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The Curse of Wrong Alternatives

The history of philosophy teaches us much about the human mind, its greatness and its weakness. Mankind is indebted to the great philosophers for their love of truth and for their probing into the most crucial issues of human existence: the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, the meaning of human life, of good and evil, of suffering and death.

The flip side of this is that not even the worst scientific error can match the poison that bad philosophies spread. Plato wrote twenty-four centuries ago that philosophy is so little thought of because of bad philosophers. By “bad philosophers” I do not mean stupid ones but those who refuse to put their talents at the service of truth. The harm that some of them have done and are still doing today is precisely due to the fact that philosophy is concerned with essential questions—as the French philosopher Jacques Chevalier put it, “the questions every man raises when facing death.”

Philosophy is not much thought of in our society. When some of my students decided to become philosophy majors, they all met with the opposition of their family: “What are you going to do with it?” “What career can you expect to make with a philosophy degree?” My husband’s father was deeply disappointed when his son told him he wanted to devote his life to philosophy.

Most men trust science (and often it is a blind trust) because science “progresses,” because people assume that science is based on solid proofs, and because good science benefits man’s physical life. Many in our society believe that philosophy is a matter of opinion; as one of my students put it, “Why should your ideas be better than mine?”

The true lover of wisdom must constantly beware of certain “classical” sources of errors that always lurk in the background and keep repeating themselves in the history of philosophy. Though there are many, I shall concentrate on one: wrong alternatives.

Because one rightly rejects one particular position, one is often tempted to endorse another position that seems to be opposed to the first. In fact, sometimes both positions are erroneous. My husband, who was a young man when Hitler was coming to power, told me that many Germans became ardent Nazis because they rightly detested Communism, and many became Communists because they hated Nazism.

This is a classical case of giving illegitimate credit to a position because one rejects its apparent opposite. In fact, both Nazism and Communism are “brothers in evil”: They share the same materialism, the same atheism, the same totalitarianism, the same brutal disrespect for the dignity of the person, who is viewed as a mere tool in the hands of the state. One of them idolizes the “race,” the other the “class.” Their differences, which are actually minor, blind many to the fact that the two doctrines are basically identical.

In the political domain, there is similar aberration: liberals and conservatives. Instead of asking whether changes are desirable—that is, if there is an evil that should be eliminated)—a wrongheaded conservative will oppose any change on principle because it is a change. On the other hand, some people, under the banner of “progressivism,” will identify tradition with a corpse that is to be discarded at any cost. They will strive for novelty and dynamism without questioning whether mankind will benefit from the changes. To progress is to move forward. But is it movement toward a desirable goal or an abyss?

There are healthy and commendable developments of religious thought and understanding (what Cardinal Newman dealt with in his classic book The Development of Doctrine), but there are also cancerous ideas that must be eliminated because, even though they are “growths,” they are diseased. We need wisdom to distinguish between the two, and this is what any philosopher worthy of his title is supposed to do.

From the very beginning, philosophy has had to contend with this problem. Heraclitus and Parmenides were contemporaries. The first advocated constant change (“You cannot step into the same river twice”); the second defended unchangeableness. Each of them saw something valid, but they erred in limiting their views to one facet of reality. Plato’s wisdom corrected their error by showing us that there is both change and unchangeableness.

The changes that have taken place in the sphere of technology over the last fifty years are mind-boggling. But the laws of logic have not changed: It always was true, and always will be true, that two contradictory propositions cannot be true at the same time. “Thou shalt not murder” was a true moral principle when Cain murdered his brother, and it is still true today. This is why we still have laws against murder and why most abortionists maintain that they are not killing a baby but are merely getting rid of a blob of unwanted tissue.

A society is sane to the extent that it holds fast both to what is unchanging and what is open to changes that will benefit mankind. Unfortunately, it is easier for man to fall into error than to remain faithful to truth. This is why Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) wrote of religious and philosophical truth, “Or dost thou venture even to maintain that ‘truth’ can just as quickly be understood as falsehood, which requires no preliminary knowledge, no schooling, no discipline, no abstinence, no self-denial, no honest concern about oneself, no patient labor?” (The Point of View of My Life As an Author, Harper & Row, 117).

The idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831)—everything is a product of the mind—was bound to be followed by the radical materialism of Karl Marx, which proclaimed that everything is matter. That both matter and mind are realities is a fact that only those willing to courageously face what Gabriel Marcel calls “the mysteries of being” can perceive and respect. Many are those who choose to eliminate mysteries to justify their arrogant belief that they have an answer to everything.

Atheism has always been a temptation for the human mind. In the fourth century before Christ, Plato already laments the fact that atheism was gaining ascendancy in Athenian society. Few will deny that this intellectual scourge is prevalent today in many colleges and universities. Some may realize that atheism (there is no God) is an intellectual cancer, and their wrong reaction is to fall into the trap of pantheism (there are many gods).

This explains the immense attraction that oriental religions have for many people in our God-less society. The words of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) in Thus Spake Zarathustra—”If there was a God, how could I stand not to be God: hence God does not exist”—is replaced by the uplifting discovery that all of us are gods. (This may help explain the popularity of the New Age movement). Why object to God’s existence if in fact it makes me aware that I am God? This is why atheism will never conquer: Too many people are unwilling to give up the privilege! Few are aware of the fact that atheism and pantheism, far from being radically opposed to each other, are in fact two facets of the same attitude: the refusal to humbly adore.

Skepticism blossomed early in the history of philosophy. The reason is fairly obvious: Men err even as they believe to be rooted in the truth. Later, some wake up to the fact that they were mistaken. As this scenario repeats itself, it is inevitable that some thinkers would start doubting man’s capacity to know truth. Augustine, after having abandoned Manichaeism, passed through a skeptical stage before his conversion. Realizing how disastrous skepticism is, he devoted one of his first books (Contra Academicos) to refuting it.

But those who rightly reject skepticism can be tempted to fall into another philosophical trap: rationalism, that is, a proud overestimation of the power of reason and the tacit assumption that, with time, man will find an answer to all questions. The skeptic finds himself in the uncomfortable position of not knowing anything—which renders life pretty difficult. The rationalist overestimates his intellectual acumen. When Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) claimed that man has an adequate knowledge of God, he fell into one of the many pits of rationalism.

Our rich (and spiritually starving) society is particularly afflicted by these wrong alternatives and overlooks the fact that truth is not between two errors but above them. In the past, some educators have shown little respect for human freedom. Authoritarianism has been practiced and abused, often with disastrous psychological consequences. Plato saw that authority should be used to train the child to love wisdom; it should guide him firmly and lovingly to enable him one day to make responsible, wise decisions on his own.

That abuses of authority have taken place not only in families and schools but also in convents and monasteries—let alone political states—can hardly be contested. But then came the reaction, which, under the disastrous influence of educator John Dewey (1859–1952), eliminated guidance: The child was to grow like a plant, following its own wishes, desires, and instincts. He should decide himself what he wants to study.

Today we are reaping the fruits of this poisonous psychology. How right G. K. Chesterton was to remind us that education comes from the Latin ducere: to lead. To eliminate guidance is the death knell of education. We have gone from the martinet method to the do-as-you-please method. Both are disastrous. But many will tell us that Dewey deserves to be glorified because he has “killed” authoritarianism.

Another case in point is the alternative between puritanism and permissiveness. The nineteenth century was characterized by a pooh-pooh attitude toward the sphere of the intimate. The Victorian age treated it very much as something shocking that should not even be mentioned because it was somehow dirty.

Today puritanism is pretty much universally condemned, but the alternative is certainly as disastrous: coarseness, vulgarity, shamelessness, disregard for the most elementary feeling of “holy shyness” in referring to an intimate sphere that calls for reverence and awe. Today, nothing is approached respectfully. The veil has been torn down from the most intimate and personal of experiences. Victorians hid their shame; today people brag about it and exhibit it as an expression of their freedom.

Alas, the introduction of a so-called sex education in Catholic schools, endorsed by many a bishop, is an expression of this pitiful tendency that wages war on the innocence of little children. Woe to those who scandalize these little ones! That it should be done with the tacit approval of some Church authorities must make angels weep.

To take another example, anarchy has always found partisans. Its philosophy is based on the conviction that authority under any form disregards the dignity of the individual. Authority should be abolished altogether, and then men will taste true freedom and happiness. Understandably, this idea is usually rejected for the plain reason that it leads inevitably to total chaos. But the remedy matches the disease: the history of the world proves how easily one can go from brutal tyranny to anarchy and vice versa. But we shall always find men endorsing one position because, abhorring one view, they endorse the other. There are many cases in life when we should emphatically say “neither nor” instead of “either or.”

Situation ethics is popular in our society. Its basic principle is that general rules cannot be applied to individual situations: Each one of us finds himself in a position that is unique, and therefore it should be left up to the individual conscience to find a solution to ethical dilemmas. This philosophy is a reaction against a narrow legalism that taught people to follow the letter of the law while disregarding its spirit.

Some claim that, in order to be objective, one has to eliminate emotions. These people assume that as soon as our heart is moved, we are drawn inevitably into the maelstrom of subjectivism. To be objective, we must be cool and refuse to let our personal feelings affect our judgment. It is true that in courts of justice, we should aim at findings judges and jurors who have no personal interest in the outcome of the trial.

Unfortunately, one can easily slip from truth to error. Objectivity implies that our judgment is in harmony with the object to which we respond. There are neutral facts—such as two plus two equals four—and our response should mirror their neutrality. It would be ludicrous to fall into depression upon finding out that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. On the other hand, when we are dealing with facts rich in values (or disvalues), our response should be in harmony with the nature of the facts.

If someone, upon hearing of the Holocaust, remains indifferent, his response is typically subjective. There are things that call for tears, such as the murder of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not” (Jer. 31:15). Then there are facts that call for joy, such as the conversion of a sinner. To respond to these events with the coolness that is appropriate if someone tells us he is six feet tall would show a gravely thwarted affectivity.

Unfortunately, some fall prey to the opposite perversion: a type of emotivity that edges on the ridiculous. We all know people who live in a constant state of excitement uncalled for by the objects to which they respond. They oscillate between joy and depression for purely imaginary reasons. Out of antipathy for this sickly excitability, some people feel justified in waging war on feelings.

Both alternatives are to be equally rejected. The lover of wisdom will face these wrong alternatives with the words neither nor and aim at truth, which is never between two errors but above them.

A subtle and therefore dangerous alternative has gained currency since Vatican II, one that opposes the Johanine Church (the Church of love) to the Petrine Church (the Church of rights and formal obligations). In the course of the last forty years, rare are the homilists who mention sin, the devil, hell, or raise their voices against abortion and sexual perversions. We are told ad nauseam not to be judgmental, to be compassionate, and that Christ loves sinners. The climate of the time holds that “God is a good guy” (alas, I heard this in a parish church) and that his mercy is infinite. This might also explain the fact that heresies are not officially condemned, politicians who defend abortion are permitted to receive Communion, and a cardinal is booed because he dares to condemn homosexuality.

Intolerance is the capital sin—maybe the only sin. Once again, we face disastrous alternatives: on the one hand a bogus “love” that in fact means an indifference toward a sinner’s soul—”Let him live as he pleases” is definitely not an expression of love; it is a corollary of the rhetorical question of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”—and a rigid, legalistic attitude that is harsh and unloving. This attitude of laissez-faire is glorified as being a sound reaction to a pharisaical attitude of those who feel superior to others and have a keen satisfaction in keeping a tally on their neighbors’ sins (particularly those against the sixth commandment).

In fact, the Church is both Petrine and Johanine: The Ten Commandments have not been eliminated because “love of God and love of neighbor” contains the whole of the law. Divine mercy does not erase divine justice; it fulfills it.

How profound are the words of Paul warning us that some never arrive at a knowledge of the truth (cf. 2 Tim. 3:7). If only Catholics would appreciate the gift of their faith and of the magisterium, which, like a holy compass, keeps them from falling into the chasm of false alternatives.

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