Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Milton’s Satan and our Polarized Republic: Not “Reason vs. Faith” but “Faith vs. Faith”

That we were form’d . . . say’st thou?
. . . strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? remember’st thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d.

--Satan in Paradise Lost, V, 853, 855–60

Though politically on the left, in recent years I’ve had to engage more in “culture war” issues, and my stance, being Catholic, is more aligned with the right. Thus America's neat polarization into a unified "liberal" camp and a unified "conservative" camp often puts me at cross-purposes. Given the odd and historically contingent way our camps are constituted, I can agree with neither side, which results in a political loneliness that prods me to think and argue at the level of philosophical differences. The arguments are necessary, because when such differences aren't plumbed, no actual communication takes place.

At least for myself this constant digging at the root brings some deeper perspective. During the Obama years especially, certain insights about what drives our American polarization have become almost second nature to me. My main frustration is that it's now nearly impossible to communicate these insights to liberal friends; the resultant feeling of separation, that I'm speaking a different language from nearly everyone, grows worse by the year.

How to get across what I see in our endless talking past each other--that’s the challenge. A challenge I fail time and again.

Writing on our liberal order back in the 1990s, Stanley Fish put his finger on the crux of what divides religious from secular Americans. He underlined just the kind of problems that nag me to no end every time I discuss the culture with friends, foes and that ever growing group: frenemies.

Fish, a literary critic and law professor, begins by contrasting the distinct ways of reasoning followed by Satan and Adam in Milton’s masterpiece Paradise Lost. This contrast is then taken as a lens through which to clarify our ongoing American scuffles. A fine lens it proves to be, and Fish’s article, appearing in the journal First Things, is compelling reading for anyone who wants to grasp some of the maddening paradoxes inherent in our “pluralist” culture.

Milton’s Satan, a self-conscious being unable to remember how he was created, concludes that he must have created himself or somehow arisen from his own being. As Fish rightly points out, Satan’s initial conclusion on this point colors all his subsequent reasoning: “The habit of identifying the limits of reality with the limits of his own horizons defines Satan--it makes him what he is and is everywhere on display.” To figure forth such a character, Milton had to be keenly aware of the stakes of seeing oneself as a self-made being. For Fish, and I would heartily agree, we Americans have largely lost such awareness.

Adam’s path, which is Milton’s own, is radically different. Adam, coming to awareness as a self-conscious being in a world governed by complex laws, and like Satan unable to remember his own creation, concludes that there must be a Creator. Adam’s goal as a conscious being is to know and connect with that Creator. His is a path, an epistemology, that the modern liberal mind can no longer so much as grasp in its implications. Fish:

I make the point [about Adam’s way] strongly because it is so alien to the modern liberal-enlightenment picture of cognitive activity in which the mind is conceived of as a calculating and assessing machine that is open to all thoughts and closed to none. In this [modern liberal] picture the mind is in an important sense not yet settled; and indeed settling, in the form of a fixed commitment to an idea or a value, is a sign of cognitive and moral infirmity. Milton’s view is exactly the reverse: In the absence of a fixed commitment--of a first premise that cannot be the object of thought because it is the enabling condition of thought--cognitive activity cannot get started.

Two philosophical points might be made about Adam and Satan’s distinct paths: first is that they begin with equally valid starting perceptions, equally rational reactions to the fact of self-consciousness in a universe; second is that they are both built entirely on initial gestures: for both Satan and Adam, the first step is a leap of faith, but it sets the course of all reasoning that is to follow.

Satan’s faith corresponds more closely to the secular liberal vision of human consciousness--that it arose from impersonal forces in a universe with no Creator. Adam’s faith corresponds to the religious perception: that there is a consciousness undergirding both ourselves and the universe.

But if both liberal and religious epistemology depend on an initial act of faith, and are thus similar in a way, the universes that come to be constructed on these different grounds will be radically different. What's more, those who hold to the path of Adam rather than the path of Satan will hold radically different elements of the universe as significant when it comes to constructing a system of values. And again this is a matter of the initial gesture. For both sides “evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of [that] first premise or ‘essential axiom’ that cannot itself be put to the test because the protocols of testing are established by its pre-assumed authority.” That is key: the authority in each case is a pre-assumed one. Once Satan’s initial assumption has been made as to his ultimate origin, his criteria for what will subsequently count as evidence in any given case is set. Likewise for Adam.

Fish’s point that these two approaches to truth are equally "faith-based" is no longer grasped in liberal culture. In my view, the widespread failure to grasp this basic epistemological insight is at the root of the endless miscommunication between secular and religious. For people of faith like myself, such miscommunication is often maddening, because, no matter how one tries to explain, the secular liberal sitting across the table just doesn't get it. But besides the fact of constantly talking past each other, there's another more menacing element in play. This widespread liberal inability to think to the depth of first premises results in a dangerous false assumption: namely, that their secular liberal viewpoint is somehow “neutral”.

I call it dangerous for various reasons. First, secular minds, unable to see the act of faith on which their worldview rests, are prone to assume that science and “reason” will always bring progress. Thus if we just let science and reason “run their natural course” (whatever that might mean) humanity will continue to grow more truly human. Amazingly, given the horrors of the 20th century, contemporary liberals still don’t see that this is little more than a shopworn 18th century ideology, a delusional misconstrual of the role of science. It seems their “postmodern” sophistication still hasn’t managed to unseat their deeper Enlightenment fundamentalism.

Second, secular liberals assume that those who argue against their conclusions are “scientifically illiterate”, an assumption that has led them to draw ideologically narrow borders around science itself. How so? Anxious that science is being offended against, they've upgraded its status to that of a "pure" and "universal" method, forgetting that it is in essence a philosophically grounded approach to acquiring only certain kinds of knowledge. Of course, when liberal thinkers accuse the religious of being scientifically illiterate, the accusation is sometimes true, but very often it is not. Educated religious people daily witness liberals tendentiously using scientific facts to draw ethical conclusions that don't necessarily follow from those facts. It's not the science that is at issue, but the way that science is used by liberals as a sort of exculpatory imprimatur.

The deep truth in all this is as follows: American liberals have become philosophically illiterate. Our secular liberals are people who can’t see that their own basic principles are not in fact grounded in the science they assume grounds everything. Their whole case rests on various leaps of faith no more rational or scientific than that of Adam in Milton's epic. Their worldview is a religion like other religions, except that they can't see that it is a religion. That they can't see its faith-based elements allows them to impose it with ever more authoritarian zeal. (In April, Yuval Levin argued persuasively that the liberal mainstream is in fact behaving as if it were the official national religion--and thus directly violating our Constitution's establishment clause.)

The danger this liberal blindness represents for a pluralistic culture is clear. If the faith of the secular liberal is that science and “open debate” will naturally lead to progress, what the smart religious observer sees is that this is not science, but merely scientism. And what Stanley Fish sees, and brilliantly underlines, is that the "open debate" the liberal order allows is usually rigged from the start.

But I've written too much here. I intended this post as an invitation to read Fish’s trenchant analysis. Aside from laying out the liberal hypocrisies I always have trouble getting my many frenemies to recognize, the article serves as a case study of how these hypocrisies affect even those who try to fight them. Indeed Fish shows that many who seek to defend religious insights still cannot think outside the box secular liberalism has put them in. As has been widely commented, the "liberal" vision, especially since the start of this new century, is growing ever more authoritarian in its basic gestures.

If you care, whether from a secular or religious point of view, about the deep gash running down the center of America, about why this gash never manages to heal, this article offers some solid answers.

Eric Mader

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