Even “academic” specialization might be recovered as desirable, but desirable as a means to a higher end in service to the body of community, not merely servicing the appetitive order of individuals collectively called society, but in service to the community as a body of members. In that term society the nature of community, as is the nature of person through the reductive term individual, has been lost.
As for the confusing reality of the academy in our moment, within it there continues the deliberate (though sometimes merely accidental or thoughtless) deconstruction of both person and community. Such is the effect of the distortion of the traditional understanding of the liberal arts. The deconstruction has occurred in order to redirect liberal arts disciplines, peculiar to an ancient curriculum, to serve the practical convenience of the academician or the department or the school in its pursuit of specialization. What has ensued is the conflict of disparate ideologies in contention for power over the faltering academic body. So disparate are these ideologies, indeed, as to lead to civil wars, though each faction will in some moment of heated battle declare its cause that of the “rights of the individual” or of the “common good,” as opposed to its responsibilities to the person and the common nurture of persons in community.
If we look at the academy at the close of our century, we find there are no longer “two cultures,” arts and sciences, aligned separately and in opposition, their battle lines extending out of the academy into society. That was Sir C. P. Snow’s mid-century argument and lament, in his once-famous Two Cultures, the circumstances of intellectual confrontation by the “arts” on one side and the “sciences” on the other having grown out of nineteenth century dislocations. We, as Flannery O’Connor’s provincial Modernist isolated on a back-country farm might say, are more advanced than the scientist-novelist, Snow. For we now have multiple cultures, as many as there are sovereign individuals committed to the paramount rights of the “self ” That integer the “individual” is more and more coming to itself in a dark wood as an isolated, alienated, frustrated, and increasingly furious “consciousness” in reaction to all save itself, however wily it may at times become in idealizing self-love with borrowed clichés from that older intellectual tradition stretching back to Plato. What is happening is that the thing called individual discovers itself a lost person—the condition necessary to the effects we now witness on those intellectual reservations called the academy, whereon there proceeds as yet unchecked the barbarization of intellectual integrity.
Intellectual barbarism envelops persons for the moment in the conspicuous spectacles of crisis in the political and social dimensions of our lives as a people, and the confusion is particularly evident within the academy as it pretends to serve us from its privileged position. Its fundamental doctrine, suited to manipulations by self-love in pursuit of the conveniences of power, is a presumption about the nature of intellect itself, radically at odds with the traditional orthodoxy of Western Christendom. Intellect, this doctrine holds, is autonomous. And that principle accepted, one is justified in an angelism presumed both means and end to self-rescue. What Dante called perverted love, love turned in upon the self, replaces that openness of charity through which existence and the Cause of existence can be celebrated. The substitute doctrine has gained ascendancy since the Renaissance, at last permeating Western people and their institutions at every level. And so the final chapter in this volume approaches critically that new religion, ‘Modernism, with some attention to its recent history. But a word in advance here may help prepare the reader.
In that new religion of Modernism, authority is made to depend upon the power accumulated by a particular fortunate or gifted intellect responding to the moment’s contingencies—whether he be (to put the point at once playfully and seriously) an instructor before freshmen, a chaired professor, a dean, a senator, or at an extremity of the new priesthood, a Hitler or a Stalin. What is crucial is the relativity accompanying power, which when the relativity itself becomes the guiding metaphysical vision can but result in abusive internecine destructions of community. The reality of relative power becomes central in determining the actions of the particular person coincident with the struggle for power. And that is,a contradiction, since it recognizes a reality separate from the intentionalizing of power.
This is to say that the Modernist doctrine of autonomy of intellect cannot acknowledge any given, such as its own relative power, since the survival of autonomous intellect through will cannot acknowledge a givenness. Such an acknowledgment would require of intellect itself that it confront the mystery of givenness. There must to the contrary be first, last, and always an affirmation by the intending autonomous intellect of a self-credit. The principle popularized and seductive of naive intellects, most particularly the idealistic young, is a slogan now met everywhere: You can be whatever you want to be. That is a denial of gifts, and a denial very central to Modernism’s most celebrated philosophy, Existentialism, now formally out of favor in the academy’, even in departments of philosophy, though yet pervasive in the intellectual community, whether in the sciences or the arts. Existentialism is formally out of favor, since any philosophy formalized and adopted as patterning action becomes thereby a focal point of rigorous interrogation, requiring only one Socrates or Plato or Aristotle to expose its flaws.
Such rigorous interrogation within approving auspices of the academy at once implies and gradually recovers principles governed by truth, regardless of any pervasive intellectual relativism. But without such a pervasive relativism, that intellectual chaos characteristic of the academy at our century’s end becomes critically vulnerable. Indeed, it is such endangerment that gives rise to the academy’s support of the “politically correct” as a protection of intellectual Chaos. Existentialism in its Modernist dress is that of a species of relativism which is the second most ancient spiritual commitment. The first is that openness which the love of wisdom would recover to community, that openness of awe and wonder before the truth, which might well be termed a consent to reality proper to love. The second oldest is self-love, for which ancient intellectual tradition Jean-Paul Sartre proved for a time an effective spokesman. We recall that Milton in his great epic Paradise Lost dramatizes this philosophical relativism, almost endangering his poem as his agent of self-love almost steals the poem from him, for the temptation to self-love lies in Satan’s non serviam.
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This piece is reprinted from the preface of The Truth of Things.