The Catholic Thing
In the Heart of the Dons Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil struck Leo Strauss as Nietzsche’s “most beautiful book.” This impression need not mean that it was his most “profound” book. Can something be beautiful on the outside but corrupting on the inside? By any standard, Beyond Good and Evil, which Nietzsche published himself, selling only 118 copies, is a remarkable book, and one of Nietzsche’s last.

The book famously affirms that Christianity, the “Platonism of the masses,” is hopeless, the cause of profound weakness in society. Likewise incoherent, in his view, is the philosophic endeavor of modernity to replace Christianity with some rational explanation not rooted in Plato, Aristotle, and the books of revelation. But none of these rational sources is true either.

Christians, moreover, do not live as if what they publicly profess is true. Why bother with them? “In truth, there was only one Christian,” Nietzsche wrote in his Anti-Christ, “and he died on the Cross.” Nietzsche’s philosophy seems to originate as much in disappointment as in intelligence. Ultimately, he replaces reality with his own will. He calls the rest of us cowards for not going along with him.

From Nietzsche’s death in 1900, to our own day, as Allan Bloom remarked, the culture has been largely ruled by Nietzsche. Power and will have replaced reason and virtue as the heart of civil life. “The philosophers of the future must become the invisible spiritual rulers of a united Europe without ever becoming its servant,” as Strauss summed up Nietzsche’s admonition. The invisible rulers of modern Europe, and not a few visible ones, do not want to acknowledge any Christian roots to Europe.

On reading that sentence of Strauss, we note its final phrase, “without ever becoming its (Europe’s) servant.” In the New Testament, when Christ spoke of authority, He warned that it should not be exercised as “lording it” over people. In anticipation, He reversed what Nietzsche would reverse. Those who are in authority, Christ tells us, should rule as servants, not masters. The notion of rulers seeking to remain invisible but still being masters, not “servants,” is frightening.

And yet, an impersonal, invisible spiritual leader who rules seems close to what is actually happening in modern democratic states. The more the people legally govern, the less they seem to be served by legal authority. Increasingly, government and its employees serve themselves, as if the end of government is the well-being of the rulers who have their own privileges by “right.”

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Maddox Brown (c. 1855)

What is the origin of our disorders? Since at least Plato, it is a well-known idea that great crimes are not committed by those with IQ’s low on candle-power. Hannah Arendt argued that great crimes were also committed by banal men who had nothing much to show for themselves but a kind of dogged stupidity and lethal competence.

If there is any truth in “social justice,” and I think there is very little, it is that ordinary people can be blinded by lofty sounding systems of rule and eloquent demagogues. But the real problem is not usually with ordinary people. It is with what I call the “dons,” clerical and academic.

The situation is paradoxical. My brother lived in a large-university town for many decades. He used to say to me after each election: “Tell me, why students in this elite university vote 95 percent the same way?” Generally speaking, the same way is the ideological way.

The initial answer, it seems to me, is this: “Which way do the clerical and academic dons vote?” More often than not, the one will reflect the same proportions as the other, whereas one would think, were there genuine freedom and intelligence (and “diversity”), the results would be closer to fifty-fifty.

In Hebrews 13, we read: “Be not carried about by divers and strange doctrines.” Who is most likely to be so carried about? It is ironically the “dons,” intellectual and clerical, as I like to call them. It may not be an accident that a tutor at Oxford, Italian priests, and heads of the mafia are all called “dons”!

The heart of all human disorder does not first lie in systems and organizations. It lies in the souls of men. No illusion in modern times has been more damaging than mis-locating the cause of soul-disorders into one or other aspect of societal structure.

Plato had it right from the beginning. Christianity was also correct in admonishing us first to look to our own souls. We do not like to hear this order of priorities, I know. It seems much nobler to go forth to help others with great plans and aims that do not involve how we live and what we believe. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven,” in the end, not only remains the best personal advice, but the best political advice. 

James V. Schall, S.J.
, a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Jacob R, April 19, 2011
For me the problem is education.

It took me twenty years to even try to attempt what you're talking about. Imagine if someone other than my parents (who were too busy with drugs, alcohol, making money and whatever else) would have taught me what it truly means to be a proper citizen.

My entire generation is roughly in this same situation. We truly aren't the demons you make us out to be to explain away your sins, we've just never been taught. We've lived in a world full of elders who don't care about us or our morality (but are the first to complain when this lack of virtue leads to ugly habits).
written by Ray Hunkins, April 19, 2011
Father Schall: You packed a lot of wisdom into a small space with this piece. We should all pray that our leaders, political as well as religious, execute their responsibilities with wisdom,courage,and humility. Thank you for your continued work in this area Father.
written by Louise, April 19, 2011
"My entire generation is roughly in this same situation."

From: Belloc: "How the Reformation Happened", Ch. 6.

"In an attempt to answer the "Why" as well as the "How" of the Reformation, we have arrived well into the second half of its century, the sixteenth. It is 1559--over forty years since the first movements began.
"All those who were in Power when the flood first poured are dead: Charles the Emperor, Henry of England, Francis of France, Pope Leo.
"The Generation which was active as young men in the original assault and defense is grown old and its effect has ceased. It has been replaced by a new body which cannot remember the old unquestioned Unity of Christendom."

Although the particulars of the 16th century differ from the particulars of the "Silent Generation" (mine) and the Baby Boom generation and their children, the process is the same. It seems to be how history works.

Jacob, your comment fits the process exactly. In speaking about young people's turning away from the virtue and values of their parents under the influence of the "dons of academics" and the "dons of media who have largely replaced the "dons of clerics (if I can be so bold), my son said to me, "I thought it was all self-evident." It isn't.
written by Patrick, April 19, 2011
All well and good, but stock markets and high finance are another kind of "strange doctrine," no? I think the "dons" of the banking world have done as much direct material damage as the mafia.
written by Thomas C. coleman, Jr., April 19, 2011
While at first glance Nietzsche can be seen as much anti-Marx as anti-Christ, I believe that his making man into a god and his characterization of the distinction between good and evil as a rationalization of the distinction between good and bad inspred the Marxists thinkers of the 20th Century, who declared to be good anything that serves the purposes of the destruction of religion, the state, and even marriage. We live in a Marxo-Nietzschean world. I've mentioned before meeting a Protestant US Navy Chaplain who identifies himself as a Neo-Marixst and used Der Antichrist as a text in a class on Ethic that he taught to US military officers. Imagine expecting that chap to talk a depressed young sailor out of suicide! As an aside, imagine what will be left of the Chaplains Corps after many who believe that they cannot support the government's new definition of love resign their commissions. Perhpas the only ones left will be those who sing along with Sportin' Life: "The things that you're libel to read in the Bible, well they ain't necessarily so."
written by Jo the Housewife, April 20, 2011
How often we Christians look forward to the moment of death when all mysteries will be solved, and how frustrating it must be for "intellectuals" to walk about the earth "knowing" all the answers. We look forward to heaven, and live in a way to avoid hell. They live for themselves and are rewarded with worms? We serve and are happy. They are self-serving, destructive, and depressed. And they want to convince us we are wrong and to join them. Reminds me of Darth Vader--COME TO THE DARK SIDE.
written by stosh, April 21, 2011
I was just reading the lecture The University and the Order of Society from the 70's that touches on many of the points here...such as "society is man writ large" i.e. a good society begins with good men.

The main point is the university or "dons" as pointed out. I was unaware that as far back as 1970 the idea of the university "as microcosm of society" was advocated.

written by stosh, April 21, 2011
Lecture mentioned above can be found at Voegelin View website

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