An Insightful New Book Examines the Soul of Our People

“The point of transhumanism is to achieve what Marx promised at history’s end not through political revolution, but through technological manipulation.”  ∼ Peter Augustine Lawler, American Heresies and Higher Education (2016)

From the perspective of a professor at a small, but excellent private Christian college in North Georgia, Peter Augustine Lawler somehow manages to see the country and what goes on in it, including in our own souls, better than most of us. Lawler, of course, has been around. He was on the President’s Bioethics Commission. He seems to have seen and cites most of the chic and not so chic movies of the last several generations. He is the editor of Perspectives in Political Science. He knows his Plato, Aquinas, Locke, and Nietzsche.

Lawler’s only failure of prophecy in this fine book is the passage that reads: “The result after all, will be President Hillary Clinton, the favorite candidate of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.” I would be very surprised if Lawler is overly disappointed that his future assumption was somewhat obscured. Avoiding the disaster of Hillary Clinton is one the surprising and welcome events of our time. In most of the rest of this readable and insightful book, Lawler gets everything pretty much right.

Lawler is a man familiar with political philosophy and its history. He is a careful reader of Aristotle and Tocqueville. His chapter on “Southern Discomfort” is about the mind of the South, where he lives. He is familiar with most of the great Southern writers. He knows the Catholic voices of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. The notion that we can write off the South as simply a bad case of prejudice and immoral slavery misses a whole element of nobility and honor that is probably more present in the South than anywhere else in the country.

Lawler is no apologist for the wrongs of the South, but he does not let them so blind him that he does not see its virtues. For anyone familiar with liquors, moreover, the title of his chapter is amusing: “Southern Discomfort.” He speaks often of the Stoic tradition found in Southern literature and life.

The film (The American Sniper) reminds us of what Walker Percy called the comparatively honorable and violent South has always given us a disproportionate number of our warrior/protectors. Where would we be without them? It’s easy to say that since the days of the Confederacy Southern men have been suckers serving questionable causes, but that would be the height of ingratitude. And God, country, family, and one’s brother warrior aren’t such questionable causes….

lawler-covWhen the country did need arms, the graduates of VMI, Clemson, and Texas A & M were there along with the men from Annapolis and Lee’s West Point. Then, too, there were the ordinary cadres, including the black soldiers, who were there prepared by culture in a fighting way that much of the rest of the country was not so easily prepared to imitate.

In many ways, this book is a defense not so much of democracy but of its need also for a proper aristocracy that separates itself through its own proper virtues and devotion to an honor and a truth that are not just other forms of relativism. Lawler points out that higher education is by definition aristocratic. It is primarily designed to find out who is best, what is true. “The aristocratic truth is that to be human is to have a singular greatness (and misery) not shared with the other animals. The Christian truth is that all men are equally created to display the greatness of unique and irreplaceable individuals, and part of that greatness is the truth about why we can joyfully and responsibly share in common.” The meaning of “common” pervades this book.

Lawler has some sobering things to say about the church that conceives its mission in largely political terms. “The danger in democracy is that Christian churches lose their capacity to be genuinely countercultural, or teach the truth that will be neglected ‘on the street’ in middle class democracy.” The point of the separation of church and state was largely to protect the church. It was “to keep the church from being corrupted by excessive concerns with endlessly egalitarian justice and the logic of the market.” Nothing is so obvious in recent decades as the shift of Christian preaching and activity to a this-worldly emphasis.

The vital place of the transcendent order is one of the neglected aspects of Christian revelation. It is frequently noted that contemporary churches, including the Catholic Church, tend to an enthusiasm and concern for this world. What is called ”social justice” often absorbs spiritual energy so that nothing is left but the cares of this world, now no longer seen against the background of an eternity to which we are all directed in our very being.

II.

The first part of this book deals with education, and especially higher education. Lawler understands clearly that even a “liberal” education today has little relation to the classical notion of “liberal education” that inspired the founding of many if not most American colleges and universities. The twin notions of freedom and security have, in a strange logic, come to mean a freedom that has no limits and an insecurity that can no longer stand any criticism of itself. Universities end up being filled with bubbles and “safe spaces” in which little freedom is allowed and no challenge to the destructive orthodoxy of diversity and political correctness is permitted. In many ways, universities are the least “diverse” institutions in our society. Universities have become the last place where we find any real discussion about the truth of things, about God, man, cosmos, and their interrelationships.

The reason for this result is the obvious one. We changed the definition of freedom. It does not mean forming the habits of virtue to enable us freely to be what we ought to be. Rather we remove any constraint or restriction of God or nature, so that we can be whatever we want to be. Universities end up being giant protection agencies that prevent the incoherence of such consequences from being squarely faced. Medical and psychological help are called in to assure us that everything is all right and life in this distorted world is the ideal to which everyone ought to be subject. The moral agenda of the university is exported to the political agenda of the courts and culture.

Lawler is quite aware of what a university or college ought to be like. “So most students come to college without the capacity to revel in the process of discovery that accompanies being able to treat literature as a form of knowledge. And, even given the best possible environment, the capacity to be liberally educated in this sense is given to relatively few.” The proposition that everyone should be born with a law degree or a doctorate or an MBA from Harvard simply is unrealistic and in fact is harmful to those who are compelled to study beyond their natural capacities or personal willingness to submit to the discipline that is intrinsic to higher education in a proper sense.

“Here’s a beginning to teaching respect for texts: there should be nothing in the classroom except a professor, students, and a great, or at least a really good book—a Supreme Court opinion or a classical political speech counts as a really good book. No PowerPoint, no laptop, no smart phones, and so forth.” When I read this passage, I knew that Lawler understood what it was to be a teacher. It was clear that his students, at Berry College, about whom he frequently speaks fondly in this book, were blessed. They have him in that spare classroom that he so correctly describes if we really want to be educated in the things that matter. These are the things that direct us to what is and not simply to ourselves, and what we might want now, or tomorrow.

III.

Lawler is particularly good in delineating the direction of much advanced technological thinking, particularly its relation to the human good. I cited in the beginning his brief remark on the real direction and meaning of transhumanism. It is an accurate insight. Much of what he writes is mindful of David Walsh’s The Modern Philosophical Revolution. What Lawler deals with is what might be called advanced technological theory, what we sometimes think of coming out of Silicon Valley or research universities. In my book, The Modern Age, I argued that modern political and theoretical philosophy, when looked at carefully, was an effort to achieve the Christian notions associated with eschatology in a this-worldly manner. This philosophical direction was necessary once the reality of the natural order or supernatural revelation addressed to human reason was denied.

Lawler explains what is motivating or directing technology. It is not technology itself. It follows Leo Strauss’s remark that once science rid itself of an objective natural order, it would be free to apply itself to man as himself an object of experimentation and “improvement.” We hear of scientific proposals to eliminate death. Others want to transfer the human race to other planets in distant solar system to keep it going.

In a sense, it is all in Plato, as, in a way, all education is. It is the question of whether the world is created in justice. Plato’s answer, one accepted in principle by Christianity, is that the requiting of justice cannot take place in this world. It does require a final judgment beyond death when the actual record of each person is finally made manifest.

As Lawler points out, almost every this-worldly utopian project retained the notion of a corporate goal or end-time when all would be made right in this world, at least for those who lived to see it. Those who “sacrificed” their lives in pursuit of this goal did not reach it. It is into this atmosphere that the transhumanist view comes into focus. And in a curious way, it is a shrewd effort to replace the Christian notion of the resurrection of the body. The Christian doctrine always held that it was this particular person whose life is to be completed eternally after death, either in glory or in the closing of the self on itself in a rejection of its given destiny.

Lawler points out that the transhumanist position recognizes that it is this particular person, Joe or Mary, who cannot, in its philosophical presuppositions, survive death. Thus, the technological project is to attend to this particular person within time. This approach can get into some interesting soul questions that involve replacing the body with other materials that are formed into the same body. Of course, this replacement of material goes on all the time in any living human body. What we have here is the attempt to keep every individual person, or at least some select ones, in existence down the ages. They by-pass the death that has been, up to now, the normal fate of each existing person. In Spe Salvi, Benedict XVI described this resulting inner-worldly deathless life as precisely “hell.”

Lawler’s book, in short, is a remarkable insight into the trends in the mind not just of the South, but the minds of academia, of the culture, and of the scientist. Lawler has a light touch and a wide-ranging knowledge that is itself an education. The book is a working out of his summary observation that “For the ancients, reason had to be in charge; for the moderns, the self has to be in charge.” Lawler suspects that the ancients still have the better side of the argument, a contemporary view that is about as “heretical” as we can find in the world today.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

By

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. His recent books include The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books are A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and the forthcoming On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017).

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