In response to the crisis of higher education, a group of concerned academics have founded the University of Austin, a new institution whose principles proclaim a dedication to the “unfettered pursuit of truth.” Because universities have embraced relativism – even as they deny open and free discourse – such a re-dedication to the pursuit of truth seems like an idea whose time has come again. Yet the university’s website nowhere mentions the nature of truth as either objective or transcendent.
Peter Boghossian, a founder of the new university, recently said that the purpose of free inquiry and critical thinking is the willingness to set aside all opinions and be open to the possibility of something radically different. A real critical thinker, he said, is one who uses reason and evidence to draw conclusions and is always willing to change those conclusions when presented with new evidence. Given the problems of the contemporary university – mono-minded and intellectually conformist – Boghossian contends that we need to return to fundamental Enlightenment perspectives, particularly the primacy of reason.
Returning to Enlightenment fundamentals, however, will simply reset a trajectory whose terminus is the very problem that now terrorizes educational institutions. Basing all inquiry on human rationality is a self-oriented and self-driven system. The self remains the perspective, center, and prism of rational inquiry. No outside anchor exists on which Enlightenment reason depends.
“Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words,” declares Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Without an objective truth independent of self, without the acceptance of God as the source of all Truth, intellectual inquiry simply becomes what sickens Eliza – endless words without action.
C.S. Lewis writes in The Great Divorce a dramatization of souls who choose to remain in Hell. In one poignant scene, an episcopal ghost (a former bishop) converses with a redeemed soul who tries to persuade him to come to Heaven. The bishop states he will come, but only if he has the assurance that he can continue his inquiries about God’s existence.
The other tells him Heaven has “No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.” The poor bishop’s ghost then refuses, declaring, “Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not?”
Other writers and thinkers, too, recognize this problem of constantly pursuing truth but never settling down upon it. The quest becomes all. John Milton offers the image in Paradise Lost of perpetual reasoning in fallen angels:
Others apart sat on a Hill retir’d,
In thoughts more elevate, and reason’d high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate. . . .
And found no end, in wandring mazes lost.
St. Thomas Aquinas, himself, who took human reason to new heights, ultimately concludes: “All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.”
Reviving intellectual inquiry and creating “safe spaces” for the pursuit of truth and ideas is a noble intention. But a university, despite all its good intention, that fails to recognize the main thing – objective reality (including the simple acknowledgment of a divine creator) – will result in a return to where universities began to go wrong.
What we now see on college campuses – the shrieking of the mob to silence all opposing opinions and to force conformity of thought – is simply the extreme, but logical, consequence of the Enlightenment deification of a narrow view of what constitutes human “reason.”
Descartes famously said “I think therefore I am” (Cogitō ergō sum). An individual’s ability to reason or think, in this regard, is the proof of personal existence. Inevitably – because this Cartesian centrality of reason is centered in the self and not an objective creator – it has descended to, “I think you are, therefore you are” (Cēnseō vōs esse, ergō estis).
The real-world consequences of such ideas become manifest in statements such as the infamous 1992 Supreme Court decision in Casey v. Planned Parenthood: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Humility is a necessity for the proper use of the intellect. Human reason has manifold uses but must also recognize its dependence on a truth that cannot change. St. John Paul II declared in the opening statement of his famous encyclical Fides et Ratio, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”
The medieval university based all inquiry on God as Truth. Any other foundation over time disintegrates into intellectual chaos and the mob. Without anchoring in an external, objective truth, the self becomes its own ultimate authority. Because of this, it quickly results in clashes with others.
What then is the necessary result but conflict and war? Any person or institution committed to the “unfettered pursuit of truth” finally must be willing to let reason grasp its object of pursuit and then rest in the joy of the truth. Or, as G.K. Chesterton quipped, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
*Image: Hugo of St. Victor teaching at the University of Paris, c. 1190 [Bodleian Library, Oxford]
You may also enjoy:
Anthony Esolen’s Freedom on a Mountain
Brad Miner’s Every Man a Monk