A New Teleology

That which will be is to some extent the cause of that which is. What is going to happen tomorrow is already to some extent the cause of what is happening today; indeed, of what has happened yesterday. We are not merely the products of the past; we are also the creators of the future . . .

— John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past

Richard M. Weaver famously declared that “ideas have consequences.” His book of that title presents an argument that is somewhat more nuanced than the way in which the phrase has been used by decades of conservatives since; but both Weaver and those he inspired have largely seen the role of ideas in history as linear, a matter of cause and effect. Hold a certain set of ideas (an ideology), and you will act—or, at least, be more likely to act—a certain way. Ideas, in this view, are motives, pushing us along; change the dominant ideas of a culture, and you will change the future.

There’s something attractive, even comforting, in this understanding of the grand, sweeping role that ideas play, even though—or perhaps, to some extent, because—it denies personal moral agency. At its worst, it’s the conservative equivalent of the most simplistic form of Darwinism. If everything that has happened and is happening can be reduced to broad historical trends tied to one particular cause, then none of us can be held personally accountable for being carried away in that stream; and conversely, if we can spread the right ideas far and wide, that stream not only can but will be diverted.

But the role that ideas play in shaping human action and the course of history is more complex and more personal than the popular understanding of the phrase “ideas have consequences.” As John Lukacs often wrote, “Men do not have ideas; they choose them.” There’s nothing deterministic or mechanical about those choices. As Lukacs writes in Historical Consciousness, “in historical life events are not only ‘pushed’ by the past but ‘pulled,’ too, by the future; desires, aspirations, expectations, perceptions, premonitions, purposes, all play their parts . . . ”

Desiresaspirationsexpectationsperceptionspremonitionspurposes: These words aren’t the language of mechanical causality, nor words that would normally remind us of the phrase “ideas have consequences”; they are, instead, words that we associate with free will, with moral agency, with personal beliefs and actions rather than impersonal historical trends.

Every action is a moral action; and that includes our choice of ideas. The elevation of opinion—“that’s just your opinion; it’s not what I believe”—as the chief currency of intellectual life is, at root, an avoidance of our duty to conform our lives to what is true.

“[W]e are products, and creators, of the past,” Lukacs writes, “and also creators, and products, of the future.” The central word here is we: With respect to both the past and the future, we remain—both mankind as a whole, and each of us personally—at the center of history.

Such a recognition is not only liberating, freeing us from the grip that determinism holds on the mind of modern man, but also profoundly Christian, returning free will to its central role in the life of every person. And that brings with it a deep responsibility to choose our ideas, and to act on them, with care.

Every action is a moral action; and that includes our choice of ideas. The elevation of opinion—“that’s just your opinion; it’s not what I believe”—as the chief currency of intellectual life is, at root, an avoidance of our duty to conform our lives to what is true. Pope Benedict XVI called this the “dictatorship of relativism”; but it is a dictatorship imposed not from without but embraced from within, because conforming our lives to the truth is harder than not doing so. “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall set you free”; but freedom comes with moral responsibilities that bondage allows us to shirk.

Weaver believed that the great intellectual break in the history of mankind was the rise of nominalism and the abandonment of the classical and Christian insistence that everything that exists takes part in a reality beyond this world. There are only things we call horses; there is no essential horse-ness. Yet from the standpoint of epistemology, our understanding of how we know what we know, the world of the forms was always an abstraction, a conclusion we reached through our empirical study of the world around us rather than a realm we accessed directly. The nominalists insisted that there were only horses because we can never directly experience horse-ness.

Yet, pace Weaver, the more important intellectual shift occurred somewhat later, when we began to apply the concept of mechanical causality in science to human thought and action. When men longed for heaven, their desires and aspirations could pull them forward; when they cast their eyes down to earth, they made themselves no better than the animals, acting on base instinct and physical necessity—yet seeing in this slavery to the material a kind of freedom from the need to seek the truth and to act on it.

What we need today is a new teleology, a recognition of the end for which man was created, and a desire to live our lives with that end in sight.

Sufficient to the Day

I take a lot of pictures.  I am old enough to have spent thousands of dollars on film and photo developing over three decades, from my late single digits up until about the age of 35.  While I was an early adopter of the iPhone in June 2007, my film photos trailed off almost four years before that, when I purchased my first digital camera of any quality.  Without the expense of film and developing, the number of photos I have taken has vastly increased, but I have printed very few.

I have become obsessed with backing up my digital photos, however, and copies exist on our iMac, a backup drive attached to the iMac, my iPhone, my iPad, Apple’s iCloud service, and Google Photos.  Many, of course, are also on Facebook (though, for a variety of reasons, I don’t consider that a reliable backup).  My current count of digital photos is 53,874, and that’s after a recent effort to clear out thousands of duplicates, near duplicates, and misfires.

I go through periods when I force myself to quit snapping photos of significant events or of places that we visit so that I can live entirely in the moment, but those phases never last.  While I always try to strike a balance, there’s a reason I am an obsessive photo-taker (though hardly a photographer, since that implies a level of skill that, alas, I’ve never developed).  My photos are my visual memory.  My aphantasia, my complete inability to visualize anything outside of dreams (which I have discussed in recent columns), has left me, the older I get, with a fear of losing forever the faces and places most dear to me.

Throughout much of the 20th century, it was not unusual for a young man to carry a photo of the girl he loved in his wallet.  (Today, he can, and usually does, keep many such photos on his iPhone.)  For me, it was a necessity, and not simply a sign of devotion.  In the summers of our college years, and in the two years between our graduation from Michigan State and our marriage, Amy’s high-school graduation picture kept her present to me in a way that (I did not realize at the time) most other young men did not need.

But since the fact that I could not (and still cannot) visualize Amy’s face is not a problem inherent to her but to me, the same obviously applies to all other women I have known.  There’s something comforting about letting old girlfriends and passing crushes literally fade away, and being able to give my full attention to the woman who consented (God knows why) to be my wife and the mother of our children.  Midlife crises, I suspect, are rather rare among those afflicted with aphantasia.  Living in the present, though, is quite easy, since the past is dark, and so is the future.

When my son Jacob first brought aphantasia to my attention a little over a year ago, my initial bewilderment at the reality that virtually everyone else can (with more or less clarity) conjure up actual images was followed by a bit of despair.  Why had God allowed me to be afflicted with this?  Today, I look at it a bit differently: I live a charmed life.

What could be better than to wake up every morning in the same house, to walk the same streets, to see the same sights, to meet the same people, and yet, in a very real sense, to experience them all once again for the first time?  I smile a lot, and always have, and now I know why.  I’m Bill Murray in the latter part of Groundhog Day, with the difference that time hasn’t stopped for me.

It’s all too easy to live life caught between the regrets of the past and fantasies of the future.  I can’t visualize either, but I fall prey to regrets and fantasies, too.  That’s not the way we were meant to live, however, and the serpent is the only one who wins when we let ourselves be pulled out of the moment with promises of a future that can never be, or despair over a past that can only truly be healed by the saving work of Christ Himself.

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.  Are ye not much better than they? . . . But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.  Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.

“All that was in the past,” Joseph Stalin once told Winston Churchill, “and the past belongs to God.”  Which just goes to prove that you can take the dictator out of the seminary, but you can’t erase the law of God from even the most depraved of human hearts.

First published in the May 2019 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Returning to Earth

What lies at the root of the abstractionism that I discussed last month, which afflicts the modern world like a mania, especially here in the United States?  Walker Percy dubbed the phenomenon angelism, by which he did not mean that those who exhibit it have evolved to a state of moral purity but that we have individually and collectively cut ourselves loose mentally from the ties that bind us to the world and the people around us.  And yet (for reasons that should be obvious) we have not been able, through such abstraction, to overcome the limitations that are inherent in human life and the material world.  Stymied by our inability to overcome those limitations, we have come increasingly to despise the world and our place in it.  And so our response is not to become more human but less so, as Percy’s Dr. Tom More put it so clearly in Love in the Ruins almost 50 years ago:

For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man.  Even now I can diagnose and shall one day cure: cure the new plague, the modern Black Death, the current hermaphroditism of the spirit, namely: More’s syndrome, or: chronic angelism-bestialism that rives soul from body and sets it orbiting the great world as the spirit of abstraction whence it takes the form of beasts, swans and bulls, werewolves, blood-suckers, Mr. Hydes, or just poor lonesome ghost locked in its own machinery.

Walker Percy did not live to see the rise of social media (he died in 1990), but the various forms that social media have taken and the conduct they have engendered among so many of their users would not have surprised him.  For all of the potential that social media have to draw people closer together, to rekindle ties with old friends and relatives, to keep us rooted in one another and therefore in the communities in which we are mutually a part, in practice they have all too often enabled the opposite: Social media allow us to engage in flights of fancy, to escape from the reality of our lives by imagining ourselves (consciously or even unconsciously) to be someone different, or even just to cast aside the manners and mores that are essential to civilized life in an actual community.

There have been dozens of investigative articles over the past several years on the phenomenon of “trolling”—people exhibiting behavior toward others with whom they interact online that would, in face-to-face encounters, skirt the line of diagnosable sociopathy, or even cross over it.  A common theme runs through all of them: When trolls meet the reporters, they behave much differently in person.  They are frequently shy, almost invariably polite, and express hurt when the reporters ask them about their actions online in tones that imply condemnation or disapproval.  The reporters themselves experience cognitive dissonance—they expect to dislike, even hate, the trolls but find themselves liking and even sympathizing with them.

The behavior exhibited by trolls looks increasingly like one extreme of a broader phenomenon that afflicts an ever-wider swath of users of social media, and I don’t mean just white nationalists and “social-justice warriors” on Twitter.  More and more of us find it both easy and a relief to create identities on social media that do not reflect the reality of our everyday lives—even if we use our own names.  (And I use us here not as a rhetorical device but as a recognition that I have strayed in this direction myself over the years before recognizing that I had loosed the bonds of earth and needed to return to reality.)

Were Walker Percy still alive, I suspect he would see in this parallels to the psychological condition of dissociation.  With our increasing use of social media (and other electronic media, such as email and texts) as a substitute for the hard reality of dealing with flesh-and-blood human beings, we create alternative unrealities that consume more and more of our attention and consciousness until, one day, we look in the mirror and no longer recognize the man we see there.  We become strangers to ourselves, but the ghosts we have created through our abstraction can never truly replace the creatures that God has made us to be.  Bound by time and ties to people and place, we have only two options: keep raging against reality and losing our true self in the process, or start recovering that true self by accepting the limitations inherent in it, and returning to earth.    

First published in the April 2019 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Life Is Not a Fantasy

The reality of place has weighed heavily on me from a very young age.  My knowledge of self has always been inseparable from the place in which I live.  My understanding of who I am has been closely tied to those with whom I most often interact—family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and even those with whom I have a nodding acquaintance (a phrase that has become unfortunately abstract in a world that no longer values simple signs of courtesy and respect).  Remove me from familiar places, and I become a stranger in a strange land, longing for my home.

Even when, as a typical teenager, I longed to leave my hometown, my departure always ended, in my imagination, with my return.  A life elsewhere, among other people, is an abstraction: Home is reality.

Of course, I no longer live in my hometown—and yet, in fact, I do.  In Huntington, as in Rockford, as in Spring Lake, I have walked the streets until they have become a part of me, and found my place among a people who are not simply passing through but are deeply rooted in this portion of God’s green earth and the little bit of civilization that has been built upon it, for all intents and purposes autochthonous and autonomous, a true community made up not of individuals with entirely separate lives but of persons whose sense of themselves is tightly woven with their sense of their neighbor and of their place.

Chaucer was the first to claim that familiarity breeds contempt, and most (if not all) of us can point to concrete examples that seem to prove his adage true.  Yet these words are, at best, a half-truth, which makes them (as John Lukacs reminds us) more dangerous than a lie.  Because it is even more true to say that familiarity breeds community, and that civilization cannot arise among an agglomeration of rootless individuals, but only among men and women who are rooted in a particular place and in deep knowledge of one another.

These brief thoughts were occasioned by continued reflection on what role, if any, aphantasia—my complete inability to create mental images—may have had on the development of my theological, philosophical, and political understanding.  As I mentioned last month, I was initially dismissive of David Mills’s suggestion even to consider this.  But the centrality of incarnationalism in my theological understanding, my visceral rejection of abstraction in philosophy, and my preference for localism in politics, economics (broadly understood), and culture, taken together, do seem like the positions one might expect a person who can’t imagine an orange sheep with five legs perched on the dome of the Huntington County courthouse to have arrived at.

On the other hand, shouldn’t we expect a Catholic who has truly encountered Christ to place the Incarnation at the center of his theological thought and, therefore, to reject philosophical abstraction in favor of an epistemology resembling a traditional Aristotelian empiricism?  If even God must become man in order for us truly to know Him, why would we think that we can have true knowledge of anything else outside of experience?  Even book larnin’ must build on experience, moving from analogy to analogy, and the mental images created by people who are not aphantasic of things they have not directly experienced are still conditioned by their actual experiences.  Thus, the presentation of the Blessed Virgin in medieval art as more European than Middle Eastern is no more a form of cultural imperialism than images emerging from other Christian communities at roughly the same time of Mary with Asian or Ethiopian features.  We know what we know because we have experienced it.  Even those with the ability to create extraordinarily vivid mental images—hyperphantasia, we might call it—cannot conjure up a mental figment that does not correspond in some way to something they have experienced.

Yet there are Catholics today who intellectually accept the Incarnation as a reality but whose theology is otherwise maddeningly abstract, and philosophical abstraction ism, like centralism in politics, economics, and culture, has become more the norm among the intellectual classes than the exception.  Over the last century—and accelerating exponentially in recent years—those tendencies have spread beyond the intellectual classes into the broader populace.  Mass communications, and now social media, have turned abstractionism into a form of mania, a type of mental illness no longer confined to individuals but affecting society as a whole.

Walker Percy saw it coming nearly 50 years ago, and it’s no coincidence that this Catholic convert made the hero of Love in the Ruins (1971) and its sequel, The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), both a psychiatrist and a descendant of St. Thomas More.  The answer to the abstraction that’s making us all mad lies in the faith that is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  Far from abstraction, that faith is an experience, a personal relationship with the God made Man; not a fantasy, but the ultimate ground of reality.

First published in the March 2019 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.