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The “Modern Mind,” Again Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 06 June 2012

Once more into the breach …

One of the fascinating and, at first sight, dubious claims Hilaire Belloc makes about the Modern Mind is that it lazily accepts everything on authority, without considering the reliability of the source or testing the statement against experience or tradition or reason. Yet the Modern Mind hugs itself for its supposed intrepidity.

We say, “You people used outhouses, while we have indoor plumbing. Ain’t you the pigs?” Or, “We know that the earth travels around the sun, while you people thought the sun traveled around the earth. Ain’t you the stupid ones!” We extrapolate from technological sophistication and our impressive increase of scientific knowledge; these are our principal claims to superiority in civilization, culture, intelligence, and humanity.

Yet let’s look at even this knowledge, as it is possessed by the ordinary man. Ask a medieval farmer about the earth and the sun, and he will say that the sun travels around the earth. How does he know? From daily observation. Ask the same ordinary fellow today, and he will say that the earth travels around the sun. How does he know? Not from observation, nor deductive reasoning. He knows it on authority. 

Now, the authority in question happens to be correct. The facts are established through scientific hypothesis and experiment; but the point is that the ordinary fellow has no way of acquiring these things, other than by accepting authority. Indeed, if you ask him whether he can establish this fact by observation, he is as likely as not to confuse the apparent diurnal motion of the sun with the earth’s annual revolution. He doesn’t behold the skies, because he doesn’t have to. But I am considering not what is known but how the ordinary person knows what he knows.

Ask the ordinary pre-modern farmer what makes for summer and winter, and he’ll point to the differences in the sun’s paths across the sky. He knows this from observation. If he’s really sharp, he will understand that the phenomenon is also due to the roundness of the earth, making for summer in the north when it’s winter in the south, and vice versa. He will know that from canny deduction.

What does the ordinary, modern man know about it? Most will say that the earth is closer to the sun in summer and farther away in winter. That’s unreasonable on the face of it, since it would mean that both hemispheres would experience summer and winter at the same time, and a modern man knows, because he has been told, that that is not the case. A few people will say that it has something to do with the tilt of the earth’s axis, correctly, but again it is something they know by authority, not by direct observation or deduction.

 
         Once men knew nature by daily observation
(Black- and Yellow-billed Cuckoos 
by Luis Agaziz Fuertes, c. 1912)

I am not saying that modern man is wrong in his beliefs. I am asking you to consider the epistemic sophistication of various kinds of actions. Take the use of tools. Our tools are bigger, more powerful, and (sometimes) more efficient than those used by the medieval farmer, tradesman, or craftsman. But here’s the point. It’s one thing to evaluate a culture by the tools that are employed – note the passive voice. It is another to evaluate the ingenuity employed by the people who use the tools, and the understanding occasioned in people who see the tools used. 

So, for example, we now have gears that are perfectly microscopic. But if you ask the ordinary fellow what a gear is for, he will say, “To turn things,” and will struggle to add anything. His own experience of gears, by observation or by having fashioned them or set them in place, is minimal. He will not readily answer that gears convert the direction or the speed of a motion.

A man a hundred years ago who could not use a chisel, or who did not know the difference between a harrow and a thresher, or who could not set a trap for a fox, was a fool. Now he’s everyman. Sure, our contemporary knows how to use a lawn mower – what’s to know? But it would actually be much easier to teach a man who understands how a horse treadmill works about the principles underlying the mower, than it would be to teach the modern man, whose direct experience of the innards of machines is severely limited.

What about knowledge of the natural world? It is true that we know more about birds, trees and, wild animals than ever, far more. It is also true, again, that this knowledge, for almost all of us, is accepted on authority. The pre-modern man knew about orioles, when they arrive, how they fly, what they eat, how they build nests, and what their song sounds like, because he observed orioles. The modern man knows about orioles from an encyclopedia or a television show, if he knows anything about them at all. 

The pre-modern man could only name the various birds because he saw them; he paid attention to them. He called the little chubby fellow a “wren” because of the characteristic twist in his tail. He named the redbreast “Robin,” an affectionate nickname. He knew that cuckoos put their own eggs in the nests of other sorts of birds – hence he called men whose wives raised bastards “cuckolds.” 

Medieval authors accepted arguments based upon authority, but they qualified that acceptance by noting that they were the weakest forms of argument. Abelard was not the only person who also showed that authorities sometimes disagree. 

But dangle a “studies show” before modern man, and it is like appealing to Christ Himself – ipsissimus dixit! It relieves him of the burden of observation and reason – just as, one is tempted to say, plentiful food and a check from the government relieve him of the burden of virtue.

 
Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.
 

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Comments (18)Add Comment
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written by Keith Rickert Jr, June 06, 2012
For the modern world will accept no dogmas upon any authority; but it will accept any dogmas on no authority. Say that a thing is so, according to the Pope or the Bible, and it will be dismissed as a superstition without examination. But preface your remark merely with “they say” or “don’t you know that?” or try (and fail) to remember the name of some professor mentioned in some newspaper and the keen rationalism of the modern mind will accept every word you say.
—G. K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce
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written by Other Joe, June 06, 2012
Moderns are kept in a state of perpetual anxiety by faceless determiners whose motives are never revealed. Coffee is bad. No! Wait! Coffee is good! Butter is bad. No! Wait! Butter is good. Salt is bad. The climate is cooling! The ice age is coming! No! Wait! Climate is warming and we will soon all be dead! No! Wait! The climate is changing! That can't be good! Moderns are hounded by their baying anxieties. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. In slow crisis periods, the technocrats and advocates looking for grant money (or power) may have to plump up some normal conditions to generate some excitement in the media. It is all in the name of ending bad stuff. We should know better and yet the thing that is often missing in the responses that follow here below some of the best writing on Catholic traditions and culture available is an expression of the peace of Christ, the hope in His attentions, and the essential joy that comes with knowing we have a purpose. We are not alone. Evil will not triumph. We go to a better place. We do believe that. Right? We do our best in a fallen world beset by free will misused. The secularists only have this one shot and their only hope for happiness is in material salvation. They are desperate to legislate, browbeat, eradicate and spend to get some progress toward their goal of material salvation. Someone should print them up bumper stickers that read, “PARADISE NOW!”
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written by James, June 06, 2012
Nice article. The Modern Mind rejects the religious and moral authority of the pope and the Church's Magisterium, but faithfully accepts any claim set forth by Scientists. Global warming is a good example. Regardless of the science that the earth is warming, the ordinary lay person has no way of independently verifying the science, but yet is considered enlightened and sophisticated for accepting what is authoritative. Take a papal pronouncement about on contraception or human sexuality, and you are considered a naive pawn for believing it.
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written by Jon S., June 06, 2012
And the dissenters with their "Modern Mind" accuse us orthodox of being dogmatic. As though they do not have their own heterodox dogmas.
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written by Stanley Anderson, June 06, 2012
Wonderful article. You wrote as an example, “You people used outhouses, while we have indoor plumbing. Ain’t you the pigs?” I suspect you intended the delicious irony of the self-proclaimed non-pigs being the very ones who have managed to figure out how to conduct that waste-evacuation operation within the very confines of the place where they live, while the pigs are the ones that perform the operation out away from their living quarters. And I was waiting for the application of that irony to the theme of your article, but the theme seems to have veered in a bit different (but valuable and intelligent) direction.

So I couldn't help explicitly pointing out that irony here and wondering if there might be some philosophical/theological application, perhaps not unlike an illustration about modern man that I have used in the past of how Pooh and Piglet not only find themselves trapped in a Heffalump trap and are unable to escape on their own, but discover (or at least the reader realizes) that it is a trap they themselves have built, much like the description in Psalms of the wicked who are entrapped by their own hand.

And I also can't resist suggesting a variation on "Other Joe's" comment, "They are desperate to legislate, browbeat, eradicate and spend to get some progress toward their goal of material salvation. Someone should print them up bumper stickers that read, 'PARADISE NOW!'". If their attention is directed primarily on the "spend" part of the process, the bumper stickers might focus on the 'PARADISE COST.'

(running away to hide in the heffalump trap)
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written by Sue, June 06, 2012
Excellent point. Many people grant science unwarranted authority because they assume, incorrectly, that its practitioners are impartial. They are not, not just for reasons of monetary gain, but also because many of them have allowed themselves to be manipulated by malignant Machiavellian Malthusianism.
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written by Ray Hunkins, June 06, 2012
"He doesn't behold the skies, because he doesn't have to." With apologies for generalization, there is a distinction to be made between modern urban culture and the culture of rural America. In rural America, many still behold the skies because they still have to. Their livelihoods, and sometimes their lives, still depend on it. Their is a common sense prevalent in rural America that is refreshing and restorative to the human soul. It might be said that the essence of America still lingers here. As one famous urban and urbane citizen put it, "they are the bitter clingers, still clinging to their guns and their religion". Thank God!
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written by Achilles, June 06, 2012
Bravo Professor!

Gandalf said “He who has to break a thing open to see how it works has already left the path of wisdom.”

Modern man is the “man of many colors.” This wonderful analogy could be applied to modern man’s literacy skills. They have taken on authority that grammar means memorizing parts of speech, punctuation and spelling. This in place of what the old grammarians knew of grammar that encompassed the entire range if literacy from prosody, through etymology, literary devices, and phraseology up to the lost art of exegesis.

Thanks for another excellent essay, I can’t wait to see the the modern ideologues have to say about this.
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, June 06, 2012
The Moderns I know tend to be much more sceptical than this article suggest. They forever warn against "hegemonic meta-narratives" and declare that the objective features of a phenomenon so little constrain the ways it is classified and theorized that these features can be disregarded in trying to understand why a particular classification system or scientific theory has been adopted.
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written by jsmitty, June 06, 2012
This is a thoughtful piece (I think more so than the last one) but I would go a slightly different direction with this. Yes, we have to unthinkingly take much more on authority than our forebears.

But I would suspect in the end this is because the world we live in is much more specialized than before, requiring more precision to complete important tasks. The Renaissance man, the polymath mostly does not exists anymore because he can't--there is simply too much knowledge in the world for any one mind to grasp it all. And thus everyone, even smart people, must depend more so than ever on others and ride the crest of others brains far more than ever. Human knowledge is very much a communal pursuit. A nuclear physicist might be at the top of his field but likely does not know how to build a house, or fix a car, or produce his own food. It would be different if human beings lived in a subsistence economy...but we are a long long way from that sort of a society.

I see the phenomenon you describe (as I suspect Belloc did also) as a result of capitalism and what Adam Smith termed the division of labor, wherein each man performs only the task which he does well and trades his wages for what others can do better than he. This is how society as a whole gets really good at things, collectively.

But it is good to raise the epistemological questions lurking behind all of this. What do we know and how do we know what we know?

You should take note in another way however. It is this relentless drive toward specialization which more than anything else is crowding out of the academy and culture the ars gratia artis of which you are an exponent. Why "waste time" on Shakespeare when there is only so much time to impart to college students occupational specific knowledge (which is what justifies the huge tuitions at universities)

The Tony Esolen of the "Modern Mind" and the Tony Esolen of "Humanist Where Art Thou?" should compare notes! I suspect these things are all connected!
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written by Tony Esolen, June 06, 2012
Thank you, Smitty; I believe they are related. Alas, people in my trade have made such a mess of things, beyond parody, that "practical" people who don't read Milton or Wordsworth think that the whole study of the humanities is pointless. We've brought this on ourselves. I understand also the point about specialization, and agree as far as it goes. How far it goes, or how far it has to go, is another question. I think we could still have ordinary people broadly learned in the old-fashioned humanities and in practical crafts -- but we'd have to have schools that are very different from the ones we have now; and we'd have to cultivate avocations and cultural habits very different from those we have now. Television ......

I asked my wife whether I'd guessed correctly, that the ordinary fellow nowadays would say that it's winter when the earth is farther from the sun. She says that I was being optimistic there, at that. From experience I know that I have to do a LOT of explaining when the astronomical allusions show up in Dante, Spenser, and Milton. And boy do they show up all the time.

A few years ago I wrote a blog post at Touchstone, called The Book of Knowledge. It was a remarkable encyclopedia (nine or ten books in all, very hefty) NOT organized alphabetically. It was cunningly disorganized, though you were given leads to follow a thread of articles on a certain subject, if you wanted to. Instead of helping you find what you wanted, it helped you find what you didn't want or weren't looking for. The whole setup prescinded from the assumption that people would be hungry for a whole lot of knowledge about a whole lot of different things, a wild variety of subjects. It was published by Collier's, but then around 1960 (it figures) it was revised, so that much of what made it really wonderful no longer appeared. I am guessing that even with our explosion in totality-of-things-to-know, we need not suffer an implosion of things actually experienced or known about through means other than authority. The old Book of Knowledge allowed for learning from experience-at-one-remove, which is like and not like knowledge from authority: first person accounts of bird sightings, or fishing trips, or other epistemological adventures... It really is a heck of an encyclopedia, and I don't believe anything like it still exists.
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written by jsmitty, June 06, 2012
I would concur heartily with Michael Seymour. There is also a fundamental skepticism in what is often termed the post-modern outlook...in which sweeping narratives positing simple explanations for complex things are rejected or greeted skeptically. I think this might be one decisive difference between Belloc's world and our own. Science was a bit more heady about the types of things that are knowable than today.

Most intelligent "modern" people I know are more fundamentally skeptical about the world than they are credulous. And why not? As the article suggests they get bombarded every day with half-baked theories about how the world works and they pay enough attention to realize that the theories can be at best only partially true if true at all.

Evidently Tony gravitates toward truths of astronomy, such as the earths revolutions around the sun and the causes of the seasons. These for him are "facts" founded on "hypothesis and experiment." No serious person disputes these.

But what about things that cannot be confirmed by "hypothesis and experiment"? Such as the best economic policies to cause growth, or the best ways to improve educational outcomes, or the complex ways humans relate to each other in social circumstances, or why humans believe the things that they do and how beliefs change over time, or the things of history, which are one off occurrences, not duplicatable in experimental conditions.

The funny thing is, the author as well as all the commenters, as well as I, have beliefs about all these things, which are derived from a kind of informal mix of experience, theory learned from authorities, "common" sense, religious faith, personality and ideological predisposition.

Is any of us really that much better off than the hypothetical modern mind, in this regard.
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written by Scotty Ellis, June 06, 2012
"But I am considering not what is known but how the ordinary person knows what he knows."

Modernity doesn't represent itself as the triumph of the "ordinary man," if by "ordinary man" you mean the person who has neither time, inclination, resources, or talent to engage in truly thoughtful inquiry. It is equally foolish to condemn modernity because modern "average joes" take their beliefs on authority as it is to condemn the medieval man for the same "fault." What is different is precisely what you admit:

"Now, the authority in question happens to be correct."

Modernity prides itself because the methods that its "intellectual elite" uses is indeed superior to the methods of the past. Now there are flaws to this pride, but I don't think that your current line of critique really highlights them. Once upon a time, it was fine for the elite to quote Aristotle to settle some dispute about a problem of physics; now, the elite (that is, those with the time and resources to adequately address certain questions) have a superior methodology. If there is pride in modernity, it is in this "fact," not in the views of the "ordinary man," and it is the methodology of the elite that should be your primary concern, not how that methodology is received by the everyman.

You are certainly right that there is plenty of ignorance in the modern world. I think it a little off to pretend that the average medieval man was somehow more "in the know" than the average modern man; granted that both take much of their view on authority (notwithstanding the fact that, had the modern man paid attention in high school labs, he would have firsthand knowledge of many primary modern scientific insights), the modern man's authority is, as you admit, more correct. You also neglect to recognize that while the ordinary man has lost some sorts of lore, he has also has skills and knowledge which the medieval peasant lacked (a high school dropout auto mechanic, for example, has a wealth of insight that differs from a medieval peasant). And I assume your primary interlocutor is not the "ordinary clueless man" but the "in-the-know" sorts?
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written by Other Joe, June 06, 2012
Technical knowledge obsolesces rapidly. Spending big money for occupational specific knowledge is often a poor economic choice. Socrates thought that students should be taught how to think and how to question what they think they know. The people at the top in society don't make technical choices - that's what mechanics are for. The leaders and directors make bets on the future. When they are wrong or corrupt (or both) those who rely on their judgment suffer greatly. High level decisions therefor have a moral aspect. The value of literature, history, and the humanities in general is that such studies illuminate the human experience and properly understood provide a solid footing for those who look forward to taking responsibly for the lives and fortunes of others. A Catholic education should always provide a moral overlay (worldview) so that technical information can be understood in a context. Without a moral context, and an understanding of human nature, predictions about future conditions are almost always wrong and sometimes deadly so.
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written by Martial Artist, June 06, 2012
A superb essay, Professor Esolen, and one with which I find myself much in agreement. Alas, it would appear that the public educational establishment in this nation today is not well equipped to foster the approach you advocate, much to our future detriment. Certainly in Washington State where I live, teachers now take advanced degrees, not in the discipline which they intend to teach, but in a discipline labeled Math Education, or English Language Learning, or Physics Education, and so forth. So they pretend to study education as though the imparting of knowledge were an apt subject for intellectual investigation, thereby ignoring the fact that much of the ability to teach is knowledge coupled to a set of practical skills in communicating and making understandable. The dismal result is that teachers of Language Arts (as opposed to English) think, and teach their students, that the sentence "that is so fun" is a grammatically correct construction. Or they have done doctoral research which "demonstrates" that people learn best when they "discover something for themselves," as compared with expository instruction that builds upon the knowledge gained by those who preceded them.

I applaud your message and pray it will be successful, but I am far from sanguine that, absent a small army of teachers and administrators who share your understanding, we can reclaim the battlefield from the forces of ignorance and confusion.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer
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written by jsmitty, June 06, 2012
I don't think anyone disagrees "Other Joe" that people should after Socrates be able " to think and to question what they think they know."But this is harder thing to teach in practice. Based on your comments above you are profoundly suspicious of expert opinion on things. Let's concede that dietary advice is not always based on sound science but often times on the institutional imperatives of public health administrators. But we can't generalize too much from that. These same public health experts were correct about smoking, lead paint and mercury in food--in ways in which the opinion of the common man making his everyday observations about the world was slow to accept. What to conclude? The fact that experts can be wrong in some things does not mean they are wrong in everything.

Moreover the ancients do have a great deal of moral wisdom as to how we should live today. But there are limits to how much we can generalize this knowledge to order an entire society or predict the future. Pope Benedict knows alot about human nature and the problems of a society that drifts away from its Christian foundations. But he has no more insight into what the world will look like decades ahead than anyone else does. He has alot of insight into what ails Europe spiritually. But there is no reason to think he has any insight into what it will take to get out from under the Euro, or what will be the consequences for not doing so.

You have a tendency of generalizing from things you know or that others know whom you trust--to things that you don't. Socrates would have had a field day.

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written by Tony Esolen, June 06, 2012
I hang around antique stores a lot, and museums, and old mills, and farms, and am continually impressed by the sheer number and difficulty and sophistication of the tasks that used to be necessary for people to keep body and soul together.

If I may venture a suggestion, modern man is simultaneously credulous and skeptical; and often in embarrassing ways. Both of our last popes have been fairly pleading with modern man, "Use your mind!" I could wish for the fullness of faith IN reason that Thomas Aquinas had.
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written by Other Joe, June 07, 2012
To "jsmitty" et al. The point I was attempting to make (apparently badly) was not that experts are wrong or right, but that when pronouncements are made by nameless "experts" whose interests and motives are not known, and for whom there are no consequences for being wrong, the temptation for exaggeration and even fraud seems too insistent to resist. I was trying to add slightly to the excellent point made by Mr. Esolen that moderns rarely rely on observation. There is a dangerous mindset in the public square that discounts opinions of those who are not accredited, not because of the invalidity of the opinion, but because of the lack of a degree. Like Socrates I know almost nothing, but I enjoy measuring the opinions of the "experts" using the instrument of logic. Unlike Socrates, I have the benefit of a Catholic worldview. I nurse an opinion that technology, physics, biology, geology and the like are tools for the ordering of things and their relationships. Science is silent (except to speculate) on the metaphysical questions such as why are we here and what is the source of morality. Therefor (unlike the progressives) I don't believe that man may be re-engineered by perfecting his environment. Satan wasn't content with heaven even though he must have had it pretty good and free healthcare too. The Pope, should he peer into the future, would be able to discern that human nature will not have changed and there will still be individuals who want to reap what they have not sown. It makes endless trouble in the world and even now agitates the Euro.

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