the imaginative conservative logo

epistemologyOgre or King?

It is not in every circle that being an ideologue is a bad thing. It was not in every circle during Socrates’ day that being a sophist was a bad thing. In the early Church, there were some very popular heretics. Arius captured nearly the entire imagination of an early age leaving Athanasius against the world to battle for a recovery of truth grounded in the eternal. Being an ideologue is a bad thing if one recognizes there exists a hierarchy of epistemology in which the veneration of ideas occupies the lowest level of explanatory truth. In this age of ideology, ideologues exaggerate ideology’s right station by unlawful means.

Ideology’s relatively recent advent reflects the errors of the Enlightenment tradition, which highlights man’s new deference for the close-shaven idea over the “antiquated” philosophical principle and the “superstitious” revelatory truths. The word “ideology” itself is a modern incarnation of the “science of ideas” making its debut in the late eighteenth century. Ideology ends in reducing epistemology to its lowest level and then dissecting the scheme of ideas in an effort to mine it for apparent truths conveyed most convincingly by jargon.

Not long after the ideological truncation of epistemology, something similar happened to the concept of grammar at the hands of ideological academics. They took grammar’s lowest level, that of “prosody” and dissected it into its minute constituent parts and called this totality the body of knowledge to be taught. Grammar in the public schools is ordered to this reduced scientific dissection, and language instruction is delivered as a scientific algorithm–quite unsuccessfully it must be added.

The hierarchy of the categories of epistemology is similar to the hierarchy demonstrated by the relationship among information, knowledge and wisdom. First comes the idea, which is the form or an “abstract archetype of a given thing,” which helps us recognize a pattern. At its base from the Greek it means to see or to apprehend, denoting the first act of the mind. In the second category we find the principled truths of philosophy composed of well-organized ideas measured by proper judgment (the second act of the mind) against the natural law. The crowning category of epistemology is discovered by revelatory truth composed of the well-ordered first principles informed by the Logos. This highest level can be associated with the third act of the mind, reasoning ordered to Ultimate Reality reflected by the Lord’s exhortation in Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us reason together.”

In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to draw further distinctions among ideology, the philosophical principle and revelatory truth. Kept in their proper sphere of subjective opinion, ideologies can be useful in a similar way that a glass of water is good to quench a temporary thirst. But trying to use ideologies to explain the natural and divine law is as foolish as trying to use the glass of water for a swim or a sea voyage. I assert that this age has been inundated by the effects of an absurd overvaluation of ideology. The tendency today, especially by the primacy of place wrongfully arrogated to ideology, is to relativize the absolute and to absolutize the relative. Ideology is to epistemology what Shrek is to royalty. Ogres were never meant to be kings.

Making Proper Distinctions

Ideologies describe structures of ideas best understood as governed by conventional law and human consensus, denoting schemes of asserted apprehensions of how things are. These are man-made and self-referencing systems of thought. Even ideologies emanating from genius IQ intellects cause unmeasurable offenses to reality when mistaken for any kind of overarching truth. The results of adhering to the most prominent ideologies of the day have led not only to incalculable distortions of reality, but to real death. From Nazism’s bombastic holocaust, to Stalin’s brutal thirty-year rule, to feminism’s silent holocaust, there is no easy way to discern the confusion and death toll proceeding from our modern epistemological disorder.

Serious schools of philosophy organize systems of thought ordered to elucidating the natural law. And while genius IQ’s have contributed to many philosophical schools, the source is the natural law and how precisely one can discover it and how clearly one can elucidate it. The Great Conversation embodies the unified quest to discover in full the various aspects of the natural law as the honest intellectual toil of countless generations has added to the body of knowledge that informed man at least up to the Enlightenment. The vast majority of philosophers since the advent of this present Dark Age are ideologues in philosophers’ robes. When the focus shifted from objective truth to subjective conjecture, the Great Conversation was hijacked by brilliant ideologues, and thus shipwrecked on the reefs of relativism.

apostlesReligions are organized around principles ordered to the tradition of revelation which elucidate the divine law of the Creator. Here, even one with a mediocre intellect can become the conveyor of truth if he has submitted his will to the will of the Creator. The source for this category is not man, nor man’s discoveries of the natural law, but the revelations of the law written on our hearts made intelligible by the external law accessible only to those with the “eyes to see and the ears to hear” what the Creator willingly gifts the humble soul. The Prophets heralded the incarnation of the Logos. The Holy Spirit best delivers what is knowable about Almighty God. The Apostles by Holy Scripture, Church Doctors and Saints best contribute to the tradition of understanding by the intelligible conveyance of revelatory truths.

All three categories incorporate ideas, but with very different degrees of authority. In ideologies, ideas themselves are the authority; in philosophy, the natural law is the authority and ideas are only allowed to remain if they correspond with the true, good and beautiful, demonstrated by alignment with natural causes and ends. With the One True Faith, the ideas are in express service to principles conveying the highest truths ordered to the divine law revealed by and embodied by the Logos. Admittedly, ideas are used to express philosophical principles and revelatory truth, but as servants not masters, as is the case with ideology.

The Devious Divorce

In ideology, ideas are the rulers commanding reason and faith. The adherence to ideas as a guiding authority is at least a substitute for worship, if not worship itself tending towards self-inflation. Preceding the advent of the worship of ideas necessarily came the false distinction between the fact and value. The divorce of the human conscience from the objective moral standard is well characterized by the unholy alliance described by Blake’s concept of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If Heaven and Hell are one, then the destruction of proper distinctions and mocking apes of false distinctions are fair game and to be encouraged. In this mad age, false distinctions and illicit unions are so numerous they blot out the sun. They are bound and woven together to form the suffocating fabric that shrouds this age in darkness.

francis-bacon-portraitThe modern age is the age of divorce. Man has separated from his senses. He has left is ethics at the altar. He has cheated on Truth. Sir Francis Bacon, the great liberator and author of the philosophical fifty-two ways to leave lady wisdom, has profoundly influenced generations of foolhardy men to tear asunder so many marriages sanctioned by natural and divine law. The catalog of false distinctions and illicit unions of this age would fill volumes.

The is/ought divorce is perhaps the most reckless divorce of the ideological age and calls for the grammatical version of Christ’s exhortation to “let no man tear asunder what God has joined.” The denial of proper distinctions and propagation of false distinctions can only stand when each man is a law unto himself. When ideology reigns supreme in the marketplace of ideas, most assuredly, solipsistic self-reference is not far behind. The false distinction between what is and what we ought to do about it is necessary to continue the delusion that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define for oneself the meaning of life and the mystery of existence.” If we are to truly be gods, than this is what we must believe, entirely false though it may be.

The Analogy of Birth

PlatosCaveA helpful way of seeing the distinctions among ideology, the philosophical principle, and revelation is by the analogy of birth. Plato’s cave best represents the womb of the ideologue, in which the guardians on the bridge dangle the material dialectic in front of those strange prisoners to great effect. In escaping the cave of shadows by the analogy of birth it is possible for the ideologue to be born anew of the mind into the world of philosophical inquiry, in which one uses true natural light to examine true things. Just so, the philosopher can be born anew of the spirit from the natural world governed by the natural law and into the City of God where he can look to that which is above: the divine law and eternal truth, goodness and beauty illuminated by the Creator of natural light, the light of Truth Himself, the Logos.

Birth is a one-way process: One who is born cannot be unborn. However, one who is born from a womb has a particular insight into the womb whence he came that is not reciprocal. From the womb of the cave, the world of the mind–the philosophical world–cannot be imagined. One can try to instruct the unborn, but the explanations about philosophy will appear only as shadows to the ideologue. Of further difficulty for the soul in the womb of ideology is to understand the world of spirit and light. From the vantage point of the cave one would perceive the truths of the divine law only as shadows of shadows. Thus the ideological new atheists speak of faith in pre-adolescent terms, precisely as shadows of shadows.

False Predicates

Revelatory truth is that which recognizes and subsumes the truths the great philosophers have elucidated about the natural law, which in turn subsumes the artifacts the ideologues accidentally get right. The ideologue will deny the legitimacy of the Logos and the Natural Law because it comes not from man. This hierarchical rule and the ideological denial of it demonstrate how the ideologues have attempted to further propagate, not truth, but the Cartesian and Baconian project of “man as the measure of all things.” Ideology is in fact the vehicle for this arrogant project.

To know things is not the same as being the arbiter of truth. If philosophers and theologians use the natural law and the revelation of Christ to know reality, the ideologues us their sensory input and subjective experience to decide what is. For the ideologue, ideas and their particular organization become the end. For the philosopher, the true, good and beautiful in the natural order become the end. For the theologian, the Logos leading to beatitude is the end. All three have their ways of knowing, all three use ideas, but all three give different weights to those ideas. As the theologian sees ultimate reality through revelation and the philosopher through natural law, the ideologue lets a rigid scheme of ideas determine the “truths” to be held. This method is as prone to error as a man’s conclusions about the cosmos, if he is studying the stars through a microscope.

These three levels of thought–ideas, the philosophical principle and revelatory truth–are like ever-widening concentric circles. Ideology cannot explain the philosophical principles, yet the philosophical principles can explain and properly weigh ideas. And by the same token, philosophical principles cannot explain the revelatory truths, yet the revelatory truths can properly organize the philosophical principles. These three circles are not mutually exclusive, but hierarchical, in which the larger circle subsumes the smaller. If one is limited to a smaller circle, then he is cut off from the explanatory power of the greater circle. The ideologue imprisons himself in the smallest circle and his impressions of philosophy and revelation are merely wraiths of apparent truth guided by pathos and rumor.

An “Ism” Does Not An Ideology Make

An ideologue makes a terrible philosopher and a worse theologian. The sophist is what we might call the ideological philosopher, using the maxim “making the worse argument the better” not to discover truth, but to maximize potential advantage in the world. The ideological theologian is the heretic seeking to establish his own understanding of the cosmos instead of deferring to the objective standard of the Creator embodied in Tradition and the Deposit of Faith. The politicization of philosophy is sophistry, the politicization of theology ends in heretical ideological movements such as liberation theology.

It is true that many ideologies are characterized by the “ism” that follows the subject name: like communism, feminism, Nazism, and socialism. It was not until the period of time between 1815 and 1850 that “ism” began to be attached to words in this way with this intent. The original intent in perfect accord with Enlightenment dogma was specifically to describe political, economic and social schemes of ideas. These structures were becoming more systematic, especially in the area of social science. The point was to attempt to analyze society as a whole in material terms. This led of course to the scientific comparison of social doctrines in competition with other doctrines, and the games began in earnest. Academia has embraced the “ism” and has had no problem extending it to all things regardless of its ties or lack thereof to the temporal ends originally associated with this dreadfully reductive intellectual (or rather anti-intellectual) movement.

St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas

To call something an ideology just because modern pedants have added an “ism” to the end of it is to allow the tail to wag the dog. It is not the word that makes the thing but the thing that comes to fruitful intelligibility by the incarnation of the thing by the proper word. Take for example the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. It is a magnificent body of knowledge spanning the breadth and width of philosophy and theology and going deeper than most would care to go. Now many call it Thomism but the one thing it is not is an ideology in the strictest and original sense, and calling it so today because it is fashionable does not make it so. The Catholic Faith is another fine example, but perhaps a little murkier. The world now calls it Catholicism and there are great numbers of folks who call themselves Catholic but have an ideological understanding of the One True Faith. Those who see the Catholic Faith through a material political lens do not define its true nature.

Back To The Bog!

This call for a recovery of the categories comprising epistemological distinctions is normative and demands the reunion of the fact/value distinction. I reject the linguistic novelty of calling all ways of knowing “ideologies.” There is no such thing as “the one true ideology” any more than there is a man who is in possession of all Truth. There is such a thing as the Great Western Conversation. It contains not ideologies, but the best that man has said and done that adds to a body of speculative answers to perennial philosophical inquiry. There is also the One True Faith whose members steward the deposit of the Faith as they try to colonize heaven. Christianity elucidates the revelations gifted by the Logos and enhanced by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but remains full of mystery to the most enlightened man. What ideologues most glaringly seem to miss is the limits of human intelligence.

As a lowly school teacher having witnessed the wholesale destruction the ideologies have wreaked on our children’s minds and souls, I implore the guardians of this age to restore reason. If we are seeking truth about the natural world or about ultimate reality, we must demand an annulment of the illegitimate marriage that binds these three categories in false union by fraudulent polyamory. Despite the claims of modern philosophers, the idea, philosophical principle and revelatory truths have not become one, but remain three separate categories of epistemology. Just like all false marriages and false families, if we are able to disentangle facts from fictions, we will discover the truth that at its roots ideology dissolves into self-worship.

In an age in possession of sanity, an ogre is an ogre, a servant is a servant, and the king is The King. This is not a sane age. If we can recognize the insanity of this age by looking into the mirror of Objective Truth, then perhaps we can begin to reinstate the proper boundaries among the spheres of epistemology and renew our vow to the is/ought marriage reflecting the objective standard. Revelation is the highest form of epistemology and belongs on the throne. The handmaiden to the Queen of the sciences in the castle to serve the highest cause is philosophy. But we must eject the intellectual ogre of ideology from the throne where he sits as a rank usurper. We must insist that he return to the bog of relativism where subjective opinion and human respect decay in fetid mud. If we can return things to their proper order, then perhaps we can once again engage in the Great conversation and maybe even recover our rapidly decaying civilization.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly

Published: Oct 19, 2014
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Leave a Reply