Archive for March 11th, 2009


I teach a First Year Seminar Italy through the Ages, which starts with the Roman Republic and ends with a comparison of the US and Rome, asking essentially “Are We Rome” (also the name of the final book I use).    Yet the course is more than a glorified Italian history course.  In essence I’m trying to focus on some of the most poignant arguments and debates in the intellectual history of the West in order to help students understand who we are — what is this “western” culture we were born into, and how does the present reflect an evolution of over two thousand years of civilization.

Today we headed to northern Europe and talk about the fideists Bayle and Pascal (I had a blog entry on Pascal’s wager last July).   Fideism was a reaction to the scientific developments from people like Galileo, and to the loss of power by the church in the reformation.   The fideists demonstrate something that is still with us, especially in post modernism: Reason alone is a path towards skepticism and meaninglessness. Reason is a tool that ultimately can be turned on itself.  Reason cannot prove the truth of any core principle, cannot provide a meaning for life, and in fact can be damaging to the human soul.

Using reason, Pascal argued, it’s clear that the world is utterly absurd.   We become driven to seek distractions and avoid thinking about our life and its core meaning because the answer is too depressing.  There is no meaning, we always compare poorly with others if we look hard enough, we’re just getting older, the world cuts us no breaks, and we drift between crisis and boring routine.  How can the soul stand this existence?

Pascal recognized very early on the dark side of modernism — that side we still confront as we deal with high levels of stress, anxiety, depression and alienation.   By moving from tradition, community and faith to reason, individualism and materialism, we made it the individual’s responsibility to determine his or her place in the world.   Sadly, most individuals are not up to the task.   We need external success or approval to feel good about ourselves, and the world doesn’t provide that in excess — or when it does, it provides just as much reason for us to be ashamed of ourselves, our thoughts, and our deeds.

For the fideists the solution was to recognize the limits of rational thought and to use reason to tear reason apart — something they did very well, a tradition continued by a very different group of scholars today, the post-modernists.   Instead of looking for an answer through reason, the fideists said the answer is to fill your heart with love of God, through faith, and faith alone.

Most people aren’t willing to embrace the fideist solution, and I don’t talk about them to my class in order to try to get them to embrace religious faith. I have two purposes in bringing this up.  First, to show students who are entering a world full of anxiety, eating disorders, stress, and depression that the alienation they might feel as they try to find their place in the world is not new or unique — it was the subject in fact of the most popular book of its era, Pascal’s Pensees.    Perhaps even that sense that they are not alone in feeling overwhelmed or doubting themselves will help them realize that it’s normal in this world to have such thoughts.   Putting it in historical and philosophical context can be part of one coming to grips with ones’ own state.

Second, this is the western modern challenge: become yourself.   That’s not easy.   In the past we had cultural and traditional identities supplied which one could just slip on.  The roles and scripts were pre-defined, and while there was variation, corruption, and other human problems, faults, and glories, the challenge to become an individual didn’t exist in the same way it does now.  At the very least there was a support system around everyone, religion provided answers to the meaning of life and death, a close knit community provided a sense of solidarity and ones’ place in the world, and all of this reinforced self esteem and a sense of well being.   We weren’t as free — we were bound to tradition and custom — but it was easier.

Moreover, understanding this break between the traditional and modern helps people make sense of who we are as a culture or a civilization.    Consider: what does a person who desperately seeks meaning in life do?   They actively pursue things they think will give them meaning, ranging from exploring religion, new age philosophy, relationships, new pursuits, science or anything that seems to promise meaning.   Seeking meaning means being active, it means being dissatisfied with the status quo.   The West, unlike traditional societies, has done this on a cultural level.   Progress overtook continuity.   Change trumped consistency.

As a culture we became ferentic and insatiable.   We build new things, explore, set up challenges, and compare ourselves and our accomplishments (both individually and as a society) with others.   Our freedom and creative potential are unleashed, and we construct grand monuments and strucures in the world, exploring the human potential.  This can be good or evil.  It can be colonialism and the destruction of native cultures, it can be communism and the internment camps, and it can be fascism and the holocaust.  On the other hand it can be the pursuit of human rights, efforts to end hunger, opposition to tyranny and oppression, and the release of artistical and creative impulses.

Just as individuals have to “create themselves” in this culture, as a society we are constantly trying to figure out who we are.   People drift from “ism” to “ism,” hoping that reason will give them an answer key.  But as the fidiests themselves noted, reason cannot provide an answer key.  It cannot point to a correct ideology.  It can, in fact, be turned on anything it creates and tear it apart.  The quest for the “right answer” is in vain.   By becoming a true individual we can’t seek to become the “perfect” human, there is no one “right way to be.”  That’s the challenge.   Societally there isn’t one “perfect system,” but many possible social organizations, each with different advantages and disadvantages (and fights about whether something is an advantage or a disadvantage).   There is no right ideology.

Thus we are left with one major task: to choose.   We choose how to construct ourselves in this social context, we choose how we relate to others; choice is the watchword of the West.   Rather than following tradition or religious custom, we decide what we want to follow.  Choice is inherent in freedom, and that for all its weaknesses, the power of reason freed us from simply obeying rules.

This is scary.  It seems to suggest nihilism and absurdity as the essential attribute of reality.  That is what Pascal glimpsed, and what caused him to turn to God.   And, while religion may not be the answer, I think Pascal was right when he said “the heart has reasons that reason cannot understand.”  Ultimately meaning doesn’t come from the head, but the heart.  Reason can turn on itself, but it can’t turn on the heart.  Reason can be abused, but love is pure.   Reason has no fundamental truth — it deals in assumptions, analyses and contingent truth claims.  Love is truth.   And perhaps the key to becoming an individual and dealing with the challenges of the modern world is to simply choose love.