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Ideas Have Consequences

The cover story last issue was about the English martyrs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—victims of those “olden days” of religious persecution. But the Enlightenment changed all that. Civilized people stopped killing one another over religious differences—or at least that’s the prevailing myth.

The reality is far different. The twentieth century alone saw 45.5 million Christian martyrs, more than all the preceding nineteen centuries combined. It was “one of the darkest periods of martyrdom since the birth of Christianity,” as Susan Brinkmann points out on page 24. The vast majority of those martyrs were killed by the “isms”: Marxism, Communism, Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism—the “enlightened” philosophies that had thrown off the shackles of religion and tradition. These “isms” were in part a fulfillment of Friedrich Nietzsche’s wish (see page 12) for a world with “no God, immortality, Holy Spirit, or divine inspiration.” I don’t know whether John Lennon knew that he was paraphrasing Nietzsche in his insufferable ditty “Imagine,” but philosophy always works its way into the popular culture, gaining power as it goes. And when power and bad philosophy join hands, the consequences are deadly. Just ask Edith Stein.

My first public encounter with bad philosophy was the first day of eighth-grade art class. In his opening remarks, the teacher tried to impress on us the seriousness of the class, assuring us this would not be an “easy A.” He also tried to impress on us the importance of art itself, and he posed the question: “What is good art?” One girl replied confidently that good art is beautiful. No, the teacher replied. Good art reflects life, and sometimes life is ugly. The girl deflated and the class pondered the profound possibilities of ugly art.

Then a boy of precocious political aspirations offered that good art makes you think. But, asked our sage, doesn’t good art come from the heart? Shouldn’t it make us feel? Of course, we thought.

I was fully engaged, thinking hard about art and life and beauty: “Good art communicates what the artist wanted to say,” I ventured. Wrong again. I wondered what sort of standard was left if an artist doesn’t even have to be capable of getting his message across.

Satisfied that we were all stumped, our teacher now pronounced that “good art is whatever someone likes.”

“Then how are you going to grade us?” I blurted out. The question was innocent, but the class gasped and tittered. The teacher was caught off guard. After an awkward pause, he recited his credentials and sternly warned against wise-guys who think they know better than the teacher. I was branded. I got C’s in art that semester, and when registration time came around, the teacher told me not to come back as I had no talent in art.

The life-lesson was more than worth the demise of my artistic career: Authority that doesn’t answer to any standard other than itself is tyranny.

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