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Volume 11, Number 1 (Autumn 1970)

Notes on the Cultural Revolution

Claes G. Ryn

The present age is distinguished by this: in the quest for a better life, man has chosen increasingly to put his faith in natural science. More than a century of unparalleled activity in that area of research has given a new bent to the imagination of several generations, suffusing the whole of Western society with revolutionary ways of thought.

In a civilization that early was exposed to the corrosive influence of a rebellious skepticism, the view has been nurtured that all real knowledge must be sought in the qualitative domain which is the object of natural science. The advance of this outlook is mirrored in the semantic development of the very word “science,” which today often is strictly reserved for a search for knowledge according to the principles of experimental science.

It was the liberal disciplines that traditionally pointed the way to a better life. Since the nineteenth century, these have been strongly influenced by the methods of natural science. In consequence, they have tended to develop into mere subsidiaries of the Master Science. The reorientation of the human mind that results from this process is so drastic, and carries such far-reaching implications, that one may speak of the march of a new culture.

This urge to imitate physical science, particularly powerful in the social sciences, is the result of an historical development that may be described as an extroversion of the intellect. The eyes of the mind gradually have been averted from the structure of consciousness itself and into the microscope of the natural scientist. Observation of the “inner” facts of the intellect has given way to observation of the “outer” facts of the biological and physical world. As the awareness of an inner reality has dimmed, the view of man has changed.

Through a subtle interplay between the imagination of the observer and the advances in such fields as biochemistry and physics, the human person has come to be viewed as a biological organism only—a part of the outer world of the natural scientist. The philosophical result is a virtual triumph of a naturalistic concept of man. Implicit in this concept is a denial of the old transcendent standards of civilized behavior. Man is seen as ultimately subject to only one law, that of physical causation. Earlier having conceived of the meaning and goal of life in qualitative terms, the Westerner is trying today to reduce the whole of human experience to quantitative relationships.

The above historical development must be recognized for what it is—a cultural revolution. It should have our closest attention, for there can be little doubt that the naturalistic view of man represents a radical break with the cementing ideas of our civilization. The very survival of Western civilization, as we know it, may well hinge on whether the younger generations of today can be made to see through the naturalistic attempt to deny man’s true humanity.

The denial of a qualitative dimension in life, with an ascertainable structure of its own, is apparent in the theory of so-called “objective” education. According to the fashionable doctrine, the student cannot be scientifically trained to pass qualitative judgments on different data before him. The purpose of education is, instead, to acquaint him with a maximum amount of “objective facts.” The quantitative principle here employed has its counterpart in a mighty current of modern social thought. The egalitarian vision, summed up in phrases like “social and economic equality,” disposes of the selective and evaluating faculty in the ordering of social relationships, and satisfies itself with the notion that men are equals in their capacities as biological entities.

It should be pointed out that the progress of the cultural revolution is not altogether the same in all parts of Western society. The revolution is more advanced in certain countries, Sweden perhaps foremost among them. There is probably no other Western country where the social climate is so thoroughly ingrained with the naturalistic spirit. In the academy and among the intellectuals, it is almost totally supreme. An alternative approach to life which recognizes enduring standards of civilized life is barely discernible. Among the people in general, religion is on the verge of dying out. It is no coincidence that Sweden is often held up as a model by many Western intellectuals. Neither is it a coincidence, it may be argued, that its social atmosphere is increasingly marked by a strange ennui. This feeling has been described to the American public by no less an authority than Gunnar Myrdal. He appears to be quite confused, however, as to its basic causes. In the rest of Western Europe the situation is not essentially different. In some countries religious influences still tend to offset some of the naturalistic impact, but the strong general proneness to think in terms of quantity rather than quality is the same. You meet a lack of ability as well as a lack of will to defend central Western values.

The country where resistance to the naturalistic attack is most pronounced, and seemingly most effective, is the United States. A young and vigorous intellectual movement is mounting a broad counteroffensive on all levels, the religious and philosophical as well as the political. Although its success has been impressive, the naturalistic view is still setting the tone in American intellectual circles. Even if it is likely that the counteroffensive in the United States will eventually inspire active resistance in other parts of Western society, the present over-all situation does not nearly suggest a contest between movements of equal strength.

The seriousness of the naturalistic threat is indicated by its manifestations in the field of ethics. The naturalistic spirit finds several expressions, of which some may seem contradictory. It is thus reflected in the cynical views that moral principles are merely the outgrowths of convention, a rationalization of selfishness, a mask for the will to power, and the like. At the same time, it can be found behind the modern ethics of sentimentality. All of these attitudes share the naturalistic spirit in that they rest on a preoccupation with that part of human nature which is instinctive, impulsive, and, in general, expansive, while ignoring that other part which evaluates and restrains the former.

The naturalist who dominates the cultural life of Western society today rejects a dualistic view of man in the classical and Christian sense. Forced back on the basic principle of his ideology, he is prepared to recognize one reality only, the physical. He sees in life a quantitative process of mechanical causation. Man’s inner experience involves a sense of personal responsibility in relation to a higher order of reality, and gives vividness to such concepts as right and wrong. For the naturalist, these facts of the intellect can have no reality outside of matter in motion; they become the result of biochemical processes in the brain. Not even the profoundest kinds of religious experience break the material framework. Also these decisive elements in the life of many must be explained—explained away!—as quantitative coincidences.

The modern naturalistic view of man places all sides of life, at least potentially, in the domain of experimental science. Since man is in all respects subject to the law of physical causation, he can hope to solve his problems, in the last analysis, only by applying the principles of natural science. Education and other forms of cultural training will have become really appropriate to the task not until they work as some sort of technical instruments. Ultimately, cultural progress must depend on exact observations and mathematical precision. Human happiness—what must surely be the goal of our efforts—becomes a question of a nice adjustment of measurable magnitudes, indeed, perhaps a biochemical problem.

Against this background, it is understandable why many social scientists are disposed to approach their fields of study as social engineers. Given their naturalistic view of man, they will be interested in the collection and systematization of social data and in political experiments based on those. That classical and religious learning is only seldom a part of their intellectual equipment is not surprising. The classicist-religious stress on the “inner life” has, they think, simply lost its relevance. Instead, they engage in extensive discussions about the need of transforming the social environment by political means. The modern obsession with the potential of government is essentially a consequence of that view of man which denies the possibility of the individual raising himself above his material circumstances.

The naturalistic ideology stands in glaring contrast to the ideas about man that make up the core of Western civilization. A central element in the classical and Christian tradition is the belief in the duality of human nature. Man partakes not only of a physical and biological reality. In many ways he does resemble the animal, but another part of his nature transcends the closed world of instinct, endowing him with a perspective on himself and sense of personal freedom. The individual is influenced not only by his biological desires, crude or sublimated, but also by certain ethical ideas, more or less clearly perceived, of what his life should really be like. With this pattern of human perfection at the back of his mind, he passes judgment on his present state and on emerging wishes for the future. It is a process of continual self-evaluation which may be described, in the deepest sense, as a search for identity. This mysterious, intuitive notion of how he ought really to live is associated, as it were, with his own true self.

Depending on the sensitivity of his intellect, because of ethical training and other forms of education, the individual conceives of the normative images in his mind as representing an order of reality above the unfree sphere of biological instinct, above even ordinary thought. What is more, the individual admits to himself—known from his own experience—that he defies this ethical intuition only at the price of a loss of self-esteem and inner harmony. His concept of the moral good has a force and authority of its own, independent of what he happens to wish or desire at any particular moment. There are said to be men without a conscience. Significantly, there also seems to be common agreement that such men are not fully human.

By consciously trying to live up to his true self, man transcends the quantitative order of reality. In his efforts to choose the civilized life before the barbarous life, the good before the bad, the beautiful before the ugly, he is relying on his perception of qualitative realities. By his ability to implement these insights in his personal life he partakes of a nonmaterial order—an order of values.

The classical and Christian tradition puts heavy stress on the development of man’s ethical perception, for it is regarded as primary in our experience, not only in relation to our bodily functions but also to the faculty of mere logical calculation. Only because of the ethical component in his mind can man have a structured view of existence. By furnishing a qualitative dimension it provides the intellectual contrast by which he is lifted into consciousness. Self-awareness, in the specifically human sense, appears as the unstructured reality “I” is conceived together with its ordering principle. It is an elusive principle, yet intellectually self-evident and enduring. It is his guide to the civilized life, for it transmits to him his true humanity.

The individual’s development toward the good life involves effort of both will and thought. These faculties cannot really be seen as distinct from each other but work in close cooperation. A greater spiritual maturity and clarity of vision is achieved by the individual, slowly and laboriously, by acting upon ethical insight, by overcoming the ever-present temptation to yield to the impulse of the moment. Gradually, he thus turns his whole personality in the direction of the center of his being. He thereby sharpens his ability to rate different plans for the future with regard to their contribution to the good life. The very purpose of life is to acquire a profound sense of proportion (of the Aristotelian principle medén agan—moderation in all things), that is, a perspicacity as to the true value of various parts of existence in the efforts to reach the final goal: the happy life. It is in this light that we must view the classical and Christian emphasis on humility. True humility grows out of an awareness of our shortcomings in relation to what is qualitatively above us, to what is always demanding more of men.

The classical and Christian view of man does not rest on mere abstract speculation. Men like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the great Christian thinkers can be said to be more loyal to a positivistic and experimental scientific ideal than many who would claim to honor it today. If science is supposed to accept as relevant everything that is a matter of immediate experience, it should be perfectly legitimate—indeed, an urgent task—to inquire into the facts of the qualitative reality. The existence of an ethical dimension in our mind by which we are able to evaluate and judge our thoughts and emotions, desires and actions, is just as much a part of experience as are our sensuous impressions. The clarity of the ethical perception may be lower in persons who try to ignore or negate their sense of values than in persons who continually try to ascertain its intellectual structure; but that is no argument in favor of the position that values, as objective standards, must be rejected by science. It seems fair to say that in disposing of man’s ethical experience by the simple a priori assertion that it is merely illusory, and actually the result of physical causes, the modern naturalist reveals a stubborn dogmatism which should be irreconcilable with the openness of true science.

The contrast between the classical and Christian view of man and the naturalistic—apparent in the argument between Socrates and Callicles more than two thousand years ago—is of more than peripheral interest, from a practical and also a theoretical viewpoint. The issue is central as well as distinct. What is at stake is nothing less than the humanity of man itself. Does man have a specifically human nature, lifted above his biological nature, or is he merely the animal that some of his characteristics seem to indicate? The naturalists try to make the latter view a little more sophisticated and appealing by pointing to man’s rational faculty. But the attempt to make man into an intelligent animal is artificial; it must be judged in relation to basic naturalistic beliefs. By their materialistic premises the naturalists not only rule out the existence of free will; they also deprive the concept of moral responsibility of every real meaning. Both of these specifically human faculties presuppose a reality which transcends blind instinct. Only if there is implanted in each of us an objective order of values, to which we can ultimately appeal, can the talk about intelligence, or morality, or justice, or progress be more than a sophistic façade for crude realities.

Progress in the field of natural science during the last century has been bought at the price of blindness to the truth of man’s ethical self. This shift of emphasis in the search for knowledge from the ethical-qualitative sphere to the physical-quantitative is of the greatest importance; for if the classical and Christian view of man is true, the result of the intellectual reorientation is a depressing cultural shallowness and a disastrous impoverishment of what is central in man. If, in spite of this, the discussion about the two conflicting views has reached little momentum in Western society, it is probably because the very awareness of the problem is but vague and incomplete among the intellectuals. Should that really be so, it is the best possible indication of what must be called an infatuation with natural science.  

Claes G. Ryn is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and editor of the journal Humanitas. Among his books are America the Virtuous and The New Jacobinism. At the time of writing, Ryn was a doctoral candidate at the University of Uppsala, in Sweden.

Posted: September 30, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.

Mere unthinking negative opposition to the current of events, clutching in despair at what we still retain, will not suffice in this age. A conservatism of instinct must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.

Russell Kirk

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