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The Modern Mind, As It Were Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 23 May 2012

“Pride causes those who suffer from this disease,” wrote Hilaire Belloc of what he called “The Modern Mind,” “to regard whatever they think they have learned, whatever they have absorbed, through no matter how absurd a channel, as absolute and sufficient.  Ignorance forbids them to know with any thoroughness what men have discovered about these things in the past, and how certainly. Intellectual sloth forbids them to examine an argument, or even to appreciate the implications of their own assertions.”
    

“With most men who are thus afflicted,” he continued, “the thing is not so much a mixture of these vices as the mere following of a fashion; but these vices lie at the root of the mental process in question.” Instead of obeying a legitimate authority in its legitimate sphere, the Modern Man falls prone to Fashion, Print, and Iteration. Those “are the commanders abjectly obeyed and trusted.”

Belloc wrote those words in 1929, in Survivals and New Arrivals: The Old and New Enemies of the Catholic Church

He might well have written them yesterday. Take Fashion, for instance. The malignant spirit whose task it is to tweak the fashions of the modern world cannot do so without first laying a sandy foundation. That foundation Belloc calls Ignorance: the refusal to learn from the triumphs and the wisdom of the past. 

This is not the same thing as a careful examination of the past, to sift the wheat from the chaff.  It is a mere prejudice. Because Einstein knows somewhat more about an apple’s fall to the ground than did Newton, therefore, as Belloc puts it, “there is a regular progress from worse to better in the centuries of human experience,” so that the fashionable imbecile on television knows more about, say, marriage than a Christian farmer in Kent in Milton’s day. 

That, of course, does not follow. One of the Fashions in our schools now is “critical thinking.” I have yet to meet anyone who can say just what the difference is between thinking, as the farmer in Kent would have done – and he did well, to get the crops in and keep the stock healthy and the roof dry – and the “critical thinking” that our students are supposed to engage in. 

As near as I can tell, “critical thinking” is nothing more than the application of Fashion to the last residues of tradition. I am “thinking critically” when I look at a traditional moral position, say that men and women ought to marry before they beget children, and, without troubling to find out why that rule represents the consensus of mankind in all cultures, and without considering it in the most defensible and wisest terms, knock it down with a fashionable cliché. 


            Belloc card from the Famous British Authors series of Wills's Cigarettes (c. 1937)

So someone will say, “That was when gender roles were different from what they are now,” without noticing that the rule in question held sway across a staggering variety of cultures; and without noticing that, regardless of what people expect husbands and wives to do for one another, we are talking here about what both the father and the mother should be doing for their children.
    

It is a strange brew of Gnosticism and agnosticism, this Modern Mind. I recall many years ago, during the first wave of fashionable disgust for ordinary food that people had been eating from time immemorial, that the great cook Julia Child said that it was all nonsense, that there was nothing unhealthy about steak and butter. Mrs. Child was not a doctor or a dietician or a biologist, so people scoffed at her. “What can she possibly know?” 

Well, she knew a great deal, by the use of her God-given reason applied to a lifetime of close and careful observations, not to mention the dietary traditions of scores of cultures. It turns out that Julia Child was right, and the “common knowledge” was quite lethally wrong. 

But the problem is not simply that even scientist wannabes make mistakes. It is that the Modern Mind, mistrustful of reason itself, instead trusts implicitly every fool thing that makes it to print, so long as it is preceded by the imprimatur “studies show,” and the nihil obstat, “researchers say.” And then it is only a matter of time before some government agency, often but the regulatory arm of the researchers themselves, issues rules accordingly. 

The Modern Mind thus knows nothing and everything, all at once.  It is perhaps not coincidental that Julia Child appears to have worked as an agent against the communists, so that in politics – as in cuisine – she was too honest an employer of her eyes, ears, and mind to fall for the evils that fascinated so many a critically thinking academic. 

It is, of course, impossible to know nothing and everything at once, so that eventually the Modern Mind will have to be roused from its fog, or it will have to give way to something more malignant still. Right now, the Modern Mind accepts as axiomatic a belief in democracy.  It is the best form of government, says the Modern Mind.

But when the Modern Mind inquires what the ordinary plumber is supposed to know, aside from laying pipe, that Mind is stumped.  The plumber “knows” what the print media tell him, and they in turn get their “knowledge” from those mysterious priesthoods of critically thinking social researchers, economists, politicians, and so forth.  If he claims to know anything else – especially if he claims moral wisdom – he becomes an immediate Threat to the State. 

Thus, a naïve and touchingly childish trust in democracy is, for the time being, consistent with a concession to the wisdom of self-styled experts.  Eventually, the former trust will pass away, and we will see a headline for the Apocalypse: “Experts Say Government By Experts Best Solution.”

 
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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written by Curple Turnle, May 22, 2012
Thank you for this great column. As an educator in the sciences, the one thing I really wish was mandated for all students is examination of the latest scientific fads. I would like to sit all of my students down and assess with them the popular (junk) science which they use as back-up for their "critical thinking." Because true critical thinking, of course, would involve using our reason to attempt to follow Thomas Aquinas' dictum: "Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish." Spouting premasticated nonsense made on flimsy assumptions is, unfortunately, all that most people are expected to do.
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written by Michael PS, May 23, 2012
Historians of science have long recognised the influence of fashion. 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 Randall, May 23, 2012
Bravo, Mr Esolen! I typically read many interesting articles a day and from time to time I read one and think, "I want everybody to read this!" This is one of those articles.

It didn't hurt that you referred to two people I love, Hilaire Belloc and Julia Child. Child was actually somewhat left-leaning in her politics, but yes she did work against the communists. The woman had basic good sense. And her cookbooks are a delight to read (how odd to write that about a cookbook!)

And Belloc. I don't guess the Church will ever canonise him. But pretty much anything he ever wrote is a real pleasure to read, even when he was half full of bluster.
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written by Other Joe, May 23, 2012
We live in an age of assertion and clamor. There, I have asserted. There is a Marxist coloration to the concept of critical thinking. We see it in one of the participants here on these virtual pages. It is critical in the sense of faultfinding. It is used to weaken social structures to prepare them for materialistic demolition. Priests are sexual predators. Families are dysfunctional. Businessmen are greedy. Development is bad for Gaia. Republicans are cold and anti-human. The United States is in its essence a slave driving, racist, militaristic, hegemony minded resource gobbling, native murdering, arrogant empire. Individual behavior is not allowed to be discussed. That would be judgmental. The modern mind does not allow for evil and does not really allow for free will, since we are products of our conditions. Social engineering only works if one is able to change conditions and therefore behavior. That is the essence of the modern project. It assumes that data and wisdom are the same thing. The farmer in Kent is more apt to have wisdom than the climate researcher down the road with his computer full of "adjusted" data who is looking for a grant to help sell the idea that people are bad for the environment. Excellent article.
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written by Grump, May 23, 2012
Good piece, Tony. Reminds me of the "anonymous authorities" that are constantly quoted in the media; the so-called "experts" and "senior government officials".

If we don't know the source of the "information," how are we to challenge it? Other examples are "The White House announced today..." as if a house could speak, or "witnesses say," who are never identified, or "The U.S. Military...", a monolithic, faceless but "authoritative" foundation.

When I was a reporter at some major newspapers, most editors would allow "sources said" as attribution under the guise of protecting those who only would tell a story anonymously. A good reporter would suspect he or she was being used and try to corroborate the source's statements but often the constraints of deadlines did not allow this and what got printed or aired was thin or distorted at best and false at worst.

In the global warming debate, we get "...most scientists agree..." in support of man-made climate change, as if the reporter actually went out and interviewed every scientist in the world, past and present.

Beware of stories that start off by saying "...spoke on the condition of anonymity." And speaking of the wheat and chaff, most media separate them and then print the chaff.

Logical fallacies abound in the Modern Mind and are too numerous to recount here. Kudos for seamlessly weaving Belloc and Julia Child, which is quite an accomplishment.
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written by jsmitty, May 23, 2012
Interesting piece, Tony. But as an exponent of the Modern Mind school myself, I must ask where I fit in in your schemata. I love statistics, computer programming economics and social science, but I also love the Bible, Plato and Shakespeare and ancient languages. Why can't we have both? Why must I accept the implicit choice that you are offering?

More to the point, you seem to be introducing a cult of agnosticism/gnosticism of your own which is the mirror image of the one you criticize. You are agnostic about the findings of "experts" (at least the ones who find things that upset your ideological system). And you are gnostic in that you celebrate only the sort of knowledge that comes apparently through a delicate interweaving of the homespun wisdom of the Kent farmer and the insights of classically trained scholar who can unearth and preserve the timeless wisdom of the ancients by poring over the canonical texts. And yes maybe both the Kent farmer and the classicist do know a thing or two about the world that the modern expert could stand to learn.

But surely both the Kent farmer and the classicist too believe some things that just aren't so. Would the classicist of 1830 have believed that moldy penicillin could actually save millions of lives? WOuld the Kent farmer of 1890 have believed that something so big as a 747 could not only get off the ground but could safely transport thousands of people and products all over the world every day? Would the wisdom of the Kent farmer or the Shakespearean alone qualify them to run GE, or the FDIC, or a marine battalion or for that matter a 7-11? WOuld he have any insight into the kind of asphalt that we should use for our highways, or the kind of zoning policies we should champion in our cities or the kind of motors Toyota should put in its cars. No, for those important tasks we need people with real expertise. People who can actually do things. Wisdom is not enough, Tony.


Maybe instead of railing against expertise (while smuggling in through the backdoor a kind of strange elitism yourself)you should instead call for a better class of experts who actually have read their Dante AND can apply "critical thinking" to the problems and needs of a complex world!
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written by Joseph Siemion, May 23, 2012
Great article except for the steak and butter being good for you. The amount of suffering and death caused by these two things alone is nothing to scoff at, but I won't expect many here to agree with me, since it appears "conservatives" and animal products go hand-in-hand. To suggest otherwise would be to capitulate to the communist vegetarians.

"God-given" common sense often turns out to be deadly wrong. How many examples of "common sense" in history can we cite to illustrate this? Studies and science have done much for us, though I agree that they're often contradictory and used as pseudo-authorities.

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written by Achilles, May 23, 2012
Dr. Esolen, Excellent article! It does bring to mind our little Marxist pseudo philosopher who lamentably claims to work with RCIA groups. My greatest hope on that score is the he with the modern mind and the leftist sophist bent appears as a stammering idiot to those he is trying to divert from Truth. However, knowing a little about the dark mind, my hope might be thwarted.

Other Joe, Your comments are on point. My family and I have been blessedly sans tv for over a year. We found ourselves in a room with an idiot box animated by NBC and a perverted episode of Law and Order SVU, a stand in for the gay agenda, and we suffered through a very sick episode. It all has deteriorated within the last year for the reasons Dr. Esolen explicates here. What was most striking was the public indoctrination campaign NBC is running where an actor gives us the sage advice “don’t have any assumptions, assumptions lead to prejudice. Hang out with people who are different than you.” Ironically, all this rests on the assumption that having no assumptions is a good assumption and that hanging out with people who are different than you is good. I guess they think it all leads to tolerance, but it really leads to intolerance of those who are not lined up with the homosexualist agenda.
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written by Achilles, May 23, 2012
So what is more important Jsmitty? That penicillin saved lives or that Jesus saves souls? You don’t make the distinction between living a good life and knowing stuff. You compare the mundane with the sacred, a very bad comparison. The cognitive dissonance of the modern mind is little more than prideful idolatry, the kind of living suggested by Dr. Esolen is lined up with Truth, Goodness and beauty concerning man foretold by the prophets, revealed by Christ and expounded upon by the Apostles and Saints. No you can’t have both any more than you can be fat and skinny at the same time. There is no Gnosticism in this excellent piece.
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written by Christopher Manion, May 23, 2012
From my experience on Capitol Hill, the experts will always praise their realm of expertise and demand more funding for it. After all, if it isn't funded, they will have to drive a truck.
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written by Other Joe, May 23, 2012
Achilles, thank you. I watched by mistake about 3 minutes of the B in apartment 23, but long enough to get the idea that the character who plays the B wanted to re-shoot a porn film with the actor who plays himself on the show because he licked his lips or something spoiling the original. I was amazed. The popular "culture" has gotten extreme and toxic. No one else notices?
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written by Jane, May 23, 2012
I have become an avid reader of the Catholic Thing. While I do not always agree with all the points of view represented, it is always thought provoking. I have read with interest many of the articles written by Dr Esolen. Always well written, they often seem to rail against modernity.Yes indeed the world has become more complex and our society especially is in need of some good old fashioned common sense. The age of experts, and their conflicting, at times wrong, and usually ideological advice is very tiring as well as dangerous.

However, I am rather glad I live in the 21st century, not the 16th or even 19th century. I am thankful for antibiotics, flushed toilets, and yes, a publicly supported police system. I am glad we do not condemn unusual people as witches or mentally ill people as possessed by the devil. I mean you have to admit that some of the things people thought that passed as common sense back then were downright weird and detrimental to human flourishing.

It seems to me that we have a lot to be thankful for in the modern world we find ourselves in. Yes there are serious problems and challenges, that could use a dose of good old fashioned plain thinking.
But really, just because an expert says something does not mean it is false. And that farmer from Kent, well, he was likely wrong about a few things too.
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written by Aeneas, May 23, 2012
I always love your work Anthony! This is yet another example! Your ending comments on Democracy made me want to ask: what kind of government would you prefer? I once read Joseph Pearce's answer of the question, he phrased it like this "If given a choice between a secular republic or a Christian monarchy, I'd choose the Christian monarchy." I think I agree with him.

@Joseph Siemion
No not at all. My mom was a big vegan, and also a conservative. Part of the reason why many conservatives distance themselves from vegatarianism is because of those who promoted it. Even today alot of it is merged or presented with new age, eastern, and leftist ideology. So I don't blame anyone for their allergies to it. As for the other stuff, there I disagree. Science and studies have been helpful yes, but it would be silly to base our whole existance of silly fads, that is what this article is going against. Not science nor studies in and of themselves. Just when they are put on pedastals and worshipped. Then they do become a problem.
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written by Tony Esolen, May 23, 2012
Obviously I am not opposed to genuine expertise in a genuine art or field of knowledge. Most often when people justify the 20th century, they point me towards technology and medicine. Fine; I agree that it is a very good thing to have modern medicine. In any other century I would have died at age 15, and if not 15 then 16, and if not 16 then 17; without antibiotics I would not survive more than a year. I am less sanguine about technological sophistication, because I do not always see that we ask, "Will this tool actually serve the common good?"

But I emphatically do not believe that there can be "experts" beyond fairly narrow limits. One might be an expert in French history, and still be a complete dolt about human affairs; and that's because the common good is a moral category, and one cannot rightly regard it as analogous to skill in laying pipe or building jets. I believe that Therese of Lisieux is an incomparable teacher, if we want to learn about the human soul ... Ignatius of Loyola, John Henry Newman, Thomas a Kempis, Theresa of Avila ... I'd rely on any one of them than on a hundred heads in the APA. Oh, if we're talking about prescribing Zoloft, that is one thing; but if we are talking about really healing a sinful human soul, or really penetrating into human motives, give me an "inexpert" saint any day.

But shouldn't we be ashamed at the paltriness of our accomplishments? Yes, sure, we have airplanes and computers. But with all our wealth and leisure time, why the heck are our buildings so ugly? Why don't we have real popular music? Where's our Milton or Dante? Why are our newspapers so unrelievedly dumb? Heck, we can't even make decent films in any number at all. It's a long slide from the tenth best movie of 1939 and the best movie since 2000....
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written by Tony Esolen, May 23, 2012
Sorry for the couple of typos in the preceding comment.

I do not want to be a blind laudator temporis acti. But I had rather be a (canny) laudator temporis acti, than a laudator temporis agentis, or, worse, a contemptor temporis acti.
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written by jsmitty, May 23, 2012
Let it be said Tony that you are right on abortion, sexual morality and much else. Let it also be said that many of the smarty pants in academia are dead wrong on them.

But what does this tell us about the relative merits of ancient wisdom (which you embody) vs. modern knowledge in general (which they claim) when it comes to specific questions that aren't about moral issues? Nothing.

Put differently, what is your criteria to distinguish between "genuine" expertise which you recognize and phony "expertise" which for you is mere sophistry, to be exposed with homespun time tested wisdom? As near as I can tell, your criteria is whether the would be "expert" confirms your basic views on "human affairs" and validates your profound sense of cultural alienation and aesthetic decline. And my point is we need a little more nuanced critique of expertise than that. That's really not a workable standard as to when people should listen to experts!

You write "One might be an expert in French history, and still be a complete dolt about human affairs." I agree. But is it also possible to be right on abortion and gay marriage while being profoundly wrong on much else?
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written by Scotty Ellis, May 23, 2012
I must second jsmitty's comments. I must also pile upon them the often neglected fact that "ancient" things were themselves once the "fashion." Learned persons in the west once knew with some confidence that the earth was the immobile center of the universe. Gothic architecture was once as new an invention as cubism. Perspective blew open art with all the fury of geometric novelty. The conservative and quite traditionalist pagan patrician of ancient Rome once balked at the novelty of some insignificant Jewish cult that believed a dead man was God. At some point, early man left behind his thousands of years old tradition of hunting and gathering to begin the brand new project of sedentary city-building. Human history - not just modern history - is full of the new, the revolutionary, even if they once occurred over longer scales than are now typical. And amongst it all, there is a course that can really be called progress - not always straightforward, muddled with setbacks, but nevertheless present as the cumulative accomplishments of mankind compile one atop another.

A prudent man will worship neither novelty nor tradition; he will not believe something true just because it is the latest thing any more than he will believe it true because it was believed for thousands of years - both very well may be wrong. The prudent man sifts the evidence he can, from different sources, and weighs the reasoning and arguments.

Tony:

"But shouldn't we be ashamed at the paltriness of our accomplishments? Yes, sure, we have airplanes and computers. But with all our wealth and leisure time, why the heck are our buildings so ugly? Why don't we have real popular music? Where's our Milton or Dante?"

Only time can tell the true lasting value of our accomplishments. But it is clear you are misjudging them. We have literally touched the heavenly bodies and set foot on the very moon that Dante could only imagine visiting. We have built structures of incredible height; built magnificent cities where millions live together relatively free from the diseases and filth that once choked man's urban centers. Only time will tell if our Emberto Eco, Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, Crichton, or Pynchon endure for centuries or which films will survive as the essence of our popular artistic talents, but I will not be ashamed if the the modern era is remembered for its Coppola, its Leone, its Ridley Scott, its Capra, and its Hitchcock.

It is only a failure of the imagination to think the past can only be celebrated at the expense of the present, or vice versa; and anyone who has read a really great modern novel, looked with awe upon the skyscrapers of Manhattan, or watch the launch of a rocket cannot pretend that the flames of artistic and cultural talent that produced the Tempest, built cathedrals, or sailed the open ocean on galley are somehow dead.
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written by Aeneas, May 24, 2012
lol, I'm with Esolen on this, jsmitty, Ellis and others only prove his point.
What I'm guessing Esolen dislikes is modernism more than the modern era. 2012 is a fine year I'm sure, but it's the present day mentality that is a horror. The philosophy, the metaphysics, the world view of our era is poison, and it poisons most aspects of modern life. So much is broken, so much that was not broken in the past, can you blame Esolen, or anyone for that matter who opines for a past age when the present one is so screwed up? I can't.
As for the bit about fashions, no, there were fashions in the past of course, but what endured was not fashions. Besides, the modern era lives on it's fashions, there is a difference.
Regarding modern acomplishments, Umberto, crichton and the others got nothing on Dante, Shakespeare or Milton. As far as filmakers, well film was an invention of the 20th century, so you can't really compare them. Look all artistic and cultural talent has not died, but it has been savaged. Today a urinal is art, or a can full of a man's feces.
The street goes both ways guys, if Esolen is too high on the past, you guys are too high on the present/future.
Personally I think our Christian past got more right than our whatever present. Rather than wishing I lived in a previous century, I just wish what was good about our past carried on, rather than being tossed aside like it has been. Imagine a 2012 where the virtues were regularly espoused in our culture, where the sex rev never happened, where the elite had never lost the faith, where our leaders tried to further God's kingdom on Earth, rather than what his special interest groups told him to do. Imagine an unbroken chain, from past to present, that's what I'd rather see.
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written by Other Joe, May 24, 2012
What doth it profit a man to gain the whole moon and loose his soul? Or an iPhone? Wisdom provides proper proportion. It provides a true assessment of worth. Technology, the science of techniques, is moral neutral. It is a tool. Penicillin may extend a life, but only wisdom lifts the extra time out of the mindless rut of self-pursuit. The Kentish farmer my have believed the moon was made of bleu cheese, and we may laugh at his ignorance, but if he loved and cared for his own and saw them through difficult times by spending himself in their regard, he is our better.
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written by Scotty Ellis, May 24, 2012
Aeneas:

"The philosophy, the metaphysics, the world view of our era is poison, and it poisons most aspects of modern life."

We have mostly abandoned metaphysics in favor of physics; we have abandoned speculation in favor of experiment, observation, and evidence. You may be right that something has been lost in this transition, but it is only myopia that does not see how much we have learned through it - the vast scale of the universe, its age, its structure, its governing principles, and so forth.

"So much is broken, so much that was not broken in the past, can you blame Esolen, or anyone for that matter who opines for a past age when the present one is so screwed up?"

I can't blame someone for pointing out problems and flaws with the current age. I can blame him for romanticizing the past and failing to recognize the genuine progress that has been made and the merits of our present age.

"As for the bit about fashions, no, there were fashions in the past of course, but what endured was not fashions."

Then as I noted, only time will tell what from the present age is not a fashion but has true, lasting value, eh?

"Umberto, crichton and the others got nothing on Dante, Shakespeare or Milton."

Everyone is entitled to their own tastes. Personally, I think prose has become progressively better with time, while poetry has suffered. I would not compare Eco and Shakespeare, or Shakespeare and Eco, not because they are in "different leagues" of talent, but because their products are so very different. I will appreciate Shakespeare for Shakespeare and Eco for Eco - and I do think Eco will endure.

"As far as filmakers, well film was an invention of the 20th century, so you can't really compare them."

And it strikes no one as artistic progress that an entirely new medium of storytelling and art has become available? Or that the great stories of film stand as interesting as literature?

"Look all artistic and cultural talent has not died, but it has been savaged. Today a urinal is art, or a can full of a man's feces."

Go peruse 12th-14th century psalters and other illuminated manuscripts. Or go look at some Hieronymus Bosch. I promise you you can find illustrations like:

People taking craps
People being shot in the rear with arrows (a nod to sodomy)
People eating feces
So forth and so on, all filling the margins. These interest in feces is not new, and today like yesterday it is not the main focus of art, but rather marginalia.

Go read the Satyricon. Go check out what was on the walls in Vesuvius. Go read the Bible, for that matter, its descriptions of incestuous drunken sex, the death-induced evacuation of bowels, or its note about the voluminous ejaculate of Egyptian men. Go actually look at the cultures of the past and their artifacts. It is ridiculous to condemn modernity for its scatological art (which represents but a small sliver of its product) considering the art and products of the eras with which you are enamored. These things are all human, and it is only a kind of gnosticism that would deny that the body and its products and operations have no place in art.
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written by Other Joe, May 24, 2012
Mr. Ellis, you may have abandoned metaphysics for physics, but others are finding that both are indispensable to answer not only how (physics) but why (metaphysics). Physics can have no opinion on the question of why anything exists. And yet the why is more interesting and ultimately more rewarding than the how. Physics can have no opinion on the question of what is beautiful and what is the meaning of beauty. It may someday be able to count patterns of active neurons while a subject contemplates a beautiful object, but we are back to the same category error. Beauty is not neurons any more than thoughts are letters on a page. Even though letters may transmit thoughts, they are not thoughts. Painters and sketchers may illustrate any conceivable thought, but their product does not rise to the level of "art" (as the term has traditionally been used) unless certain esthetic conditions are met. This isn't the place to open that rather large subject, but the discussion is metaphysical in nature. Moderns strike a notion and call it art, when actually it is more properly called assemblage, or illustration, or design. Only the very best craft (it could be dance, woodcarving, music, painting, metal work, and so on) transcends the medium to touch the universal and timeless evocation of truth and beauty that generations recognize as art. If a crucifix in a bucket of urine is art, then the term has no meaning. In general, a craftsman can never know the fullness of his or her accomplishment because the craftsman confronts the medium, its possibilities and limitations, with only skill and imagination. Empiricism is a great handicap when one wishes to explore the important and interesting questions of life. The universe is filled with intention and personality. These cannot be reduced to quanta.
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written by jsmitty, May 24, 2012
Thank you Scotty. You've delivered a much needed rejoinder to the nostalgia fetish that dominates this page. These guys don't get that they so overdraw their critiques of modernity that they weary the ears of many who would otherwise be sympathetic to certain things they have to say.

Are we the only ones that think its odd that some are nostalgic for the thoughts a a writer a century old, who was himself an incurable nostalgic for the world that was obsolete in his day? And of course Belloc's heroes themselves bemoaned the loss in their own day of ancestral wisdom. Plus ca change.

Listen to Pope Benedict who reminds us that the time we have today is the time that has been given to us. The Holy Spirit did not stop moving the world 100 years ago or 300 or 500 or 1000.
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written by Aeneas, May 24, 2012
Thanks Other Joe, for saying things better than I did! As for me I'm done with this merry-go-round, they call us hopeless nostalgics, we tell them they are missing the point. The cycle just repeats itself.
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written by John, May 24, 2012
I am reminded of the following passage in Cardinal Newman's Apologia:

"I am rather asking what must be the face-to-face antagonist, by which to withstand and baffle the fierce energy of passion and the all-corroding, all-dissolving skepticism of the intellect in religious inquiries? I have no intention at all to deny, that truth is the real object of our reason, and that, if it does not attain to truth, either the premise or the process is in fault; but I am not speaking of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even the unaided reason, when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution; but I am considering it actually and historically; and in this point of view, I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is towards a simple unbelief in matters of religion. No truth, however sacred, can stand against it, in the long run; and hence it is that in the pagan world, when our Lord came, the last traces of the religious knowledge of former times were all but disappearing from those portions of the world in which the intellect had been active and had had a career."

Skepticism haunted the ancient world, lessened with the rise of Christianity, and has returned with a vengeance today.
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written by Achilles, May 25, 2012
JSmitty, it is not a “nostalgia fetish” it is merely a clear and sane qualitative judgment of modern ideology. Using the very term obsolescence in reference to the Truth, in general , is a gross misunderstanding. It is merely the fact that the Saints strive for the perfection that Jesus Christ exhorted from us. What could be more accurate than recognizing our imperfection and lamenting that publically in the hopes that it will help others strive to be more like the Way the Truth and the Life? Please don’t tell us that you too are an RCIA teacher, that would be more than I could bear today.
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written by Tony Esolen, May 25, 2012
All right, gentlemen ... you do keep casting at me the charge, if it be a charge, of nostalgia. The word suggests a heartache for the return, and in fact most literary and artistic and social and spiritual revivals have looked to the past for inspiration; have looked well over their shoulders, to recover something of what had been forgotten. For human beings are prone to forget.

That doesn't mean a return to the past, which is impossible, but a recovery of past wisdom; and, given the human habit of losing and neglecting and forgetting and heedlessly casting away, the past will always be a storehouse of such wisdom. Not all events in the past, no doubt; but then, I'm assuming I'm speaking to sensible people here, who will give me credit for speaking in a sensible way.

On the specifics: Smitty (or Scotty): No, it is not true that Gothic Art marked as radical a break as did Cubism. It is not even close to being true. A good look at cathedrals such as the one at Moissac would show that the architects were already experimenting with means of building higher and lighter structures. Gothic was the fulfillment of these experiments, while Cubism was a part of a deliberate trashing of what had come before. The same may be said of experiments in perspective. Medieval artists and illuminators knew about it; see D. W. Robertson's work in A Preface to Chaucer. They knew about it, but they used it, or refrained from using it, for their special purposes. They had not, it is true, reduced it to mathematics -- which was the breakthrough that allowed Mantegna to paint his famous Crucifixion. But if you look at that painting, you'll see that Mantegna was doing many of the same things that the illuminators had been doing for hundreds of years; note his use of foreground and background and separated spaces to suggest a series of events, not all of them necessarily happening at once.

On Eco and Shakespeare: gosh, you'd think I'd have some credence here. I read modern literature all the time. I too watch Hitchcock and Capra and, best of them all, John Ford. Ain't none of 'em the equal of Shakespeare, not by a hundred miles. We underestimate just how rare the circumstances had to be to allow a Shakespeare to flourish. And in any case, what makes Capra and Ford great dramatists is their retaining of narratives and loyalties that the modern world disdains; see The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Ford is great because he resists the solvent of modernity... So I enlist them in my camp.

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written by Scotty Ellis, May 25, 2012
Tony:

I don't have a camp. I love Shakespeare and Eco. Picasso and medieval illuminators both express human potentials.

It may be interesting to the pack of commentators at the Catholic Thing that I am received with equal disdain when I discuss these same topics with liberals, atheists, and secularists. I have long given up on the teamsmanship that I see defining most people's beliefs.

I come not with a "charge," if by "charge" you mean that I intend to indict you for some grievous failing. I come simply with another look at the same matter. If it is foolishness to embrace the new simply because it is new (which it is), it is equally foolish to embrace to old simply because it is old. Appeal to tradition is the mirror vice to appeal to novelty. Each thing must be seen for what it is; Shakespeare is a master, but he has flaws. He is still what he is, an Englishman writing in Elizabethan England, and he still has moments (albeit rare) when his characters do not ring true, when his plots are a bit thin, or grammar a little too strained to fit his meter.

In short, sure, rail against the modern mind. The modern mind welcomes you. It will not burn you at the stake for differing; it will not condemn you to hell for believing otherwise. Rail against modern physics; but metaphysics always has followed physics, and it is often forgotten that the metaphysics of the past were tied to physical cosmologies many of which have been shown to be incomplete and erroneous. Curmudgeon against immorality, and you only curmudgeon against the substance of human history: the grunting night sweats that bear the children of the world. Harangue scatology and the interest modern art takes in the most fundamental functions of the human body, and you also harangue the ages past for which you pine: Chaucer and Shakespeare had room for feces and butts, too.

In short, I bear you no ill-will. Feel free to pass by my advice. Only I think you are doing yourself and your understanding a disservice.
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written by Brad Miner, May 25, 2012
@Scotty: Let's be clear: We're here because we believe Jesus Christ is God. Why are you here?
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written by Scotty Ellis, May 25, 2012
Brad Miner:

I am here as a seeker after truth; a man who wishes to honor the command "know thyself;" and above all, as someone sincere.

In any case, I find The Catholic Thing has provoking articles. I do not have to agree with an article in whole to agree with it in part, and I find it very enlightening to read a wide variety of arguments in order to sift through them.

I am a Catholic humanist (or perhaps humanist Catholic). No, I do not think that the Catholic faith has everything down perfectly, nor do I think it is something that can be simply dismissed. I think that whatever else it may be it is a marvelous expression of humanity, a human product that has shaped the course of history for good and for ill; the jury is still out as to whether it is all true, and it is precisely for the benefit of that jury that I frequent all manner of thinkers (from all ages) in order to hear all I can.
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written by jsmitty, May 25, 2012
Your last post about sums it up Brad. To disagree with Tony Esolen ,to question way he chooses to interpret and apply ancient insights to modern problems and to be reluctant to share in his unreflective blanket rejection of modern modes of thought and to refuse to sip from the chalice of alienation is more or less tantamount to denying revealed TRUTH itself. This is basically what the other commenters think too. I can see why I'm not wanted as an RCIA teacher, if this is what the Catholic faith means today.
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written by Tony Esolen, May 26, 2012
Temper, temper ...

Gentlemen: I do not embrace the old because it is old. I do not scorn the new because it is new. I am critiquing the modern habit of sniffing at the old (especially if it can be alleged to be medieval) and blankly accepting or praising the New and Improved.

Gentlemen, you are talking to me about Shakespeare as if I did not know quite well that Shakespeare has flaws (he is human, after all), and about Chaucer as if I did not know quite well that Chaucer uses scatology. I've spent almost my whole adult life teaching literature, and across a wide range of eras, from ancient Mesopotamia to the present. Now let's take the issue of scatology -- and take it in its rawest form, in Chaucer's Miller's Tale. All right -- I'll say bluntly, there is no comparison whatsoever between what Chaucer is doing in The Miller's Tale and what, let's say, Andres Serrano is doing with it in Piss Christ, or Robert Mapplethorpe is doing with it in his photos of men performing sadistic acts with other men. In The Miller's Tale, Chaucer has placed the scatology in the context of these motifs or narrative allusions, in a network of consummate artistry and subtlety, not to mention intellectual suggestiveness:

1. The courtly love story just told by the Knight
2. The courtly love tradition as a whole: "deerne love"
3. The Gospel account of the Annunciation
4. Boethius' distinction between fate and Providence
5. Boethius' description of the relationship of the vicious man to time
6. The story of Noah in the Old Testament
7. The theological meditation upon that same story, in the New Testament
8. The meaning of Christmas
9. The figure of Absalom in the Old Testament
10. Christ's warnings of the Second Coming
11. His warnings against trying to know the day and the hour
12. The Song of Songs
13. Saint Bernard's meditations on the Song of Songs
14. Gothic art

And more ... And the tale is not all that long, either.

The point is that Modern Man must hang onto the notion of progress because it's all he's got. Yes, we no longer kill children as part of a "do ut des" arrangement with the god Moloch. We just kill 'em for convenience. We don't burn at the stake somebody who says that parents should be granted the permission to kill their children within a month after their births. We give him an endowed chair in ethics at Princeton.

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written by jsmitty, May 26, 2012
One final word...the drift of the thread directed Tony away from my query and onto his more preferred ground of defending or asserting the superiority of Shakespeare to Hitchcock, or Plato to Malcolm Gladwell.

But I would ask at least rhetorically again...how does one know when to reject modern insights in favor of ancients ones...where gay marriage, premarital cohabitation and abortion are not at issue and the "Wisdom Tradition" (even you as understand it) does not offer a univocal answer in any event?

Methinks you should not be so hasty in the uncritically rejection of that which goes under the label "critical thinking."
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written by Tony Esolen, May 26, 2012
Scotty: Fair enough. Here are my problems with the phrase, "critical thinking":

It is itself uncritical; it is a petitio principii. It assumes that the person who subjects an idea to criticism is always superior -- always -- to one who accepts it on trust. I don't believe that is so. Eventually the skepticism engendered is self-destructive. So Pascal -- who was a critical thinker if ever there was one, on the hated Montaigne: "Skeptic, for obstinate."

The term is undefined. It's puffy, inflated. What is the difference between "thinking" and "critical thinking"?

It is always used, in academe, to apply to the traditions and the beliefs that students bring with them, and never applied to the traditions and beliefs that academics bring to the students. This is especially true in secular academe. If you wandered about the campus of my Catholic college and chose a professor at random, you would be much mistaken if you thought you could predict his politics or theology within a mile. But if you did the same thing across the city at Brown, you'd be on pretty sure ground. That's a fact of academic life, and the academic "critical thinkers" accept it uncritically.

Your question on criteria for judgment is fair, and I'll venture a few suggestions here -- otherwise it would be better to yield to Pieper or MacIntyre or such.

1. Be wary of misused or puffy language. If someone says, "Esolen is opposed to gay marriage," that someone hasn't got my thinking right -- and it's a big deal, too.

2. If a position implies what is self-contradictory or repugnant, reexamine the premises. So: if the position "I may do with my body as I please" implies "I may hire a scientist to produce forty clones of myself," do not go gentle into that bad night.

3. If a position implies what would strike an ordinary person as prima facie absurd -- not "hard to see" or "counterintuitive" or "surprising", but nonsensical -- then that position carries a tremendously heavy burden of proof. If, for instance, the position that I call the Constitutive Fallacy (identifying a thing with its constituent matter or its parts, pure and simple) results in the denial that there really are such things as dogs and trees, and even that there is such a thing as the person denying that there are such things as dogs and trees, then to hell with that. "I refute it thus," said Johnson, kicking a stone.

4. Arguments that prescind from a flagrantly inadequate understanding of the subject matter (not just inadequate, mind you) need not be taken too seriously.

5. The great thinkers and poets of the past have much to teach us. They weren't always right, of course, but their errors tend not to be our errors, and for that very reason they are useful to us. When in doubt, too, it is safe to assume that Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Shakespeare, Milton and the rest are actually far richer and subtler than even their admirers often suppose.

6. On literary greatness: take the first scene in Shakespeare's Tempest. Most critics don't make anything of it, and it's easy to see why not. There's no poetry. There's a lot of commotion. It seems necessary just to get the play moving. Shakespeare often uses an initial scene as a lead in to a longer and more important scene (and so it is also in The Tempest). Yet I could write forty pages of analysis, easily, on that short scene. Not forty pages of impressionistic appreciation, but forty pages of precise thematic, dramatic, intellectual, and linguistic analysis. That's how rich Shakespeare is. So -- who is a shadow of Shakespeare? Many great writers -- Faulkner, Melville, Dickens, maybe George Eliot, certainly Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. But it's hard to be in that league, because the cultural soil is rarely rich enough to sustain a work so rich....
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written by John, May 27, 2012
@Scotty Ellis

You describe yourself as a Catholic humanist/humanist Catholic. What do you mean by this?

Also, you say, "I do not think that the Catholic faith has everything down perfectly". What part does it have "down perfectly"?

I am curious, because I wonder how somebody would call themselves a Catholic if they did not believe the claims the Church makes about itself.

Thank you.
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written by Scotty Ellis, May 27, 2012
Tony:

"The term is undefined. It's puffy, inflated. What is the difference between "thinking" and "critical thinking"?"

I would argue that both are vital; it is as vital an ability to be able to work within a structure - be that a logical structure, literary structure, religious structure - as it is to peer at that structure from the outside (critical thinking). Of course, we must always be thinking from somewhere - we cannot simply sit by the fire in our winter cabin and think away assumptions and structures. But the ability to move from system to system, from structure to structure, in order to offer mutual correction and criticism - that is the role of critical thought.

"It is always used, in academe, to apply to the traditions and the beliefs that students bring with them, and never applied to the traditions and beliefs that academics bring to the students."

I would call this insincerity on the part of the academics in question. Many of their traditions are critical traditions - that is, they were born of the critical spirit. I suppose the academics of whom you are speaking falsely believe this fact absolves them of the responsibility that they are attempting to inculcate in their students.

Of your criteria, I think they are fine except for 5 and 6. I would argue that the venerability of thinkers only carries with it one imperative: give them a fair hearing. Beyond that, I don't see much sense in privileging Aristotle to, say, Kant: they are both flawed thinkers who have a number of interesting ideas, a number of confusing ideas, and a number of abhorrent ideas. For all of his ethical insights (discounting the problematic slavery bit, of course, and his assumption that Greek aristocrats are the only sorts who can be truly great-souled), it never occurred to him to do something as simple to us as test his little theory that heavier things fall faster than lighter things. I use this as a symbol for a greater problem: that for all Aristotle did as an observer of the human scene and nature, he was not equipped with the most rudimentary and important empirical methodologies which have yielded the rich insights of modernity (and which may, as I would agree, have resulted in a fretful tendency to reductionism). Do I think Aristotle was a "bad" thinker for this? No! He was who he was - a quite intelligent fourth century Greek. It would be ridiculous to condemn him for not using 17th century scientific methodology. But does this mean I need to pretend that Aristotle deserves a special privilege - that I need not ask myself with his every proposition - "Is this right, is this true, knowing everything that came after him and all we have learned since then?" Of course not! Nor does it mean that I need to dismiss him or to fail to recognize the current import of much of his thought, even how it might offer a relevant critique of much that is going on now (I am thinking right now of such a critique - MacIntyre's After Virtue).

As for 6, I am unimpressed by the notion that Shakespeare somehow has intrinsically "more" interpretive potential than, say, Dostoevsky. Certainly, Shakespeare has been interpreted for much longer, and probably by a wider range of scholars. Only time will tell the full interpretive potential of Crime and Punishment versus the Tempest. After all, The Tempest wasn't exactly initially acclaimed, as you probably know quite well. It is arguable that it took centuries before the play's potential was fully recognized. And we need not forget the plays that Shakespeare wrote that do not have a great depth of interpretive potential and which Crime and Punishment clearly excels as a work: his work on Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Titus Andronicus, for example. Interpretation is half a matter of the material with which you start; the other half has to do with the interpreters themselves, and the time it takes them to recognize greatness.

John:

"You describe yourself as a Catholic humanist/humanist Catholic. What do you mean by this?"

I am either a Catholic who is quite interested in the humanist tradition or a humanist who is quite interested in the Catholic tradition, and I have not made up my mind which. I go to Mass, pay attention to the Church's internal squabbles (unflattering though they may be), read Catholic blogs and sources, and more importantly than that read and continue to read the great sources of Catholic faith and theology. But at the same time, I am a humanist interested in every aspect of human learning and knowledge: philosophy, and more and more importantly, physics, anatomy, the physiology of our phenomenal experiences, and so forth.

"
Also, you say, "I do not think that the Catholic faith has everything down perfectly". What part does it have "down perfectly"? "

I don't know. Possibly nothing. But that is what I am trying to discover.

"I am curious, because I wonder how somebody would call themselves a Catholic if they did not believe the claims the Church makes about itself."

I find this as silly a question as "why do you call yourself a U.S. citizen, if you do not believe everything the government claims?" I think that Catholic faith is flawed. I also think it is beautiful and has a great deal of truth and life-informing ritual. I also don't think there is anything particularly wrong with participating in a religion even if I am unconvinced of its ultimate truth (Cicero comes to mind).
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written by jsmitty, May 27, 2012
OK Tony, thanks for your thoughtful reply. You and the other recent commenters have given me much to ponder and for that I am appreciative.

Off the top of my head here's my reaction to your latest. You write re. critical thinking:

It is always used, in academe, to apply to the traditions and the beliefs that students bring with them, and never applied to the traditions and beliefs that academics bring to the students.

me: The observations that "critics are critical of all but their own theories" is not a new one. There is a kernel of truth here, but I would suggest this is a chronic problem across the spectrum of academia and not simply places like Brown. I've taught at very conservative "fortress" or "sanctuary" Catholic institutions who are just as hostile to responsible critiques of their own presuppositions as are adversary institutions such as you have in mind. Perhaps feeling beleaguered and heavily outgunned they lack the intellectual security to be comfortable subjecting their own ideas to scrutiny--lest they lend any support or credence to their foes. But this is a problem there too with the unfortunate side effect of politics pervading every dimension of life.

From where you sit where literary criticism has been in many places supplanted by a corrosive deconstructionism--I can see where you are coming from, as one trying to hold onto a legacy. But it doesn't follow that say, Aristoteleans can't learn anything from today's social scientists, or that say, scholastic theologians cannot learn from German Biblical critics, or that, say, modern TV shows like The Wire do not probe into the mystery of iniquity and redemption, while offering social criticism every bit as trenchant as Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens or for that matter the prophet Amos.

You write: If a position implies what would strike an ordinary person as prima facie absurd -- not "hard to see" or "counterintuitive" or "surprising", but nonsensical -- then that position carries a tremendously heavy burden of proof.

me: I agree, but only with the caveat that its a bit harder to tell the difference in practice between the "absurd" and the merely "counter-intuitive" than you seem willing to admit. For instance, you earlier let it be known that you considered it absurd that our society should ever offer debt-amnesty to college graduates who cannot find jobs. Implicitly you invoked unspecified ancient wisdom to attest that doing this would only delay the students' maturing into adults who can take full responsibility for their choices. I pointed out that this is true as far as it goes, but more complicated. Students who are too saddled with debt will be less able to buy homes, get married and raise families and this too would be quite bad for them and the country in aggregate. Moreover, our society has offered bankruptcy protection for centuries as a way of cushioning the impact of big loans going bad for companies and later individuals. The reasons for this should be obvious. A capitalist system requires debt at times and risk and sometimes debts go bad. Such a posture might be "absurd" from your purely moralistic perspective but to me it just seems a little counter-intuitive balanced solution to a difficult problem. And frankly your obtuseness on difficult issues like this causes me to question the general applicability of the moral and epistemological approach you espouse. Not everything is as clear cut as the question of whether abortion should be legal or not.

I too would prefer the culinary folk wisdom of Julia Child to the contradictory and often ill-founded dietary advice of the medical establishment--if I were forced to choose. But human metabolism and appetite is extremely complex and somewhat different for each person and so to suggest that a simple answer for the reasons society has gotten so much fatter in the last 40 years is found in thirty year old books of French cookery is a bit unlikely.

If there is one thing that modernity gets right it is this: beware in general of simple sounding solutions to complex problems. Your metaphysics I'm afraid tilts to much to the simple in a world that it anything but!

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written by Tony Esolen, May 27, 2012
Scotty: Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I'm not a metaphyisician, but I do accept a combination of Thomism and Platonism: I actually believe in the objective existence of mathematical realities.

Smitty: No, I actually don't think that we have to wait too long to be sure that Tempest 1.1 bears more interpretive potential than the first page of the greatest novel ever written, The Brothers Karamazov. This is my profession, after all....

But you guys are not the trouble. You must be aware that at many colleges, the study of Aristotle or of Dante has been all but abandoned. That is also true of the study of literature written before 1900, in our public schools. I now meet college freshmen who have never heard the names of any number of great poets in English, including Milton.
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written by John, May 27, 2012
@Scotty

Thank you for the response. I don't mean to waste your time with silly questions. I'm just trying to figure out whether or not you are Catholic. Simply attending Mass does not mean one is Catholic, nor does appreciating the beauty in the liturgy or affirming that the Church teaches a great deal of truth. Are you Christian? If so, are you a Catholic Christian?

Thank you.
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written by Scotty Ellis, May 27, 2012
John:

I am a baptized and confirmed Catholic.
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written by John, May 28, 2012
Scotty:

Thank you.
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written by Chatto, June 17, 2012
Coming a little late to this party, but loved this article (and it's sequel, which I read first). I don't know if you guys in the States have 'use by dates' on your food, but here in the UK it is, for me, the number 1 symptom of that abandonment of the senses to the anonymous authority. The number of people who throw out perfectly good milk, bread, and other basics which weren't taken for granted by the Medieval with whom Dr. Esolen compares us, is staggering! Do they think it goes off at the chime of midnight?? How hard is it to tell that your milk has soured, seriously?? Baffling. Yet I've had arguments with housemates who will not be convinced to employ their senses when assessing the condition of a loaf. The 'use by date' has passed, therefore they throw it out. God save us!

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