Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off, Conclusion

Early specialization has eliminated the common culture that could produce a D' Arcy Thompson or an Anthony Powell or a Douglas Young, and we are left with an intellectual life dominated by trained savages who can do their job, understand (perhaps) some little corner of the universe (and, in the case, of cosmologists, that corner is very tiny, indeed!), but they cannot integrate what they have learned into a larger picture.  Read popular books by scientists, and whenever they step outside their field of specialization, they either fall back on the platitudes of the Durants or, what is worse, rely on whatever theoretical approach has been recommended by their colleagues in other departments.  

Carl Sagan was, perhaps, the most extreme example, passing sweeping judgments on Christianity while lifting his opinions—and in a least one case an entire passage--wholesale from popular encyclopedias.  But Sagan was not even the worst of a bad lot, a position I reserve for Julian Jaynes, author of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a work that became absurdly popular in some quarters and worthy to be set on the shelf between Holy Blood, Holy Grail and Civilization and Its Discontents.  

No, Carl Sagan and Julian Jaynes were not entitled to their opinions on history and theology, any more than Bill Moyers or Ken Burns is entitled to an opinion on anything that exists outside the stifling atmosphere breathed by all right-thinking men.  But where would pollsters be if just any unreflective jackass did not feel entitled to vent his opinions on whether, the French Revolution, or nude sunbathing. 

But Americans have a right to their opinion. “You say tomayto, I say tomahto.”   Yes, it is true that we grow up with different tastes and speaking different dialects, but why should it be impossible, even in principle, to say that one pronunciation is preferable to another, or that one should not put grated parmigiano on a seafood pasta or wear a striped tie with a checkered shirt or brown shoes in the evening. 

I read an article in The Daily Mail, in which an Italian chef employed by Barilla provided an authentic recipe for spaghetti carbonara.  Many of the commenters insisted that he had no right to reject the cream that is added to the dish in bad restaurants, though some went onto say that, while the cream was good, adding it  turned a carbonara to pasta Alfredo! 

I do not say that informed judgments on pronunciation, dress, and food are necessarily infallible, though anyone who thinks a carbonara can be made with cream should stick to chip butty.  But readers of DM on both sides of the Atlantic appear to be offended by the suggestion that any informed judgment might be more correct than the personal whim of an ignoramus.    There is no reason to get upset.  As the literate are fond of  telling themselves, “error of opinion may be tolerated where truth is left free to combat it.”  The trouble is, that the holders of erroneous opinion, being in the vast majority, have no appetite for tolerating truth.

Perhaps in Mr. Jefferson’s world, truth and error could co-exist, but not in ours.  If everyone in Des Moines puts cheese on his bucatini con sugo di cozze and regards Norman Mailer as a great writer, what chance does a poor Iowa boy have, if he never meets anyone to tell him he is wrong?  Millions of Christians have fallen for heresies as plausible as Arianism and as implausible as Calvin’s theory of predestination, but in this case, at least, the heretics do not claim they have a right to their opinion but that they are right.  Thomas Hobbes, to this extent was correct: “They that approve a private opinion, call it opinion; but they that mislike it, heresy: and yet heresy signifies no more than private opinion.”

Why do people insist on having opinions about things they do not care enough to study?  I meet Straussians who want to argue about Lincoln or Jefferson but refuse to consider the content of their speeches and letters.  Straussians are, admittedly, dedicated to the proposition that they should lie themselves into power, but they are hardly unique.  A few years ago I was having dinner with a group of intelligent post-Marxists, and, in talking about Thucydides, one of them opined that Christian Meier was wrong about Thucydides.  Now, there are many things in Meier’s work with which I disagree quite strongly, but it was simply absurd for a Greekless political theorist to have, much less express an opinion on a great historian.  He was shocked by my arrogance and appealed to an expert on German literature: 

“Surely, I don’t have to know German to have an opinion about Goethe?”

This was not the question, I explained, because one could get a decent idea of Goethe’s greatness as a thinker by reading him in translation.  A better parallel would be a judgment on Goethe as a poet.  The political theorist agreed to the restatement of the question and was again shocked to hear his friend the German expert agree entirely that no one could judge Goethe’s poetry who had not read him in German.  I have had almost the same argument with a good and estimable friend who praised a book on Solzhenitsyn written by someone who did not know Russian.  It is bad enough, I suggested, for an ignoramus to think himself qualified to write such a book, but still worse for a still more ignorant third party to praise it.

Nearly 20 years ago Stephen R.L. Clark described the opinionated mentality as 

“I’m the sort of person who supports Everton rather than Liverpool, pretends to adore the Queen Mother and dislike Princess Anne, thinks that Qaddafi is insane and Gorbachev is a nicer chap than Brezhnev, and votes for Mrs. Tiggywinkle while expressing cautious disapproval of her policies.”

Was it always like this?  Perhaps it was.  Plato complains, repeatedly, about people who trust δόξη, that is, opinion, they know nothing but what seems good.  But Plato was being harsh.  The ordinary Athenians he lampooned believed what their parents and friends had taught them about courage and piety.  If traditional Athenian attitudes fell short of perfect truth, at least they did not, as so much Platonic teaching appears to do, confuse ordinary people on plain questions of moral responsibility11.  We cannot all be philosophers or scholars or evolutionary biologists.

It is dangerous for people to have too many opinions.  What difference does it make if I am right about the proper age for a child’s first communion or about what kind of music can be played in Church?  I am better off if I let the Church tell me what to do, and, if I persist in having an opinion, then the least I can do is to enter the priesthood or, if I lack the courage, become a professor of some relevant discipline.  What good do opinions do us once we are dead?  None, and, if they have made us uncharitable, a good deal of harm.

Whether we like it or not, most, perhaps all, of what we believe has been given to us by someone—by parents, teachers, or the authors of some cheap book we found abandoned in an airplane’s seat-pocket. If we are lucky enough to have been born into a wholesome (even if imperfect tradition), we can lead good lives without thinking too much.  Plato was wrong: the unexamined life must be worth leading.  Otherwise, there would be about 300 million Americans who would have to be terminated.  If we have been born into a bad tradition and are fortunate enough to see some of the errors, the greatest mistake is to conclude that we now ought to be thinking for ourselves.  If Islam or liberalism is wrong, it is only because something else is right, namely, the Christian tradition, and it is small credit to us if the truth has made its way, against all odds, into our stubborn and fitful intelligence.

Too often, however, we think we are wiser than the tradition that has made us.  Exasperated with a few bad priests or ministers, we immediately conclude that Christianity is bunk and that we are brilliant enough to see through the sham.  Or perhaps we have come to realize that the Catholic or Orthodox or Lutheran Church is entirely invalid, compared with the Fourway Church of the Sacred Wheel, whose truth we and a few others have been smart enough to recognize as the One True Church.  There is too much self-satisfaction in converts of every type.  They not only condemn the church of their parents to everlasting fire but, in the case of Protestant converts to Catholicism and Orthodoxy, they demand the most rigorous standards for a church whose traditions they hardly understand.

If we once discard the liberal illusion that our opinions mean something, we can subject ourselves to the disciplining reality of everyday experience and to the formative reality of the traditions that make us who we are and point us in a direction of who we ought to be. Naturally, that is just my opinion.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina