What Prospects for Thought?

Last month I suggested that a one-sided emphasis on will and power over transcendent realities has meant less and worse thought. That problem applies especially to public life, but man is social, so it spills over to private life as well. To respond to the situation, I proposed a renewed emphasis on institutions, like family and church, that are oriented toward something other than money and power. Without the relative independence such institutions confer from the commercial and bureaucratic powers that rule our world, thought withers, and with it part of our humanity.

The issue is infinitely complex, and much more could be said. Complex thought can sometimes all but disappear. Nonetheless, thought is never still, and it always returns. After the decline of intellectual activity in Roman antiquity, during a time of chaos and despotism, it came back in the thought of the Church, with the conversion of Augustine symbolizing the transition. More recently, communist stupidity and oppression led to the achievements of samizdat literature. As a Soviet literary figure noted, “You could cover the whole earth with asphalt, but sooner or later green grass would break through.”

The early Middle Ages, with the radical disruptions brought on by the migrations of peoples, the rise of Islam, and political chaos, were another low point for thought. By Charlemagne’s time, things had settled down enough for Alcuin to write:

It may be that a new Athens will arise in France, and an Athens fairer than the old, for our Athens, ennobled by the teaching of Christ, will surpass the wisdom of the Academy. The old Athens had only the teachings of Plato to instruct it, yet even so it flourished by the seven liberal arts. But our Athens will be enriched by the gift of the Holy Spirit and will, therefore, surpass all the dignity of earthly wisdom.

It took centuries, but that vision came to fruition in the intellectual and artistic culture of the High Middle Ages. Something of the sort may happen again, and we may someday have a new Athens even here in America. Why hope for anything less? A quick glance at history may suggest something of what’s needed.

In antiquity fundamental thought about man and the world seems to have peaked in the Greek cities, especially Athens, after they defended their independence in the Persian Wars and before they lost it to Alexander’s successors. In China it peaked during the period of the Hundred Schools of Thought, which was also a time of frequent conflict among states sharing a common civilization believed fundamentally superior to any other. Somewhat similar conditions prevailed in northern Italy from the High Middle Ages through the Renaissance, and in Europe generally from the eleventh-century until the Second World War.

Such examples suggest that thought does best in a complex society that has confidence in its fundamental commitments, combines general cultural coherence with institutional and regional diversity, and features a great deal of independence among its constituent parts, with enough conflict to keep people on their toes but not so much they can’t discuss things and concern themselves with matters beyond present emergencies.

All that makes sense. Thought doesn’t flourish when life is too chaotic or too tightly organized. It requires a balance between the particular and the universal, the changing and the changeless, so it can’t survive too much diversity or uniformity. There must also be something to think about, which means an understanding of the world that lets it mean something, an attitude toward life that puts truth before power, at least in principle, and a range of possibilities for decision that must be acted upon, affect a variety of actors, and differ in ways that matter.

Such a society seems generally in line with the Catholicism that gave rise to the cathedrals, universities, and literature of the Middle Ages, and with the Catholic understanding of subsidiarity, a doctrine that is fundamental to social justice and not to be sacrificed to immediate effectiveness or dreams of guaranteed order. So a Catholic world would be friendly to thought, at least given the practical certainty that any actual Catholic world will be sufficiently imperfect to make a great deal of thought necessary. Alcuin’s dream of a Catholic Athens in a Catholic civilization is therefore a permanent possibility.

The conditions necessary for thought mostly can’t be produced to order, and some shouldn’t be. In a time of peace we shouldn’t promote conflict just to give people something to think about. On the other hand, peace doesn’t last forever, and avoiding trouble by avoiding issues means stupidity and disastrous missteps. Silencing conflict at the expense of truth and justice will eventually give you plenty of problems to mull over.

The difficulty of promoting thought when the times are against it doesn’t mean nothing can be done, and most of what fosters it also foster other goods. One thing needed, for example, is a sense that the world has a meaning that can be determined. Another is a recognition that truth rightfully comes before power and contemplation before action. These, of course, are pre-eminently Catholic positions—they follow from “in the beginning was the Word”—so the Church can help promote thought by re-committing to her fundamental message.

She won’t be able to do so effectively unless she re-establishes her intellectual independence. That must be a project of the entire Church. I recently suggested that the laity could help that effort in a variety of ways, for example by growing in the Faith and cultivating their own independence from an anti-Catholic world by studying history, disengaging from electronic media, pursuing literature, old books, and the arts, and re-connecting to sources of Catholic tradition like the Bible and the lives of the saints.

Those with the time, interest, and ability should do more. The thought of the High Middle Ages was energized by that of antiquity and what Muslim and Jewish thinkers had done with it. We too must call on all available resources. So we need pre-modern philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, as well as Christian thinkers who have dealt with the problems of modernity, like Pascal, Newman, and Burke. Beyond that, the whole world offers us ways out of the narrowness of liberal modernity. More than two thousand years ago, for example, the Chinese had traditionalists, antinomians, social constructivists, totalitarian statists, and puritanical socialists. Whatever basic issues we have now, it’s likely they thought about them then, but from a wholly different angle that could be helpful to us as Aristotle was to the Middle Ages.

Such voluntary and informal efforts are helpful and endlessly absorbing, but they have their limits. In antiquity there were many schools of thought, but they ended with skepticism and imperial despotism. The Protestant and modern revolts have had much the same result, as we increasingly see around us. In the long run independence requires authority, so the intellectual independence required for thought needs a spiritual authority: that of the Church. If there’s no way in principle to resolve ultimate disputes, thought eventually loses coherence, and with it the ability to do much of anything. All that’s left to resolve issues is mindless power.

So the Church must play a role institutionally, as she always must in any movement of reform and restoration. She should start by recommitting to her principles and authority. Initial efforts to do so might include catechetical materials that highlight ways in which the modern secular outlook excludes Catholicism, and respond to points that seem puzzling to modern people without shading the truth. Or they might include an updated Syllabus of Errors that applies lasting principles to current situations and ways of speaking.

At a concrete everyday level, the Church needs once again to take seriously her responsibility for the general education of believers. Education is ultimately religious, since it embodies an understanding of man, the world, and the purpose of life. But if so, why is Catholic education so much less available than in the past? And why have so many of the schools we have become so dubiously Catholic? Until we do better on such matters, the Church will continue to fail an obvious pastoral duty, and a basic need for reversing decline and renewing thought and culture will remain unaddressed.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared June 11, 2015 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail from “St. Thomas Aquinas” painted by Bartolome Esteban Murillo.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).