About Those Self-Evident Truths. . . .

What are we without them?
Winter 2020

America’s unique gift to the world is the idea of a democratic republic, in which citizens live under laws that they themselves have made through their elected representatives. We are not ruled. Our 1787 Constitution, perfected by the Bill of Rights, the Reconstruction Amendments, and the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the vote, details the mechanism for such a republic, but it is inert machinery until animated by a culture of independence, a spirit of liberty, that brings it to life. George Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention, made this point repeatedly. No constitution, however wisely designed, he warned—prophetically, it now seems—can protect a people against tyranny or conquest if it weakens itself by unchecked “corruption of morals, profligacy of manners, and listlessness for the preservation of the natural and unalienable rights of mankind.”

Manners, morals, and beliefs: you couldn’t find a more succinct definition of “culture” than this. It is our inherited reservoir of assumptions about what is good and bad, right and wrong, proper and improper—our largely unexamined ideas and habits, absorbed from our families and communities, that we so take for granted that they seem to come to us by instinct or intuition. They spring from the accumulated wisdom and experience of the human race, refined in America by the Western tradition and by our own exceptional history. This inherited cluster of beliefs and feelings, this moral imagination, forms the glue of society, the oil that smooths the friction of the social machinery, the rules of the road for self-government at the individual level, essential to a self-governing nation.

Washington, a quirky and unorthodox believer in a Providence that specially protected him, thought religion indispensable to the culture of liberty, if only for the utilitarian reason that people will do such improper things as tell lies in court if they don’t fear divine retribution. As the Revolutionary War loomed, the English philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke, Washington’s contemporary, stressed the deep historical link between the colonists’ religion and the fact that the “fierce spirit of Liberty is stronger in the English Colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.” Americans are mostly Protestants, he said in Parliament, and, especially in the northern colonies, Protestants from sects that broke away from the established Church of England. “All protestantism,” he noted, warning his fellow legislators not to push America into revolt, “is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our Northern Colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance: it is the dissidence of dissent and the protestantism of the protestant religion.” Its various sects agree in “nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty,” a spirit “adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.”

Today, when only half those polled belong to a church or synagogue, nearly half don’t believe in God, a mere 35 percent consider themselves Protestants, and three-quarters think that religion is losing its influence in American life, where do the rest of us get our ideas of right and wrong, good and bad? And what has become of the spirit of liberty?

I used to think that, without the support of religion, the cultural heritage that forms our moral imagination—at its highest, enshrined in the best that has been thought and said over the ages, as Victorian sage Matthew Arnold put it—would get passed down safely by humanities and civics courses in schools and colleges. How wrong I was! As I saw happen as an undergraduate in the 1960s, humanities professors lost confidence in the value of their enterprise, overawed by the triumphant march of science, from Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine in 1953 to the Soviets’ first space satellite in 1957 and manned space flight in 1961, the year before I started college. For a decade, until two Americans walked on the moon in 1969, the Space Race was in full swing, and science soared in prestige. Here was knowledge that you knew was knowledge. You could state it in exact equations, formulas, and diagrams, and it yielded the power to fly you to the moon, to exorcise one of mid-century childhood’s worst terrors, and, in that same era, to concoct a pill that divorced sex from conception.

In contrast with science’s confident certitude, if you asked an English professor how he knew that his interpretation of Hamlet was true, or why we should care about Henry James’s overprivileged characters in The Portrait of a Lady, he had no convincing answer, not even to himself, having not reflected much on why he loved literature or what use it had. The right answer is that the humanities embody a different kind of knowledge from that of science. They inhabit the realm of value, not fact; of judgment, not proof. They contain centuries of insightful meditations—based on observation and experience—on what human nature is, what gives life meaning, what the best kind of life is, what distinguishes good from evil and noble from base. They dramatize how experience shapes us and how our character and our choices shape our experience. They examine the nature of family, friendship, love, community, society, civility, freedom, obligation, character, and contingency. Literature shows us the churn of individual consciousness from inside—the stew of reason, passion, knowledge, belief, superstition, hope, and denial through which we all try to make sense of ourselves and our world—and the play of consciousness against consciousness, often so different in perception and intention, often distorted by dissimulation and self-deception. Philosophy asks such questions of value and judgment from a more abstract viewpoint (tellingly, Cambridge University used to call its British philosophy course “The English Moralists”), while history asks them from a more panoramic vista, trying to understand why things happened as they did and to judge the motives that produced them and the consequences that flowed from them—though trying to determine what actually happened is itself often a matter of judgment, since even primary sources are rarely as unequivocal as equations or formulas.

The fundamental assumption of the humanities is related to that of religion: that we are uniquely human, with lives that have meaning, albeit we have to make that meaning ourselves, as individuals and communities, an effort to which the liberal arts contribute mightily. The poets and philosophers who nourish that conviction of meaningfulness are unanimous in telling us that, beyond our molecules and genes, with their supposed preprogrammed imperatives and automatic functions, beyond our serotonin and cortisol, we have some spiritual essence that includes our faculty of reason but is larger than it, affording us a more immediate, intuitive grasp of the good, the true, the beautiful, and the ineffable. They agree that, despite the pressure of external contingencies, we are free to make choices, including moral choices, that define us.

To heighten the humanities teachers’ insecurity, sociology and psychology began to insist that they had hard, scientific answers to many of the questions that the humanities professors, with their formalist training, had neglected. In response, some English teachers became amateur psychiatrists and sociologists. They began to present Hamlet, for example, as a mere demonstration of the supposed Oedipus complex, as if Freudian theorizing at its most tendentious offered a deeper insight into the soul than Shakespeare’s matchless genius. They treated Dickens as one more sociologist, his novels funnier then Friedrich Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England but of the same ilk, even though Great Expectations or Bleak House reveals more about the fundamental nature of society and the individual’s life within it, as well as the workings of the human heart, than all the sociologists put together, with a gaggle of psychologists and political scientists thrown in.

Little wonder that, when the maelstrom of political radicalism hit the universities in the 1960s, the humanities departments, already rotten from within, collapsed with the first gust. Beyond the rot, they had a further vulnerability. One of Western culture’s crowning achievements is Enlightenment reason, with its disdain for myth and mystification, its suspicion of traditional authority. Don’t trust; verify, is its guiding ideal. It proved easy to turn this keen-edged tool against culture itself, just as the French philosophes had turned it against religion. Much of the wisdom contained in the humanities is conjectural or empirical, after all. We believe there to be a causal connection, ratified by historical experience, between this virtue and that good outcome, but we can’t prove it. Closely examined, the origin of our belief might turn out to be a “noble lie,” to use Plato’s vulnerable phrase.

Take as an example the idea of the social contract, so central to much of political philosophy, with its different variations by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Surely, mankind never sat down and signed such a contract to begin government, in the way that the Mayflower pilgrims signed their shipboard Compact or the Framers signed the U.S. Constitution in 1787. It is a useful myth of origin, on which profound and illuminating theories of government can be built, in the same way that the eminently useful discipline of geometry, which proceeds by proof upon proof, nevertheless rests on the arbitrary definitions of a point and a line. As the Declaration of Independence affirmed, we hold it to be a self-evident truth that men are endowed with certain unalienable rights. Our whole republic rests upon that assertion, and we framed a Constitution to preserve the liberty that is one of those rights. But can we prove that truth, absent a Creator who endowed us with those rights—or, at the very least, without demonstrating a natural law that enshrines them?

For proof—or, at least, for evidence—the humanities would marshal the judgment of philosophy that liberty under law is among mankind’s highest goods, along with history’s consensus that America under the Constitution achieved not only the greatest liberty but also the richest and most widespread prosperity of any political order on record. The Straussian political philosophers, amplifying a theme that Abraham Lincoln sounded in speeches and debates for almost a decade before his presidency, would acknowledge that the republic came into the world with a congenital stain of slavery that the Framers knew marred their creation but that was too long ingrained for them to excise suddenly, if they wanted to get the document ratified. They and their contemporaries had to content themselves with limiting it. They set a date when the slave trade could be abolished, and they forbade slavery’s spread to the new Northwest Territory, firmly believing that tobacco’s exhaustion of the South’s soil would cause the institution to wither away in the foreseeable future. When the cotton gin overturned that hope, the nation paid in blood to vindicate our founding principle.

Nothing more somberly underscores Edmund Burke’s point about the power of the beliefs and values at the heart of culture than the readiness of nearly 400,000 Union soldiers to die to make men free, fighting for an ideal. Before Karl Marx pooh-poohed the importance of culture, perversely asserting that beliefs and values were nothing but reflections of economic interests, mere rationalizations for wealth or its lack, most philosophers rightly considered ideas to be the moving force of history—causes, not consequences. First you imagine something, then you create it. So to rephrase the issue at hand: whether or not beliefs and values are scientifically true, they are emphatically real. They make their own truth. Because they are the forces that shape the world—for better or worse, as experience must prove—the kind of culture we have is of crucial importance.

The onslaught that overwhelmed the humanities starting in the 1960s had two prongs. First, the if-it-feels-good-do-it spirit of the age scorned boundaries and rode roughshod over traditional values, with their host of thou-shalt-nots, whose last redoubt, in an increasingly irreligious era, was the Western literary and philosophical canon, from Aristotle to Jane Austen. The Age of Aquarius, in its transgressive fling with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, sought liberation not just from morals but even from manners. Insulting Miss Bates or cold-shouldering Mr. Darcy? Misguidedly marrying Mr. Casaubon or Gilbert Osmond? Who cared? Get a divorce! Let it all hang out! Family, community, character: What claims had these on what critic Quentin Anderson called the Imperial Self?

Second, the iconoclasm had a political face, too. Just when the civil rights movement was succeeding in breaking down both official and informal racial discrimination, America followed the Black Panthers and Malcolm X in believing that the nation was irreparably racist and always had been, a watershed cultural moment that Tom Wolfe immortalized in his 1970 satire “Radical Chic.” It’s a moment in which the colleges, the schools, and what’s left of the humanities departments have remained stuck for half a century, imagining ever more baroque forms of racism, ever more microscopic instances of discrimination. The year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, sparking another sociopolitical upheaval against a newly defined oppression. The year after the act, President Lyndon Johnson began bombing North Vietnam and pouring draftees into the war, igniting campus demonstrations and teach-ins, whose theme was that America was just one more Western colonialist oppressor of nonwhite peoples yearning to breathe free around the globe—a giant step beyond criticism of that particular conflict.

Marx won the culture war in short order. Campus radicals stigmatized the Western canon as no more than an apologia for racism, misogyny, and imperialism, with even Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park tossed on the bonfire of the vanities, because of its passing mention that its protagonists’ family wealth came from West Indian estates—that is, from slavery. As for Huckleberry Finn . . . well. The result today is that the Western cultural inheritance has evaporated from the shrunken, self-mutilated humanities departments, leaving behind only a residue of Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the like, and a campus culture fearfully opposed to free speech, free inquiry, and even to the idea of merit, so as not to disturb the new shibboleths. Of course, only at rare moments in their ten-century history have universities been centers of enlightenment rather than of dogmatism, drunkenness, and sloth, but it was only yesterday that they, rather than churches, became our primary institutions of moral instruction. Following their lead, the schools, too, have dedicated themselves to making equality—now called “social justice”—rather than to providing education. Slim pickings for a once-rich culture.

Into the bonfire went history, especially American history. At least since Charles Beard had argued in 1913 that the Constitution sprang not from any epochal vision of political liberty but rather from the Framers’ personal economic self-interest, left-wing historians have been nipping at the ankles of the Founding Fathers, and a whole academic and journalistic industry sprang up in the Depression to paint the post–Civil War industrialists—who, almost overnight, built the steamships, steel mills, railroads, cars, and oil refineries that transformed the world—as robber barons, tearing their wealth out of the entrails of (largely immigrant) labor, until their successors generated a massive economic crash that Franklin Roosevelt miraculously materialized to heal, diffusing social justice throughout the land. Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and its many kiddie adaptations began infusing this dystopian view, further darkened with Native American genocide and the oppression of women, into the high schools nearly 40 years ago.

The almost comic reductio ad absurdum of all this is the New York Times’s new “1619 Project,” a factitious depiction, complete with free study guides for grade school teachers, of American history as unfolding in its entirety from the (essentially accidental) landing of the first slaves in Virginia in that year. Propaganda ministers like Vyacheslav Molotov or Joseph Goebbels understood culture’s power to shape political and social reality and concluded that to control and manipulate belief—to transmute it into ideology, unmoored from observed or experienced truth—would be a powerful lever of rule. They have had no shortage of Orwellian successors, among them the producers of the “1619 Project,” fakery through and through.

No one captures the tragic paradox of culture more poignantly than the twentieth century’s greatest poet, William Butler Yeats, who came away from the carnage of World War I fearing that we humans “are but weasels fighting in a hole”:

Civilisation is hooped together, brought
Under a rule, under the semblance of peace
By manifold illusion; but man’s life is thought,
And he, despite his terror, cannot cease
Ravening through century after century,
Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come
Into the desolation of reality:
Egypt and Greece, good-bye, and goodbye, Rome!

As our own civilization ravens and uproots, only to come into the desolation of false and lying illusion, so far more farce than tragedy, that’s my worry, too. Watching the hard-eyed troops surge by in Communist China’s 70th anniversary parade in October, the rank upon rank of fit young men and women toting high-tech weaponry and marching with eager determination, as if treading down all before them, it was hard not to wonder how we’d fare if we ever had to fight them, given President Xi Jinping’s undisguised imperial designs. As I watched, I couldn’t help remembering the 2016 photos of American sailors kneeling in humiliated submission on the deck of their U.S. Navy patrol vessel, which they had allowed diminutive Iranian gunboats to seize without firing a single shot in the Persian Gulf. Did they not believe, had they not been taught, that they had anything worth defending?

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