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The Hydra in the Classroom

July 2, 2018


Scientism, secularism, and voluntarism are the three heads of our culture’s Hydra. It keeps surfacing its heads in my classroom, despite my Herculean attempts to cut it down. I do not want to sound like I am at battle with my students. They are well-meaning and bright. But, I am at battle with the worldview I find most of them implicitly espousing because it is a huge obstacle to reality, let alone the Gospel. Catholic schools, especially at the high school level, need to focus their attention on these ideologies, for they are at the heart of most opposition to the Church. The best we can do is understand these ideologies. In the following, I would like to suggest three books that have helped me better understand these isms: namely, C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, and D.C. Schindler’s Freedom From Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty.

One of the best books of the twentieth century is C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man. It has influenced many important Catholic intellectuals, particularly one of my favorites, German philosopher Robert Spaemann. For Spaemann, Lewis’ little book outlines the main features of modernity: namely, “the value-full de-valuation of the world; the adoption of the natural sciences as the paradigm for reason; and, finally, the objectification of nature and of human beings” (Zaborowski, Robert Spaemann’s Philosophy of the Human Person, p. 97). I noticed all three features being assumed by many students during debates in the philosophy class I taught this year, particularly the second feature of modernity. This did not surprise me, given that as children of the Enlightenment we have inherited certain ways of thinking about reality.  Given today’s ecological awareness, the students were willing to critique the first and third features. However, they were not willing to critique the second. This surprised me. So, I changed my curriculum to include Lewis’ Abolition of Man, hoping that Lewis would come to the rescue. He did. One of my best students wrote her final paper on the book. She will be attending Princeton next year, and she came into the class espousing a worldview prevalent at most elite universities. However, Lewis arguments really influenced her. She was particularly captivated by Lewis’ call to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, even though he didn’t fully understand what he was asking for. Scientism assumes a mechanistic view of reality. For this student, the mere suggestion that there could be a different approach to nature, possibly by looking afresh at Goethe’s approach or, better, Aristotle’s, was shocking and intriguing. I hope she continues to explore the rich view of reality introduced to her in this book.

Polish philosopher and politician Ryszard Legutko has recently become very famous in English speaking conservative circles with his The Demon in Democracy. In the book, Legutko considers his surprise at the sympathy most Western intellectuals, particularly liberal democrats, had for certain currents of Marxism. He soon discovered that many of these intellectuals agreed with the overall secular worldview that Marxism espoused; however, they were much more effective at bringing its ends about than were the Communists. Slow but steady wins the race. Legutko is not saying that liberal democracy is the moral equivalent of Communism. Liberal democracy is better. However, he is pointing out that that is very different than saying that liberal democracy is the only acceptable option. Also, both assume a secular vision of reality, expecting that religion will just naturally pass away. For them, God is not real; matter, assuming we understand what that is, is the fundamental reality. There is no other account of reality. Legutko’s book brought to mind another great book, Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory. I remember the shock when I read the first page: “The secular as a domain had to be instituted or imagined, both in theory and in practice.” Like my students, I assumed the secular view of God and the world, even though I was a practicing Catholic. The Demon in Democracy reaffirmed Milbank’s claim. I think Legutko—I’m not sure if he is a practicing Catholic—would support Milbank when the latter says, “a Catholic Christian account of reality might be entertained as the most finally persuasive one.” If you teach high school students, assign this book for them. It is an easy read, and it opens up for them a vision of reality beyond the confines of the secular.

Finally, I’d like to recommend D.C. Schindler’s brilliant Freedom from Reality. I have not finished it yet, but it is one of the best books I have read in a long time. If anyone wants to understand our intellectual predicament, read this book. I am personally biased here. I had Dr. Schindler as a teacher in graduate school. Agreeing with David Bentley Hart, I believe he is “probably the best Catholic philosophical theologian of his generation in the Anglophone world.” Freedom from Reality is partially a critique of John Locke’s conception of freedom; but, more than that, it is a critique of modernity, particularly its account of freedom and its implicit metaphysics of potency preceding act that, according to most scholars, predates the modern age in the late middle ages in figures such as Ockham—but, Schindler is not interested in genealogy in this book. For Schindler, modernity dissociates freedom and the good, turning freedom into a substitute for the good, giving rise to patterns of fragmentation and contradiction—hence, the diabolical part of the title. Reading this book has helped me better understand many assumptions that come up in the classroom, such as freedom as an end in itself and the acknowledgement that if it is ordered to a substantial good, the good is pleasure. Most of my students assume that the good is the pleasurable; but, by engaging them in Socratic dialogue, the weakness of this conception manifests itself. However, I wonder how they would have responded to Callicels in The Gorgias. Consideration of a true conception of the good leads to a consideration of the “really real,” i.e., metaphysics. I am looking forward to Schindler’s next two books in his trilogy; the second, I believe, will be on the Christian appropriation of ancient metaphysics.

All of these books are worth reading this summer to better understand the Hydra in the classroom.