Dr. Adler, Or How I Learned to Stop Believing and Love Camus

Posted on January 4, 2012

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There is an irony running deep beneath the Great Books courses. They lead the student inexorably into the open arms of postmodernity while at the same time attempting to undermine and disparage postmodernism itself.Last year Patrick Deneen of Georgetown University posted an essay about the problem with Great Books courses. Recently he gave a talk titled “Why Great Books?” at UT – Austin. His ideas have galvanized my interpretation of my experience attending a small college in Ottawa, ON.

Historicism

We read the books in chronological order, and the purpose is to grasp the development of Western civilization (or, in some cases, the decline of Western civilization from its pinnacle in ancient Greece). We study the ideas–their rise and fall–but we never really engage with them in terms of their truth. The point is to see the arc of history, how the individualism of the Protestant Reformation grew out of the humanism of the Renaissance. This is a powerful narrative, and you cast about to make sense of it. Maybe history is the story of the evolution of culture, and those in the present are always at its pinnacle. Maybe we can’t even make that much sense of it. Maybe the weft of history is largely arbitrary. Maybe even time is an illusion.

But let’s back up. You entered this college on a quest for Truth. You begin reading the assigned texts, prospecting for Gold. You find something that glitters and sink your teeth into it. You put it in your pocket. But next week’s reading causes you to empty your pockets back into the stream. Last week you may have been a fool, but this week you’ll find the real Truth.

How many weeks of the year can this go on? If you’re looking to make the grade, you won’t let it go on too long. You’re getting frustrated, and so is your professor. Quit this absurd sifting of every last particle and stand back a little. Look at how one age leads to another, how each philosopher builds his fortress around the single, undefended gate of the last epoch’s city, how each fortress grows itself into a city with a single, undefended gate. Nature abhors a vacuum: each philosopher’s opus is predicated on what came before. And time is the great equalizer: no opus dominates the hall.

Pride

So, while you may loath Nietzsche for his nihilism, in the wee hours of a mid-term paper, you find yourself hoping to stand as his inheritor, to achieve the fame and respect of a philosopher. (Don’t laugh!) This whole narrative being woven in front of your eyes is our Western culture. And you, with your world-loving hubris, long to rise within it. Sure, you could exit the narrative altogether and go LARPing with your wannabe medieval friends or become one of those nose-picking Latin profs. But if you want a place within the narrative, you must wrestle with Wittgenstein and Godel.

But there’s the rub. You see that reason is mostly a series of rabbit holes, and God help you if you have to chase Jacques Derrida down one of them. Sure, reason is a handy tool, but it can’t be the foundation of belief or the third leg of a stool. You’ve been assured by your Enlightenment forefathers that hard work, perseverance, and a repentant spirit will lead you ever closer to the Truth. You realize that in order to judge the veracity of something, you must be able to stand outside history and judge it. At the same time, you realize that this is impossible, that there is no Archimedean fulcrum whereby you can weigh the world. You’ve been trying to find Truth, but by Truth you’ve meant Certainty. Your search for the Cogito Ergo Sum has finally come to a whimpering end. You are trapped in the present and someone has stepped on your reason-colored glasses.

Postmodernism

This understanding spells apostasy for the Reformed Protestant who matriculates into such a Great Books course. You expect this study to embolden you in the verity of your Christian faith, to unearth the Christian roots of our great and struggling Western civilization, to give you the tools to judge postmodern emotivism. But what you don’t expect is that these courses will topple the idol of certainty. And the problem with toppling that idol: your Christianity was growing thick as ivy all over it.

But really, postmodernism isn’t all that bad. Sure, emotivism has its problems, but only a modern rationalist would be concerned that a postmodern would embrace emotivism systematically. Postmoderns are so devoid of order that they may be orderly at times. Look at Aladair MacIntyre.

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Posted in: Culture, Faith