Monday, 28 March 2011

Big Hooray Words - education, science, peace, law, democracy, freedom, art


Modern discourse, inner discourse as well as public, is not just hampered but well-nigh crippled by the positive connotations of Big Hoorah Words like education, science, peace, law, democracy, freedom, art, medicine... all the Big things we are supposed to like, to favour, to promote, to support with taxes.

Although this produces cognitive dissonance - mental cramp - when somebody uses the words to support something we don't like; somehow we cannot break free from the grip these words have upon us: we cannot deny them.


But these Big Hooray Words are not virtues; they are specialized social functions, many or most of which have not existed on previous human societies.

The time is long since past that we ought to have broken free from their grip.

Why should these positive connotations be the object of our worship?


Education - just for example: why should we favour this thing?

What does this 'education' actually entail? What stuff is being taught, and by what means? What people are to be educated, and with what end?

Does this person benefit from this information being imparted in this was (compared with other things this person might be doing)?

In any formal sense, education is neither good nor bad because it is a content-free concept; in practice it boils down to the social system labelled as education - in a more- or less-restricted definition.


Science is much the same: what can we do with this idea?

Are you pro- or anti- 'science'? Are you pro- whatever may at some time or another be absorbed into the social system of science - because science now is an utterly different thing than science was 150, 100 or even 50 years ago.

Are you in favour of a social system called 'science' merely because it is the lineal descendent of something that you liked?

Science now is a different size, has different kinds of people, who are differently motivated, and do different kinds of things, which are differently funded, and differently evaluated - the broad sweep and fine grain of science are all different now than a century ago when Einstein was starting work in the patent office in Berne.


And yet we, I, keep getting drawn into thinking about and talking about these vast nebulae of swirling gas!

Somebody, somewhere must be laughing at this!


Discernment. That is what is needed. A concept much used by Fr Seraphim Rose, and applied to the precisely analogous situation of 'christianity' (lower case).

(Are you in favour of christianity? Are you in favour of a nebulous, vague gaseous entity - definitions to be provided later and changed as required by expediency?)

If there is anything we need - in the world as it has becomes and is becoming - it is discernment.


Perhaps the reason why Natural Law has lost its grip, for the first time in human history, is that it is forced to grapple with vague abstractions asif these were reality.

If discernment is applied, and we are specific about concrete, actual people, things, situations - then natural law will return.

Clarity returns.

The 'gift' of being ruled by generations of intellectuals is now that concrete specific situations are regarded as delusions, and the only reality is fluid abstraction.

We are not supposed to evaluate this person in front of us, doing - or not doing, such-and-such a thing. Because... well I don't know why because...

But we are supposed (as sophisticated moral entities) to evaluate this actual person and their actual action through what purports to be the lens of abstract principle and reason - but which is, or has become, not a lens but a fog.



Peter said...

For some reason, this post reminded me of what Ivan Illich wrote about confusing process with substance (see opening paragraphs of Deschooling Society).

You say that "in practice [education] boils down to the social system labelled as education...". Is that a criticism or a sort of surrender? I prefer to say that what our (Australia) schools do is _not_ (or poor) education.

I do feel similarly about Christianity and the churches. I am very interested now to read some of Fr Seraphim Rose's writings.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Peter "I prefer to say that what our (Australia) schools do is _not_ (or poor) education."

Well, that is perfectly reasonable - just that this is what reasonable people have been trying to do for decades, and look where we are!

Education in the sense that you and I mean is a fact of the human condition, and does not really need to be identified and labelled as such; ironically, once identified and labelled it progressively ceased to be a part of the human condition and became a kind of anti-human, anti-real thing.

dearieme said...

"Discernment. That is what is needed. A concept much used ..": perhaps more precisely we need discrimination. But that word doesn't mean that word any more.

Brent said...

For some reason this reminds me of the scene in 'Out of the Silent Planet' where Weston makes a speech full of Big Hooray Words to the oyarsa, which when translated by Ransom turns out to be boasting about foolishness, frailty and sin.

Peter Arnold (Australia) said...

Dr Charlton,

Sir you're indubitably right in holding that these words are empty flatulent slogans. I'm for ever accused of pedantry which, though blameable, is necessary to disentangle the immense intricate knot which perhaps one thousand, certainly five hundred, years of confusion and deviancy from God have wrought. An illuminating example of the folly and deceit is 'humanitarian' which was coined in the late 1880's to disguise the revival of the Pelagian heresy: that man can perfect (or help) himself without God by school learning (compulsory and standardised by the secular state of course) and what we now term 'aid development' or 'refugee settlement', etc. St Augustine (in one of his better works) penetrates then explodes the fallacious devilry of this opinion. Much like St Basil in his treatise against the rationalising heretic Eunomius which such vain idlers as Bacon, Newton and Locke ought to have read. You've converted me to your view of the perfection (theologically and therefore, and far as humanly attainable socially and politically) of what I call Greek Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It seems improbable as an accident that no long after the schism Anselm and Abelard renewed that nominalism in the West which the Church Fathers had laboured to disabuse and extinguish.

Peter Arnold said...

A second example is 'altruism'. Nowadays as the ordinary man, even the so-called educated man, are unlettered and stupid we suppose 'altruism' to be a mere synonym for charity or beneficence, or philanthropy or the fraud of humanitarianism. It is of course not so innocent. It was devised by an Italian modernist Liberal as a doctrine of what those puerile Darwinists name 'outgroup charity'. Altruism was a dogma set up to contradict and weaken the purely Christian virtue of Charity which was conceived differently from that of the ancient pagans and the modern Liberals (St Jerome chose caritas to signify the new conception of this virtue engrained in the New Test. Greek agape). The pagan Latin moralists wrote of this virtue as dilectio, cognate with delectus: a choice, as in I choose to write a cheque and give it to Oxfam where the admin. expense and sinecures will eat it up but who really cares? I did my bit! Or I choose to kidnap a foundling from Nyasaland or Korea, tearing him the native domestic ties, but who cares? It's exciting and individualist! Christian charity is a duty which belongs foremost - not denying good Samaritan kindness owed to the unfortunate stranger passing by - to those God has appointed as are neighbours, kin, kings and nobles, bishops, monks, etc.
Altruism is an Enlightenment ideology, Christian charity is a way of life.

Peter Arnold (Australia) said...

Continuing on the subject of Charity:

The Greek holy men (I concur whole-heartedly, Palamas is wonderful) spoke of striving to be like God - an apotheosis. God's love is that of a Heavenly Father so it is administered as would a Father, sometimes stern but always pure and just. Christians, especially those devoted to the Church, or kings or ministers/feudatories of kings, are obliged to distribute their Christian love in the same way - as Fathers sometimes severe and punitive. Patriarch Germanus (early 8th century) of Constantinople, a martyr to the proto-Liberal Iconoclasts, wrote also that Christian love means knowing when one must punish or submit.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Peter Arnold

Thanks very much for the thoughtful comments.