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Archive for the ‘Western Civilization’ Category

Session Three: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Arts & Letters, Eastern Civilizaton, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Teaching, Western Civilization on March 8, 2017 at 6:45 am

Here, in the third lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses the origins of agriculture to the First River (Valley Civilizations, 8000-1500 B.C.E. Part II).

Session Two: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Arts & Letters, Eastern Civilizaton, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Scholarship, Teaching, Western Civilization on February 8, 2017 at 6:45 am

Here, in the second lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses the origins of agriculture to the first river (Valley Civilizations, 8000-1500 B.C.E. Part I).


Session One: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Arts & Letters, Eastern Civilizaton, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Scholarship, Teaching, Western Civilization on February 1, 2017 at 6:45 am

Here, Richard Bulliet of Columbia University delivers the first lecture in his course, The History of the World. Throughout 2017 and 2018, I will post subsequent lectures from this course. Session One is an introduction to World History.

Free Exchange with Dr. Donald Livingston of Emory University

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Economics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Southern History, The South, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 18, 2017 at 6:45 am

In 2014, Dr. Donald Livingston sat for an interview for “Free Exchange,” a program of the John W. Hammond Institute for Free Enterprise at Lindenwood University.  The interview appears below. Dr. Livingston is Professor Emeritus in the Philosophy Department at Emory University, President of the Abbeville Institute, and Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

Cornel West and Robert P. George Discuss the Liberal Arts

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Ethics, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 4, 2017 at 6:45 am

Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Robert P. George discussed the purpose of a liberal arts education at a forum of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, November 30, 2016.  AEI Visiting Fellow Ramesh Ponnuru moderated the discussion, which appears in the video below.

Part Three: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, America, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 23, 2016 at 6:45 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.


AM:  James Seaton is a good friend.  He and I began corresponding roughly a decade ago, and we first met in person about six years ago at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Michigan.  His edition of Santayana had just come out with Yale University Press, and he was there to give a lecture on it.  Seaton opens his essay for your volume with the following sentence:  “Neither Henry James nor George Santayana were active participants in the politics of their time.”  Don’t you think there’s something inherently conservative in this very distance from one’s own cultural and political moment?  I’m thinking of Kirk’s admonition that conservatism is about the rejection of ideology. 

MZ:  It was actually James Seaton who, some time ago, in an innocuous but characteristically trenchant review of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism published in The Weekly Standard, provided for me the framework for thinking deeply about literature’s authenticity and its exploitation by postmodern criticism. I very regrettably lacked a lot of exposure to more traditional approaches to literature and, while I instinctively eschewed the most obscure theoretics, I remained unaware that the critic could do more than scamper around the edges of territory claimed by Jürgen Habermas and Paul de Man. To Kirk’s point, I think I had always rejected the ideology – I just wasn’t fully aware that there might be a viable alternative to it.

I do think there is something to be said for one’s distance from the cultural and political moment. The conservative disposition doesn’t really lend itself well to the act of politics, and this is perhaps why conservatives have been consistently rolled in nearly every public debate over culture for the last half-century. Being always on the defensive and lacking the language to explain the intuitive – Lee Harris calls this the “visceral code” – puts the conservative at a rhetorical, if not moral, disadvantage. For me, the everyday analogy to Seaton’s statement is the conservative tendency to focus on the admittedly prosaic underpinnings of civic life – largely the familial and the associational. As we are witnessing with the ever-increasing presence of the state in the daily lives of individuals, the absence of participation in politics by those whose disposition might be called “conservative” is conspicuous.

AM:  I remember where I was when I read Seaton’s review that you mention. In his book Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism, in the context of remarks about E. D. Hirsch, he says that “’[c]ultural literacy’ would be particularly valuable for those now termed the ‘culturally disadvantaged’ in achieving individual economic mobility,” and he adds that the “spread of cultural literacy would also promote political democracy, since discussion can only take place on the basis of at least some shared assumptions and common vocabulary.”  Do you agree with this?

 MZ: I would agree wholeheartedly. There has been much invested, however, in facilitating a kind of cultural amnesia. Some of it has been inadvertent, but much of it has not. As reflexive relativism has taken hold, any semblance of commonality has been superseded by historical moral equivalencies. Consequently, we are left with little more than recriminations and collective guilt. Western culture perhaps has much to atone for, but past transgressions cannot be the sole basis for self-definition. There just may be certain shared values and traditions that could serve as the basis for a common culture and a source of pride, but it is often more expedient to assign particular beliefs and behaviors to discrete and easily identifiable groups.

This may be cynical, but I think there is much to be gained politically – the recent election notwithstanding – from the veneration of difference. I’m not sure the individual is or ever has been truly dignified when human worth is either enhanced or degraded by how that individual is situated during any given cultural moment. It is difficult to argue that this is not what is happening now, at least to some degree. Perhaps by expanding our very narrow conceptions of diversity, we would have a much greater chance of constructive dialogue, which might then enact a more conscientious effort to promote this notion of cultural literacy. The deliberately false promise that multiculturalism is the surest path to unity and a common, mutual understanding has generated much confusion and it has, against its fundamental premise, created self-defeating forms of tribalism. The multiculturalist program has sought to validate rather than engage and evaluate global cultures, and its underside has been the raw factionalizing that consumes so much public discourse.

AM:  It is interesting and bothersome to see how multiculturalism has degenerated into a monolithic orthodoxy, which is by its very form and function against diversity, not for it.  I wonder what would happen if we exposed more students to political theory in the vein of Michael Polanyi of F. A. Hayek, thinkers whose intelligence and theoretical sophistication have to be taken seriously by those who study literary theory and criticism.  The forms of devolution and subsidiarity advocated by these men might provide challenges to the prevailing consensus among many students and teachers in English departments about the kind of ideas motivating certain figures on the right.

 MZ:  I do believe that radical multiculturalism militates against diversity, and in this regard the university has failed in one of its stated core missions. The failure to cultivate an inclusive campus community has been made evident not only by civil disobedience and other visible forms of unrest, but also by the imposition of predictable bureaucratic programs aimed at solving problems that the administrative bureaucracy has itself made worse. Obsessing about difference and instituting special privileges for certain groups, and then pontificating about equality just seems disingenuous. Current narratives on race as well as the devaluing of our common culture have been toxic for the university, as a lot of students, I think rightly, feel as though justice in this context is punitive. If there is any palpable hostility to the learning process or to intellectual climate on today’s typical campus, perhaps we as the academy should look inward rather than to historical prejudices that we can conveniently circle back to after having tried to address all of them through administrative means and a thoroughly politicized curriculum.

Moreover, as politics has regrettably become a proxy for character, even reasoned opposition to progressive ideals, particularly on the campus, is delegitimized and discounted as having been informed by sinister motives. I argue in the book that too often conservative ideas are either ignored by their critics or deliberately distorted so as to identify an enemy against which the social justice war may be fought. There is ample evidence of this, and I hesitate to identify any one event or episode to draw conclusions. Yet I recently find myself coming back to a video passed along to me that recorded the Young Americas Foundation at the University of Kansas being aggressively confronted at one of their meetings by protesters. What strikes me in that video is that the person behind the camera seems to be officiating the ensuing debate, commenting on and critiquing every gesture or utterance made by members of the YAF group, essentially flagging them for violations of rules to which they never agreed. The concept of civil discourse is applied so lopsidedly that only one set of ideas is allowed to prevail. I think this is by design, even though, as you suggest, a serious consideration of conservative ideas and philosophies would broaden minds and better prepare us all for the responsibilities of civic life.

AM:  Do you worry about our habits of reading in our technological and digital age?  I recall Harold Bloom once saying that we all read “against the clock.”  Readers of the Bible, he says, read with more urgency than, say, readers of Shakespeare, but there’s always the problem of the limitations of time: Life just isn’t long enough for us to read everything worth reading.  Thinking about that has sometimes led me into a feeling of existential angst, especially after I spent a few years on a self-imposed reading diet that included the consumption of a canonical work from Western Civilization per week.  When I finished the program each year, I was distraught at how little I’d actually read.  I’m concerned that we’re wasting a lot of precious time reading texts that just aren’t that fulfilling or edifying. 

MZ:  The reading project you describe is an ambitious one. I merely committed to reading a page of Waugh every day this year, and I couldn’t even do that. On a related note, a current depressing irony for me is that I have volume I of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time sitting on my shelf, and I have spent precious minutes staring at it, wondering if I could actually ever get through all 7 volumes. There are a lot of reasons for our society’s detachment from literature, and reading has definitely been made very difficult in the digital age. The sheer amount of available information is daunting, and it has led to a frenetic search for the quick, easy, and thereby ungratifying.

I think, though, that while the internet has shifted our ability to focus and perhaps even changed how our brains process information, it has also caused a loss of discipline. It appeals to human nature to swipe to the next task if something becomes intellectually difficult, and this is made almost compulsory by technology, especially for those young people who have been immersed in it almost literally from day 1. Maybe I’m just projecting, though. I struggle with it as well, and I also find myself often wondering, in this day and age of always needing to be busy, how much we all might benefit from slowing down and reading a little Austen.

AM:  This has been a fun interview for me.  One last question: are you working on any projects right now that readers should know about?

MZ:  Thanks, Allen, for the opportunity to talk with you. I have enjoyed it as well. I have shifted my research focus a bit from literature toward the state of the university more generally. Editing Literature and the Conservative Ideal prompted much thought about the future of higher education and the increasing importance of broad-mindedness on the campus.

I am currently editing a collection for Rowman & Littlefield tentatively titled Remaking the University: Liberal Learning, the West, and the Revival of American Higher Education. I am also in discussions to publish a separate volume entitled Defending the West: Finding Culture and Common Humanity in the Postmodern Age. Both books seek to build on a long tradition of support for free expression and the pursuit of truth as well as Western culture’s influence on both. After our discussion, though, I am realizing I might need to just be doing a bit more reading.

AM:  We all need that.  Thanks for the interview, Mark.

Part Two: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 16, 2016 at 7:00 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

AM:  In your essay “Conservatism, Liberal Education, and the Promise of the Humanities,” one of two essays you contributed to the edition, you state, “There is a broader philosophical conflict at hand between the very principle of academic freedom, encompassing the rights of individuals to engage in scholarly inquiry and espouse contrarian views, and policies currently governing campus discourse.”  What do you mean by this?

MZ: Quite simply, the state of campus discourse is, by its very essence, incompatible with the rights of faculty – and students themselves – to engage in the search for truth. When conduct, particularly verbal conduct, can be reported and penalized through mechanisms designed to “protect” students, we might sense that something much greater is afoot. If such fundamental rights as speech and due process are curtailed – as I feel they have systematically been on today’s campus – then we are no longer interested in educating an informed and responsible citizenry. The great irony in this is that even as faculty and administrators maintain the conceit that students must confront dissonant viewpoints, the viewpoints that qualify are limited and selective. Therefore, I think the fear of faculty to approach teaching or research from a conservative angle, or even to introduce conservative arguments in the context of intellectual debate, is very real. Some things are better left unsaid, especially when tenure, promotion, or funding are on the line.

On the other hand, the concept of academic freedom has been so narrowed as to apply almost exclusively to members of the faculty. The dearth of conservative faculty in the humanities and social sciences makes it difficult to determine the degree to which this privilege might be invoked as a defense against charges of offending progressive student sensibilities. The case of Marquette professor John McAdams that I discuss in the book is not promising. It is fortuitous that the demands of students to be protected from certain ideas are often in harmony with the ideological makeup of the faculty. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the freedom claimed by a largely progressive professoriate is not afforded to the student body, which labors more under the onerous regulations governing speech and conduct.

Aside from being able to report the utterance of harmful words, students have very little stake in academic freedom’s fundamental premise, and their rights have ceased to be part of the conversation on classroom conduct. I don’t count the imposition of trigger warnings and the creation of safe spaces as really striking a blow for freedom or the intellectual pursuit. Faculty might be able to proselytize under the banner of academic freedom, but students have little recourse when scholarly inquiry descends into partisan demagoguery. It speaks volumes that today’s campus will often charge conservative student groups for added security at their events in anticipation of disruption and unrest. The campus in this case is refusing to guarantee what is essentially the safety of free expression. It has been said that the greatest beneficiaries of a political and ideological monoculture are conservative students, who are consistently challenged to refine their arguments and confront opposing viewpoints. But that’s perhaps little compensation when those arguments are preemptively dismissed and delegitimized by an institution unwilling to entertain them. Some critics have been ambivalent about either the extent of curricular politicization that exists on today’s campus or its impact on students. I don’t think either can be overstated.

AM:  The question I hear a lot—and in different contexts—is “what can be done?”  Do you have an answer to that question in light of what you’ve just said? 

MZ:  To answer that important question I would probably qualify some rejections to otherwise bad ideas. Federal funding should not be tied to the amount of money students can be expected to earn upon graduation. However, at some point students must be expected to see some material returns from the meteoric rise of tuition and administrative costs. We have seen an intense regulatory push directed exclusively at for-profit colleges over the last eight years. The question of value in higher education is a good one, and perhaps it shouldn’t only be asked of these for-profits.

Also, while the idea has been floated, I do not believe in any kind of affirmative action for conservative professors. However, departments conspicuously lacking in conservative faculty members might take steps to acknowledge the intellectual costs of such insularity and promote viewpoint diversity, a concept propounded by groups like Heterodox Academy, the National Association of Scholars, and the John William Pope Center. These are not conservative organizations but rather ones that care deeply about the state of discourse on today’s campus and how it adversely affects learning.

Furthermore, while we must heed Michael Oakeshott’s warning not to “suspend conversationality for a politicizing counterrevolution,” a more robust rejection of identity’s preeminent place in in the classroom might restore some dignity to the learning process. It is not atypical for composition students, for example, to be assigned anthologies that are promoted as much for the racial, ethnic, and gender identifications of their authors as the dynamism of their prose or the enduring legacy of their ideas. No doubt many of the essays in these collections are worth modeling and are deserving of study, but not because of predetermined genetic variables. Having students read essays by Max Beerbohm, John Ruskin, or Evelyn Waugh – all the while ignoring their “privilege” – might inadvertently put the focus of the class on prose style, rhetoric, and stylistic precision.

Finally, it should remain up to students to choose their colleges carefully. There are a lot of alternative institutions that have placed the pursuit of knowledge above all else. The market for this kind of place is strong, and those charged with administering higher education could do very well to take notice.

AM:  At one point in the book you mention a “multicultural canon.”  I’m interested in this phrase because I’m interested in canonicity and the idea that there are certain works that are more influential and important than others within a given tradition, and even that certain traditions may produce works that are more influential and important than works produced by other traditions.  You often here people dismiss the idea of a canon but urge the reading of certain texts.  It seems that any support for a program of reading necessarily entails a view of the canon, however different that might be from prevailing consensus.  At a time when English departments are struggling to maintain stable and uniform curricula, and the notion of a canon has become unpopular, what does it mean for a work to be canonical? 

MZ:  While the idea of a canon has become unpopular, it still exists in every department that embraces the multicultural ethos of the university. And it is equally as narrow as the one it sought to replace and far more intransigent. Like so many revolutions, the spirit of canon reform was swept away by a radical zeal to destroy foundations necessary for, in this case, literature’s survival as part of a college curriculum. To me, literature is universal and it has the potential to speak to a common humanity. In short, it should be valued for its own sake and for its cultural status as an expression of artistic endeavor. It has intrinsic value, and its success lies in part on historical continuity – on its relationship to what came before it. In the book, I mention T.S. Eliot’s “historical sense,” the idea that tradition must be defended against forces that would destroy it out of hand. I think that in many ways this has happened. Today’s literature has become so balkanized as to render impossible the continuance of any sort of shared cultural value system. To that point, I would also argue that an English curriculum consisting predominantly of identity-based literature (African-American, Native American, Women’s, Latinx, etc.) can in no real way be considered diverse. As it is, those who might turn to literature for the truth it tells, for its contemplation of ideas, or for its linguistic execution have been in retreat.

I’m not sure anyone would make the case that the traditional canon was never fluid or that it hasn’t contained glaring omissions. It has, and they should be rectified. But whereas critics in the past denounced the traditional canon as the product of “institutional tastemaking,” today’s demands for courses that aim to represent some unique, singular experience are guilty of the same thing. A canon is necessarily foundational. It isn’t, however, necessarily exclusionary, and an inclusive canon should be exactly that. This is a very long way of saying that a canonical work might be one that embodies an idea or an epoch, or one that masterfully portrays the psychological depth of a character in crisis. There are many divergent opinions as to this question, and I don’t consider myself an authority. But my vision is this: surely others have treated the same subjects as, say, Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison, and Saul Bellow. We just have to be able to say that few have perhaps done it better. The reader may take his (or her) pick as to what authors deserve special consideration. The point is that the literature’s function and its success as a work of art are what we consider first and foremost. I think that case can be made, and reinforcing the idea of great literature – asserting its very existence – may benefit our discipline greatly.

AM:  If a student were to ask you for 10 writers you believed every person must read before he or she dies, who would they be?

MZ:  This is a question every literature person longs for, and at the risk of inevitably short-changing some, here is my list, in absolutely no particular order: Ernest Hemingway, George Eliot, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Hardy, Saul Bellow, and Vladamir Nabakov.


Part Three coming soon….

Part One: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 9, 2016 at 6:45 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.


AM:  Thank you for this interview, Mark.  Your recent edition is titled Literature and the Conservative Ideal.  What, in your view, is the conservative ideal?

MZ:  In my mind the conservative ideal reflects what Michael Oakeshott calls a “disposition” rather than something that can be expressed by a singular identifiable creed. Nevertheless, I would say that it is in many ways an intuitive and practical view of the world, one that privileges human freedom, acknowledges a common humanity, and maintains a healthy regard for the accumulated wisdom of ages.

In today’s context, it is also uniquely defined by what it is not, since the very idea of an intellectual conservatism is often met with condescension or, perhaps in some cases, preemptive disdain. This invariably reflects a reductive and fundamental – and often deliberate – misunderstanding. Contra its critics, the conservative ideal does not demand a blind allegiance to the status quo, nor does it entail uncritical nostalgia for some heroic past. Such willful obtuseness I think would have its present-day parallel in the relentless deconstruction of nearly everything that we as citizens in a liberal democracy have taken for granted.

It is too easy to characterize the conservative disposition as a product of an unenlightened past or, more nefariously, deep-rooted prejudices. The destruction of a civil order grown out of its past has become reflexive and impulsive, and there is seldom any careful reflection as to what, practically speaking, a society unmoored from its historical roots will look like. Thus, the conservative ideal is grounded in the enduring presence of civilizational standards that, while not immune to scrutiny or change, are nevertheless prerequisites for a stable and ordered society.

Of course, as an intellectual exercise, it is more difficult, or at least less exciting, to make a case against earthly utopias, particularly when they have been peddled as some moral zenith. In a word, the conservative ideal encompasses a respect for the past and a deep skepticism for any social innovations that might jeopardize its influence on what may rightly be called culture.

AM:  After the turf wars over canon and curriculum in the 1980s and 1990s, did any expositors of the conservative ideal come out alive? 

MZ:  There have indeed been some survivors, but the side was badly damaged. As English departments became wholly owned subsidiaries of the multicultural program, literature became simply one more vehicle through which victimization and oppression became the sole standard for assigning value.

The study of literature as an artistic endeavor, one subject to critical judgment and the recognition of a work’s place within literary history, was supplanted by the idea that value is situational and that any search for truth or beauty must necessarily be futile. The most significant casualties of the English turf wars have been works of the West, useful now only for their iteration of or complicity in historical cruelties.

Unfortunately, approaches to literature that privilege the text over the identity of its author or characters have become associated with political conservatism, itself a byproduct of the contemporary university’s tendency to hold politics as an individual’s highest calling. Thus, when it comes to literary criticism, a conservative ideal has less to do with promoting certain ideologies than with a dispassionate return to literature as a form of high art. Doubly unfortunate, and perhaps a bit ironic, is that as students of English literature continue to flock to other areas of study, we in the field have doubled-down on curricular approaches that are now not only stale but increasingly obsolete.

AM:  Can anything be done to save the field at this point, or is it doomed for failure? I realize these are strong words, and perhaps premature, but there do seem to be trends and data that suggest that at least English departments will face serious budgetary and enrollment problems in the years to come.

MZ:  Yes, I suppose we shouldn’t be too fatalistic at this point, even though in many cases the situation is nearing critical. I don’t much doubt that English departments will continue to exist, and perhaps even thrive, in the future. They just might have to take on a new identity, as it were. It might ultimately be fortuitous that as fewer people read, the less aptitude there seems to be for writing well. Thus, the rise of professional writing programs and the continuance of rudimentary instruction in composition may throw us a lifeline.

Departments have not, for the most part, adapted to the current climate. In some regard, there will always be a case for literature’s place within the educational landscape, and we should not stop making it. I completely sympathize with certain laments over the decline of literature and the humanities more broadly, indicated, as you suggest, by certain unpropitious trends. Many of them I will grant fall outside of our purview.

I think the liberal arts, even in their purest form, are threatened by the credentialist attitude currently infusing higher education. In addition, the heavy emphasis on STEM fields in primary and secondary education, combined with the turn toward “fact-based” texts, is both a capitulation to market demands and a nod to the reality that slow reading as an intrinsically rewarding enterprise can’t compete in the digital world.

So, despite our own malfeasance, there are certainly many other cultural trends causing our decline. Though I cannot help thinking how the complete dominance of Theory within literary criticism over the last number of decades has left would-be readers wondering how a text can possibly be relevant to their personal lives or how it might provide insights into the human condition. This is to say nothing of how that text might not be so predictably subservient to the social and cultural forces that informed it.

AM:  You mention this in your introduction, but for the sake of readers of the blog, I’ll ask how you chose the contributors to this edition.  

It wasn’t until well after graduate school that I encountered intellectual viewpoints from within my discipline that were congenial to both my own political predilections and my preferred approach to literature. The idea that these could coexist, or even work in concert, hadn’t really occurred to me. I remember feeling somewhat liberated by the presence of literary scholars in opinion and public affairs journals that I avidly read. I realized that while scholarship had its place, questions surrounding the study of literature and its implications for our culture deserved a place in a much wider realm of ideas. In a way, I found an intellectual home outside of the university, which, in my case, proved salutary.

The roster for Literature and the Conservative Ideal was assembled by individual cold calling. I had compiled a fairly short list of scholars whose work I had come across in these popular venues and who I thought might at least be able to consider conservatism’s role in literary study as well as its various formulations in selective literary works. The response to my initial proposal was very positive, and I remain infinitely grateful to the contributors for their generosity.

What I have come to understand over the years is that genuine concern over the state of literature today is not bounded by party affiliations or directed by a singular ideological framework. As I mention in the book, personal politics did not figure in discussions with contributors, nor did I harbor any assumptions about them. I think it is a testament to dispassionate scholarship and the contributors’ dedication to their craft that the volume came together the way that it did.

AM:  What critics do you consider representative of the conservative tradition?

MZ:  I think in this case it is once again useful to detach what might be considered a conservative approach to literature from the more freighted use of the term in a distinctly political context. In so doing, a critic such as Lionel Trilling, known for his oft-repeated equation of conservatism with “irritable mental gestures,” might be classified as an exemplar of a conservative literary tradition. His emphasis on literature as an embodiment of culture cut against the grain of scholarship that valued texts primarily for their reflection of bourgeois society. Close reading and moral judgment are at the center of Trilling’s critiques, and his skepticism of a literature that “pets and dandles its underprivileged characters” might be sustained as a rebuke to today’s critical environment.

Writing also in what might be called the conservative tradition is of course F.R. Leavis, whose concern for literature’s essential role within civilized life is discussed by Thomas Jeffers in the book. I would also include T.S. Eliot and other contributors to Scrutiny, a publication whose critical acumen and attention to literature’s artistic expression is in many ways lacking today. It is, however, still found in the pages of such eminent publications as Commentary, the Claremont Review of Books, The New Criterion, and others. So, as readers of The Literary Lawyer are keenly aware, the humanistic tradition, which stands athwart today’s prevailing postmodernist ethos, is very much alive. It just isn’t generally in vogue in those places where literature is taught.


Part Two coming soon….

Deidre McCloskey and the Enrichment of the World

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Creativity, Economics, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Property, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 26, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The following excerpt is adapted from my review of Deirdre McCloskey’s book Bourgeois Equality; the original review, which appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, is available here.

If it’s true that Wayne Booth inspired Deirdre McCloskey’s interest in the study of rhetoric, then it’s also true—happily, in my view—that McCloskey has refused to mimic Booth’s programmatic, formulaic methods and boorish insistence on prosaic succinctness. Bourgeois Equality is McCloskey’s third volume in a monumental trilogy that began with The Bourgeois Virtues (2006) and Bourgeois Dignity (2010), each published by the University of Chicago Press. This latest volume is a Big Book, alike in kind but not in theme to Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence (2000), Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae (1990), or Herald Berman’s Law and Revolution (1983) and Law and Revolution II (2006). It’s meandering and personal, blending scholarship with an essayistic style that recalls Montaigne or Emerson.

McCloskey’s elastic arguments are shaped by informal narrative and enlivened by her plain and playful voice. At times humorous, rambling, and deliberately erratic, she gives the distinct impression that she’s simply telling a story, one that happens to validate a thesis. She’s having fun. Imagine Phillip Lopate articulating economic history. McCloskey is, in this regard, a latter-day Edward Gibbon, adopting a mode and persona that’s currently unfashionable among mainstream historians, except that she’s more lighthearted than Gibbon, and unashamedly optimistic.

Writing with an air of confidence, McCloskey submits, contra Thomas Piketty, that ideas and ideology—not capital accumulation or material resources—have caused widespread economic development. Since 1800, worldwide material wealth has increased and proliferated; the quality of life in poor countries has risen—even if it remains unequal to that of more prosperous countries—and the typical human being now enjoys access to the food, goods, services, medicine, and healthcare that, in earlier centuries, were available to only a select few in the richest parts of the globe. The transition from poverty to wealth was occasioned by shifting rhetoric that reflected an emerging ethical consensus. The rhetorical-ethical change involved people’s “attitudes toward other humans” (p. xxiii), namely, the recognition of shared experience and “sympathy,” as Adam Smith stated in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Attributing human progress to ideas enables McCloskey to advocate the norms and principles that facilitated economic growth and social improvement (e.g., class mobility and fluidity) while generating extensive prosperity. Thus, her project is at once scholarly and tendentious: a study of the conditions and principles that, in turn, she promotes.

She argues that commercialism flourished in the eighteenth century under the influence of ideas—such as “human equality of liberty in law and of dignity and esteem” (p. xxix)—that were packaged in memorable rhetoric and aesthetics. “Not matter, mainly, but ideas” caused the Great Enrichment (p. 643). In other words, “[t]he original and sustaining causes of the modern world […] were ethical, not material,” and they included “the new and liberal economic idea of liberty for ordinary people and the new and democratic social idea of dignity for them” (p. xxxi). This thesis about liberty and dignity is clear and unmistakable if only because it is repetitive. McCloskey has a habit of reminding readers—in case you missed her point the first, second, or fifty-seventh time around—that the causes of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Enrichment were ideas, not “narrowly economic or political or legal changes” (p. 470). She maintains, to this end, that the Scottish Enlightenment succeeded in combining the concepts of liberty and dignity into a desirable form of equality—not equality of outcomes, of course, but of opportunity and treatment under the law. And the Scottish model, to her mind, stands in contradistinction to the French example of centralized, top-down codification, command, planning, and design.

A perennial villain lurks in the pages of her history: the “clerisy,” which is an “appendage of the bourgeoisie” (p. 597) and often dubbed “the elite” in regular parlance. McCloskey calls the clerisy “the sons of bourgeois fathers” (p. xvii) and “neo-aristocratic” (p. 440). The clerisy includes those “artists, intellectuals, journalists, professionals, and bureaucrats” who resent “the commercial and bettering bourgeoisie” (p. xvi). The clerisy seeks, in different ways at different times, to extinguish unfettered competition with exclusive, illiberal, irrevocable grants and privileges that are odious to free society and offensive to the rights of average consumers. “Early on,” says McCloskey, referring to the period in Europe after the revolutionary year 1848, “the clerisy began to declare that ordinary people are misled in trading, and so require expert protection and supervision” (p. 609). The clerisy since then has been characterized by paternalism and a sense of superiority.

Because the clerisy is shape-shifting, assuming various forms from time to time and place to place, it’s a tough concept to pin down. The word “clerisy” does not appear in the book’s index to permit further scrutiny. By contrast, McCloskey’s general arguments are easy to follow because the book is separated into parts with questions as their titles; subparts consisting of onesentence headings answer those questions.

In a massive tour de force such as this, readers are bound to take issue with certain interpretive claims. Historians will find McCloskey’s summaries to be too breezy. Even libertarians will accuse her of overlooking manifest wrongs that occurred during the periods she surveys. My complaints are few but severe. For instance, McCloskey is, I believe, either careless or mistaken to announce that, during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, “under the influence of a version of science,” in a territory that’s never specifically identified, “the right seized upon social Darwinism and eugenics to devalue the liberty and dignity of ordinary people, and to elevate the nation’s mission above the mere individual person, recommending, for example, colonialism and compulsory sterilization and the cleansing power of war” (p. xviii).

Let’s hope that it’s innocent negligence rather than willful distortion that underlies this odd, unqualified, categorical assertion. Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles (2016) and Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers (2016) describe how, in the United States, social Darwinism and eugenics were adopted primarily, though not exclusively, by the Left, not the Right. These recent books come on the heels of several scholarly treatments of this subject: Thomas M. Shapiro’s Population Control Politics (1985), Philip R. Reilly’s The Surgical Solution (1991), Joel Braslow’s Mental Ills and Bodily Cures (1997), Wendy Kline’s Building a Better Race (2001), Stefan Kuhl’s The Nazi Connection (2002), Nancy Ordover’s American Eugenics (2003), Christine Rosen’s Preaching Eugenics (2004), Christina Cogdell’s Eugenic Design (2004), Gregory Michael Dorr’s Segregation’s Science (2008), Paul A. Lombardo’s edition A Century of Eugenics in America (2011), and Alexander Minna Stern’s Eugenic Nation (2016). These represent only a small sampling.

Is McCloskey unware of these texts? Probably not: she reviewed Leonard’s book for Reason, although she did so after her own book reached press. At any rate, would she have us believe that Emma Goldman, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene Debs, Marie Stopes, Margaret Sanger, John Maynard Keynes, Lester Ward, and W. E. B. Du Bois were eugenicist agitators for the political Right? If so, she should supply her definition of “Right,” since it would go against commonly accepted meanings. On the matter of colonialism and war, self-identified members of the Old Right such as Albert Jay Nock, John Flynn, and Senator Robert Taft advocated precisely the opposite of what McCloskey characterizes as “Right.” These men opposed, among other things, military interventionism and adventurism. The trouble is that McCloskey’s muddying of the signifiers “Left” and “Right” comes so early in the book—in the “Exordium”— that readers may lose trust in her, question her credibility, and begin to suspect the labels and arguments in her later chapters.

Other undefined terms only make matters worse, ensuring that McCloskey will alienate many academics, who, as a class, are already inclined to reject her libertarian premises. She throws around the term “Romanticism” as if its referent were eminently clear and uncontested: “a conservative and Romantic vision” (p. xviii); “science fiction and horror fiction [are] … offshoots of Romanticism” (p. 30); “[Jane Austen] is not a Romantic novelist … [because] [s]he does not take Art as a model for life, and does not elevate the Artist to a lonely pinnacle of heroism, or worship of the Middle Ages, or adopt any of the other, antibourgeois themes of Novalis, [Franz] Brentano, Sir Walter Scott, and later Romantics” (p. 170); “Romanticism around 1800 revived talk of hope and faith and a love for Art or Nature or the Revolution as a necessary transcendent in people’s lives” (p. 171); “Romantic candor” (p. 242); “the late eighteenth-century Romantic literary critics in England had no idea what John Milton was on about [sic], because they had set aside the rigorously Calvinist theology that structured his poetry” (p. 334); “the nationalist tradition of Romantic writing of history” (p. 353); “Romantic … hostilities to … democratic rhetoric” (p. 510); “[i]n the eighteenth century … the idea of autonomy triumphed, at any rate among the progressive clerisy, and then became a leading Romantic idea, á la Victor Hugo” (p. 636); and “the Romantic conservative Thomas Carlyle” (p. 643).

To allege that the clerisy was “thrilled by the Romantic radicalism of books like Mein Kampf or What Is to Be Done” (p. xviii) is also recklessly to associate the philosophies of, say, Keats or Coleridge or Wordsworth with the exterminatory fantasies of Hitler and Lenin. McCloskey might have guarded against this misleading conflation by distinguishing German idealism or contextualizing Hegel or by being more vigilant with diction and definition. Her loose language will leave some experts (I do not profess to be one) scratching or shaking their heads and, more problematic, some non-experts with misconceptions and misplaced targets of enmity. One imagines the overeager and well-meaning undergraduate, having read Bourgeois Equality, setting out to demonize William Blake or destroy the reputation of Percy Shelly, about whom Paul Cantor has written judiciously.2 Wouldn’t originality, imagination, creativity, and individualism—widely accepted markers of Romanticism—appeal to McCloskey? Yet her unconditionally derogatory treatment of Romanticism—which she portrays as a fixed, monolithic, self-evident thing—undermines aspects of that fluctuating movement, period, style, culture, and attitude that are, or seem to be, consistent with her Weltanschauung.

But I protest too much. These complaints should not diminish what McCloskey has accomplished. Would that we had more grand studies that mapped ideas and traced influences across cultures, communities, and eras. McCloskey takes the long view, as we all should. Her focus on rhetoric is crucial to the future of liberty if, given the technological advances we have made, the “work we do will be more and more about decisions and persuading others to agree, changing minds, and less and less about implementation by hand” (p. 498). Equally significant is her embrace of humanomics—defined as “the story [of] a complete human being, with her ethics and language and upbringing” (p. xx)—which materializes in casual references to Henrik Ibsen’s plays, challenges to the depiction of John Milton “as a lonely poet in a garret writing merely to the starry heavens” (p. 393), analyses of Jane Austen’s novels, and portrayals of Elizabethan England. Her historical and narrative arc enables us to contextualize our own moment, with all of its troubles and possibilities.

Best of all, her book is inspiring and exhilarating and brimming with rousing imperatives and moving calls to action. “Let us, then,” she says at one point, “not reject the blessings of economic growth on account of planning or pessimism, the busybody if wellintentioned rationalism of some voices of the French Enlightenment or the adolescent if charming doubts of some voices of the German Romantic movement, fashionable though both attitudes have long been among the clerisy. As rational optimists, let us celebrate the Great Enrichment, and the rhetorical changes in freer societies that caused it” (p. 146). At another point she encourages her audience to guard against “both cynicism and utopianism” (p. 540), and elsewhere to heed “trade-tested cooperation, competition, and conservation in the right mix” (p. 523). These little nudges lend her credibility insofar as they reveal her true colors, as it were, and demonstrate that she is not attempting—as is the academic wont—to hide her prejudices and conceal her beliefs behind pretended objectivities.

Poverty is relative and, hence, permanent and ineradicable, despite McCloskey’s claim that we can “end poverty” (p. 8). If, tomorrow, we woke up and the wealth of each living person were magically to multiply twentyfold—even fiftyfold—there would still be people at the bottom. The quality of life at the bottom, however, would be vastly improved. The current manifestation of global poverty shows how far we as a species have advanced in the last few centuries. McCloskey is right: We should pursue the ideas that accelerated and achieved human flourishing, that demonstrably brought people out of distress and destitution. Hard sciences and mathematical models are insufficient in themselves to convey the magnitude and splendor of these ideas and their accomplishments. Hence we should welcome and produce more books like McCloskey’s that undertake a “rhetorical-ethical Revaluation” to both examine and celebrate “a society of open inquiry,” one which not only “depends on rhetoric in its politics and in its science and in its economy,” but which also yields intellectual creativity and political freedom (p. 650). In McCloskey’s approach, economics and the humanities are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are mutually illuminating and, in fact, indispensably and inextricably tied. An economics that forsakes the dignity of the human person and his capacity for creativity and aesthetics does so at its own peril and to its own disgrace. All economics is, at its core, humanomics. We could do without the latter term if we understood the former.


Barzun, Jacques. 2000. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. New York: HarperCollins.

Berman, Harold J. 1983. Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

——. 2006. Law and Revolution II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Braslow, Joel. 1997. Mental Ills and Bodily Cures: Psychiatric Treatment in the First Half of the Twentieth Century. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Cantor, Paul. 1997. “The Poet as Economist: Shelley’s Critique of Paper Money and the British National Debt,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 13, no. 1: 21–44.

Cantor, Paul, and Stephen Cox, eds. 2009. Literature and the Economics of Liberty. Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Cogdell, Christina. 2004. Eugenic Design. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cohen, Adam. 2016. Imbeciles. London: Penguin Press.

Dorr, Gregory M. 2008. Segregation’s Science. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press.

Kline, Wendy. 2001. Building a Better Race. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Kuhl, Stefan. 2002. The Nazi Connection. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leonard, Thomas C. 2016. Illiberal Reformers. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lombardo, Paul A. 2011. A Century of Eugenics in America. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

McCloskey, Deirdre. 2006. The Bourgeois Virtues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——. 2010. Bourgeois Dignity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ordover, Nancy. 2003. American Eugenics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Paglia, Camille. 1990. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Reilly, Philip R. 1991. The Surgical Solution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rosen, Christine. 2004. Preaching Eugenics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shapiro, Thomas M. 1985. Population Control Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Stern, Alexander Minna. 2016. Eugenic Nation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

The Unmeaning of Uneaning

In Arts & Letters, Bioethics, Books, Humanities, Science, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 19, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in Chronicles. 

A computer was the victor on a popular television game show, easily defeating its human competitors; an arms race is under way involving militarized robots that can take the battlefield in the place of inferior humans; in Japan, artificial-intelligence software has outperformed college applicants on a standardized college-entrance examination.

Our machines are becoming a part of us, one of us.  Manufactured retinas have restored sight to the blind; the maimed and the crippled have regained their limbs and appendages in the form of robotic prosthetics; brain implants have alleviated problems associated with Parkinson’s disease; a company called EmoShape manufactures robots that display human emotions, including anger and fear and sadness.

But where there is human flesh, even a simulacrum of human flesh, there is the potential for eros.  The 2013 film Her explored the possibility that humans will attempt romantic congress with computer operating systems, reducing love to an algorithm and human sex acts to masturbatory exchanges with disembodied, computerized voices.

We have created our own reproductive anatomy—lab-engineered penises and vaginas—that soon will be tested on men and women with congenital defects.  Men may now visit virtual-reality brothels.  A baby recently was born out of a transplanted womb.

We are building more robots and killing more human fetuses than ever before.  Luminaries like Stephen Hawking warn of the dangers of artificial intelligence; futurists, on the other hand, celebrate the rise of cyborgs and the arrival of transhumanism and even posthumanism.  Synthetic biologists are learning, they claim, to direct natural selection through gene therapy and cell manipulation.  Silicon Valley’s brightest have announced that they are seeking “cures” for human aging.

In light of all this, the question of the meaning of human existence seems more urgent than ever before.

Edward O. Wilson purports to answer this question in The Meaning of Human Existence, his 30th book.  Wilson is one of the world’s most renowned scientists.  He is by all accounts a gentleman who enunciates his words in a soft, Southern drawl.  Raised in Alabama, blind in one eye, he developed a boyhood fascination with insects that eventually led him to Harvard, where he took his Ph.D. in biology.  He earned his reputation by studying ants and by writing popular books that are accessible to laymen.  On Human Nature, his fourth book, won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1979.  He has, despite his atheism, drawn praise from conservative intellectuals.  In 1989, for instance, The Rockford Institute, which publishes this magazine, gave him the Richard M. Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters.

As titles go, Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence is bold if not presumptuous.  Works that set out to establish definitively the “meaning” of human life promise more than they can deliver.  First, there is the problem of meaning itself.  Thus, Wilson begins with a short chapter titled “The Meaning of Meaning,” which, not surprisingly, raises more questions than it answers.  The meaning of meaning, according to Wilson, resides in the blurry overlap between two worldviews: the theological and religious worldview that locates meaning in the design and intention of an omnipotent creator, and the scientific worldview that locates meaning in the random accidents of history and in the nondesigned, adaptive, spontaneously ordered laws of nature.  These worldviews are tenuously linked, Wilson suggests, in their treatment of human free will and intentionality.

Wilson claims, for example, that intelligent organisms evolve associatively to combine their intents and purposes for their mutual benefit; their behavior grows more alike over time as together they respond to environmental imperatives and learn to commiserate and to cooperate as a social unit.  What was once merely the mechanical firing of brain activity in individual persons has become a behavioral trait among groups of humans.  Wilson provides an arthropodic example:

A spider spinning its web intends, whether conscious of the outcome or not, to catch a fly.  That is the meaning of the web.  The human brain evolved under the same regimen as the spider’s web.  Every decision made by a human being has meaning in the first, intentional sense.  But the capacity to decide, and how and why the capacity came into being, and the consequences that followed, are the broader, science-based meaning of human existence.

Meaning itself is not identified in this illustration: Wilson does not tell us what it is, only where we might find it.  It’s up to us to do the searching.

Despite his prefatory lip service to theology and religion, Wilson adopts a materialist worldview, which seems, the more he describes it, less and less compatible with the theological and religious worldview, until at last there is no overlap at all.  Wilson tells us that there “is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life.  Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance.”  He assures us that the “eternal conflict” between groups of people “is not God’s test of humanity” or “a machination of Satan.”  “It is,” he says, “just the way things worked out.”

Wilson is convinced that humans are for the first time in their history (“not just the six millennia of civilization but very much further back, across hundreds of millennia”) leaving behind the process that, he claims, produced us—namely, natural selection—and entering into a new age of choice in which we have available to us a genetic “shopping list” to “direct our own evolution.”  He proposes that we understand our biological and evolutionary past in order wisely to shape our future.

One would think that a grounding in history or tradition would aid in satisfying this ambition, but Wilson makes clear that he is rejecting this kind of history and promoting a secular and scientific history that is not only stripped of providence, angelic intercession, heavenly statutes, and divine intervention but also antecedent to all written records.  “Humanity,” he avers to this end,

arose entirely on its own through an accumulated series of events during evolution.  We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own.  Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.

Tellingly, Wilson does not define what it means to “save” or what we need to be saved by or from if there is no God, Hell, sin, Satan, or transcendental moral order to the universe.  He is apparently content in his belief that “[t]here will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above.”  “We have,” he adds, “only this one planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold.”

To seek answers to the meaning of human existence from this secular perspective in which man isn’t begotten by Adam but descended from Homo habilis and improved from organism to super organism, Wilson could have turned to the ideas of Emerson or Nietzsche or Bertrand Russell or Einstein or Ayn Rand, philosophers enthralled by the awesome powers of the human mind and dismissive of the doctrinal claims of religion in general and of traditional Christianity in particular—but he doesn’t.  Nor, thank goodness, does he turn to the close-minded, militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins (who is mentioned in the book) and Sam Harris.  He instead turns to “the biological evolution of a species and the circumstances that led to its prehistory,” professing that both our altruism and our instinctive, selfish urge to cooperate are explainable by science, which, therefore, is necessarily antecedent to, although participatory with, the humanities.  Wilson’s problem with the humanities seems to be that they retain the residue of theology, which was once the queen of the liberal arts.

Because in Wilson’s view human creativity and collaboration are the inevitable products of the impersonal forces of raw nature, he considers the “task of understanding humanity” to be “too important and too daunting to leave to the humanities.”  He maintains that “the humanities have not achieved nor will they ever achieve a full understanding of the meaning of our species’ existence” if they do not account for the “biological origins of human nature.”  He reasons that, since human nature has biological origins, and since creativity arises through competition and natural selection, we ought to embrace the ideals of the Enlightenment in which the humanities and the sciences were unified enterprises rather than distinct fields of operation.

Wilson blames Romanticism for the divorce of the humanities from science; rather than irreconcilable differences, he sees in this former marriage a powerful synergy that has since grown weak as experts in their respective fields have become hyperspecialized, the division of their labor increasingly alienated from the Big Picture.  The fact of the matter, he submits, is that the “explosive growth of scientific knowledge” has “everything” to do with the humanities, because “[s]cience and technology reveal with increasing precision the place of humanity, here on Earth and beyond in the cosmos as a whole.”

The meaning of human existence according to Wilson is found not in what we have created but in what has created us: a self-perpetuating, unthinking process of biological production shaped by genetic variety and the instinct for survival, not by a benevolent Creator.  The dust jacket informs us that this is Wilson’s “most philosophical work to date.”  But what we have here is a meandering series of essays that display with exceptional style an accretive learning arrayed from scientific theory.  And we also have a man, however gentle and unassuming, making grandiose claims based on mere supposition—not a call to arms but a triumphalist celebration that the war is already over.  Science has won; religion has lost.  Any seeming contradiction between religion and science must, he insists, be resolved in favor of the latter; any potential overlap between the two fields must, he reiterates, be dismissed.  He thinks that religion hinders knowledge, holds us back, and distracts us from real truths by enslaving us to fancy and superstition.  And he’s wrong.

His secular perspective isn’t unique, and it isn’t philosophical, either—at least not without some analytical backing or historical context.  Wilson supplies neither; he submits as fact what is open to interpretation.  When Wilson informs us that there is no God, as if that “reality” were as established as the laws of gravity, he undermines his credibility and throws philosophy out the window.  No need for proofs, second guesses, theological nuances, or even doubt.  His scientific faith in the unprovable—although politely conveyed—is on equal footing with religious faith in the unprovable.  Wilson doesn’t reject faith; he embraces it.  His faith is evident in his speculations that are unsupported by hard data—for example, that “[b]eyond the solar system there is life of some kind” (he admits that he lacks “[d]irect evidence” for this proposition but suggests that the evidence “may come soon, perhaps within a decade or two”), or that “life may have originated somewhere with molecular elements different from those in DNA and energy sources used by organisms on Earth.”  These claims aren’t provable, yet he believes them.  This is faith in the most rudimentary sense.

One would think Wilson would be more cautious after relying for so many years on “kin selection and its extensive inclusive fitness,” only to learn that “inclusive fitness was not just wrong, but fundamentally wrong.”  Wilson nevertheless evinces not even a modicum of doubt regarding the possibility of a Creator.  He seems blithely unconcerned that, having been wrong about one major premise, he might be wrong about another.  What standing should we assign to someone who faces Pascal’s wager and refuses even to hedge a bet in his own favor?  He is either heroically bold or foolishly proud.

His faith is more rudimentary than that he decries in theism, which recognizes an infinite, sovereign God, eternal and unchanging, Who permeates and controls everything and from Whom all material substance derives.  Wilson’s faith comes across as plain hope about what we’ll learn if the sciences can accomplish this or that.  His diversionary hypothetical speculations about extraterrestrial visitors and about how the humanities (to him, “the natural history of culture”) rather than the sciences would help us explain ourselves to these saucer-flying aliens might seem as radical or absurd to Christians as the doctrine of the Trinity or the nature of the Holy Spirit might seem to an atheist like him.  When Wilson states that the “interval between habitable and inhabited may seem like an eternity to the human mind, but it is scarcely a night and a day in the nearly 14-billion-year history of the Milky Way galaxy as a whole,” he doesn’t seem to realize there’s a scriptural equivalent to this dictum: that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

Wilson’s hope about the knowledge-creating possibilities enabled by science sometimes collapses into optimistic but unprovable conclusions about what is real or actual; the distinction between what might be known and what is known remains, too often in his book, fuzzy.  He asserts without qualification that,

[i]n time, likely no more than several decades, we will be able to explain the dark matter of the Universe, the origin of life on Earth, and the physical basis of human consciousness during changes of mood and thought.  The invisible is seen, the vanishingly small weighed.

This is pep-rally speak for scientists, and one has to admit, whether he is an atheist or a theist, that such talk is exhilarating.  Who doesn’t want more answers to these vexing elements of our phenomenal existence?  But when the stakes are so high, and the need for resolution and purpose so urgent, should we believe without hesitation a scientist who refuses to doubt his own suppositions, who goes far beyond rejecting the Genesis account of Creation to deny the possibility of any sort of creator altogether?

By the end of Wilson’s argument, readers are left wondering what, exactly, the title of his book refers to.  Wilson can teach us interesting facts—that some ant species enslave other ant species, for instance, or that the warrior ants are really a bunch of old ladies—but he can’t tell us the meaning of human existence because, in his paradigm, there can’t be any beyond the mechanical, chance desire to be altruistic in order to preserve and protect our “nests.”  Therefore, he reduces the meaning of human existence to this:

[I]t is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become.

Our meaning, then, is a sequence of biological accidents aided or offset by our own deliberate choices—and nothing else, nothing at all, according to Wilson.

The mark of a good scientist is curiosity and imagination; when those cease, so do reliable answers to tough questions.  Wilson foregoes any discussion of aseity and fails or refuses to account for how the cosmos could arise out of nothing.  Certainly, there’s the Big Bang, but what caused that?  And what caused the things that caused that?  And why couldn’t there be a God Who created us to evolve?  The fact that this is but a short book is no excuse: If you’re predicating the meaning of human existence on the nonexistence of God, you must at least address or acknowledge the weaknesses of your argument.

Wilson wants to explicate the complex niceties of biology and then, having gained our attention, demands that we take him at his word that God is irrelevant to the meaning of our astounding, sometimes joyous, sometimes agonizing, and always confusing presence on this one small planet in this apparently enormous cosmos.  Follow him at your own risk.

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