Saturday, April 12, 2014

Old and Not So Old Books

"The only palliative [to the blindness of shared assumptions in the modern world] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books." --C. S. Lewis

"Truth that triumphs over all things . . . seems to remain more usefully and to fructify to greater profit in books. For the meaning of the voice perishes with the sound; truth latent in the mind is wisdom that s hid and treasure that is not seen; but truth which shines forth in books desires to manifest itself to every impressionable sense". --Richard de Bury, Philobiblon, circa 1345

Lewis was thinking about really old books, such as those of the ancient Greek philosophers, or even somewhat old books, such as Philobiblon, quoted above, but even slightly non-contemporary books can sometimes shed light on the blindness of groupthink that seems to possess every era to some extent. I have in my library an introduction to American literature textbook from the early twentieth century, listing Herman Melville in an appendix as an "also wrote," while featuring now-neglected writers such as Booth Tarkington.

An interesting example of a not-so-old book about the sources of modern and postmodern times is The Revolt Against Reason by Arnold Lunn. It was published in England in 1950 and by Sheed and Ward in New York in 1951. (You can still get copies, though. Just google the author and title.)  Here is some food for thought drawn from Mr. Lunn.

"[T]he success and enduring influence of a systematic construction of falsehood depends very largely on inexact terminology" (3). Consider how squishy and inexact are many of the terms over which bitter debates are fought: climate change, evolution, social justice, reason and faith, knowledge versus belief, what is fair, legislating morality. And of course we won't even go to love, need, fairness, and so on. When you can use a term, knowing that your definition is different from that of your hearer or reader, but allowing them to assume that their definition is yours too, then all kinds of manipulation are possible.

Thinking about the anti-rationalism of postmodernism and what I have called Type 2 people, we can find a relevant remark in Lunn: "The revolt against reason is in its ultimate essence the revolt of unbridled individualism against an external and objective code" (50). Reason favors objective measurements, which rely on a code of values and truth, which implies accountability external to oneself. The revolt against reason produces subjectivity of measurement, an existentialist operating method, and a solipsistic view of living for oneself.

But I should let Lunn continue: "The great leaders of this revolt have all been wishful thinkers who contrived to believe that reality could be forced to conform to the pattern shaped by their ambition or by their lust" (59). Doesn't that nicely describe the utopianism of so many of our elites?


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