The “Modern Mind,” Again

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. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.