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On the First Duty of Intelligent People

February 9, 2021


“We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” These were the opening lines of what should have been an otherwise mundane book review of Bertrand Russell’s Power: A New Social Analysis. Penned for Adelphi in 1939, its author was George Orwell. 

Curiously, Orwell’s words couldn’t ring more truly than they do right now.

We are living in an age where we are simply told to accept certain ideas as true. Whether the ideas are foolishly simple, needlessly complex, or simply run brazenly counter to truth as we have lived and discovered it, we are told that today we hold these truths to be self-evident. Though we watch certain events unfold before our eyes on television, we are told that we are seeing them incorrectly. Though we encounter new theories about human nature that are contrary to considerable experience and common sense, we are informed of our naiveté. Though the math of this program or the logic of that movement simply doesn’t add up, we are corrected (or branded) for our close-mindedness. 

Enough with the questions, we are told. There is a darkness in you that makes you ask them, we are warned. It is time for you to just trust. 

We all remember Kaa the python singing softly, seductively to the little boy Mowgli in The Jungle Book:

Trust in me, just in me

Shut your eyes and trust in me

You can sleep safe and sound

Knowing I am around.

Of course, all this singing is done while the coils wrap tight and the boy is nearly devoured by the massive snake. And in the Marx Brothers’ famous film Duck Soup, Chico Marx (playing Chicolini) explains to the befuddled Mrs. Gloria Teasdale that she was mistaken when she saw him leave the room:

Teasdale: Your Excellency, I thought you left.

Chicolini: Oh no. I no leave.

Teasdale: But I saw you with my own eyes.

Chicolini: Well who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?

Or, to rebut Chicolini, we would do well to turn to a quote often attributed to French Catholic Charles Péguy, “We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.”

Amid the insistence on a “new way of thinking,” many have felt off-balance. In response, they have become angry and despondent, confused and uncertain. Contrary to history, experience, and common sense, they ask, “Are we to believe that these ideas are truth simply because you emphatically say so?” 

Over one hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton didn’t think so. In an earlier society championing a new secular orthodoxy, he insisted that people had become unthinking and docile. “What we suffer from to-day,” Chesterton noted, “is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. . . . We are on the road to producing . . . men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” 

Likewise today, we have deferred to modern social conventions in order to avoid giving offense. In so doing, we have become uncourageous, or as C.S. Lewis lamented, “men without chests.”

George Orwell was right. In an era of fear and passivity, it is important to speak up. And in an age where what was formerly obvious is not so obvious anymore, it is our responsibility to say something. It is our duty to restate the obvious. But just what is the obvious? As Chesterton would remind, it is a collection of simple, enduring truths compelling enough in their goodness and logic that “nobody nowadays seems to take any particular notice of them.” 

What are those truths? Quite simply that, in being God-kissed, we are innately dignified. Furthermore, in having free will and untamed appetites, we are repeatedly and frustratingly fallible. And finally, notwithstanding our continually imperfect efforts at self-improvement, we are redeemable through means of supremely sublime grace. Dignified, fallible, redeemable: this is the truth of who we are, in theory as well as experience. And it is the unending teaching of the Church. I know of no other institution or body of thought that better understands me in my darkness and my light.

If as individuals, we are dignified, fallible, and redeemable, then our culture will be as well. While our culture’s brokenness is forever apparent, it would be stunting to presume that our failings tell the complete story. Our culture has a consciousness that has been keenly formed by tumultuous history, vigorously debated philosophy, and an abiding love of truth and fairness.

We must speak of this glorious inheritance (even while reforming its missteps), not sacrifice it on the altar of cynical deconstruction and divisive identity politics. 

As Catholics in a postmodern age, perhaps no one captured the source of our truth better than Pope Benedict XVI when he reminded us,

[The Son of God] is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.

As we struggle with the modern narrative of truth, it is okay to be winsome in our restatement of the obvious. William F. Buckley, countering a dubious theory proffered by a fashionable intellectual of his day, quipped, “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.” His line may be apocryphal, but it is refreshingly apt.

George Orwell was grim over our prospects if we failed to speak truth to power, or as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “To live not by lies.” From later in his book review, Orwell wrote:

Underlying [the idea that tyrannies always collapse] is the idea that common sense always wins in the end. And yet the peculiar horror of the present moment is that we cannot be sure that this is so. It is quite possible that we are descending into an age in which two and two will make five when the Leader says so. [In his book], Mr. Russell points out that the huge system of organized lying upon which the dictators depend keeps their followers out of contact with reality and therefore tends to put them at a disadvantage as against those who know the facts. . . . One has only to think of the sinister possibilities of the radio, state-controlled education and so forth, to realize that “the truth is great and will prevail” is a prayer rather than an axiom.

As followers of Christ, we are called to uphold the true, the good, and the beautiful. It is time to do our duty as intelligent men and women. It is time to restate the obvious. To our children. To our culture. To ourselves. 

If not now, when?