Detail from the frontispiece of Leviathan (1651) a book by Thomas Hobbes on the nature of government. via Wikimedia. And below, 'Leviathan with emojis' (author supplied).
Last week’s post suggested that neutralism and agnosticism are merely poses. Although their proponents claim not to believe anything either way concerning God, actually they suppose that it does not matter and cannot be known whether there is a God. This supposes plenty about God. At the least, it supposes that what Christians believe about Him is false on all points, because they hold that He can be known, He desires to be known, He has provided the means to know Him, and whether we believe in Him matters.
Lately, though, I have been reading some of the works of the early twentieth century Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc. He would have said that neutralism and agnosticism are merely examples of a much broader challenge to faith and sound thinking, which he calls, with some misgivings, the Modern Mind. Here is how he defines the mentality in Survivals and New Arrivals (1929):
“The mark of today's Main Opposition, differentiating it from nearly all the perils of our Christian past, is that it propounds no explicit heresy. Its conflict with the Faith is a conflict of mood; it is a conflict following on a certain mentality, not on any body of propositions. In the case of all the old heresies a definite series of propositions came at the origin of the affair; a conflict of moods followed. An anti-Catholic habit of mind was produced, with all its consequences in a myriad social customs and in all the atmosphere of a society, but at the root lay perfectly clear doctrinal postulates which could be discussed in the abstract and accepted or denied without reference to their possible indirect effects …. With each section of the Main Opposition today it is the other way about. You may by prolonged analysis extract from its moods its ultimate principles, but the moods do not start from those principles. Their victims are not conscious of any such principles. When presented with them, they will often, and honestly, deny them to be held.”
Thus, the marks of this mentality are (1) that it opposes a mood to the faith rather than a proposition or an argument; (2) that it is possible, by analysis, to extract propositions that people possessed by the mood would seem to regard as true; but (3) that those possessed by the mood are not necessarily conscious of holding these propositions, and may even deny doing so.
I would add that such people are usually suspicious of reasoning in general. Even if not, they do not like to have their suppositions brought to light. The chief opponents of Christian faith in our time – in fact, of all sound thinking — are mood warriors.
This is why it is so difficult to oppose them. Historically, Christianity has answered its opponents by countering their premises with arguments. But mood warriors may not even know they are opponents, are unconscious of their premises, and respond to the unearthing of these premises by taking offense – that is, by taking up yet another mood, the mood of indignation.
I am increasingly persuaded that Belloc is right. A great many shibboleths of the modern mentality follow the pattern he describes. Consider those who rely on the authority of their immaterial minds to announce that only matter is real. Or those who proudly say that they believe in no God, but who merely place other gods before Him. Or who pride themselves on doubting everything, never pausing to reflect that in order to doubt one thing, one must assume something else which is not at the moment in doubt.
It isn’t logic that rules in these attitudes. They are moods.
What gives rise to the dominion of Mood over Mind? A great many causes conspire. One cause is that our society values quick results; people are in too much of a hurry to think carefully. Another is that we are harvesting the bad fruits of a number of intellectual movements sown over the centuries, the common element of which is distrust of the mind’s power to know reality. Very few people could name these theories, but they have left their mark on their mood.
Belloc himself singles out two other culprits. Since both of them tend to be demagogic, they hurt though they ought to be helping. One is corrupted public education, which destroys the healthy common sense of uneducated people without building the good mental qualities of educated people; it turns out half-educated people who think in slogans.
This seems to be true. I have observed that even what passes as the teaching of “critical thinking” in schools today is mostly the teaching of prejudices. For example, the schools teach correctly that the mere fact that most people believe something does not prove that it is true. But in contempt for what most people believe, they go further, insinuating that the beliefs of most people are irrelevant to establishing the truth. This elite prejudice is very often false. For example, what most people believe about whether they have free will is plainly evidential, because they have personal experience of making choices.
Belloc’s other culprit is the popular press, which in our day includes social media. It isn’t that he wants to shut down freedom of debate, but that he thinks these media stupefy discussion rather than informing it, submerging the mind rather than elevating it. Do people dislike thinking? The media minister to that dislike by staging an orgy of sensational pictures, headlines, and now tweets. Do people ascribe a false authority to repetition? The media serve them by reiterating ceaselessly. Whatever our diseases of mind and spirit, they pander to them.
In a day when the most widely read news medium allows just 140 characters for the expression of complex thought, and in which the rulers of the country find this allotment more than ample for their rants, can we doubt it?
Given a few centuries, almost everything passes. The empire of Mood over Mind will strangle itself. The question is whether it will quietly yield the throne to its former inhabitant, or abdicate in favor of an even more dreadful tyrant. The resolution of the question may rest with us.
In another age, a Father of the Church, Gregory Nazianzen, wrote that “to those who are like wild beasts, true and sound discourses are stones.” He meant there is no need to hurl rocks; it is sufficient to fight intellectual challenges to faith and sound thinking by reasoning against them. In our day, though, we must first reestablish the habit of reasoning.
I think we had better get started.
J. Budziszewski is a Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. This article has been republished with permission from his blog, The Underground Thomist. See also his new book on virtue ethics. See also his book On the Meaning of Sex.