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chickenThe great Greek historian Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus was born a little more than a decade after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and it was at that early date that he considered up the significance of the seemingly insignificant chicken-and-egg question. In his notable work Moralia, in a discussion on love, Plutarch appropriately notes that the “problem about the egg and the hen, which of them came first” is a “difficult problem which gives investigators much trouble.” Indeed, the trouble has spanned two millennia, and the original confusion has been multiplied a thousandfold in the present dark era.

At a glance, we might understandably deny the bigger implications of this conundrum. Plutarch states it with simple clarity: “That with a small problem, as with a tool, we were rocking loose a great and heavy one, that of the creation of the world.” The chicken-and-the-egg question points to nothing less than the question about the origins of the universe, as well as the right understanding of the created order and man’s place in it.

Today, most classrooms in the West will puzzle nearly endlessly over this simple philosophical question, and almost every time they will get it wrong. The modern consensus of the professoriate, including materialists and evolutionists, will insist it is the egg first. Many modern souls might assert the equality and interdependence of the chicken and the egg. The vast majority really don’t care, and after proclaiming that it doesn’t matter, all things being equal, would likely agree on reasons rooted in theories of “evolution” that the egg came first. Nearly all modern schools propagate this wrong answer, which clearly denotes a misunderstanding of the most basic tenants of the created order.

This philosophical conundrum also extends to explicate one of the many roots of our present societal decay. The West has declared in favor of the ever-evolving egg. We insist upon the wrong order, and it is wrong because it denies the reality of creation, favoring instead material reductionism and scientism, out of which flow theories of evolution. If a society has lost sight of the created order, then surely it cannot grow properly.  To operate on a false assumption concerning the created order will ensure a misunderstanding of the nature of law, and without an understanding of law grounded in the true natures of things, the societal order disintegrates.

In choosing the egg first we have staked a claim against nature, and in spite of Bacon’s exhortation to conquer nature by applied science, in the end nature wills out. Surely we have managed to achieve the appearance of growth and prosperity while we work to “conquer nature” instead of cooperating with it, but we stand witness to an increasingly superficial and hollow growth. We efficiently make great weapons, but our morals decline. We will collapse in on ourselves under the weight of accumulating delusions, debts, and institutional falsehoods, as the last vestiges of moral capital amassed by our forefathers are profligately exhausted in an age in which we make idols of shadows and insubstantial theories.

Long ago we abandoned notions of essences and universals and now refer almost exclusively to existence and particulars as nominalism takes root in the Western imagination. Today, scientism has closed the door on the perennial philosophy, and the right use of the mind is all but forbidden in our institutions of learning. Early on in the modern period, wisdom was reduced to knowledge. In the age of rationalism knowledge was reduced to empirical facts. Now, the myopic lenses of subjectivism reduces facts to personal opinion. The marketplace of ideas has become so dilapidated and depleted of goodness that it has become a dangerous business to attempt to engage in commerce there.

In lieu of the protracted philosophical explanation of the created order, which requires a grounding Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, an understanding of the distinction between substances and accidents, a grasp of the four causes and at least a rudimentary grasp of ontology, I will make an appeal to the synthesizing sense. This inner sense used to be called the common sense, but in the ivory towers of modern education a proper understanding of this sense has been obliterated, and yet it still thrives in those who managed to avoid the ravages of the modern school and in children not yet ruined by its tutelage.

The truth about the chicken and the egg is too simple for this complex age. Both positions require an assumption about the existence of the Creator. If God exists and created all things—the earth, sky, seas, plants, animals, and humans—then of course the chicken came first. It is in the nature of the hen to produce eggs, and thus if God exists the chicken comes first. If God doesn’t exist, we will have to return to the drawing board. Although it can be shown philosophically, the aim of this meditation is not to demonstrate why the chicken came first but to assert that if the chicken did indeed come first, this holds out serious implications for the sophists who assert otherwise. It also holds much weight for those of us who would like to recover our sense of purpose in this superficial age.

By way of explaining the chicken and egg’s wider implications in the decay of a society, we can examine by analogy the relationship between duties and rights. What came first? Duties or rights? Most of the world would say rights, and in this they are wrong. The thinking goes that if we have secured and are guaranteed our rights, we will live happily ever after. The damage that this terrible thinking has wrought on our culture and society is fairly evident.

A woman’s right to her body incurs about forty million deaths a year worldwide. The feminists’ rights to equality have destroyed countless families. The LGBTQ’s rights to free sexual expression and “marriage equality” is clearly unraveling the social fabric at an unprecedented rate. These are but a few of the examples of how rights ideologies without the consideration of duties has had devastating consequences primarily because these ideologies go against the order of creation and the nature of truth. Surely this rights fiasco followed the duties fiasco instituted by the deontologists who abandoned God as the source of obligation and thereby undermined duty’s authentic significance.

We are creatures created by almighty God. God made us from love and for love. The primary and most reasonable response to the gift of life is gratitude followed by duty in accord with Christ’s twin commandment to love God and neighbor, in that order. We have a duty to return love to God and in doing so we cooperate with the created order. Out of the love for God and the recognition that we are to serve in truth flow our natural and inalienable rights.

The framers of our Constitution claimed that we have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is true as long as it is preceded by and flows out of our duties to God, neighbor, and country. If we choose to ignore our duty to justice concerning our neighbors, we might easily find ourselves without liberty and perhaps even without life. It is an absurd contradiction to say all humans have a right to life and then at the same time that a woman has a right to terminate the life of her unborn child. Our duty to God and neighbor is to protect life, and the right to liberty and life flow out of that duty if it is bound to love of God.

It should be obvious that a society that inverts this order of duties and rights, as we have, will bring unprecedented troubles upon itself. There will inevitably be an increase in violence, crime, upheaval, and an exponential increase in victimology. The almost exclusive focus on rights—while ignoring duties that flow from our obligation to our Creator—generates citizens who are at once extremely offensive, and at the same time hyper-sensitive to offense.

The schools, politicians, and the mass media have made a name for themselves by focusing on rights violations, thereby creating a multitude of victims in the present day. And while it may be true that someone who punches a police officer in the face and tries to take his gun ought not to die for it, it is by ignoring his duty to respect the authority of the law that he risks his very life, not solely for his personal incident, but for an increasingly criminal climate that sees many brazen criminals commit violence against civil authorities based on distorted notions of “rights” and an absence of duty to truth.

The relationship among rights, duties, and God is as integral as the relationship among the chicken, the egg, and the Creator. Think of children and their parents. Do parents have a right to filial piety and respect? It is the Fourth Commandant that children should obey their parents. However, it is absurd to expect a child to obey parents who have abnegated their duty to love, clothe, shelter, feed, and educate their children. The right to filial piety can only follow the parental duty to raise their children in a manner fitting the respect owed to God and the created order.

A woman ought to obey her husband; therefore, a man has a right to his wife’s obeisance—it is biblical. However, it is a man’s duty to love his wife as Christ loves the Church. A woman can only be authentically obedient to a man who fulfills his duty to love her properly for the sake of God. To expect that a man has a right to the devotion from his wife when he doesn’t fulfill his duties is a misunderstanding of the created order. This is a point on which even the feminists might agree.

The implications of the Chicken and the egg argument can be illustrated by St. Augustine’s timeless characterization of the right order of things as he speaks of the two cities in his masterpiece City of God: “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly city by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly city by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” Just as the egg comes from the hen, the ordering of the city follows the kind of love that forms its citizens. Citizens who love God first make a well-ordered city. Delusional citizens will have a delusional city. Virtuous citizens will have a virtuous city. The city that denies the existence of God altogether has no option but to turn inward on itself and worship man instead of God, and this city is doomed by its contempt for reality and the created order.

We are in dire need of a recovery of that gift of a synthesizing sense—our common sense we seem to have abandoned when we came to love ourselves so much that we began to have contempt for God, our Creator. The first order of business is to recover the truth, discoverable by natural reason, that there must be a first cause, a prime mover, and intelligent creator that gifted this universe to us. All law flows from our Creator; our duties flow from Him, and our rights naturally follow. Let us recover the right order of things and recover the understanding that the egg follows the hen.

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Published: Sep 13, 2016
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.
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7 replies to this post
  1. Not exactly. All life evolved from a single cell. While the question of the origin of matter as such is remote, the question of the evolution of life is less so.

    To my mind, current paleontological data indicates that birds (chickens as well) are all directly evolved from dinosaurs. This is not speculation but the state of current scientific understanding. Ergo the dinosaur literally came first – dinosaurs are the direct ancestors of birds and the only real dispue left or area for outlandish speculation is

    “Should we therefore call birds dinosaurs?”

    I recommend Desalle and Lindley’s 1997 book “How to Build a Dinosaur ” for a lay primer.

  2. Not exactly. All life evolved from a single cell. While the question of the origin of matter as such is remote, the question of the evolution of life is less so.

    To my mind, current paleontological data indicates that birds (chickens as well) are all directly evolved from dinosaurs. This is not speculation but the state of current scientific understanding. Ergo the dinosaur literally came first – dinosaurs are the direct ancestors of birds and the only real dispute left or area for outlandish speculation is

    “Should we therefore call birds dinosaurs?”

    I recommend Desalle and Lindley’s 1997 book “How to Build a Dinosaur ” for a lay primer.

  3. No. Around 3.5 billion years ago up through the Cambrian explosion when most modern multicellular phyla began to appear. This is – roughly – what the accumulated science demonstrates. Of course answering the chicken/egg question by saying “the prokaryot came first” is (to my mind) a bit of a reductionist cop out and certainly not as entertaining as saying that the dinosaur came first which gives us the best of both worlds being both fun and acurately reflecting the evidence.

  4. I see Peter.
    Creation is indeed a mystery and how this all came to be is much less the domain of the physical sciences than that of revealed truth (unless by empirical means we really can situate ourselves near omniscience which to my mind is highly doubtful if not impossible). Although the theories are impressive in their verbal depth, we ought not to let the men in the white coats bewitch us with such tenuous theories even if they are consistent with the accumulated evidence which flows from and back into the myopic mind of man. This is not what the accumulated science roughly said 100 years ago and it is not what the accumulated science will roughly say in 100 years. All that being said, the physical sciences can certainly be a great benefit in corroborating revealed truth. Science makes a great servant, but a terrible master.

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