The economist Thomas Sowell recently gave a brief reflection on the general tenor of commencement speeches in our major universities. Most addresses left much to be desired. Sowell found two general types of graduation speeches. The first type is “shameless self-advertising by people in government, or in related organizations supported by the tax-payers or donors, saying how much nobler it is to be in ‘public service’ than working in business or other ‘selfish’ activities.” Or to clarify the point, he added, that in the view of many, “It is morally superior to be in organizations consuming output produced by others than to be in organizations which produce that output.”
The second type of commencement address flatters “the graduates that they are now equipped to go out into the world as ‘leaders’ who can prescribe how other people should live.” Sowell sums up this approach this way: “Young people, who in most cases have never had the sobering responsibility and experience of being self-supporting adults, are to tell other people—who have had the responsibility and experience for years—how they should live their lives.”
The situation gets worse later on when the said students are promoted within the government so that no one within it has ever really worked for a living. During his years in office, President Obama, who had no non-governmental experience, issued to business and culture over 20,000 regulatory decrees, few of which had any congressional authorization or helped the economy.
It is interesting to read these incisive comments of Thomas Sowell in the light of the ongoing controversies about the purpose of higher education. Is it to provide a “liberal education” or is it to prepare one for a job, profession, or skill? Of course, as A.D. Sertillanges said in his famous book, The Intellectual Life, both purposes are valid and indeed necessary. All the political candidates and even the Pope are constantly talking of jobs and their lack, as if providing for jobs was the primary purpose of education or government, for that matter.
Other critics do not think that what was once called “liberal education” exists anywhere in modern universities, aside from a few relatively unknown smaller schools or isolated faculties in larger ones. Sowell’s argument was not so much about education but rather how to acquire practical knowledge or technical knowledge sufficient to do the things that needed to be done or wanted to be done in society. Experience, he implied, usually taught more than education, whereas education without experience is dangerous.
Two views of reality
In the light of such questions, it might be of some interest to spell out what I call two views of reality. No doubt, we can propose many “views” of reality. The Supreme Court even went so far as to affirm that every person has a “right” to his own particular view of reality. Taken literally, since some seven billion people live on this planet, we have seven billion different views of reality. Yet, it seems like we all live in the same world within which we must all get along while upholding what is true. If we have differences, and we do, we have a criterion by which we can resolve them, namely, the truth of things.
The first view of reality, probably the current one held by many people, particularly in Europe and America, goes by many names—multiculturalism, relativism, historicism, positivism, or voluntarism depending on where one wants to start his analysis. This view begins with the notion that no objective natural order can be found or admitted either in the cosmos or in human beings. No “proof” exists for this view. It is a chosen “first principle” for those who hold it.
Whether this view can be considered “self-contradictory” in the sense of affirming that “It is true that no truth exists” can be left for one’s own consideration. On this premise, the world, as such, has no interior message for man that is open to his reason about what he is. Even mathematical and cosmological constants, the principles on the validity of which the actual world seems to rest, are said to be accidents, not certainties that need to be explained or justified. The result of both science and psychological introspection, it is claimed, yields the same thing. Nothing is there but what is based on chance. All things are changing. No traces of alien or transcendent intelligence can be found in the universe or in man’s structure or history.
The heart of the issue is prefigured in a brief 1952 Peanuts sequence. Pretty blond-haired Patty is seen happily jumping rope. From a distance carefully watching her, Charlie calls out to her the ultimate question: “Patty, do you like me?” She responds: “Of course, I like you, Charlie Brown.” If we think about it, this is pretty much the same question that Christ asked of Peter after the Resurrection: “Peter, do you love me more than these?” (John, 21:7).
In the next scene, Charlie gets to the heart of things. “Why do you like me?” he wants to know. Still jumping rope, Patty casually replies: “Oh, I don’t know. Because you like me, I suppose.” The third scene has no words, as no words are possible. Charlie turns away wholly perplexed but clearly catching the logic of her reply. Patty, meanwhile, goes on jumping as if no momentous issue was at stake.
In the final scene, Patty stops jumping and just stares bewilderedly at a furious Charlie, who yells at her: “that’s a pretty flimsy reason.” It is a reason all right, but one that has nothing to do with Charlie himself. And that’s the one thing Charlie, or anyone else for that matter, wants to know: Is there anything in us as such that is worthy of being liked and loved? And if so, from whence does it arise?
Behind that amusing scene lies a whole history of ancient and modern thought on love. It goes back to Pascal, Augustine, St. Paul, Aristotle, and Plato. The issue is about whether, in loving someone else, we only love ourselves. Can we wish the good of another? Can we love someone else if we are not loved first? Is something loveable because we love it, or do we love it because it is itself loveable?” as Plato put it in the Meno.
Charlie, to repeat, wants to know—this is his perpetual concern–whether there is really anything in him, Charlie Brown, worthy of being loved for its own sake. Without that possibility, we are all isolated in the world of ourselves. And, as far as I can judge, this is the essence of the first view of reality that I want to reflect on. Everyone lives in his own isolated world surrounded by principles and choices that never allow him to get outside of himself. This is usually called “human freedom” or “human dignity”.
Is there a natural order in things?
Is there anything in being itself, in what is, that bears its own intelligible good, its own worth? If so, this would imply that an intelligence stands behind changing natural things as the intelligible source of what they are. Freedom in that case would mean the capacity to accept what we are in fact given to be. Our good and happiness would consist in choosing to be what we are given to be.
What we know as modern “freedom”, by contrast, depends on the proposition that no natural order exists in things either behind or in front of them. We came from no place; we are going no place. The world is essentially a product of chance that is determined to be what it is. No “good”, finite or infinite, exists in itself or through its presence. From this premise it follows that will, which we still somehow seem to possess from nowhere, is primary over reason.
Will is not related to reality or reason as an end. This is what voluntarism means in all its forms, whether in Western science or in Muslim thought. We are not bound by any reality, not even our own. If we were, we would not be free to make ourselves into whatever we want to be. This is why classical metaphysics and Christian theology are so dangerous to the public order and why they are met with such furious opposition. The only “meaning” in the universe is the meaning we each give it. No two meanings need to be the same. No given reason needs to be consistent with any other. Hence there is no need to have a common view of what the universe is. That would be a threat to our freedom to be what we choose.
Multi-culturalism, as an aspect of voluntarism, means that all ways of life are equally good or acceptable, especially those ways that are said to be against the Commandments or the natural law. What were once called “sins” are now positive “rights” to be established under the laws and sanctions of the state. Therefore, all people with all their “rights” need to be mixed together in one organism or polity on an equal basis. No way of life can be distinguished or separated from another in terms of objective norms of good and evil. All people should commingle rather than keep themselves in separate, smaller enclaves. Ultimately, there is no state but the world state, now in charge of all world resources and how they are to be used and by whom.
Relativism means that no truth can be found whereby we can distinguish one position from another in terms of right and wrong, good and bad. Historicism means that truth changes from time to time. What is true for one time is not necessarily true for another time.
Positivism means that truth changes from place to place. The only law that exists is civil law, but it is changeable. The world state is composed of identical sub-units all formed on the same principle of infinitely variable “rights”. No over-riding reason or natural law exists whereby anyone can judge the validity of one law, culture, or historical period over another. All are equally meaningless in terms of submitting to agreed principles that are universal.
The dominating state
Since these wills in fact and in practice, however, come into conflict with one another with no common criterion of resolution, conflicts must be settled by power. The state or civil society, preferably on a world basis, is a construct designed to control and modify ideas and organizations so that “peace”, meaning no violence, is possible. This power brooks no opposition. The power of the state stems from the wills of the citizens protecting their own self-legislated “rights” to do whatever they want. The worst evil is death, so that staying alive at any cost is the highest natural good. The threat of death stifles all ideas. The purpose of the state is to protect the “rights” it chooses to protect.
Two versions of this same voluntarist position, one theistic and one non-theistic, can be formulated. Since there is no order in nature, we cannot go to nature to find out what we or things are. The only meaning that they can have is the meaning we impose on them. We do not name what is there. We name what we want to be there.
This understanding includes the understanding of ourselves. If there is no God, then there can be no order to be found in the things that are not gods. What we know as “reason” is an instrument by which we can devise means to carry out what we want. We have a “right” to be what we want to be. The purpose of government is to provide us our “rights” which are dependent on our wills. Government imposes its will by using superior force to settle whatever conflicting “right” seems most inconvenient.
Allah, the god of Islam, is, like Hobbes’ Leviathan, considered to be a sovereign of pure will. He can will the opposite of what he willed yesterday. There is no reason why one thing follows from another. If we say that Allah cannot make evil to be good, we insult him by limiting his powers. Allah directly causes everything. There are no proper secondary causes whereby creatures, including ourselves, actually do something themselves. He can make what is wrong to be what is right. No natural cause exists in things. Allah’s will is the cause of every action, human and otherwise. Submission to this will is the purpose of religion and its worship. This is what history is about.
Reality as order in things
The second view of reality finds order in things. If there is order, likewise, this order must be intelligible. The human mind knows sensible things because man is a unity of mind and spirit. He was designed to know them. The human mind can know all that is. There is an order in God, in man, and in natural things. The purpose of man in the universe is first to know it, then to use if for his proper purposes. In this way he comes to know himself.
The world is more “world”, as it were, because man is in it. Neither man nor cosmos can explain itself as to why it exists in the first place. Both come ex nihilo. We know that things do not cause themselves to be. We each know that we are not the causes either of what-it-is-to-be-human or why I as a particular being exist as I am. The process by which we are born into the world is given to us, but it can be, and is, used either well or ill.
We need an explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. From nothing, nothing happens. The changes that we witness or cause in the world are modifications or improvements in what already exists. We can make things worse. We do not cause existence but find it already there.
The central problem that we need to face is thus: “What is the cause of existence?” “Why is there something rather than nothing?” “Why is this thing not that thing?” The principal power of our own intellects is the capacity to say, with Plato, that this thing is not that thing. Each thing is what it is. We can know things that are not ourselves. We name them. Indeed, the only way we can know ourselves is by knowing something that is not ourselves.
The only reason why we exist is that we are not someone else. We are only what we are. No one wants to be someone else. At first sight, this would seem to isolate us and cut us off from all else that is. But this is not the case because we also have minds. Our minds are capable of knowing all that is. In knowing, we become what is not ourselves. If we know something, we do not change it, but we do change ourselves. We can relate to others because we can know them. Indeed, because we are social and political beings, we find our fullness in our relation to others also, including our relation to the ultimate cause of being.
But man is more than just another being in nature. He is indeed in nature and has his own nature. But man was not created in the beginning to be merely man with a natural happiness. From the beginning, he was, each human person who has ever lived on this planet, to participate in the inner life of the Godhead. How to accomplish this end had to be told to him. This “telling” is what revelation is about. Once we understand that we are created for a transcendent end beyond our nature, we can explain why it is what we never find satisfaction even in the good and best of things in this world. To explain ourselves to ourselves, then, we need more than ourselves.
If this explanation of what we are and are intended to be was in fact given to us, it was not forced upon us. It was properly speaking given to us after the manner of a gift, as something we can reject. Were this not the case, we would not be free. And the key reason why we are introduced into the inner life of God, of what the Trinitarian Godhead is, is that we may receive and participate in the love that God is. One thing that is clear about love is that it cannot be coerced and still be what it is. There are consequences, to be sure, when we reject anyone’s love of us. The main consequence is that we will not know what was to be given to us.
So, let me conclude briefly.
One view of the world is based on a world that allows us freedom to do whatever we do because there is nothing greater to which we are ordered in our own being. In the end, our freedom means that we are ourselves utterly isolated from all else that is by our choices. The second view of reality is that the world really exists. It reveals an intrinsic order as do we in our physical and intelligent nature. All that is not ourselves is offered to us to be known.
Our being includes an end, a purpose, that points to our abidingness within the inner life of the Godhead. Both views of reality claim to be related to freedom. The first to whatever it is that we want, the second to whatever is. If there is drama in the universe, and there is, it is mainly about the view of the universe that the finite rational and willing being decides about the real truth of things.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.