Evident to any psychologically healthy human adult aware of contemporary international political events is that global politics is becoming pathological on such a scale that its proportions threaten the future of global civilization. I write this short post to suggest that, decades ago, Mortimer J. Adler had diagnosed the causes of this pathology and had suggested sound remedies for it.
In a 1940 article presented in New York City at a conference on science, philosophy, and religion, entitled “God and the Professors,” Adler maintained that, like the health and disease of the body, cultural health consists in organizational health, the harmonious functioning of its parts, and cultures die from lack of harmonious functioning of these same parts. He added that “science, philosophy, and religion are certainly major parts of European culture; their distinction from one another as quite separate parts is certainly the most characteristic cultural achievement of modern times. But if they have not been properly distinguished, they cannot be properly related; and unless they are properly related, properly ordered to one another, cultural disorder, such as that of modern times, inevitably results.”[i]
In short, Adler was maintaining that, if we do not properly understand the natures of things, their intrinsic principles of unity, especially of culturally-related organizations like religion, science, philosophy, we cannot properly relate and unite them as complementary parts of a coherent cultural whole, or healthy cultural organization. This, however, is precisely the problem we have with solving the political pathologies that are besetting the world on an increasingly global scale in our time. Our international political leaders do not properly understand the natures of things, and especially the natures of philosophy, science, and religion. Worse, they tend to think that things have no natures, or if they do, they are not knowable by political reason.
During the early part of the twentieth century, international political pathologies similar to the ones we are experiencing today were so bad that they had prompted Adler to write his scathing 1940 Harper’s Magazine article “This Prewar Generation” in which, among other things, he accused post-World War I American young people of having a mindset largely similar to that of Hitler’s youth. “Our college students today, like Thrasymachus of old,” Adler said, “regard justice as the will of the stronger; but unlike the ancient sophist they cannot make the point as clearly as clearly or defend it as well.”[ii]
While Adler did not think that American youth of his day tended to reduce justice to mystical identification with the State, to advancing the cause of the Fatherland, he claimed that, chiefly under the influence of American higher education, post-World War I and pre-World War II American youth had become, like Thrasymachus, sophists who had developed habits of mind that (1) tended to identify right behavior with a personal will to power, personal success, and (2) did not enable them to conceive of democracy as intrinsically superior to fascism and articulate rational arguments to defend such a superiority. Hence, Adler claimed that American youth would continue to work for democracy only so long as democracy continued to work for them.[iii]
Adler did not think that post-World War I American culture alone had initially generated this post-World War I mindset. He maintained that centuries of Western cultural change had prepared the minds of American youth to become sophists. He argued that this situation was “the last fruition of modern man’s exclusive trust in science and his gradual disavowal of whatever lies beyond the field of science as irrational prejudice, an opinion emotionally held.”[iv]
While Adler considered “the doctrine of scientism” to be “the dominant dogma of American philosophy,” during the early part of the twentieth century, he maintained, this last fruition of modern thought had received its finishing touches in university philosophy courses, all tending to reinforce the same conclusion: “only science gives us valid knowledge of reality.”[v] Or, in another way of putting it: The whole of truth about the physical universe is contained in physical science. Outside physical science, all human judgments consist in irrational prejudice: opinion emotionally held.
While those educators who proudly proclaim the conviction that “the only valid knowledge of reality is contained in physical science” might tend to think this claim is a sign of having achieved the zenith of intellectual Enlightenment, in actuality, as Adler recognized, this is simply a dogmatic claim emotionally held analogously the same as the fideistic claim of those who declare that the whole of truth is contained in Scripture or in the Qu’ran. By reducing the whole of human truth to physical science, the proponents of scientism condemn all modes of reasoning outside of physical science to be devoid of intellectual principles, to be anarchic.
Beyond this, since knowing is essential to knowing what we are talking about and being able to lie, by claiming that physical science contains the whole of truth, those who proudly proclaim that only physical science contains valid knowledge of reality are saying that, unless they express themselves in the language of mathematical physics, politicians cannot know what they are talking about and cannot tell the truth or lie. In political matters, such individuals are self-proclaimed ignoramuses.
For decades Western higher education and every area of the world in which this Western educational habit of mind has tended to dominate the popular culture have been propagandizing future world leaders to be convinced that (1) political disputes have no rational principles discoverable by rational discourse to solve political disagreements and (2) politicians cannot use political experience rationally to solve political disagreements. As a result, when confronted by serious political dangers, contemporary world leaders tend to have no understanding of precisely how to start rationally attacking a political problem in order rationally to resolve it. This inclines them to (1) become individually immobilized on the level of natural reason, (2) lead from “behind,” and (3) put their trust in the collective “feeling” (opinions emotionally held) of their political colleagues. Since they all mean well, are sincere in their beliefs, they incline to think that their collective feelings must be “enlightened feelings” (as distinct from the unenlightened feelings of religious fundamentalists who believe such ridiculous myths as that the whole of truth is contained in the manifest destiny of Mother Russia, the Qu’ran, or some other manifest destiny or scripture. Such political musings, of course, constitute the mindset of a fool.
In his Politics, Aristotle chiefly defined a “barbarian” as someone who, having a slave-like nature, cannot think prudentially because he denies the existence of natures in things, because such a person has an essentially anarchic mind.[vi] The reason for this is that, by being incapable of recognizing principles (archai) in things, a person can never understand their natures, the organizational unity of their parts, their essential internal relationships, and can never anticipate beforehand how they will act in the future.
For over a century, Western higher education has inclined to inculcate political leaders with the mindset of anarchists, barbarians, and fools: people who tend be devoid or exercising prudential judgment. As a result, as Adler well understood, no wonder should exist why Western civilization is on the verge of collapse.
Peter A. Redpath
Rector: Adler-Aquinas Institute/CEO: Aquinas School of Leadershiphttp://w
1. Mortimer J. Adler, “God and the Professors,” in Philosophy is Everybody’s Business, ed. Max Weismann, 9:3 (Winter 2003), 7–24. I thank my friend Max Weismann for providing, director of the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas, for providing me with a copy of this article.
2. Mortimer J. Adler, “This Prewar Generation,” in Mortimer J. Adler, Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind, ed. Geraldine van Doren (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company and London, England: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1988), 7–9.