On Skepticism

Earth warming enthusiasms and Supreme Court decisions are, I confess, making a sceptic out of me. It is a skepticism that naturally arises in a world gone mad. Proposals to tear down all statues of Lee and Jackson appear alongside of ISIS’ destroying Christian Churches and Assyrian monuments. Is there any real difference between the two? Both actions stem from abstract ideas imposed on reality, which has its own distinctions and order.

Our famous Constitution can now be – and indeed is – made to say almost anything, except, perhaps, to reaffirm that children are to be begotten, in a family, by their known father and mother. When the Supreme Court decision was announced, President Obama said it was one more step to his goal of “equality.” If achieved, as it might well be, enforcing it will produce the greatest soft tyranny the world has known, all on the basis of abstract ideas.

In The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton spoke of that “final skepticism which can find no floor to the universe.” The phrase “final skepticism” haunts me. My newfound skepticism affirms that a floor to the universe does exist and is known. What we are witnessing is its systematic, voluntary rejection. The “no floors to the universe” thesis, evidently, allows or even requires us to set up our own arbitrary floors even if they have no foundations other than themselves. To be a sceptic in my sense means to doubt the validity of the newly established “floors” based on nothing but the deliberate rejection of reasonable standards about how we ought to live.

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton spoke of two types of skepticism. One maintains that everything begins and ends in matter. But a more “terrible” form of skepticism is found: “It is the idealism that rejects a reality external to itself.” This latter form of skepticism is seen as worse than dogmatic materialism. The phrase to “reject a reality external to itself” is worth much thought.

At risk: the statue at Lee Circle, New Orleans

At risk: the statue at Lee Circle, New Orleans

Christianity, along with Plato and Aristotle, holds that a reality external to ourselves exists. Whereas an Augustine, when looking into himself, could find God already present, modern man insists that, on looking into himself, he finds only what he wants. He constructs the world on this basis. We do not begin from what is outside of ourselves, say, the conceived baby, and ask: “What does it need to be what it is?”

We postulate rather that we are “equal.” Our equality, our “rights” trump anything outside of ourselves. A real baby forces parents outside of themselves, to its and their good. Any baby needs the father and a mother that begot and identifies it in this world. To deprive a baby of this natural need on the basis of an “equality” and “right” to have what one wants, is to allow no reality external to oneself to define how we look at another existence, whose being we have nothing to do with.

The Court’s decision did not ask about the baby but about the “rights” of people incapable by nature of having children. Marriage, in fact, cannot be “redefined.” The reality of marriage remains what it is. What we can do, and are doing, is to lie about it. And in this lie, we impose an unnatural agony and disorder on the lives of innocent children who become victims of someone else’s imagined “rights.”

Where does this leave the skepticism of those like myself who sense here a disorder of soul of world-historic proportions, to steal a phrase from Hegel? We will soon find out. Indeed, we have already found out. We are not simply dealing here with a harmless play of weird ideas. We are dealing with solemn men who don’t laugh much, a worldwide inner-worldly mission spread before them. Only their ideas will be allowed to be spoken. Only these “inner views” of the world on ecology, marriage, and equality will be allowed external existence.

We once thought our Constitution would protect us. In this post-Fourth of July season, we are now learning that it won’t. A universalism is implicit in the Declaration that seemed to provide hope for all peoples, a “floor” – under God – on which to ground human dignity. But this “floor” is now found in an egalitarian-ecological idealism that is untouched by reality itself. It replaces reality with the imagined worlds of unfettered minds, intent on imposing upon us all theories quite contrary to what we are and are intended to be.

We will soon enough find that not only will we be unable to avoid these things, but that we will not even be able in public to doubt their validity. The “final skepticism” today is not the one that sees no floor to being or no reality but ideas. The final skepticism is the one that doubts the truth or goodness of such ideas now being imposed on us, often with our consent, if not with our agreement.

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About James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, and Reasonable Pleasures.

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