Reclaiming the Common Mind
T. S. Eliot gives a statement by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus as an epigraph to Four Quartets: “Although the Logos is common, the many live as if they had a private understanding.” Evidently the idea that there is some sort of common knowledge of the truth of things (the Logos) is not new; nor is the tendency of individuals to think they can figure everything out for themselves without reference to this common understanding. But the claims of individualism and rationalism have become increasingly insistent, and in this book André Gushurst-Moore concentrates on Anglo-American writers of the post-Renaissance era—those who have championed the common wisdom as it was being shouted down by prominent intellectuals. Today, as we witness daily affronts to common sense in the halls of the academy and the corridors of power, such a fresh and engaging approach to an ancient topic is welcome indeed.
The title phrase comes from G. K. Chesterton, who writes that the power of Charles Dickens “lay in the fact that he expressed with an energy and brilliancy quite uncommon the things close to the common mind.” Chesterton hastens to point out that the common mind he speaks of is not the mind of supposedly inferior people. It is shared by the greatest minds: “everybody does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody means everybody.” Here is an important paradox: the liberal narrative has it that traditionalists are elitists who wish to control ordinary people, but traditionalists like Chesterton believe that the Logos is in fact common to all. They notice that the progressive thinkers are the ones who favor intellectual elites and wish to re-educate or modify the behavior of the lower orders. As Gushurst-Moore points out, Chesterton opposes a “movement away from a faith in democracy to a new aristocratic élite who will govern the mass of humanity, for good or ill.”
The common mind is the mind of all humanity, formed by ages of experience. This universal mind has come to perceive what S. T. Coleridge calls “permanent, universal and eternal truths.” Or, as Peter Giles says in St. Thomas More’s Utopia, “Long usage has provided us with much that makes for pleasant living, and we have discovered certain things by experience which no amount of mental effort could have produced.” The “collective consciousness” spoken of by T. S. Eliot is the same idea. Russell Kirk, the final writer considered and a guide throughout, is quoted as saying that “Custom and common sense constitute an immemorial empiricism. . . .” Again, the claim is that the common mind holds truths that are empirically discovered from eons of experience. Gushurst-Moore does a great service by assembling such statements and focusing our attention on this fundamental assumption of traditionalist thought.
The liberal response (when it is not simply to ignore the tradition entirely) typically takes two or three different approaches. First, the common mind has developed some traditions that are positively evil: slavery, oppression of women, and so on. There is plenty of evidence for this argument, and the conservative must admit (as all the writers discussed here do) that the common mind is not infallible—that some customs and traditions are harmful and need to be changed or abolished. But in admitting this, the conservative need not, and must not, adopt the simplistic liberal narrative, which has it that all traditions have been oppressive and changing them is always good. As Russell Kirk was fond of saying, the wise conservative knows that change is often necessary, and the wise liberal knows that preservation of many old traditions is necessary.
Another response from the left is the denial that there are any universal cultural traditions, based on the assumption of radical cultural relativism. Again there is enough truth in this position that it cannot be rejected out of hand: certainly different cultures have different values and customs. But when relativism becomes dogmatically hardened into an absolute cultural relativism it becomes self-contradictory and obviously false. As Gushurst-Moore points out, this is the error that C. S. Lewis was confounding when he spoke of cross-cultural moral values in The Abolition of Man, giving as one example the universal principle of doing to others as you would have them do to you.
More recently, some postmodern thinkers have completely rejected the idea that there is any knowable reality outside our minds. Their motto is the mocking statement of Pontius Pilate: “Truth? What is truth?” With these thinkers one can find no common ground. Gushurst-Moore notes that this is not the first time that a radical skepticism has attracted adherents, and he sees reason to hope that common-sense realism will reassert itself once again: “Nowadays, common sense still popularly carries authority, in an age when all authority is questioned, and it is quite possible that the absurdities of the postmodernist thinkers are preparing the ground for its reappraisal, as once did eighteenth-century skepticism.” May it be so.
The common mind knows certain things immediately and without logical argumentation, while the modern rationalist distrusts such knowledge. Gushurst-Moore helpfully concentrates on this intuitive way of knowing. For instance, he discusses the response of the eighteenth-century Scottish common-sense school to the skepticism of David Hume and Bishop Berkeley, noting that the common-sense philosophers emphasized the need for “instantaneous” and “instinctive” realizations that arise as “intuitive axioms.” Such intuitive understanding is rejected by such modern rationalists as Mary Wollstonecraft, who is quoted as writing mockingly, “A kind of mysterious instinct is supposed to reside in the soul, that instantaneously discerns truth, without the tedious labor of ratiocination.” Here Wollstonecraft shows her ignorance, for the importance of intuitive axioms has been granted by many philosophers from the pre-Socratics to the present. Parmenides did not think it necessary to prove rationally that “nothing can come of nothing.” Thomas Aquinas makes a distinction between ratio (logical reasoning) and intellectus (immediate, intuitive knowing), and he says that the latter is actually the higher faculty, the one used by angels. Milton echoes this idea when he has Raphael explain to Adam that both angels and humans have “intuitive reason” and “discursive reason,” but angels use mostly the intuitive faculty, while humans use the discursive.
Without intuitive axioms as starting points, many thinkers agree, reason has nowhere to begin—and an important part of the mischief done by Descartes was his attempt to throw out all assumptions and begin with what could be demonstrated rationally. His famous starting point, cogito ergo sum, is just another intuitively recognized truth, no more rationally derived than “I stink, therefore I am.” Common sense accepts intuitive knowledge of reality, while the modern rationalist demands proof for what is given by common experience. As Gushurst-Moore shows repeatedly, scientism (the notion that the only truths we can be certain of come from science) is a particularly insidious development of rationalism, and “Scientism leaves no room for instinctive knowledge. . . .” He quotes these words of Eliot: “A purely ‘scientific’ philosophy ends by denying what we know to be true. . . .” And he follows Chesterton in showing that scientism leads to such moral disasters as eugenics and other evils justified in our time by that self-contradiction “bio-ethics.”
In a similar way, the rationalist discounts the truths of imagination, and nearly all the common-mind thinkers represented here were imaginative writers. Coleridge (writing about Shakespeare) speaks of “an implicit wisdom deeper than consciousness.” Johnson (also writing about Shakespeare) attributes his artistic power to his sense of “common humanity.” Of course the modern rationalist proclaims that all judgments about art are purely subjective, but these writers contradict that simplistic and seductive half-truth. Johnson famously says that great writing is that which has “pleased many and pleased long”—in other words, writing that has been validated by the common mind. Gushurst-Moore highlights one of the great contributions of Edmund Burke in his book denouncing the rationalist French Revolution: “All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.” One of Kirk’s great contributions has been to take the phrase “moral imagination” and develop it into a compelling meditation on the necessity of imaginative writing to the formation of healthy persons in a healthy culture. Lewis’s Abolition of Man is another profound treatment of the need for moral imagination, without which we have “men without chests.”
In the legal sphere, the common mind believes in Natural Law. As Lewis puts it, “This law was called the Law of Nature because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it.” Thus Orestes Brownson speaks of a “providential constitution” that is prior to and superior to the U.S. Constitution. Laws that contradict the Natural Law are false and must be abolished. When Enlightenment rationalism cuts itself off from this idea, it is left only with positive law, to be determined by raw power. As Gushurst-Moore writes, “In a sphere where a utilitarian legal positivism holds sway, natural law theories are held to be superseded. Law becomes whatever the state deems appropriate to the character of liberal democracy, since there is no common agreement, in modernity, of what human nature is, or of whether God exists.” The progressive narrative has it that what is called natural law is simply the prejudices of the past, which needed to be abolished for all to be free. But in reality it was the appeal to natural law that moved nations to abolish such past evils as slavery, and rationalism—once it is deracinated from those old ideas of human dignity in the eyes of God—must rely on a utilitarian approach without any underlying principles. The result is rule by ideologies rather than the truths of human nature, and even well-intentioned ideologies end up treating individual human beings as disposable in the quest for the greatest happiness for the greatest number. The enlightened ones eventually kill millions to create a perfect world for the rest.
The great writers reviewed in this book warned us repeatedly of this possibility, and Gushurst-Moore reminds us at a critical time of our need to listen. We must return to what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead,” the customs, beliefs, and traditions of our ancestors, if we are not to become a mobocracy led by fatherless demagogues into a nihilistic Brave New World.
Benjamin G. Lockerd is Professor of English at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he has received the Alumni Association’s Outstanding Educator Award. He is the author of books on Edmund Spenser and T. S. Eliot, as well as articles on Eliot and on Renaissance literature. He also wrote the introduction to Russell Kirk’s book Eliot and His Age and has served as president of the T. S. Eliot Society.
Posted: March 23, 2014