The Modern Mind, As It Were Print
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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