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Beyond Neutrality

Towards the beginning of the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri depicts an odd group of beings, human and angelic: the “neutrals.” The humans are a small-souled bunch: “thrown in among that petty choir/ of angels who were for themselves alone,/ not rebels, and not faithful to the Lord.” (Inf. III)

This passage has caused much scholarly chin-pulling. Where did Dante get that? “Neutral angels” aren’t Scriptural. Some medieval legend? And what about theology? Can such beings exist? Can you be for yourself alone? Without rebelling – however indirectly – against the thrice-holy Love at the heart of everything?

Dante and Virgil, his guide in the poem, don’t waste time wondering. Virgil says:

These souls, immortal, have no hope for death,
    and their blind lives crept groveling so low
    they leer with envy at every other lot.
The world allows no rumor of them now.
    Mercy and justice hold them in contempt.
    Let’s say no more about them. Look, and pass.

Look, and pass, indeed. For all of Christian history, such beings seemed close to unthinkable, a virtual self-contradiction. But the ages may have finally produced such a cohort, now visible to many, not just to great and visionary poets.

We still have old-style atheists, of course, in the guise of New Atheists. But they actually make materialist arguments and claims – old ones and not very persuasive in strictly philosophical terms. The metaphysical arguments have the benefit of many great minds over time, and are far stronger. But at least the modern non-believers can still be engaged, more or less, rationally – one human being to another.

There are even sympathetic figures among them. My favorite is American philosopher Thomas Nagel, who wrote a truthful book: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. He did so, knowing he would be attacked (and was, fiercely), because he grasped the near impossibility of explaining the existence of mind and knowledge by brain functions alone.

In his case, there was an additional pathos: he had admitted years earlier what few non-believers could, that there was an element of will in his non-belief: “I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Dante 17

Of course, if materialism is true, will and choice, as they have been classically understood, must also fall by the wayside, alongside mind. No matter how sophisticated the arguments deployed – and there are some quite ingenious “naturalists” trying to preserve the notion of free will, even as equally ingenious neuroscientists are convinced that freedom is a mere “folk” view – at the end of the day materialism is materialism.

The consequences are already much in evidence among us – incoherently, as they must be. We think people often choose themselves, like Dante’s “neutrals.” But we’re actually in a much worse way than that.

We tend to think people not much responsible for what they do – genes and environment determine all that. And yet we are simultaneously outraged, however selectively, over racism, sexism, politically incorrect “phobias,” inequalities in power, prestige, wealth.

Just this week The Atlantic published an article exploring the potential social fallout of strict materialism. Psychologists even devised an experiment and found that people feel less responsible for their bad behavior, but also (a surprise to some) think people deserve less praise for good behavior where free will is assumed not to exist.

For it’s not only religion. Liberal humanism, too, falls if materialism is the truth. How can anyone choose to pursue – much less live by – the truth if all our actions are determined? If some neuroscientist were to win the Nobel Prize for efforts to demonstrate that free will doesn’t exist, he’d have to return the letter marked: “Addressee Unknown.”

All this bodes ill in the short run. In the longer run, there may be surprises coming. People can live for a long time, sometimes their whole lives, with glaring contradictions. But it’s difficult to believe the human race in the aggregate can carry on without praise and blame, good and evil, mind and will. To do that, we’d have to render ourselves even more neutral than Dante’s “neutrals,” indeed, neutered to the point of being incapable of choosing God, the Devil, or even ourselves. The Atlantic sees that, without seeing a way out, other than to pretend we’re free in our courts, public affairs, and private lives.

In Huxley’s Brave New World, a “Controller” tells the Savage, “civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. . . .you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do.”

That’s one possible future, and some would like to realize it. But the Controller also knows and values, of all people, Cardinal Newman, whom he calls an Arch-Community-Songster. And quotes him: “We are not our own any more than what we possess is our own. We did not make ourselves, we cannot be supreme over ourselves. . . .We are God’s property. Is it not our happiness thus to view the matter? . . .They say that it is the fear of death and of what comes after death that makes men turn to religion. . . . quite apart from any such terrors or imaginings, the religious sentiment tends to develop as we grow older; to develop because, as the passions grow calm, as the fancy and sensibilities are less excited and less excitable, our reason becomes less troubled in its working, less obscured by the images, desires and distractions, in which it used to be absorbed; whereupon God emerges as from behind a cloud; our soul feels, sees, turns towards the source of all light; turns naturally and inevitably.”

Newman may strike us as uncharacteristically optimistic here. But as our age grows cruder and darker, it may be that, given the alternatives, in time, he’ll prove quite right.

Robert Royal

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and currently serves as the St. John Henry Newman Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies at Thomas More College. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.