matter, few of them know of even the basic rules of English grammar, logic, or rhetoric. They cannot read, and do not read. They are not entirely at fault for this. Their parents, as well as the country at large, are responsible for the state of the family, for the extremely poor public education system and, moreover, for their own failure to offer massive resistance to the nonsense that now passes as culture in the West. Instead, they send them to college for one reason only. Not to become genuinely educated, to develop as human beings, to learn to think about the great and important things (the good, the true, the beautiful), but only to get a good job and make money.

If you are one of my students and are already angry at what I have said, good. If you are not yet angry, read on and I will do my best to make you angry. If I fail altogether, I shall have proved my major points about how you think and live; you will shrug off what I have to say; and you will pass out of my class secure in willful ignorance, apathy, acedia, and complacency.

I know that already. Last semester when I asked one student an important question, she responded this way, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” Not caring is acedia, listed by early Christians as one of the seven deadly sins. In the 1960s, an editor of the New Republic wrote a book on the Seven Deadly Sins as they applied to our society. He was not a Christian, in fact anything but, but he knew the society was crashing down around his ears.

Early in this semester I distributed to you what I called a “secret document” about education and about how you might go about getting one in these mindless and barbarous times. I am willing to bet that few of you have read it or will read it.

If you can sense my anger, you are on to something at least, though you may only care about it to get a good grade on essay # 6. You have heard it said over and over that you should not take things personally. I won’t say it. I want you to take my remarks personally because you are a person, a state and vocation of being that requires the full engagement of your emotions and faculties to begin asking radical questions about human existence and your own life. Frankly, if you are interested in a genuine education as described in the secret document, you would be well advised to leave college and find a place where you can take only technical courses to get a job. The last thing you should do is take courses in English or the Humanities as they are currently taught in 99% of the colleges and universities in the Western world.

All that by the by, my main concern is with the state of your minds. Last year I published an essay about the state of a certain Honors program in a Tennessee university where I recently taught. My simple contention then ( was that that program and the minds of university students generally are so permeated by the doctrine of relativism that it has become impossible to teach and learn with the ancient goals of studying the good, the true, and the beautiful. More than that, the doctrine of relativism is so deeply engrained in both student and faculty minds that it has taken on, beneath its fake pretense of universal tolerance, a ferocious hostility bent on eliminating anything and anyone that challenge its cultural supremacy. As a writer named Joseph Ratzinger noted recently, “we are living under the dictatorship of relativism.”

I can hear your long yawn from here. Relativism? Who cares? What is it anyway? There is a simple synonym for relativism in our culture: “whatever.” In the Kingdom of Whatever, where Queen Relativa rules, the motto is, “I don’t want to go there, man.” As in many Fairy Tales, the key or the secret or hidden entrance or magic word is missing; the difference is, in the Kingdom of Whatever, it is forbidden to find it. This is a Kingdom of human beings who are willing to be slaves to any power that tells them what to think. That, I think, would be you. Most of you have already proved this to me.

The relativist says, “all propositions are relative except this one,” thereby contradicting himself by making an absolute statement, the only absolute statement the relativist permits in the Kingdom of Whatever. By relativism, by the way, we ordinarily mean moral relativism (there are other kinds). The moral relativist believes that Hannibal Lecter’s moral views are just as valid as the moral views of Jesus Christ or Socrates. In ordinary conversations or discussions, relativism is usually expressed as, “it’s all relative, isn’t it?” Or, “people have different opinions; any one opinion is just as good as any other.”

What is the Kingdom of Relativa like to live in? It’s like living in constant fog in a world without roads or road signs. In such a world, the only way in which “value” can be established is through power.

Relativism and relativists have been around as long as there have been human beings. Socrates met them in the streets of Athens where they called themselves Sophists, and spent his life (and death) refuting them. If you want to read an excellent modern refutation, see Peter Kreeft’s A Refutation of Relativism, which is written in a lively dialogue style anyone can follow. (Don’t everyone rush to the bookstore at once). If I could have, I would have chosen it as reading for this course, but the postmodernists who rule the Humanities departments of NSCC and most colleges will not permit it. When I chose an excellent text called Being Human for a course at Motlow College, I was told I was not allowed to do that. So I did not teach the course. Like Socrates, I went back to the streets.

Postmodernists? Though relativism has been around as long as humans (I fancy that Cain was one), it is only recently that they have seized the domain of philosophy and from there, an entire culture. Beginning with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and extending into modern French writers like Foucault, the relativists have subverted the entire western tradition of literature and philosophy with their view that written texts mean nothing but attempts to gain power. Very simply, that. A rant by Hitler and the Book of Genesis differ only in style. Most English teachers today have been thoroughly indoctrinated in postmodernism, which is a bit like majoring in nothingness. Culturally and educationally, postmodernism has meant a constant indoctrination in multiculturalism, radical feminism, and Marxism. To the end of turning students into pliable relativists—and, incidentally, amoral hedonists who view traditional institutions such as marriage and the family as fascist plots.

As I have suggested in class, the Kingdom of Relativa finds its perfect expression in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) which prophesies a society without love, marriage, natural procreation, or the desire to know truth, and which controls the human person from test-tube birth to euthanized death through narcotics and propaganda. Though this world is already well on its way, I don’t think most of you will offer it any resistance.

As a teacher, I have fought relativism and all it represents since I started teaching. Since I returned to the American classroom after six years in the Middle East and a number of years in the corporate workplace, I found that the Kingdom of Relativa had progressed geometrically; one might even say, infectiously, as if a great plague had settled on the culture.

Ironically, those who think of themselves as nihilists, enemies of religion, and relativists are often given to absolutist rages. Witness Bill Maher in his recent (and admirable) tirade:

Essay # 6 is designed to do two things: one, to help you write a good, solid, interesting essay in which you are fully engaged as a thinking person; two, to help you experience what it’s like to unapologetically argue for a truth to which you are absolutely committed. That alone can be a gift to those living in the fogs of Relativa. Does that teach you writing? Yes, it does. That plus reading, reading, reading.

Dr. Ken Craven, exiting Academe