I'm working my way through Lawrence Cahoone's 700-page anthology of postmodernism.
He starts the book out by excerpting key passages from writers who helped frame the modern mind, whose main gist, as I read Cahoone is: Modernity was obsessed with reasoning. Rationality. Empiricism: faith that science would bring us to the promise land (what CS Lewis referred to as “scientism”). The pre-postmodern writers are the building block of modernity that helped erect this modernist foundation, like Kant and Descartes.
And Condorcet. Condorcet! Yes! This moron was a pioneer of modernity, and he is the poster boy of the ridiculousness of secular progressivism. Through his faith in reason, he wrote, “Nature has set no term to the perfection of the human faculties.” “The perfectibility of man is truly indefinite.” He was also one of the earliest examples of the saying, “Revolutions eat their own.” He was a big fan of the French Revolution, but then it turned ugly. He was arrested and put in prison, where he died nine months later, presumably by suicide. And he apparently didn't even own an island with girl prostitutes.
He is one of the main “unconstrained visionaries” referenced in Thomas Sowell's excellent little book, A Conflict of Visions.
In A Conflict of Visions, he examines two diametrically opposed world visions: the unconstrained and the constrained. The unconstrained vision looks at the world as infinitely improvable. Things can always be made better. The constrained vision looks at the world as one of limitation. Whether due to original sin or simple human frailty, the constrained vision says, “We do the best we can, but we aren't great, so tread carefully.”
I would say that it's “liberal” and “conservative,” but that would be too simplistic . . . and entirely inadequate in today's political climate. For example: William Godwin is Sowell's posterboy of the unconstrained vision. (Godwin married Mary Wollstonecraft; their daughter was Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame.) Well, Godwin was an anarchist, a hero among many libertarians today, even though his anarchism was of the leftwing variety. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that he believed that, if all social controls as reinforced by government were eliminated, mankind would become perfect . . . which puts him in Sowell's unconstrained category, but not remotely a leftist by today's standards that wants to use government to confiscate wealth, build enormous social welfare programs, and enforce laws against hate speech. In fact, Godwin was against all coercive government. He was like a communist, wanting all men to give their excess to their fellow man, but without, you know, the socialists taking it, living sumptuously, slicing off a chunk for their croneys, before passing it out.
(Check out the William Godwin episode of Jeff Riggenbach's “The Libertarian Tradition,” an excellent series about libertarian thinkers. The Godwin episode came out on April 28, 2010. My summary of Godwin here doesn't do Riggenbach's presentation justice. They're also contained in two $3 e-books that you can buy at Amazon)
After Godwin, I gotta believe Condorcet is the unconstrained example that Sowell cites the most. Concorcet was an unconstrained believer to the max. He presumably had second thoughts while rotting away in prison, but in his earlier writings, he was “all in” when it came to the perfectibility of man.
And why was man's potential advancement unlimited? Reason. He had left “long periods of error” and is “capable of reasoning.”
And it's that faith-like trust in reason that postmodernism attacks. It asks, “How do you really know what you think you know?” Following on the structuralists, who taught that all our thoughts are framed by our language, and therefore our thoughts aren't really our thoughts but, rather, products of the structure we inhabit at this point in history or in this culture, they deconstructed language all together, concluding all is subjective and, because “truth” is only what we think it is, there is no objective truth, and if there is no objective truth, then there is nothing for reason to go to work on. So the whole Enlightenment faith in reason collapses.
Science? Bunk. Scientists build with tools provided by our structure. If the structure changed, if they were undertaking experiments in a different time or culture, the results would be different . . . or at least interpreted differently.
But Condorcet had unbounded faith in science. In fact, he was one of the first to jump on the idea of “social sciences,” an approach that would reduce/turn the humanities into a branch of empirical science.
Experts? Criminy. Anyone who has stepped into the bright sunlight of modernity knows we put more stock in experts than they're worth. Marshall McLuhan once described the expert's knowledge as a bright flashlight aimed directly at one's eyes. Many postmodernists agree. The expert “experts” in his time and culture.
But Condorcet? Hoodoggy: He thought truly enlightened philosophers are “strangers to ambition” and should dictate and control pretty much everything.
I doubt it's much of an exaggeration to say that, everything Condorcet stood for, postmodernism derides.
So that leaves us with an odd situation, as a Catholic.
Condorcet scorned the Church. Postmodernism scorns the Church . . . or heck, doesn't even think about it, since, in postmodernism's eyes, it would seem to be about as relevant as, say, Zoroastrianism or astrology.
But postmodernism scorns Condorcet's belief in reason.
The Catholic Church scorns Condorcet's belief in reason, always teaching there is a place for reason but also acknowledging that, ultimately, creation is a riddle, a paradox, that can't be solved because we are bound by reason . . . and therefore we need faith, grace, the mystical.
The Catholic Church has the constrained vision, big time, because it big time believes in original sin, and it has 2,000 years of history, dealing with human frailty, from parishioners to priests all the way up to popes themselves.
Is postmodernism in the constrained vision camp? I think it is. I know Thaddeus Russell thinks it is. If so, it's an ally, whether it wants to be or not.
Second Segment: Lightning Segments
I arrive late at last Friday's weekday Mass, just as they're finishing a short video presentation on the life of St. Francis de Sales. I was really disappointed that I arrive to late to hear it. I simply don't know much about him, except he wrote a spiritual classic called, An Introduction to the Devout Life.
At the prompting of many people over the past, say, 400 years, I bought and started reading it.
It turned into my own little Seinfeld episode.
Toward the beginning, he used the phrase “weave a little nose gay.”
I didn't even know what a noise gay was.
Turns out, it's the seventeenth century's version of Axe. The nose gay blocks out offensive odors, like me Axeing my office, much to the exasperation of the other people in my office and much of the county.
But it's such a fag term: “nose gay.” I couldn't get past it. Nose gay. Nose gay. Weave a little nose gay.
Reasonable me said, “Eric, come on. It's a spiritual classic. Keep reading.”
Larry David me said, “Nope, he said 'nose gay.' I'm not reading any more.”
Reasonable me: “You're being a moron. It may not even be an accurate translation, and besides, it's a metaphor surely. Figure it out.”
Larry David me: “Yeah, a translation from the French. You're not helping your argument. A French gay saying 'weave a little nose gay.' I'd rather read Mein Kampf.”
And on and on.
I had forgotten all about it until I walked into Mass and saw the tail end of that video about St. Francis de Sales.
And it hit me.
Four hundred years before cognitive science explained negativity bias, St. Francis de Sales was on it.
Studies suggest negative thoughts are possibly three times stronger than positive ones. We pay attention to negative thoughts because they're mentally easier to attend to. We naturally slide into them.
It's up to you to stop it. You're the only one that can.
Weave a little nose gay.
Spray Axe up your nose.
Keep the odors of bad thoughts out.
How many thoughts do we have in a day? 50? 10,000? Beats me.
But I bet that, for the untrained/undisciplined mind, the vast majority are negative.
And let's admit it: The vast majority of those are going to be hypotheticals, imaginations, mental concoctions . . . things that are unreal. The “What ifs” (my specialty), the “He doesn't like me,” the “Why didn't this happen?” Etc and negative etc.
Of those unreal negatives, the vast majority never come true or were no reason to worry: “He didn't call because he was at his dying grandmother's bedside.”
Of those that are real, for the vast majority, there's nothing you can do about it. “Correct. He really doesn't like you.” “Why?” “Because he's an asshole or an unreasonable drunk. There's nothing you can do about it.”
So what does that leave you? Out of, say, 200 negative thoughts in a day, only 12 are real, and of those 12, only one can be prevented or mitigated by acting on it. So may Â½ of 1% of negative thoughts merit attention, and it's really hard to know which one it is . . . plucking a negative straw out of the proverbial haystack of shit.
But if my younger mind, the one that thought it was a sign of mental toughness to grapple with negative thoughts, is indicative of other young minds, those numbers are probably pretty freakin' close.
Stop it. It's simply not worth it.
Weave a little nose gay and block out the smells of that smelly haystack of bad thoughts.