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.

  1. #1 by henitsirk on March 11, 2009 - 02:42

    I just finished a book that proposed that anything other than rational, scientific thinking is pure superstition and a relic of ancient man’s survival instincts that is now unnecessary and a hindrance. It was such a depressing book! As if the scientific method really can explain anything. As if interpersonal relationships, or a sense of awe and wonder, can be explained rationally — or should be!

    I think we need a balance of both reason and emotion. We can’t discard either and truly be human beings. There’s a reason so many spiritual paths talk about the middle way!

    What you’re talking about here — the modern challenge of free individuation without the ease of the support structures of the past — is just what I’ve been exploring in my posts about homemaking. How do we develop ourselves, and as a result our culture, given the challenges and freedom of modern life? The flip side of our freedom is that lack of support.

    (These periods of history that involve a reaction to major social changes have always fascinated me. In college I was fascinated by movements like Romanticism, the Pre-Raphaelites, Art Nouveau, and Arts and Crafts of the 19th century, which were all reacting to industrialization and the growing mechanistic relationship to the world.)

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on March 11, 2009 - 16:15

    I’ve been reading your new posts Henitsirk, but I think I should find time to read back farther and some of your other pages. Have you ever read “Rite Of Spring” by Modris Eckstein? He’s looking at the period right up to and into World War I as one of those periods of social change, starting with the radical Stravinsky ballet “Rite of Spring” and the reaction of the Paris crowd. An interesting read.

    To consider reason and scientific thought (cold, mechanistic materialism) as the only legitimate way to view the world is supported by those who have a strong sense of wanting to only deal with things they can see and measure. Since there is no way to test or be certain of anything else, it’s dismissed as superstition. Yet in the past we couldn’t see or measure viruses, yet we felt their impact and could theorize about them. Early believers in atomic theory thought such a theory was bunk because atoms could never be seen. So really, to dismiss anything outside science as ‘superstition’ seems misguided. Moreover, if you read about quantum mechanics, either from a true scientist like Brian Greene in “The Fabric of the Cosmos” or a spiritualist like the Dalai Lama “The Universe in a Single Atom,” the universe looks like something our ‘rational thinking’ can’t grasp. All time simultaneous, non-locality, quantum tunneling, multiple universes… There is much more we don’t know than we do.

    Perhaps we’re like ants — we can master the world around us, but we’re oblivious to a much greater world in which we are a part.

  3. #3 by Adrian on March 11, 2009 - 16:33

    This is a very good post. Yesterday I re-read an article, published last year, which expresses much of what you have said. The article is about the benefits of being well-versed in literature. It was written by Joseph Epstein, a literature critic whose work I’ve been a fan of for ages. It was originally a speech (a link to it is posted below) before being published in the New Criterion. I highly recommend it.

    Here is an excerpt:

    “…What I believe [T.S.] Eliot meant by the lilting phrase “a mind so fine no idea could violate it” is not that Henry James was uninterested in ideas, or was incapable of mastering them, but that he, James, felt that there were truths above the level of ideas, truths of the instincts, of the heart, of the soul, and these were the truths that James, once he had attained to his literary mastery, attempted to plumb in his novels and stories.

    Ideas, however resplendent and grand they may be, are, as we know, endlessly subject to revision, if not to utter destruction. Two of the grand idea systems of the past century and a half—that of Marxism and that of Freudianism—have by now gone by the boards; and the third, Darwinism, is currently under heavy fire…”

    Link to the speech:

    Link to the article:

  4. #4 by Lee on March 11, 2009 - 17:10

    An interesting post. My eldest son is diagnoses with Aspergers Syndrome and he is only able to understand the tangible in the world. I am constantly trying to explain to him the importance of the lessons of the heart. Unfortunately for him, emotions are as much uncharted territory as viruses used to be for our early doctors!

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on March 16, 2009 - 15:32

    Wow, that must really be a challenge, Lee, both for you and him. Is his lack of emotion something that leaves him neither happy nor sad? Can he learn to cognitively recognize emotion, even if he doesn’t really understand them? Good luck to both of you — life always has challenges, it seems!

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