Retaking American Universities with Inspiration from Asia

Once or twice a year, I make the long journey to East Asia in order to reinvigorate my optimism about humanity in general and the possibilities for the United States in particular. Visiting partner universities in South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam, and interacting with students and faculty from this ambitious region is like stepping back into what I imagine post-war America was like. The universities are hubs for innovation and social leadership that are making life markedly better for the average person.

Not a day goes by when my local colleagues are not in the field helping political, economic, and social actors do better. Whether its cybersecurity, heritage management, youth leadership, digital infrastructure, or urban planning, I find myself stepping into a world apart from the resentful and risk-averse America that I leave behind. I once travelled here while my home university’s “diversity” bureaucracy was investigating me for a litany of made-up complaints that students had concocted to get me fired for being a conservative. Somehow, even that great evil melted into nothingness once I was alongside my serious colleagues in Asia. “Who cares what’s happening in the U.S.?” I recall thinking. “At least there’s one part of the world where the promise of the university is still on vivid display.”

I take universities to be a good litmus test of the health and values of a society. When well-managed, they both produce and reflect the best, when ill-managed, the worst. That is why groups like the National Association of Scholars (NAS), the conservative research and advocacy group of which I am a board member, have come into the spotlight recently. The values of a country are preserved, restored, and redeemed at the university. So its health is of more than nugatory significance. The destructive capture of the university by radicals that was dismissed as mere campus follies in the 1970s is today lodged firmly in our social, political, and economic institutions. Universities in America today not just export but also reinforce everything that is wrong with our republic. Rebuilding universities is the key to rebuilding public intellectual life, and with it American values.

My annual pilgrimage to Asia tells me that the pessimistic “burn it all down” sentiment filled with enmity, doom, and despair underestimates the possibilities of positive change in America. In particular, I see anew in the countries of East Asia (Northeast and Southeast Asia from Japan to Indonesia) how the three fundamental forces that made the West and its universities great – the free market, science and technology, and Western culture – can overcome the ideological cancer that has driven us to rancor and entitlement. These forces, which the NAS embraces in its stated mission to “foster intellectual freedom, search for the truth, and promote virtuous citizenship”, show where the work is to be done and how the future may be brighter than we think. I still find myself surprised by joy at the possibility that the American university and the broader public sphere can be rebuilt with inspiration from Asia.

I lived in Asia for over a decade and have been there often since. I do not exoticize or romanticize the region. Its problems are a mirror image of ours: a prevalence of rote and repetition in learning, a tendency to idolize science such that methods overtake substance, and a persistent authoritarian streak that makes universities dangerously vulnerable to bad decisions. But in the main, I see Asia overcoming its weaknesses and building on its strengths far more than we in the West. “Stand to your work and be wise – certain of sword and pen,” Kipling wrote, rallying England to the challenge of Asia. “Who are neither children nor Gods, but men in a world of men.”

Freedom and Markets

Capitalism is the necessary institution of human flourishing, and don’t let any screaming Swedish teenager or muddled Argentinian pontiff tell you otherwise. Not just economic flourishing, mind you. That one is obvious. Political, social, and even environmental flourishing depend on free markets as well. We can debate how to keep the market aligned with the public good. But nothing can ever replace it as an engine of human betterment.

When Marxists began populating the academy in the 1960s, it was thought to be merely a widening of the intellectual circle. After all, neo-classicists, libertarians, conservatives, socialists, and social welfarists already existed on campus. Adding Marxists to the mix was expected to improve the contention. But by the 2000s, the radical march through the institutions had left on campus only the Marxists, including a new brand of post-Marxists obsessed with the cultural means of production. They claimed that their triumph reflected the progress of history. Capitalism was in its death throes (“late capitalism” was the term of abuse) as was European culture (disparaged as “neo-colonialism”) and universities needed to prepare for a future based on New Socialist Man. Amazingly, the collapse of socialist regimes in Europe had little effect on the campus mindset because the radicals told themselves that this collapse was a result of American Cold War hostility rather than popular preferences.

Communist regimes in China and Vietnam knew better. They survived by embracing markets without political freedom. Socialist parties continued to wreak havoc in Latin America, where socialist norms remain resilient and are remaking the American republic as a result of uncontrolled immigration. Africa remained fundamentally uninstitutionalized and thus an evergreen model for socialist utopias. It is no coincidence that market freedoms coincided with the rise of top universities in China, and now Vietnam, while traditional top universities in the West declined.

This complacent story meant that in the 1990s, rather than waking up to the dawning reality of global competition, the Western academy went into a tailspin. It invented new attacks on the market using jargon about “neo-liberalism” and “racialized inequality.” The spillover effects on society were catastrophic.

Markets are a way of organizing societies as much as economies. They put a moral value on self-control, planning, prudence, hard work, thrift, and responsibility. The attack on markets was an attack on these “bourgeois values”, as my colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Wax, famously called them. The abandonment of these values by wide swathes of American society was a direct consequence of the Marxist capture of the university.

What are the grounds for hope? Like China and Vietnam before us, societies that flirt with a state takeover of national life, whether through expropriation, regulation, or taxation, quickly learn the costs. When President Trump declared in his 2019 State of the Union that “America will never be a socialist country” it was a winning appeal. His Council of Economic advisors in 2018 had issued a report on “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism” that pointed to rising socialist sentiments on the left. A “socialist program for the U.S.,” it noted, “would make shortages, or otherwise degrade quality, of whatever product or service is put under a public monopoly. The pace of innovation would slow, and living standards generally would be lower.”

The report worried about potential socialized medicine or confiscatory personal and corporate taxes. But socialism had already come to the university. The innovation and ambition that characterized American colleges and universities in the post-war era was destroyed by entitled faculty unions, radical bureaucrats, and the use of federal subsidies to socialize campus management.

The problem was not the absence of “intellectual freedom” as many of my colleagues on the right insist. The lesson of the Cold War was that intellectual freedom was inseparable from market freedom. The claim that we just needed to inject some conservatives and classical liberals into campus like artificial insemination was a myth. Rather, it was the growing capture of institutions of higher education by federally-funded radicals that was the problem.

The lack of intellectual freedom and pluralism is today endogenous to the American university. The Marxist socialization of higher education – not just the funding but the use of the funding to impose all manner of federal and state regulations as well as ideological mandates – is the problem. Any freedom injected into this setting will be punished and expelled, like the hapless peasants who tried to keep kitchen gardens in Mao’s China. That’s why “cancel culture” is wholly unsurprising, and frankly irrelevant.

Intellectual freedom and pluralism will be restored only once the fetters of Marxist control are removed. Then, we will get a rebalancing of perspectives on campus. If universities cannot be radically marketized, then much of their research should be pulled out of them and into standalone institutions. This would allow universities to divide their units into standalone profit centers not dependent on the cross-subsidization of gender studies and sociology departments. Deadweight costs emanating from DEI bureaucracies and mandates would be saved. New schools and colleges offering job-relevant skills and services to society would proliferate, while liberal arts colleges would thrive only if they actually taught the liberal arts.

My host institution in Thailand, the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University, is a standalone profit center that has to pay rent on its land and overhead costs to the university. As a result, it is a dynamo of teaching and public outreach, and its enrollment is surging. It cannot afford ideological follies. The only “inequality” of concern in Asia is an inequality of opportunities for individuals to be absolutely better off than their parents. With broad economic growth and value-adding educational systems, this concern is close to non-existent.

I have seen the future, and it is neo-liberal. It is also rife with inequalities of the best sorts. And I see an eventual awakening from state planning in American public life that will usher in this change. In this American future, students will again be the masters of their souls, not the slaves of campus ideologues. They will be directed to their own behavior and contributions, not to “grand narratives” about victimization and powerlessness fed to them by socialist planners. They will take initiative, add value, see opportunities, and make positive changes. That’s what I see at Asian universities, and that’s the first way that the socialist pandemic will be defeated in the American public sphere.

Science and Truth

The creation of markets was not the only key event in the rise of the West. The other was more breathtaking because it had no antecedents in folk cultures or primitive societies. This was the discovery of a conception of disembodied, impersonal, and non-contingent truths that an individual could discover, and then follow. Science was a formalization of this shift. It took place in Medieval Europe with the discovery of the individual as freed from social determinism, governed only by the immutable laws and love of a transcendent God. The belief that humans resemble God by virtue of being conscious of themselves and able to understand and know things about the world around them remains the irrevocable religious foundation on which all modern science is based.

So widespread did the basic tenets of science become – measurable concepts, disprovable theories, logical justification, openness to new evidence, etc. – that even the study of human societies was made scientific. The “social sciences” achieved its greatest breakthroughs from roughly the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. While academic philosophers today with no knowledge of the actual practices and evidence of the social sciences dismiss the possibility of relatively dependable laws of society, much of our contemporary world is based on such laws. The Federal Reserve is raising interest rates to combat inflation because we know a thing or two about how humans respond to borrowing costs. When you file your underpaid taxes this year, the IRS will suggest planning better for next year because we know a thing or two about human psychology. I could go on.

Despite the obvious fruits of the scientific method for both natural and social understanding, the academy experienced another dysphoria beginning in the 1970s, and another march through the institutions by the confused. The pilgrims this time were not the Marxists advocating communal planning of society and the socialist road in order to overcome the oppression of “the system.” These radicals had after all insisted that they were following “scientific socialism.” The parvenus were more nearly in direct opposition to them, insisting that all knowledge claims were mere individual beliefs, hopelessly subjective. In place of campus as a place of liberation, we got campus as a place of irony. These postmodernists of various stripes saw their mission as rescuing students from the paradigms and grand narratives that had been created by the rich, the powerful, and (latterly) the white.

The cracks that allowed this fungus to infect the tree of knowledge had been made by the scientists themselves. The British philosopher Walter Gallie wrote a seminal article in 1956 on how social concepts like “democracy” changed their meaning over time because of their “appraisive” nature. But he rejected that view that there was no logic in human affairs. To fall into a “new obscurantism” was to lurch from the mistake of Marxist universalism to that of postmodern relativism, he warned. “Since the Enlightenment a number of brilliant thinkers seem positively to have exulted in emphasizing the irrational elements in our thinking,” he noted.

Another scientist working on the social aspects of the search for truth, American philosopher Thomas Kuhn, warned in his monumental 1962 book on progress and setbacks in science that his work should not be used to advance a lazy slide into relativism. If anything, he argued, the social sciences made more progress than the sciences because “there are always competing schools, each of which constantly questions the very foundations of the others.”

Too late. Postmodernists seized on Gallie and Kuhn to argue that all knowledge is relative and political. The diligent work of scientists and social scientists ended up producing a cadre of smug and cynical professors whose march through the institutions slightly displaced the Marxists who had marched before them. The “deep concord” of faith and reason, as the national treasure Alvin Platinga, a Notre Dame philosopher called it, was pushed aside by the “superficial concord” of a new belief in atheistic naturalism and a human reason now untethered from any claims to transcendent validity.

Truth was now tumbling along the shifting sands of social justice. Scientific claims were disparaged by the Marxists if they did not comport with social justice, and by the postmodernists if they took a dislike to the skin pigmentation or genitalia of the claim-maker. This did not start in the gender, queer, black, native, and Chicano departments. These intellectual wastelands were an effect not a cause. Rather, it started in the core liberal arts departments: sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and history. Now it is mainstream and weather-proofed against the cold winds of rational debate.

Post-truth academics could now be only two flavors: atheist Marxists fighting for the lumpen proletariat; or cynical doges of “diversity” fighting for epistemologically victimized. The flagship research university in my home state of Oregon has for the past two years forced all incoming undergraduates to read a counter-Enlightenment manifesto named Braiding Sweetgrass. In it, a SUNY botanist who claims native ancestry, Robin Kimmerer, tells students to learn to talk to plants and that “Western” science has obliterated brilliant native insights. The Dave Barry codicil requires constant refrain: “I’m not making this up.”

The attack on science necessitated an attack on free speech, or to be more particular, speech that questioned the nostrums of Marxist social justice, intersectionality, postmodern flightiness, or the evils of the West. This was dressed up as “inclusiveness” and “diversity” and, lately, “anti-racism”, but it all meant the same thing: Don’t subject our post-truth agenda to your contest of ideas.

The COVID pandemic provided a stark reminder of the costs. Cut off from social pressures of the sort that Kuhn applauded, the scientific establishment proved a menace to society as great as the Marxist regimes of the past. But an equal and opposite menace came from the postmodern conspiracy theorists and quacks for whom all scientific claims were a narrative intended to attain power. A delicious irony was the fact that the political left, forced to choose, opted for Marx over Foucault, the all-powerful centralizing state imposing the dictatorship of the vaccinariat on the people. It was the political right, especially the libertarian right, that embraced the worst of Foucault. All public policies were intended to “discipline and punish”, and the public health system was no better than a lunatic asylum. The American campus is what laid the groundwork for both.

Over in Asia, meanwhile, universities have been running on high-octane science with tremendous results. Neither cynical about science nor insisting that it serve social justice, they have allowed it to play its apt role. When I explain to my colleagues in Asia what has been going on in the United States, they stare blank-faced, mouths hanging. Then a nervous laugh. And again: “Who cares? It makes it easier for us to emerge on top.”

And Godspeed them. Those of us who travel in the region for business, research, or government know how fabulously committed our colleagues in Asia are to evidence-based advance. In a word, to science, broadly understood as the quest to discover and live by the truths of His dominion.

To be sure, there are militant feminists and obscurantists in Asia too, mostly trained in the West and going on about queering this and decolonizing that. They are oddballs in Asian academic departments, looked upon with pity and never likely to have any influence on society.

Can it change? My hope lies in the fact that America is the place where faith has not yet been defeated despite the best efforts of European intellectuals. It enrages the American academy how American society stubbornly refuses to conform to European norms that encourage fatherless births, a lack of marriage, the obliteration of religious belief, and sheep like dependence on state-run medicine, education, and media. Because of these twin impulses — the market-led free society and the pervasive refusal to give up on the idea of transcendent Truth — American remains the last best hope in the West as a gathering place for scientific excellence.

A few centers of excellence have even escaped from the treason of the intellectuals, showing that the left has failed to snuff out the light of science and truth. Caltech, for instance, remains a miracle of excellence and meritocracy, especially given its location. Its ranking has never fallen. There are efforts in many Republican-controlled states to remove research funding from universities that impose Marxist or postmodern ideologies on students and faculty, especially via DEI mandates. Rebel bases like Bluefield State University in West Virginia and its self-described “campus maverick” president Robin Capehart keep appearing. More will come.

Like the belief in truths that survived the Communist propaganda in Soviet and Maoist days, the curiosity, humility, and long game of the truth-seeking mind cannot be destroyed. We’d better get a move on. Asian research on all things – science, business, social science, technology, engineering, medicine, etc. – is moving ahead faster than we know.

Virtue and the West

The first line of the old Thai constitution used to read: “Let there be virtue.” The current version repeats the phrase in eight different places, always referring to the teachings of Lord Buddha. Asia today is the only region of the world where ritualized acts of virtue grounded in dominant cultures continue to be a part of everyday living. This in turn permeates into strong social norms of conduct. Ritualized notions of respect, kindness, and accountability permeate campus. Students do not send emails of the sort I receive every day that begin “Hey Bruce”. Professors do not show up in the classroom in jeans and t-shirts and then tell the students about their failed marriages. Religion and the majority culture are integrated seamlessly into campus life from Hokkaido to Bali.

That word “integration” has taken on new urgency as Western countries have begun to disintegrate under the anti-cultural forces of Marxism (“Culture is false consciousness.”) and postmodernism (“Culture is oppressive.”). This disintegrating turn has been fueled by an influx of migrants from outside the West whose cultures are distinctive enough and persistent enough to represent enduring poles of non-majority culture that are slowly erasing, both statistically and conceptually, what the ghoulish like to call “white culture.”

The strategy of political parties of the left is to bide time and run out the demographic clock. European peoples are not having babies, and non-Europeans ones are migrating en masse. They just want safety and “the system” as it is and will put up with a little herding by plantation managers since it is still infinitely better than what they left behind. Pick off a few segments of white culture, especially college-educated women with no children, and you have an enduring coalition indifferent or hostile to the values of the West.

The result is that public rituals on campus, and increasingly beyond, are no longer centered on dominant Western culture, but are instead attacks on it. Land acknowledgements, pronoun declarations, architectural removals and renamings, BIPOC-only events, hostile “whiteness” studies, and “decolonizing” movements have turned culture into anti-culture.

Under those circumstances, how can it be possible to advance the third NAS principle, namely the promotion of “virtuous citizenship?” How, in other words, can universities and broader cultural institutions define and promote a concept of citizenship grounded in a shared conception of virtue when the virtues at stake, which have drawn billions of migrants to the West, are now the target of systemic erasure?

This is perhaps the knottiest challenge of the three because it is where conservatives must beg leave of their classical liberal, libertarian, and otherwise free-thinking colleagues. Like new migrants, these brethren often take the cultural basis of a free society for granted. They want all the West’s rule of law, stable politics, wide freedoms, flourishing market economy, and social trust without any of its cultural foundations. Indeed, new migrants are often more keenly aware of the precious cultural heritage of the West than these unsociable anchorites, whether leftist eco-warriors or rightist militiamen.

The virtue generated through culture comes of a humility of checking one’s egotistical impulses, impulses now given high voltage by digital technologies. The NAS may applaud the work of fellow-travelling iconoclasts who make fun of the Woke academy. But atheism, hyper individualism, and ego are often their bywords. The American republic, and the public square that animates it, can never be retaken by individuals obsessed with their Tik Tok views.

The source of the virtues of the West is its culture and traditions. This means the inherited practices, habits, and systems that have worked well. With apologies to Monty Python, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords — like strange men lying in the Pennsylvania State House distributing two senate seats per state — is precisely the basis for a system of government. But preserving that system requires constant reverence for and delight in the uniquely Western culture that produced it.

So who or what is the “Lord Buddha” to which we must bend the knee in silent reverence? In a word, the Western canon: the precious ethical, literary, artistic, philosophical, theological, historical, and architectural accretion that layered Greek, Jewish, Roman, Catholic, Protestant, and finally Enlightenment cultures one on top of the other. Each country then bit off a particular morsel – for the United States it came ashore in 1620 with the powerful idealism of the New England Puritans – on which to craft its national virtue.

Calling this “white culture” is shorthand at best. Whatever the later associations of the West with the more fair-skinned and small-featured peoples of northern Europe, the origins lie in the Near East and Mediterranean. The bride of the Song of Songs is “black but comely” due to long days in the vineyard sun. And, not to be mistaken for an insult, the bridegroom sings to her: “Your nose, the Tower of Lebanon.”

More important, it is the uniquely universal accessibility of Western culture that makes it so powerful. Black Americans may opt out of American society into delusions of African grandeur and brilliance. Native Americans may likewise dwell in dreams of some lost cultural paradise wiped out by the white man. The South Asian radicals rapidly rising into power on the left may equally style themselves as bearers of some Hindoo moral mandala needed to save the West. But two things bear repeating. One is that although the left can pick off some key demographics of the white population, the right will have much more potential picking off key demographics of the non-white population. After all, the right’s message is not based on fear and condescension. It is based on colorblind Western universalism. Some of the most passionate and articulate voices in support of American greatness and Western values are no longer white (a return to historical form, so to speak). Let me sing the praises of the “black but comely” Carol Swain, senior fellow for constitutional studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Allow me to compliment Conservative British prime minister Rishi Sunak, his nose “the Tower of Lebanon.” Dare I further invoke the Song of Songs in adoration of the freedom-loving essayist and activist Wenyuan Wu, her hair “black as a raven”?

Second, white groups are remarkably resilient. WASPs are not going away and have no intention of giving up their uniquely important role in the preservation of American freedoms. Nor, for that matter, are white Catholics, European Jews, Appalachian crooners, Minnesota Nordics, Wyoming cowboys, Pennsylvania Germans, and red-headed Scots-Irish. In the face of an elite culture emanating from Hollywood and Madison Avenue that has sought an erasure of white culture, it just keeps going. Try to black-wash the Lord of the Rings, a parable of medieval Europe, or the novels of Jane Austen and you will fall on your face.

The “virtuous citizenship” practiced in Asia through everyday ritualized reminders and ongoing education in dominant cultures is a model for Western countries, and the United States in particular. Begin the day with the Pledge of Allegiance. Decorate your public spaces with images of Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington. Teach Magna Carta and the Puritan sermons. Read widely from Homer to Hamilton. Do all that and along the way, take time to notice and delight in the variety of peoples from many cultural backgrounds who stand on the frontlines whistling “The Battle of the Kegs.”

We thus might amend slightly the NAS slogan—“For reasoned scholarship in a free society”—to make it less eloquent but more precise: “For reasoned scholarship in a free and Western society.” A simple formula that packs a punch. Swords and pens, gentlemen. Stand to your work and be wise.


A native of Calgary and a graduate of Trinity College, Oxford and Princeton, Bruce Gilley is professor of political science at Portland State University. His latest books are In Defense of German Colonialism and The Last Imperialist. Sir Alan Burns’ Epic Defense Of The British Empire.


Featured: Gallery of Views of Modern Rome, by Giovanni Paolo Panini; painted in 1759.

The Catholic Challenge to Progressivism

Thomas Michaud’s book, After Justice: Catholic Challenges to Progressive Culture, Politics, Economics and Education, is an attempt to address the decline of Western Civilization. Michaud believes that this decline has occurred incrementally, and he is intent on identifying the reasons for it. Convinced that ideas have consequences, Michaud records how competing ideologies have upset the West’s moral compass. The most conspicuous of these ideologies is Progressivism. For the author Progressivism is something of an umbrella term covering several left-leaning visions of individual and communal life.

Since this volume is a kind of polemic, one might expect it to have a bellicose tone, followed by a mournful quality. But to the contrary, Michaud’s book is curiously bright and hopeful, despite its critical aims. Michaud’s polemic is buoyed by its enthusiastic reliance on Catholic social teaching and Catholic wisdom in general. Michaud is confident that the long historical arc of Catholic wisdom provides the resources to teach how the decline of the West can be arrested.

Michaud discovers in the Catholic tradition the principles of a rich theological and philosophical personalism. On this earth God’s glory is most manifest in a human life fully lived. In personalism the wonder of the mysterious depths of human person as an embodied soul, endowed with intellect and will, is the metaphysical foundation for explaining human nature and civilized life. Accordingly, personalism, comprehensively understood, is the remedy for what ails culture. This book is basically a reminder that Western Civilization is at its heart Christendom, a vision of society built on Jesus Christ as the standard of humanity. Personalism applies its principles on cultural, economic, and political life, since the triad of culture, economics, and government constitutes society and its development. Michaud’s volume shows that Western Culture now is in distress because it has forgotten the person as the proper foundation of this triad.

Upon summarizing the book’s structure, an Introduction and Seven Sections of essays, one can see how Michaud in his own way prosecutes this triad. The Introduction provides autobiographical details which illuminate key elements of Michaud’s own pilgrimage as an educator, philosopher, and Christian intellectual. Next follows the book’s seven broad sections, each containing a “Section Introduction,” which is exceedingly helpful. The Sections cover a wide variety of subject matter. Section I: Lectures and Editorials treats issues ranging from electoral politics to sports. Section II Marcelian Perspectives speaks to the influence of Gabriel Marcel on Michaud’s philosophical work. Marcel’s influence is evident one way or another throughout the entire volume. Section III: Leadership Formation summarizes reflections on the nature of leadership, a subject on which Michaud has lectured extensively, appreciating that principles of leadership disclose how organizations, including civilization itself, can succeed. Section IV: Environmentalism and Realism, a discussion Michaud takes up because of the many ideological assumptions implicit in the environmentalist movement. While environmentalists profess to be green, they also tend to be red since they hope to commandeer big government to advance their various agendas. Section V: Critiques of Progressive Politics, Pluralism, Political Economy and Revolution is a set of essays wherein Michaud speculates about the reasons for social decline. Out of the plurality of essays in this section, Michaud recommends five of them for special consideration: “The Problematic Politics of Postmodern Pluralism,” “Diversity within the United States’ Culture and Politics.” “Democracy Needs Religion” “Blasts from the Preclassical Past: Why Contemporary Economics Education Should Listen to Preclassical Thought,” and “Anatomy of the Progressive Revolution.”

The first two of these five essays express Michaud’s conviction that tolerance and justice have been altered by Progressive culture to insinuate a social philosophy akin to Marxism, especially in the form of identity politics. These essays also suggest Michaud’s agreement with John Adams that America will thrive so long as her citizens remain a moral and religious people. As a group, these five essays consider how Left-Wing ideology depersonalizes society, the effects of which are evident in the past few generations. Michaud salutes the influence of Alexis de Tocqueville and Michael Novak for their implicit personalism, especially evident in the way they worry about the erosion of morality and the dignity of the person in economics. The fifth essay reminds us that Progressivism is not just a movement aiming at reform but seeks transformation of Western Culture.

Section VI: Progressivism’s Challenges to Education and Millennials’ Happiness relates how questions of social organization impact individual happiness. The book closes with a fascinating Short Story which narrates an event from Michaud’s autobiographical record.

The persistent theme percolating throughout Michaud’s book is that political correctness is a toxin. Political correctness is not just an annoyance caused by ideological busy bodies. It is an assault on truth by the manipulation of language. By means of that manipulation, people become confused and social standards become transformed, which causes confusion as people habituated in traditional language are bemused by its change. Political correctness in its extreme is Orwellian, represented by Winston Smith conceding in 1984 that indeed 2 + 2 = 5. By control of language, authorities can control thought. This outcome is now evident in the way universities equivocate on truth and turn education into indoctrination.

A keen insight is Michaud’s observation that in recent times, champions of political correctness have refined two social tools to serve their purpose of transforming Western society. These tools are (1) a modified, ideological adaptation of tolerance and (2) an alteration of fairness in the form of social justice.

Tolerance and social justice are subtle devices since they exploit the hope that people will assume that tolerance and social justice today mean what they have meant for centuries. Who would oppose openness and fairness, which principles tolerance and justice imply? However, tolerance today and social justice are a new kind of pluralism and fairness and are effectively equivocations on the ancient meanings of those terms. The politically correct are clever, which is demonstrated by using terms which have appeal because people think they signify what they have traditionally meant. But by the sleight of hand of Leftist ideologues, the meanings of justice and tolerance have changed.

Justice classically means relating to people in a way that they deserve. But social justice is different. It interprets desert not in terms of merit but in terms of identity politics. Consider that political correctness adds an adjectival qualifier which alters meaning. When the word “social” modifies justice, a different meaning is attached to fairness. Traditionally, justice is an individual’s habit or virtue of being respectful of others, who deserve respect. Social justice, on the other hand, is a kind of identity politics, in which one divides people into groups and stereotypes them. Once the groups are stereotyped, the effort is made, often by means of government, to favor some groups and disfavor others. The virtue of justice classically understood implies impartiality and equality of standards in the application of fairness. But this is not how social justice applies today. Instead, social justice suspects traditional ideas about impartiality associated with meritocracy or earned desert. Social justice comfortably accepts partiality and inequality of application, which the politically correct call “equity,” a principle inspired by the aim of restorative justice, the remedy of past wrongs perpetrated by some groups against others.

Aware of these points, Michaud regards social justice as a Marxist trope. By using politically correct language, social justice insinuates that justice is about groups, not individuals. Because human beings are social animals, as Aristotle long ago observed, there has always been sociability implicit in the idea of justice. But the status and significance of the individual was nonetheless at the heart of the classical meaning of justice because it involved individual judgment and habit formation. Social justice, however, is a Marxist tool to eliminate the individual and reduce justice to a matter of group identities and relations. For example, when a teacher discovers that a student is cheating in class, he or she ought not judge that the student is an individual wrongdoer. That would imply that he has autonomy and moral agency. Such judgment is simplistic and does not consider how we are shaped by social forces. No, it is not the cheater’s fault. It is society’s fault, which has somehow made the student a victim. If schools weren’t compromised by an unfair social system, students wouldn’t cheat. Not surprisingly, victimology is common in the exercise of social justice, a point of view that echoes Vladimir Lenin’s conviction that the proletariat cannot commit crimes because of their disadvantage before bourgeoise power. Of course, the radical political implication is that when injustice occurs, social justice warriors cry out for big government intervention to remedy the problem. Hence, social justice becomes an excuse to expand government. As a tool of unbridled political correctness, it can encourage formation of a totalitarian state.

Tolerance is another classical virtue that has been malformed by political correctness. Historically, tolerance was understood as a virtue of justice which impels a person to allow something he disagrees with because, if he were to disallow it, a kind of injustice could follow. In the spirit of traditional tolerance whole peoples with profoundly different beliefs and values have gotten along and have even lived as neighbors. But this vision of tolerance is less popular today, especially when ideological disagreements are the issue. Today, those who profess to be among the most tolerant are often content to seek refuge in tribalistic separateness. Among Progressives, tolerance is a kind of virtue signaling, a way in which a person authenticates himself as an enlightened human being by accepting the directives of politically correct thinking.

Accordingly, Progressives, while preaching tolerance, often appear intolerant. For them, tolerance is not a species of traditional justice but a politically correct instrument to transform society. Of course, one could say that it is a species of social justice. In this way, tolerance conforms to the Leftist agenda to transform the West. Hence, the Progressive’s exercise of intolerance is quite coherent with their own worldview, even though it is out of step with the classical view of tolerance. Conservatives often do not understand this progressive application of tolerance, dismissing the Progressive’s attitudes and practices as inconsistent. But Progressives are consistent according to their own imperative: be intolerant of those who champion traditional tolerance, which is based on corrupt, benighted values. A tolerant person, as Progressives see it, is enlightened, and an enlightened person knows that intolerant people should not be tolerated. Intolerant people are unenlightened, and they are people who do not support or advance the interests of Progressive politics and culture. As a result, they are a social menace. So why should society tolerate them? An intolerant person, on their view, is indeed a regressive person, someone, like a practicing Christian, who tries to maintain traditional values and institutional beliefs that, while they pass as civilized, are, in fact, benighted.

Michaud’s book is a reminder that conservatives could help themselves by better understanding these nuances about tolerance in the Progressive movement. Instead, conservatives tend to complain tirelessly about inconsistency and censorship, failing to grasp and address the deeper motivations in Progressivism. Conservatives must recognize that they are dealing with a collision of worldviews. The Progressive worldview has endured longer than many conservatives realize, having emanated out of the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose ideological heir was Karl Marx.

Conservatives would do well to appreciate how champions of political correctness play them. Michaud appreciates how political correctness has taken over universities. Allan Bloom, in his instructive book, The Closing of the American Mind, explains in detail how the University became a stifling culture against free thought, changing from an institution that sought to instill liberal education, freedom and independence of thought, to a system repressing the exchange of ideas. This happened, Bloom explains, as Leftists indoctrinated students in relativism, claiming there is no truth, and that no idea is more defensible than any other. Bloom explains that this relativism, akin to nihilism, would nullify educators’ efforts to instill moral and intellectual ideals in students. The only virtue, intellectual or moral, that students wanted taught, was openness, a curriculum without judgments. The students would pay a price as this relativism became the cultural norm at the university, an outcome Bloom captured in the subtitle of his book: How Higher Education Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Without moral judgment there is no nutrition for the soul.

Michaud understands that this is what happened to the universities. But, of course, the strategy of political correctness recognized that this nihilism was just an episode. No culture can exist without judgments and constraints. The politically correct just pretended for a while that the university was a bastion of non-judgmentalism. After removing traditions and curricula on grounds that they were biased, the new politically correct leaders took over most universities and imposed a bureaucracy of bias and censorship of their own, mainly through the formation of programs and committees that might make old-time fascists envious. For example, universities made traditional educators remove speech codes and standards. But they celebrated this removal only until they came to dominate the university and inflict innumerable speech codes, behavioral restrictions, and censorship rules of a sundry kind. The politically correct played the Rope-a-Dope game to perfection. The conservatives on campus, wanting to appear open, accommodating, and non-judgmental (in short, wanting to appear “Progressive-Lite”), fell for the strategy: from radical openness to repression in two generations.

Conservatives would do well to learn to resist political correctness at every turn and not play the game by its rules. This is one of the lessons of Michaud’s instructive book: conservatives must learn to fight back, and with intelligence.


Curtis Hancock is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit institution in Kansas City, Missouri, USA, where he held the Joseph M. Freeman Chair of Philosophy for twenty years. He has a B.A. and M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Oklahoma, and a Ph.D. from Loyola University of Chicago. He is former President of the American Maritain Association and co-founder of the Gilson Society. He has published several books, including Recovering a Catholic Philosophy of Elementary Education. He has also published numerous articles and reviews.


Featured: The Liberation of St. Peter, by Antonio de Bellis; painted ca. early 1640s.

Petition: What went Wrong with Higher Education and How to Begin Fixing It

Going back to their origins in the Western European Middles Ages, the humanities were tasked with the articulation, preservation, critique and transmission of the fundamental values of western civilization.

Higher Education was understood as the initiation into that inheritance and as an adventure in self-understanding, an intellectual and moral inheritance of great splendor shared by both teachers and students.

When transmitted to students who possessed the intellectual capacity and maturity to absorb it they would serve as society’s elite leadership. This was the ideal of a liberal education.

Those values continued to underpin the rise of the sciences and markets in the modern world. The evolution of modern American universities came to encompass the humanities, scientific research, and preparation for their practical application. Beneficiaries of that education prospered in their individual careers and contributed to America’s prosperity, its world-wide dominance economically, politically, and culturally.

Like everything else, things started to go wrong in the 1960s. Seemingly challenged by the then USSR, the US government initiated the first federal loan program, the National Defense Student Loan, now the Perkins Loan, in 1958. In 1965, the federal government began guaranteeing student loans provided by banks and non-profit lenders.

The vast and sudden expansion in the 1960s of so-called higher education had serious consequences.

First, the humanities and social sciences, recently followed by the hard (i.e., real) sciences, were captured by the political left leading to the conclusion that the Western inheritance and the U.S. in particular were responsible for all the domestic and international evil in the world.

Second, the federal government was now subsidizing its own executioner! Buoyed by such misguided and self-destructive generosity, institutions of higher education…

  1. raised tuition way beyond what inflation required;
  2. hastily produced several generations of lower-quality-to-incompetent teachers who acquiesced in the now dominant left-leaning ideology;
  3. expanded admissions to include vast numbers of either ineligible (democracies have a difficult time dealing with the fact that there are inherent differences in ability) or under-prepared students;
  4. used the vast expansion to create a bloated bureaucracy (which turned out to be jobs for ideologues who served as “commissars”);
  5. lowered standards both to cover up the inadequate preparation of the students, disguise the laxness of the faculty, and maintain the high levels of funding;
  6. no longer committing themselves to defending western values, these institutions largely stopped teaching the basic texts of western literature and philosophy, making it impossible for students to understand these values;
  7. and engaged in undermining the legitimacy of the US as a nation state by accepting vast sums of money to engage in scientific research on behalf of Communist China!

The consequences are now obvious. First, there is a mismatch between the product and the market (this was already known by the 1980s). When 2% of graduates had a traditional college degree, they enjoyed many economic opportunities and personal prosperity (companies competed to hire someone who was both smart and demonstrated both responsibility and diligence). When 65% have a recent vintage degree that is enough to belie the argument that college graduates automatically earn more. Moreover, when their degrees are a total mismatch to the job market, they will have both no serious job and no way to repay the loans. Yes, we have a student loan crisis! But we have a crisis in higher education’s very raison d’etre.

We need to begin the process or retrieving our heritage, providing meaningful education for all students so that they can experience individual prosperity, and contribute to America’s prosperity and greatness.

Toward that end, we offer the following petition in the hopes that influential people will read it, sign it and that Congress will complete the process of amending its role in higher education!

Please access the petition by clicking here.


Featured image: “Allegory of wisdom,” attributed to Giovanni Domenico Cerrini, 17th century.

The Invisible College

Nick Capaldi and Nadia Nedzel have inaugurated a new organization, Invisible College.

The organization seeks to promote live conversations about important books and topics through Zoom and other media, as well as in person. In addition to its own scheduled “conversations,” it will help others organize their own.

In the following conversation, Nick Capaldi and Marsha Enright discuss the meaning, origins, methodology and purpose of the conversations.



Featured image: Treatises On Natural Science, Philosophy, And Mathematics, ca. 1300.

The University Is A European Christian Institution Par Excellence

The existing consensus among historians is that the “university” was invented in medieval Christian Europe. The first university was Bologna, founded in 1088, followed by Oxford in 1096. By the end of the fourteenth century, in 1400, there were about 34 universities across Europe; and in 1500 there were 66, and none outside (Verger, pp. 57, 62-65). In 1789, the year of the French Revolution, there were about 143 universities in Europe, with only one university outside in Turkey. The original Latin word universitas designated any corporation (from the Latin corpus, corporis a body) intentionally created by a group of individuals, be they guilds by craftsmen, associations by merchants, or municipal communes by town residents—to regulate their own affairs and security, independently of customary law, kinship ties, or religious and state authorities. While corporations were invariably self-organized and not originated by the state, the university was said to exist when it was authorized to act as a single entity (“born out of statute”) by an official document or edict from the Pope or a Bull from the Emperor. Corporations were self-governed in that their members participated in specifying the rules that regulated their activities; power was shared and leaders could be held accountable for their actions.

Gradually the word universitas came to be associated with the term studium generale, which referred to any institution (at the beginning of the thirteenth century) that “attracted students from all parts of Europe, not merely those of a particular country or district” (Rashdall, p. 6), and where at least one of the higher faculties of theology, law, or medicine was taught by a plurality of masters. In the course of the fourteenth century, the term “universitas became a mere synonym for studium generale” with numerous communities of students and teachers in charge of higher learning enjoying the privilege to conduct their own affairs, make their own rules for curriculum, and receive students from across Europe.

It is no accident that only Europe saw the rise of corporate bodies. In the rest of the world, outside Europe, kinship groups were in charge of governing the lives of extended family members, providing security, rules of inheritance and marriage, and choice of occupation. Kinship groups were governed by customary norms, by authoritarian chiefs, or by religious authorities. The situation in medieval Christian Europe was radically different. As Joseph Henrich has carefully documented in The Weirdest People of the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (2020), the medieval Catholic church sanctioned monogamous marriages against polygamy and concubinage, and it restricted marriages among individuals of the same blood (consanguineous marriages). It also encouraged marriages based on voluntary choice or consent. By the 11th century the nuclear family was predominant in Europe. These changes freed Europeans from kinship ties and norms, leading them to form new voluntary corporations to cooperate economically, solve conflicts, and secure a livelihood with individuals from wider circles of life.

The reconstitution of medieval Europe away from kinship institutions in favor of voluntarily created institutions, such as urban communes, guilds, diocese of bishops, monasteries, and universities, came along with the rise of new systems of law based on universal principles. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, as the Church went about imposing monogamous and nuclear families, Europe underwent a legal revolution that conceded corporate rights for self-government to the Christian church and a variety of associations and groups to make contracts, to enact their own ordinances and statutes, “to own property, to sue and be sued, and to have legal representation before the king’s court” (Huff, 1993). Manors, cities, and merchant associations, among others, enacted whole new systems of law, including manorial law, urban law, canon law, and merchant law.

Such legislative, executive, and juridical powers were not a possibility in Islamic societies where polygamy and cousin marriages remained a powerful means for consolidating the power of kinship groups and where there was no legal separation between the sacred and the secular, no texts and rules to define and limit the jurisdictional powers of the courts, and no legal conception freed from the customary normative world of kinship groups. China never evolved a conception of law that recognized the right of corporate bodies, including cities, capable of composing and promulgating new laws independently of the state or the bonds of kinship.

It is within the context of the Catholic breakdown of kinship groups, the consolidation of nuclear monogamous families, and the legal revolution of the 11th century, that we should apprehend the unique invention of universities in medieval Europe. In conferring legal recognition and liberties to the universities, the kings of France, England, and Spain, and later Portugal, Austria, Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary, as well as dukes and princes, expected their universities to provide them with effectively trained lawyers and Roman legal principles to consolidate their expanding powers against the centrifugal forces of the old feudal landed classes.

Similarly, the popes that endowed associations of teachers and students with the title and privileges of a university did so in awareness that the teaching of theology and Roman law, with its natural law principles, was an effective means of making Catholicism a rationally intelligible and unified doctrine to counter the diverse and mutually contradictory beliefs of heterodox religious orders. Both the papacy and the monarchies of Europe sought to recruit educated persons who could serve as staff for their offices. From the 13th century onward, the majority of popes had attended university and were increasingly surrounded by learned cardinals. Likewise the cities recognized the advantage of having a partnership with universities that brought them prestige, and provided them with trained lawyers who could handle difficult legal problems in the conduct of businesses and the articulation of the newly emerging fields of merchant law, contract law, and maritime law. Municipal authorities recognized the corporate right of students and teachers (many of whom were foreigners in need of rights they did not enjoy in the cities) to conduct their own affairs as members of autonomous universities, as well as certain privileges such as exemption from tolls and taxes and the fixing of maximal rents.

It would be a mistake, however, to view the recognition by monarchs and popes of the corporate status of universities as driven solely by their self-interests. The desire for knowledge, and the ethos of common Christian values transcending national boundaries, were very strong in medieval Europe. This was a time of Christian belief in a world rational order created by God that was accessible to human reason and education. This belief cultivated an interest in scholarly research, going back to the establishment of Christian cathedral schools and monastic schools in the early Middle Ages, in which monks dedicated themselves to the preservation and transmission of Greek-Roman high culture.

At the same time, the Christian understanding of man as a creature fallen into sin, and thus as an imperfect being, encouraged the norms of intellectual criticism and collegial cooperation and the norms of “modesty, reverence and self-criticism” as the image of the ideal scholar (Rüegg, p. 33). As Frederick I Barbarossa said in 1155 in his justification for the granting of academic liberties: “it is by learning that the world is illuminated and the lives of subjects are shaped towards obedience to God.”

The medieval ideal was that the university was a universal community of masters and students, open to everyone interested in the higher faculties of knowledge as well as being at the service of the public interest to the benefit of the whole Christian world, without being hampered by national or regional borders. In the thirteenth century, universitas came to mean the totality of the branches of knowledge, the whole community of learners, in classical Latin. University teachers came to acquire the status of a group which transcended local and disciplinary boundaries in possession of a universally accepted corpus of knowledge. The fact that this one institution spread over the entire world, with the bachelor’s degree, the master’s degree, and the doctorate adopted in the most culturally diverse nations of the world, points to its universality.

European civilization originated this universal institution. No other society conferred the privileges of a corporation to institutions of higher learning wherein reason could find a “neutral space” of free inquiry. Medieval Christian Europe was the first civilization to “institutionalize reason” within self-governing universities which offered a curriculum “overwhelmingly oriented toward analytical subjects” (Grant, 2001). The universities tended to have four faculties (arts, theology, law, and medicine), with the most important being the arts faculty, which had the largest numbers of students, and the theology faculty. The program of the arts consisted of the three verbal disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the trivium or threefold way to wisdom) and the four mathematical disciplines of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music (the quadrivium). While medieval teachers were prohibited from reaching ultimate truths that were contrary to revealed truth, natural philosophers were free to pursue knowledge about the universe “in a remarkably secular and rationalistic manner with little interference from the Church and its theologians” (Grant, 2001). Indeed, medieval theologians, by applying logical techniques to theological questions, cultivated a religion like none before: a systematized and rationalized Christian faith.

This interpretation of the origins of universities was widely accepted in academia. But the pressures of multiculturalism are leading some academics to argue that Muslims should be given precedent for the origins of universities. They are demanding that the University of al-Qarawiyyin be identified as the “first university”, although this place was designated as a “university” only in 1963, and was originally founded as a mosque in 859 (Esposito, 2003). Other academics are claiming that Al-Azhar University, which was also founded as a mosque in 970-972, should be designated as “the second oldest university in the world”.

They maintain that Islamic centers of learning originated the practice of organizing foreign students into associations, and the idea of universal validity of the qualification for teaching based on the title of the baccalarius. But according to Rüegg, “the term baccalarius could not be an Islamic import of the twelfth century because it was already in use in the ninth century as the Latin designation of a preparatory or auxiliary status in a variety of social careers” (p. 8). Even the Islamicist George Makdisi, despite finding some general affinities between Islamic centers of learning and European universities, has concluded that “the university is a twelfth century product of the West both in its corporate structure and in the privileges it received from Pope and King” (cited in Rüegg, p. 8). Makdisi himself cautions that “in studying an institution which is foreign and remote in point of time, as is the case of the medieval madrasa, one runs the…risk of attributing to it characteristics borrowed from one’s own [Western] institutions…The most unwarranted of these [comparisons] is the one which makes the ‘madrasa’ a ‘university'” (1970). The madrasa was not a high degree-awarding institution, but a “college of Islamic law” lacking corporate status and a rationalistic curriculum, supported by an endowment or charitable trust, that is a waqf, which consisted of a building or plot of land, for Muslim religious or charitable purposes.

It is unfortunate that current university students are unaware of the Christian medieval roots of the institution they will spend a very important part of their lives attending. Offering a lecture on the historical origins of universities to new students would be a far better way to provide them with the spirit of “higher learning” universities were intended to be about, rather than separating students into categories of “privileged” and “oppressed” races.


Ricardo Duchesne has been interviewed in the Postil. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured image: a lecture, from Bartholomaeus Anglicus (translated by Jean Corbechon), De proprietatibus rerum (Livre des proprietez des choses), France (Paris?), 1st quarter of the 15th century.

How To Reverse The Widespread, Nonsensical Principles Of Utopianism. Part 3.

To combat the mis-educational and anti-cultural, anarchic influence of Marxism, crucial for its opponents to understand is the nature of common sense (especially real common sense) and where, as utopian socialists, Marxist principles must incline Marxists to begin to:

  1. drive out real common sense from the souls of children and replace it with a fictional narrative devoid of real common sense;
  2. promote humanistic atheism, the notion that humanity is God, and, especially, anti-Semitism;
  3. mistake ethnic races for real genera and species;
  4. and deny the evident existence of real natures with internal principles of organization, powers/faculties/capabilities within things in general and human beings especially.

All these effects are pernicious and are driving the contemporary West and the world toward total madness. Once again, the Enlightenment West is turning the Jew into a cultural scapegoat onto which it inclines chiefly to fix all its cultural and individual problems and blame for all its cultural and individual failings. In addition, by denying the reality of real natures, including human nature, no human faculties can exist in which human habits exist, in which unequal virtues and talents can and do exist. As a result, apart from temperance and courage, the cardinal moral virtues of justice (especially distributive justice based upon individual talent can be recognized to exist) and prudence (upon which, together with the other cardinal virtues sound leadership essentially depend), cannot exist at all, much less flourish.

Beyond this, denying the existence of really-existing organizational wholes (real substances), the principles of conceptual and behavioral contradictions and non-contradictions become incomprehensible. Conceptually, contradictory opposites involve the impossibility of some one substance or parts/properties of a substance having essentially opposite differences. If real substances do not, cannot, exist, neither can the principle of conceptual non-contradiction. Worse, neither can behavioral non-contradictions. The concept of really, or naturally, doable or undoable deed becomes intellectually incomprehensible. And if neither conceptual nor behavioral contradictions are comprehensible, neither are common sense, truth, or language.

In addition, because they lack any common sense ability to recognize the reality of unequal talent and justly reward it as a contribution to a community or society, utopian socialists tend to do several things:

  1. reduce the whole of justice to commutative justice, exchanges of equal value of benefit or damage, such as monetary exchanges of equal or unequal goods and services;
  2. explain inequality of distribution of goods, wealth, not to reward for talent, virtue, but to exploitation, taking advantage, of the weaker (victims) by the stronger (victimizers);
  3. reduce what remains of justice to being tolerant/sincere (good-willed), and injustice to being intolerant/insincere (bad-willed);
  4. claim that all human inequality is based upon social victimization of innocent, sincere (good-willed), tolerant, sinless, just victims, by insincere (bad-willed) unjust, sinful victimizers;
  5. always attempt to remedy the disastrous, impoverishing effects that application of this flawed understanding of justice/injustice has on a community/society by periodically reversing within a community/society the roles of victims and victimizers (at one period making the victims one social group or another [such as, black males, females, religion, this or that religion, black males, white males, and so on] and the victimizers the same groups]) and at another time reversing these victims/victimizers roles.

Setting aside the evident absurdities and cultural evils with which Enlightenment utopian socialism and, especially, Marxism has infected the West, evident to readers by now should be that a Western and global return to sanity related to understanding the nature of truth and language essentially depend upon the ability of Western and world leaders to restore real common sense to national cultures. To do so, these leaders must, as precisely and quickly as possible, understand the nature of common sense considered in general, and especially real common sense.

Happily, through the examples and descriptions of it I have given in this essay, and especially through examples of its contrary opposite, a more or less precise definition of common sense appears easy to give. When we first consider the idea of common sense in relationship to examples of people who are more or less psychologically-healthy adults, it appears to be simply what most of us would call common knowledge, or common understanding.

In English, we have an expression we often give to people who say something evidently true, something everyone knows—“That goes without saying.” By this we mean that what a person just said was so evidently true that no need existed to say it. The term common sense expresses this concept. In it, the word sense is synonymous with the word knowledge, or, more precisely, understanding.

In general, a person with common sense is someone possessed of what Aristotle and St. Thomas had identified as the natural and acquired intellectual habit (habitus) and virtue (virtus: virtual, or intensive quantity [quality]), of understanding. Such a person is someone who, in relation to observational (what Aristotle and St. Thomas had called speculative or theoretical) knowledge immediately understands (induces, intuits) some thing or action to be what it is, or be true; or, in relation to practical and productive knowing, through practical or productive experience at living, immediately induces (intuits), understands, what something is or is not, or that it is right or wrong to choose.

Aristotle and Aquinas had maintained that all human beings are born with natural habitus (qualities they imperfectly have). These include all the natural moral and intellectual qualities, virtues of temperance, courage, justice, prudence, art, philosophy/science, understanding, and even wisdom, and their contrary opposites. While not perfectly so, even young children are somewhat (at least naturally inclined to be) courageous or cowardly, hopeful or fearful, sensitive to pleasure/pain, more-or-less artistic, even prudent, wise, possessed of understanding and common sense. The truth of this claim is evident from the fact that, at times children, are more prudent, wiser, than some adults. In addition, some are precocious: masterful musicians, painters, mathematicians, and so on.

To become perfected in such psychological qualities, however, Aristotle and Aquinas were convinced human beings need repeatedly to apply prudence and wisdom (common sense/understanding in its more perfect form) to their increasingly-perfected understanding to add perfecting qualities (virtues) to their naturally-possessed habits. In its most perfect form, common sense is simply the perfected, naturally-possessed habit of understanding (the virtue of understanding) applied to this or that subject in this or that situation that makes the nature of some subject immediately intelligible!

Following St. Augustine, some contemporary Christians, including Pope Francis, have recently started to refer to this quality of common sense in the form of wisdom/prudence in immediate understanding by use of the term discernment. No need exists for a discerning person, someone with common sense in this form, to reason to the conclusion that this something exists, or about: what it is, whether it is true, false, or fake; or whether it is good or bad, right or wrong, to pursue or avoid. The answers to such questions are immediately evident to this person. And so, too, is the adequate self-knowledge of personal nature and abilities immediately to draw this conclusion.

Consequently, especially in relation to productive and practical matters, healthy, adult human beings commonly identify a person with common sense as being someone possessed of the habit of good decision making, a good judge, either in general, or related to some particular subject. A person with common sense is a person possessed of common knowledge, common understanding: what everyone else who knows a subject understands about this subject in general or particular. The example I gave toward the start of this article related to an engineer who claims to be an engineer mistaking the principles of grammar for those of engineering is a fitting, suitable, one to use to help make intelligible, understandable, to an audience what I am chiefly talking about, the chief intellectual point I want to make, related to the nature of common sense.

As opposed to the person possessed of common sense, the person lacking it, the fool, is devoid of knowledge of what everyone else knows, or should know about some subject. In a way, this person lacks knowledge of some principle of measuring, known truth, that comes to people possessed of the virtue of common sense immediately from observation or from common sense-experience at living.

As a result, the person who lacks common sense is often publicly ridiculed, is the butt of jokes. University professors, people who tend “to live in ivory towers,” especially some logicians (those with little practical experience at living), incline to be such individuals. In college, I had a friend like this to whom I used to refer as an “encyclopedia open to the wrong page.” While he was terrific in some forms of academic work, he tended to have no practical skills, or if he did, not know when and/or how to apply them.
.
Aristotle actually had a word he used to describe such individuals that came close to, but did not completely capture, the nature of a person lacking common sense: “asinine.” In ancient Greek, this was the person lacking synēsis, someone who had the personal quality of a-synēsis, a species of foolishness (non- synēsis/sense) that caused a person to be a bad imaginer, conceptualizer, judge, estimator, evaluator, especially of what a person should know in this or that situation.

To make intelligible to others more precisely the understanding (which he apparently acquired from Socrates) that wisdom is more or less identical with common sense, in his masterful work in moral psychology, the Nicomachean Ethics, when talking about the nature of prudence and working as a physician of the soul (behavioral psychologist), Aristotle went out of his way to explain that the person possessed of wisdom (of which prudence is a species) combines in his or her nature all the essential elements needed to be an excellent judge.

Recall that in Plato’s dialogues the stone-mason/philosopher Socrates had repeatedly maintained that what, more than anything else, got him into trouble was an ordinary kind of wisdom he possessed, one unlike that of the professional orators and poets of his day. Unlike their wisdom, Socrates claimed that his was the ordinary kind of human wisdom, examples of which, to the chagrin of professional sophists like Thrasymachos, Gorgias, and Callicles, he constantly gave examples in reference to people like cooks, medical doctors, sailors, home builders, shoemakers, and tailors.

Psychologically, Aristotle claimed that this sort of wisdom, which someone like the prudent man Socrates possessed, combines in its nature four different qualities of excellent judging that, when rightly combined with the psychological quality of understanding, give to its possessor a generic, psychological quality of virtuous shrewdness, of which prudence, and apparently wisdom in general (whether practical, productive, or contemplative/speculative/theoretical/metaphysical) are species:

  1. eubulia (excellence in deliberating);
  2. eustochia (being a lucky guesser, somewhat excellent at being able to determine precisely the right thing to do at the saw that moment: a good evaluator/estimator);
  3. synēsis (right judgment about what happens in the majority of cases, what is really doable and not doable); and
  4. gnome (right judgment about what is equitable in this or that situation).

Special difficulty understanding the nature of common sense arises at times from two facts about it:

  1. To some extent, all human being possess some of it, are familiar with it; and
  2. when we talk about it, we generally do so the way we talk about anything real: concretely, in terms of qualitatively unequal relationships to that of which it is said—that is, analogously.

Regarding this first fact, understanding common sense presents a difficulty similar to that which in Book 11 of his Confessions, St. Augustine admitted he had related to the concept of time: When someone does not ask him what it is, he is so familiar with it that he has no trouble knowing what it is; but when someone asks him what it is, he appears not to know. Common sense has a similar nature. When someone does not ask us what it is, we have an implicit knowledge of it as the virtue of understanding applied to this or that subject in this or that situation that makes the nature of some subject immediately intelligible. On the contrary, when someone asks us what is common sense (common synēsis), initially we tend to become tongue-tied, do not know how to reply.

As far as fact 2 is concerned, when we talk about a subject, apply objects of sentences to their subjects to identify them in relation to a subject, we always to so indirectly, according to relational meanings. We never do so directly; and the way logicians and ordinary people, as well as real scientists/philosophers, do this essentially differs. In their everyday, common sense way of talking, philosophers/scientists and ordinary human beings do so by noting qualitative, nuanced (chiefly causal) distinctions, differences in relation that they immediately recognize exist between and among these relational meanings as they say, refer, them to a subject.

For example, in the ordinary course of conversation, two people might note that Mother Theresa was more of a human being (in the sense of being qualitatively more perfect metaphysically and morally [psychologically, in her soul!] than was Joseph Stalin. Such a statement would strike a logician thinking as a logician as nonsensical, likely as an ad hominem attack violating the well-known, common sense logical canon that words, terms, definitions said of subjects must always have one, absolutely-fixed meaning, definition— when put in the technical jargon of a logician, must always be predicated univocally, never predicated equivocally.

For example, if I call Socrates and Plato men, a logician working as a logician naturally inclines to assume I mean that Socrates and Plato are equally men, that whatever the definition of man signifies is equally, not unequally, in one and the other—that Socrates is not more man than is Plato. Both are equally men.

If, on the other hand, a medical doctor says that John is not as healthy as Mary, in some way he is saying that, while John is healthy, the quality, or nature, health is causally related to John as one that exists less in John than it does in Mary, that some cause called health exists more in Mary than it does in John. In addition, if I call bread or exercise healthy, in the first case, generally I mean that, when eaten, bread tends nutritionally to cause, promote retention and increase of bodily health; and in the second case, generally I mean that exercise tends to cause, promote retention and increase of muscular coordination and stamina/strength.

While, to some extent, all human beings tend to have a difficult time understanding the nature of analogy, my experience is that logicians generally have an especially difficult time doing so. Since analogy dominates the language of everyday life, especially productive and practical matters, logicians often have a difficult time understanding the psychological disposition of business people and ordinary people with real, not syllogistic, common sense.

Since logicians tend to think in one fixed way, they also often have a hard time understanding comedy, not understanding jokes. This is especially true of Enlightenment logicians, Marxists in general, and the contemporary Woke crowd of anarchists, who deny the reality of real natures. Since real common sense is chiefly said, referred to subjects analogously, Enlightenment intellectuals in general have a hard time grasping its nature.

Be this as it may, common sense mainly refers to common, evident intellectual understanding or knowledge that some person possesses in general, or related to a specific or individual subject as a natural or supernatural faculty or habit of the human soul. Analogously, people often extend, transfer use of, apply, this term to other human faculties (like will, memory, imagination, hearing, and so on); and even to subjects and circumstances, situations such as time and place in which they do not directly exist, but to which, somehow, they are relationally connected.

For example, adult human beings throughout the world often say that performing this or that action generally, particularly, or individually makes sense or is commonsensical, or is nonsensical, makes no common sense. For instance, someone in the third century B.C. making plans to create a ship to fly to Mars would be planning something that most people today would say makes no common sense for that person; but they might likely agree that it could make common sense for Elon Musk seriously to consider.

St. Thomas Aquinas went so far as to locate moral prudence, and with it all practical and productive prudence partially on the sense level in an internal sense faculty that he analogously identified with the estimative intelligence, instinct, and brute animals. He called his faculty cogitative, or particular, reason. Together with the virtue of intellectual understanding, all the other cardinal and intellectual virtues and moral virtues, the integrated activity of all these faculties and their habits and virtues, plus whatever supernatural grace can add to these, appear to comprise the whole of common sense in its most perfect form: perfect human wisdom.

Crucial to understand today about Marxism, Enlightenment utopian socialism in general, and all the mis-named cultural institutions they have created over the tenure of their existence is that all of these are intentionally (or at least in principle) designed to drive common sense, especially real common sense, out of the human soul, the psychological constitution of individual persons; and to do so at the earliest age and throughout an entire lifetime in every aspect of human life.

A good example of this is mis-educational influence are faculty members and administrators who are miserable human beings living miserable lives. Hating themselves, they tend to hate anyone who is not as miserable as they are. As a result, by intentionally influencing them to adopt the same nonsensical principles they use to direct their choices in life, they intentionally seek to make students as miserable as they are.

Other good examples considered in general of it are contemporary middle-management executives, corporate human resources executives/managers, and college/university administrators, ministers of education, all of whom, having been mis-educated in common sense at Enlightenment mis-educational institutions, tend to think univocally, not analogously; and tend to be sorely lacking in real common sense as I have described it.

While, considered as human beings they might be wonderful, kind people, as administrators, Western colleges and universities and educational institutions that have been influenced by their Enlightenment mindset have pretty much driven out of their administrative psychology any comprehension of prudence, and common sense in general, and justice, especially distributive justice, which (instead of race, sex, political influence, diversity, and so on) is the chief just measure of equitable distribution of rewards for quality of work contribution to an organization).

The net result of the disordered educational psychology inhabiting cultural institutions throughout the contemporary West and world is that pretty much all of these institutions, and especially those of higher education (colleges and universities), have become ships of fools mistakenly thinking of themselves as creating local, national, and global world leaders, while they often tend to do precisely the opposite. Consequently, expecting most contemporary college and university faculty members and administrators to come up with a plan to reverse the current dire cultural situation in the West and globally, including their own, makes no real common sense. Doing so defies their natural and acquired abilities, which, related to such a feat, are largely disabilities, job-application disqualifiers.

For this reason, as colleges and universities increasingly begin to go out of business, collapse, on a global scale, colleagues of mine and I have decided that two institution of higher education)—an introductory Common sense Wisdom Liberal Arts Academy (CWLAA) and an advanced executive leadership Common sense Wisdom Executive Coaching Academy (CWECA) )—which immerse their students from all parts of the Earth in common sense wisdom, must immediately, on a global scale, be created to replace the disordered, mis-educational, intellectual institutions (colleges and universities) that Enlightenment hatred for commons ense has caused to come into being culturally and civilizationally increasingly to wreck the West and the world. Anyone seriously interested in discovering more about this project and perhaps joining, supporting, us in this effort is more than welcome to do so by checking out the nature of CWECA.


Peter Redpath was Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University. He is the author/editor of 17 philosophical books and dozens of articles and book reviews. He has given over 200 invited guest lectures nationally and internationally, and headed many prestigious organizations. He is the only non-Polish scholar to hold the Laudatio Achievement Award for attainment of intellectual and organizational wisdom, from the Department of Philosophy, Culture, and Art at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, in Poland. More information is found at his website.


The featured image shows a detail of a wise virgin, from Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow’s “Die klugen und torichten Jungfrauen” (The Wise and Foolish Virgins); painted in 1842.

How To Reverse The Widespread, Nonsensical Principles Of Utopianism. Part 2.

As some Marxists readily admit, Marxism is a religion, or a secularized version of Christianity. As scholars like Eric Voegelin have well documented, Hegelians and Marxists are full-blown, secularized Christian heretics: neo-Gnostic millenarians who conflate in their nature principles of neo-Pelagianism, neo-Catharism, and neo-Albigensianism (the three being pretty much identical). They tend to consider this conflation to be true science (as opposed to the hate-filled, backward thinking rhetoric of those they call, “science-deniers”).

Heavily influenced by the millenarianism of the 12th-century Catholic monk, Joachim of Flora (aka, Joachim of Fiore), the neo-Averroistic dream of 14th-century Italian humanist, Francesco Petrarcha (Petrarch) to unite poetry, philosophy, and theology into a humanistic/historical social science capable of reviving the cultural greatness of Rome in a Christianized form, and then greatly shaped by the neo-Gnostic spiritualism of 18th-century Enlightenment intellectual, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – all Enlightenment thinkers came to divide human history into four ages, one of which they considered to be prehistoric/pre-cultural and pre-social science:

  1. Prehistory (an initially barbaric, pre-socialist age of war of individual human being against individual human being; for Hegel, Humanity’s/Absolute Spirit’s Age before logically-planned, external emergence);
  2. The first age of human history (imperfect social science, under the Old Law, from the time of Adam to Christ), characterized by a heavy influence of external formalism on human consciousness and behavior (Humanity/Absolute Spirit wandering around the Far East, China and the environs for Hegel);
  3. The second age of human history in which human consciousness achieved greater perfection in historical consciousness as social-science (in the sense of being a more universal and deeply emotional love of humanity). Human consciousness, under the New Law, by the entrance of Spirit into human history, within the context of the administrative Catholic Church (the Greek and Latin Age for Hegel); and
  4. The final age of human history, the Age of the Eternal Gospel, of Perfect Social Science, in which the influence of Spirit perfects human behavior so widely, deeply, and intensely that no need any longer exists for a Church administration or organized religion (the Lutheran/Germanic Age and end of history for Hegel during which, for the first time in human history, conscience and all science come into being and humanity becomes aware that it is identical with Perfect Social-science: Perfect Good Will Consciousness/God).

Sometime after his death, Europeans started to refer to followers of millenarianism of Joachim of Flora as “Joachitic enthusiasts” and often called their teaching “Joachitic enthusiasm.” As is evinced in his famous work, Education of the Human Race, 18th-century Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was one of these millenarians. So, too, under his educational influence, were 18th-/19th-century Enlightenment intellectuals, Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel.

After the crumbling of the Berlin Wall (9 November 1989) and dismantling of Soviet communism toward the tail end of the 20th century, the period celebrated by Western liberal elites and popularized by Francis Fukuyama, was supposed to be “the end of history,” in the sense of being the time in which enlightened liberal democracy would finally transcend the transitional period of communist dictatorship and eradicate from the world the influence of backward religious consciousness.

To understand the euphoric, Joachitic enthusiasm, that overtook Western Europe during this time and fully to comprehend the nature of Marxism, Enlightenment-Utopian Socialism in general, and neo-liberal, atheistic democracy (like that of John Dewey), it is crucial to recognize this enthusiasm as neo-Averroism, deeply influenced by the neo-Averroistic, religious, and educational humanism of Petrarch which devolved – through 19th-century neo-Averroistic social science (with its three stages of social evolution: [1] theological, [2] metaphysical, and [3] positive/scientific) proposed by Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte – into the secular educational humanism of the 20th-and 21st-century West.

During a late Medieval, academic battle about the relationship between philosophy and theology that the great Islamic scholar Averroes (ibn Rushd, 1126-1198) had with a previously-existing Islamic scholar named al Ghazali (who died in 1111 and had considered philosophy to be inferior to theology and fake science), Averroes had countered Ghazali’s reductionist claim that the whole of truth is contained in the Quran, by, knowingly or not, reviving a threefold distinction about the hierarchy of human knowing, first introduced centuries before by Plato, through his famous analogy of a divided-line of learning in which Plato had made a distinction between three lower and higher forms of knowing: the qualitatively-lowest being belief (which Averroes would later identify as a mindset common to poets);
a second, qualitatively higher one, being a kind opinionated imagining (that Averroes would later maintain is proper to theologians); and the highest one being science (which Averroes would later reserve for Aristotelian philosophers).

According to Averroes, while the whole of truth is contained in the Quran, only the Aristotelian philosopher knows how to read and unravel that hidden truth, or the meaning of what the Quran actually says.
Seizing upon this method of Averroes, Petrarch made the mistake of buying into an esoteric interpretation of philosophy/science as a hidden teaching, or body, or scientific system of knowledge, known only to an enlightened group of intellectuals. In so doing, he treated philosophy/science as if it were reducible to a dialectical logic apprehensible only by some spiritually-elect group. While Petrarch hated Averroes (had called him a “mad dog”) and was no fan of Aristotle, in criticizing Averroes, unwittingly he came to adopt the understanding Averroes had promoted that:

  • philosophy is a hidden teaching, or body of knowledge known only to some enlightened individuals,
  • who alone can pass this understanding on to posterity.

Unhappily, to paraphrase a common sense gem of wisdom from Étienne Gilson: We think, and choose, the way we can, not the way we wish.
Outraged by Averroes’s disdain for poetry, because Petrarch made the mistake of doing no more than dialectically turning Averroes’s teaching on its head and not essentially changing it. But, unwittingly, by so doing, in effect he adopted in his own principles a kind of neo-Gnostic understanding of philosophy/science for which he would become a conduit to intellectual posterity. Petrarch assumed, and popularized among humanists of the Italian Renaissance, that philosophy/science is an esoteric metaphysical and moral teaching, or body of knowledge, that was first given by God to Moses.

Subsequently, to protect this teaching from being ridiculed by unenlightened, vulgar, illiterate masses, Petrarch and other Italian Renaissance humanists claimed true philosophy/ science had been intentionally buried in the works of epic poets like Homer, Hesiod, and Virgil and esoterically transmitted to other enlightened poets.

Over the several centuries that comprised the Italian Renaissance, this Petrarchan popularization of philosophy as an esoteric teaching, or body of knowledge (which was to become a general assumption about philosophy maintained by Italian Renaissance humanists) became the popular understanding of philosophy that entered into Western Europe around the time of the Father of Modern Philosophy – René Descartes. Disliking the poetic nature of the Jesuit education he had received, and much favoring logic over poetry as the only sort of knowing worthy of being called philosophy/science, Descartes maintained that the whole of truth is a body of knowledge buried, hidden, in some train of obscure thought of wandering images seeking to become a clear and distinct idea which he called a “mind,” or human consciousness.

Descartes claimed, further, that this hidden teaching was apprehensible not by poets, but only by a person of exceptionally strong logically-regulated will-power who alone could focus on the idea of a Perfectly-Good God, and thus was capable of stabilizing the wandering imagination common to poetic types in order to be see truth as a systematic train of ideas, so clear and distinct that a strong, logical human will (one with which Descartes identified common sense) cannot deny their reality, including that of a human person being a totally-disembodied mind or spirit. In short, centuries before Friedrich Nietzsche, Descartes had moved truth, and with it common sense, out of human intellect, and placed it in some logically-systematic train of ideas or feelings, thoughts – which he called human “will.”

In so doing, however, as the more poetically and historically/humanist-inclined Rousseau had immediately recognized, Descartes cut off philosophy/science, and with it, common sense, from human wisdom, and from what Petrarch and the Italian Renaissance humanists in general had considered to be its historical roots, namely, a somewhat obscure religious body of knowledge first given by God as true philosophy/science to the Jews from whom all true culture and cultural institutions were born and passed on to posterity as historical descendants of an original race.

In so doing, Descartes entirely destroyed the nature of philosophy/science, and real common sense, as a somewhat social-science history, or historical, educational humanist enterprise. The principles he laid down for the nature of philosophy/science as a real genus included the clear and distinct conviction he inherited from Petrarch and Italian Renaissance humanists that the Jews were the historical conduit, historical race/genus from which all false philosophy/science and subsequent philosophical/scientific mistakes, intellectual and cultural backwardness, foolishness, lack of common sense, and sins had historically descended upon Europe and the world, prior to the coming of Descartes and the later Western Enlightenment.

Unwittingly, Descartes became a conduit to Rousseau’s educational principles, which in turn became a conduit for later forms of anti-Semitism, and as an essential principle of Nazi forms of philosophy/science. This included making the Jews a scapegoat for all of Europe’s prior socially- and culturally-caused problems, evils, and sins.

In a similar way, through Rousseau’s critique of him, Descartes unwittingly became a historical conduit passing along to posterity the mistaken notion that a real and scientific species is identical with a race historically descended from original parents (instead of being part of an organizational whole that generates proximately causes and organizational action: a division, or part, of a generic whole, or substance). In truth, a real genus only exists in a real species; and a real species only exists in real individuals. As Gilson once quipped, in the present, real species of animals exist only in real animals, such as those in zoos, not in historical descent or transmission, which no longer exists. If real species were historical descendants of ancestral species, since ancestors cannot historically-descend from themselves, the absurd consequence that would follow would be that historical ancestors could never belong to the same species as their historical descendants!

Worse. The only way we come to know anything is in and through defining it. Doing so, however, essentially involves locating some being within a genus and species. By becoming conduits for essentially racializing the concepts of genus and species, Petrarch, Italian Renaissance humanists in general, Descartes, and Rousseau became an essential part of the historical conduit that brought into existence the contemporary enlightened Woke, anarchic, youth generation, the “useful idiots” (who tend not to be able to distinguish real from apparent, anything logical or not logical, much less genera and species).

Rousseau contributed to the present-day fiasco, in part, by rightly criticizing Descartes for cutting off philosophy/science, and education in general, from its historical roots. While he admitted, with Descartes, that philosophy/science is a hidden body of knowledge, he denied that it (and with it, real common sense) is esoterically buried in an individual mind.
Instead, Rousseau maintained that philosophy/science/real common sense is/are a historical project of discrete, disconnected, emotions to assemble themselves into a historically-driven, social-science consciousness: Perfect humanity. In addition, he denied Descartes’s distinction between matter (which Descartes had conceived as inert extension) and mind (which Descartes had identified with thought, spirit).

According to Rousseau, only spirit exists. Matter is simply unconscious thought/spirit. And, in a way, clear and distinct ideas (clear and distinct, more progressive genera and species), historically and progressively descend from one time to another (earlier emotions being historic ancestors of later, more progressive, enlightened ones somewhat resembling historical, backward ones, like later races historically descending from and somewhat resembling ancestral parents).

After Rousseau, the idea of a real substance or nature, and real genera and species in the common sense way that Aristotle and Aquinas had conceived them to be (as organizational wholes possessing faculties like intellect, will, and emotions), became replaced in the West by essentially different ideas of human beings, genera, species, individuals, and real common sense.

According to Hegel, for example, human beings are born as essentially illogical, un-systematic trains of unscientific, barbaric, emotions, historically driven to project themselves and come into conflict with other historically driven, illogical, unscientific, barbaric emotions that (much like the savage Fuegians that the cultured, Enlightened-socialist Brit, Charles Darwin would later encounter on his first voyage on the Beagle) inhabit a wild geographical region (genus), so as eventually, at the end of history, to unite together into a systematic, or logical train of scientific, self-understanding, qualitatively-higher emotions (species): Perfect humanity, a Scientific, Pure Good Will in which all complete truth and perfect religion and perfect/science/wisdom will coincide in nature.

Understanding human beings in somewhat this way, in his educational tome Émile, or Abstract Man (humanity), Rousseau wedded a Western neo-Gnostic, millenarianism to a neo-Pelagianism on a historical march to become Perfect Social–science Consciousness aware of itself as such – that is, aware of itself as god!

In so doing, like ancient Pelagius, Rousseau denied the reality of original sin as part of humanity, as pre-historic, selfish, barbaric, uncultured, abstract man: Someone like conscience-deprived, crude, vulgar, selfish, intolerant, insincere, socially and culturally backward, brute Donald Trump, emerging into concrete, selfless, socialistic, domesticated, cultured, sincere, tolerant, historic-scientific man: Someone like neo-Gnostic, neo-Averroestic, double-truth-advocate Catholics, like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Mario and Andrew Cuomo. And Rousseau did so for precisely the same reason that, as neo-Gnostics spiritualists, all Enlightenment intellectuals incline to so: They are, as he was, and as Chesterton rightly recognized about Hegel – Monomaniacs.

Like all the Enlightenment descendants he spawned, including Auguste Comte and his followers, Rousseau denied the evident, real, common sense truth that real multitudes (real organizational wholes, natures), exist independently of something he understood to be social consciousness. To him and them, reality is social consciousness – or the consciousness (systematic, scientific train of thoughts that once was blind emotions that has become Pure Social-Science Good Will). In actuality, for Enlightenment thinkers (the contemporary Woke culture), only one being is real – only total unity exists. Unity and social consciousness are identical and constitute what Marxists and all contemporary utopian socialists and neo-liberals call “humanity,” which they consider to be “God.” Hence, their often-repeated claims to be theists, good Catholics, and so on, not atheists or heretics.

The psychological constitution of a Marxist causes him to think that humanity is real, but “John Smith” is not. Like Hegel, the Marxist thinks that “John Smith” is simply where Absolute Spirit (which Hegel identified with God, which he conflated with Humanity) happens to be conscious of itself, at this or that historical moment. Reality, to a Marxist, is consciousness, historically and progressively realizing that only humanity (understood as collections of socially-conscious feelings, emotions; or consciousness feeling itself historically growing into self-awareness of being scientific feeling: Perfect, Pure, Sincere, Good Will) – is real. Anything apart from humanity, considered in this way, is an illusion, caused by disordered economic relations (the cause of all cultural illusions).

Quite frankly, if seriously maintained intellectually, to a sane human being, one with actual common sense, such a way of looking at reality would be considered sociopathic. Nonetheless, this way of looking at reality is a fundamental assumption, non-negotiable, Marxist and utopian-socialist, and Enlightenment-educational first principle – an essential part of Marxist and Enlightenment self-definition, self-identity, and self-understanding. And education for both begins with (and remains throughout its operation) – the application of this psychological principle behaviorally to modify the psychology of students. Knowingly or not to a Marxist and all Enlightenment utopian socialists, their educational principles essentially demand that they drive out from the psyche of their students any scintilla of real common sense.


Peter Redpath was Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University. He is the author/editor of 17 philosophical books and dozens of articles and book reviews. He has given over 200 invited guest lectures nationally and internationally, and headed many prestigious organizations. He is the only non-Polish scholar to hold the Laudatio Achievement Award for attainment of intellectual and organizational wisdom, from the Department of Philosophy, Culture, and Art at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, in Poland. More information is found at his website.


The featured image shows the Tree of Pansophia, from Speculum Sophicum Rhodostauroticum by Theophilus Schweighardt Constantiens, ca. 1604-1618.

An Open Letter To the Rector of the Jagiellonian University

To the Rector of the Jagiellonian University:

We, a group of scholars from different countries, have learned that your university and Philosophy Department have seen fit to reprimand Professor Ryszard Legutko for an “Open Letter,” in which he urges your institution to “disband” the office of equal treatment. Since you did not respond to Professor Legutko’s letter, we infer that the Philosophy Department’s position represents your opinion as well. Of more than thirty faculty members, only one stood by Legutko, and one abstained from voting. This forces us to conclude that Professor Legutko was right in calling to your attention the growing ideologization of your university. Uniformity of thinking is not an indication of healthy intellectual life but in today’s academic environment has become a sure sign of the opposite.

Although we do not know all the details of this daring experiment, considering how such offices function in America and elsewhere, Professor Legutko is entirely correct to resist it. Political Correctness, a theme that many of us have addressed in multiple books and articles, is a dangerous totalitarian concept; and it is one that has sowed havoc and disunity in every Western onetime democracy. The result of this venture inflicted on us by public administrators, the media and the educational establishment has been to render our countries less free and more open to ideological manipulation.

Professor Legutko is an eminent scholar in political theory, from whose study on the pitfalls of our religion of democracy we in the Western countries have learned a great deal. His grim warnings about the antiliberal potential of modern democracy (and here we are using ‘liberal’ in its true nineteenth-century sense) are clearly on the mark; and what the good professor is now undergoing at your venerable institution witnesses to the truth of his predictions.

In the name of an elusive goal of total equality, including special rights for designated victims, Western civilization is destroying itself. We were hoping that Poland and other relatively traditional Western countries would be spared this fate that is now overwhelming the United States, the Anglosphere, and parts of Europe. Perhaps we were overly optimistic.

Paul Gottfried,
Editor, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture,
Author of After Liberalism,
Zbigniew Janowski,
Author of Homo Americanus: The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy in America

Signatories To The Letter:

Francesco Andriani, President of Ideare (Italy)

Jacek Bartyzel, University of Nicholas Copernicus, UMK (Poland)

Luigi Marco Bassani, University of Milan (Italy)

Clifford Angell Bates, Warsaw University (Poland)

José Carlos Bermejo Barrera, University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain)

Jeremy Black, The University of Exeter (England)

Katarzyna Błachowska, Warsaw University (Poland)

Aleksander Bobko, Uniwersytet Rzeszowski (Poland)

Catharine Savage Brosman, Tulane University (USA)

Chris Buskirk, Editor, American Greatness (USA)

Nicholas Capaldi, Loyola University, New Orleans (USA)

Jonathan C.D. Clark, historian (England)

Lee Congdon, James Madison University (USA)

Wayne Cristaudo, Charles Darwin University (Australia)

Felipe Cuello, Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra (Dominican Republic)

Magdalena Danielewiczowa, Warsaw University (Poland)

Nirmal Dass, Editor, The Postil Magazine (Canada)

Zuzanna Dawidowicz, Editor, Arcana (Poland)

Marshall De Rosa, Florida Atlantic University (USA)

Marion Duvauchel, Historian of Religions (France)

Filip Doroszewski, Uniwersytet Kardynała Stefana Wyszyńskiego (Poland)

Ian Dowbiggin, Fellow, Royal Society of Canada
University of Prince Edward Island
(Canada)

Jacob Duggan, student at Towson University, Baltimore (USA)

Serafín Fanjul, Catedrático de la UNAM, Miember, Real Academia de la Historia (Spain)

Richard Fafara, Adler-Aquinas Institute (USA).

Devin Foley, CEO of the Charlemagne Institute (USA)

Bruce Gilley, Portland State University (USA)

Catherine Godfrey-Howell, JCD, St. Augustine’s Press (USA)

David Gordon, Senior Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute (USA)

Jean-Louis Harouel, University of Paris II (Panthéon-Assas) (France)

Ann Hartle, Emory University (USA)

Grant Havers, Trinity Western University (Canada)

Domingo González Hernández, University of Murcia, Spain

Jozefa Hrynkiewicz, Warsaw University (Poland)

Arnaud Imatz, Political Scientist and Historian (France)

Elżbieta Janus, UKSW (Poland)

Dariusz Karłowicz, Editor-in-chief, Teologia Polityczna (Poland)

Tomasz Kaźmierowski, Founder of Fundacja Identitas (Poland)

Robert M. P. W. Graham Kerr, Inarah, Institute for Research on Early Islamic History and the Koran, Saarbrücken (Germany)

Roger Kimball, Editor of New Criterion, and director of Encounter Books (USA)

Harrison Koehli, host of MindMatters (USA)

Adam Korytowski, AGH (Poland)

Maria Korytowska, Jagiellonian University (Poland)

Thaddeus Kozinski, Divine Mercy University (USA)

Wojciech Kruszewski, Katolicki Uniwersytet Lubelski (Poland)

Maria Kunicka, XIII Liceum Aleksandra Fredry (Poland)

Wojciejch Kunicki, Wroclaw University (Poland)

Antoni Libera, writer, author of Madame (Poland)

Donald W. Livingston, Emory University (USA)

Sean McMeekin, Bard College (USA)

Justyna Melonowaska, Maria Grzegorzewska University (Poland)

Andrzej Nowak, Jagiellonian University (Poland)

Piotr Nowak, Bialystok University (Poland)

José Luis Orella, Universidad CEU San Pablo, Madrid (Spain)

Michał Otorowski, Fundacja Augusta hr Cieszkowskiego (Poland)

Ciro Paoletti, Director of Associazione di Studi Storici e Militari (Italy)

Robert Paquette, President, The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (USA)

Stanley Payne, Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison (USA)

Olga Płaszczewska, Jagiellonian University (Poland)

Peter Redpath, CEO, Aquinas School of Leadership and Commonsense Wisdom Academies (USA)

Alexander Riley, Professor of Sociology, Bucknell University (USA)

Robert Reilly, Former Director of The Voice of America, Senior Fellow of the American Foreign Policy Council (USA)

Rusty Reno, Editor-in-Chief, FIRST THINGS

Jan Rokita, Ignatianum (Poland)

Magdalena Saganiak, Humanities Department, UKSW, Warsaw (Poland)

Andrzej Wasko, Jagiellonian University (Poland)

Anna Wasko, Editor, Arcana, and professor at Jagiellonian University (Poland)

Robert Weissberg, University of Illinois—Urbana (USA)

Edward Welsch, Executive Editor, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (USA)

Bronisław Wildstein, writer (Poland)

Maria Anna Zając, Uniwersytet Śląski (Poland)


Antiquity Under The Guise Of Melancholy

In one of the problems in the Aristotelian corpus (The Book of Problems, XXX, 1), which deals with those related to thought, intelligence and wisdom, its author asks: “why were all men who have excelled in philosophy, politics or poetry or the arts melancholic” (XXX, 1, 10-14), as were many heroes of mythology, such as, Heracles, and “in recent times so have been Empedocles, Plato, Socrates and many other notable men” (XXX, 1, 26-30).

The answer is that there is a direct relationship between melancholy and what we call creativity, as Maria Grazia Ciani has shown. The melancholy of the Aristotelian problem actually encompasses all forms of mental disorder. Aristotle relates it to the loss of control of the passions and assimilates it to drunkenness, and links it to sexual desire and to sleep disturbances in such a way as to give the impression that the common origin of all desires and passions, which later in St. Augustine and later in Sigmund Freud, will receive the name of libido, is the engine that contains the energy which allows for different types of artistic and intellectual creation. Thus, in this brief text we have the origin of the romantic idea of association of genius with madness, analyzed in recent times by the philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers. Before Aristotle, one of these melancholics, Plato, in his dialogue, The Phaedrus, (244 A) had already stated that “our greatest goods are born thanks to madness” (mania), and there being four kinds of it: the prophetic, whose patron is Apollo, the telestitic or ritual, whose patron is Dionysus, the poetic, whose patrons are the Muses, and the erotic, inspired by Aphrodite and Eros.

Platonic mania is directly related to poetic inspiration, conceived as vision or trance; and therefore, it is also understood as a source of creativity. What happens with Platonic mania and melancholia is that they become metonymies, confusing the part with the whole, because in Hellenic tradition and medicine, mental illness, when conceived under an organic model, a model that coexists with the religious, in which the disease is understood as possession, and the philosophical, in which it is related to the passions and thought, is structured in a more complex morphology.

The Greeks in fact divided the alterations of the passions and thought, madness, into two large groups: delirium with fever, which corresponds to the inflammation of the brain, and delirium without fever, which would be our mental illness. This is structured in two great poles: mania, or agitated madness, with delusions and hallucinations, and sometimes accompanied by violence, and melancholia or sad and apathetic madness, reaching immobility and resemblance to death in catatonia. Next to these two great groups we have senile dementia, epilepsy, and the disease proper of women, hysteria.

Plato and Aristotle reduce all forms of madness to one, because what interests them is analyzing how the imbalance of the passions allows intellectual creation. The melancholic desires to live in solitude, like Heraclitus, the philosopher who wept, as opposed to Democritus, the philosopher laughed, in the Hellenic tradition. This solitude is the condition of his superiority, because it allows him to observe things and people objectively, thanks to the distance and detachment from passions. It is supposed that Heraclitus, like the Nietzschean Zarathustra, went to live in the mountains, became a vegetarian and, after returning to his hometown, died of dropsy, because of the water that accumulated in his body because of his diet. Euripides, the misanthrope of tradition, the first possessor of a library, is supposed to have lived in a cave; and Aristotle himself, who was called “the reader” in the Academy, made writing to be read, not recited or dialogued, the key to his philosophy. The first Christians practiced anachoresis as a way of life and a way of seeking knowledge; and with them was born silent reading, mentioned for the first time in history by St. Augustine in his Confessions, when he recounts his surprise at seeing Ambrose reading silently in Milan.

Solitude and melancholy were considered the indispensable condition for observation; and the artist, the philosopher or the historian thus became neutral observers of the passions and catastrophes of others, as described by Pseudo-Longinus in his treatise, On the Sublime, in which the scene of the spectacle of the shipwreck, seen from the cliff, as the source of the aesthetic feeling of sublime beauty, understood as that which overrides the passions and elevates thought, as opposed to the pleasurable feeling of the beautiful, became a key element in Western thought.

The paradigm of the melancholic spectator, observer of the past, or of the present, was fundamental in Europe from the Renaissance onwards. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a brilliant revival of melancholy. Robert Burton, an Oxonian clergyman, was the author in 1628 of a masterpiece (The Anatomy of Melancholy), that drew upon an exhaustive study of biblical and classical sources on this feeling.

For Burton, who was a neo-Stoic, all disorders of the soul are due to the uncontrolled passions of all kinds; and all of them are nothing more than different forms of melancholy in his monumental and erudite treatise. His study is so complete that all aspects of human life of the present and the past are reflected in it, for what is history but the study of the joys and sorrows, the ambitions, hatreds, loves, thoughts and feelings of human beings? The work of the anatomist of melancholy is to try to describe from a distance the story of all these passions, seen from the dispassion that provides academic isolation and the disenchantment of all passions, typical of the philosopher and historian, which would lead Burton himself to also fall into melancholy.

Burton’s book is situated on a very expansive context. Already in 1586, in England itself, Timothie Bright had devoted another book to the subject. And in France the same had been done by André du Laurens in 1594 and Jourdan Guibelet in 1603.

Melancholy came to know a bright future, in the literature of romanticism; and some sociologists, such as, Wolf Lepenies tried to associate it with the ways of thinking and feeling of the emerging and frustrated German bourgeoisie. For example, those whose role was essential in the birth and consolidation of classical studies, focused on the evocation of a vanished past. However, long before that, melancholy was directly associated with visions of the past.

The Greek author of the Qoheleth, better known as, Ecclesiastes, a treatise attributed to the wisest king, Solomon, developed a whole theory of history, which tried to make sense of the time he lived in, the Hellenistic era, characterized by its endless succession of wars, which would affect the Jewish people very directly.

According to the Qoheleth, history cannot recover the past, definitively lost and impossible to reconstruct:

“Vanity of vanities! Everything is vanity. What profit does anyone gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? One generation passes away and another generation succeeds it, but the earth stands firm forever. The sun rises and the sun sets; then it returns to the place where it rises.
The wind blows southward and then veers to the north, constantly turning as it repeats its course. All the rivers go to the sea, and yet the sea never overflows, for the rivers continue to return to their place of origin. All things are wearisome and very difficult to express. The eyes are not satisfied with seeing and the ears do not have their fill of hearing. What has been will be so again, and what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Whatever is perceived to be new has already existed in the ages before us. Those people who died in ages past are no longer remembered, and the people yet to be born will not be remembered by those who come after them. I have seen everything that has been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after the wind”
(Ecclesiastes 1).

The impossibility of recovering the past through the evocation of it that historians can do was a substantial part of European thought, which contemplated it until the Renaissance under the rubric of melancholy. Here is just one example from Jorge Manrique, when he says:

Let us leave the Trojans,
For we have not seen their evils
Nor their glories;
Let us leave the Romans,
Though we have heard and read
Of their victories.
Let us not care to know
What of the century past,
And how it went.
Let us come to yesterday,
Which is as well forgotten
as all of that (Coplas, XV).

These verses are especially pertinent because they deal with the classical tradition, never lost in the Middle Ages and again in force from the “Renaissance” of the twelfth century. Greek and Roman history, together with biblical history, is fully alive in Jorge Manrique, as well as in late medieval Spanish literature, as María Rosa Lida de Malkiel pointed out.

If we read one of the first incunabula, the Weltkronik by Hartmann Schedel, published in 1493, which is interesting not only for its text but also its hundreds of illustrations, we can observe how this history of the world that begins with the biblical creation intermingles, following the historiographic tradition of St. Augustine and Orosius, the Jewish, Greek and Roman histories. All its characters are equally present in the text and the engravings, as are the oriental cities and those of the classical world in the miniatures. From all of them, from their lives and sayings, a moral lesson can be drawn, in the style of Valerius Maximus. Here the loop of melancholy has been broken, for the past becomes present, but at the cost of anachronism and imitation of it, as will happen in the European Renaissance, incomprehensible without the birth of the printed book, which will later be key to understanding the role of classical studies.

The printing press was an essential agent of change to make the Renaissance possible, and also the Reformation and the scientific revolution; for without it, the codification and general transmission of knowledge would have been impossible. In the case of Spain, for example, it was precisely the scarcity of printing presses and publishers which, together with the Counter-Reformation, largely explains the weakness of Spanish humanism, as Luis Gil Fernandez has shown in a very detailed study.

The birth of history and philology as sciences is inseparable from the overcoming of anachronism, which fully identifies the past and the present; and from the establishment of what is called estrangement, or the distancing of the present and the past. This process of estrangement makes it possible to create the necessary distance for the development of an objective method, as Anthony Kemp and David Lowenthal have pointed out. However, this distancing must be accompanied by an interest that promotes the study of a distant past and brings with it the birth of a certain process of assimilation.

The scientific study of all aspects of classical culture was institutionalized in Germany, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The importance of German scholarship was such that we can say that, just as classical Greece and Rome were the ideal homeland of many Germans, Germany itself is in a sense the common homeland of all scholars of antiquity.

In order to understand this process, two kinds of factors must be taken into account. External factors, referring to Germany’s own political and social situation and the development of its new university system; and internal factors, which allowed the institutionalization of all this systematic body of knowledge, Wissenschaften, without which it is impossible to access the ancient world.

Germany at the end of the 18th century was a conglomerate of small kingdoms, with the exception of Prussia, and dozens of free cities, known today as “Home Towns,” which the Germans called Heimat. Their population was more than 80% rural, and political domination corresponded to the nobility and the different churches. An average German town had between 3,000 and 5,000 inhabitants, was under the power of a local nobleman or ecclesiastical authority and its municipal life was controlled by guilds and corporations and was clearly restricted, which did not prevent the development of an important culture and a certain publishing industry. Germany’s economic and industrial development was very limited and its industrialization took place late in the 19th century. For this reason, a significant bourgeois class did not emerge that would allow the social and economic advancement of, for example, the intellectual professions.

We may take as an essential and social model the figure of Friedrich Schiller, poet, playwright and historian. Of humble origin, he trained as a military doctor, but became one of the first professors of history in Germany and author of the first great publishing success of the 19th century, his History of the Thirty Years’ War. Schiller and Goethe lived under the protection, and many times the whim, of the nobles and petty princes; and both considered, like many German intellectuals, culture as a way out and an escape route from the situation of social constraint.

Heinrich Heine said that in Napoleonic times, England dominated the sea, France the land and Germany the air, thanks to its cultural creations. Culture was conceived as a way of sublimation and escape from the present, and it was thought that there could be full human freedom, civil, cultural and intellectual, without full political freedom, thus creating what Leonard Krieger called the German idea of freedom, a freedom under the cloak of authority, often times arbitrary.

Such freedom under surveillance and such constraint of a social class, the bourgeoisie, meant that culture was understood as a form of nostalgia for a past in which that freedom had been possible – and that was the role of Greek and Roman culture, evoked as absence in Schiller’s own poems, which we can clearly see in his Die Götter Griechenlandes:

Ja, sie kehrten heim, und alles Schöne,
Alles Hohe nahmen sie mit fort,
Alle Farben, alle Lebenstöne,
Und uns blieb nur das entseelte Wort.
Aus der Zeitflut weggerissen, schweben
Sie gerettet auf des Pindus Höhn,
Was unsterblich im Gesang soll leben,
Muß im Leben untergehn.

(Yes, they returned home, and everything beautiful,
Everything high they took with them,
All colors, all sounds of life,
And all that was left for us was the lifeless word.
Torn away from the tide of time, they float
They are saved on Pindus heights.
What shall live immortal in song,
Must perish in life).

The idealized past of Greece is the poet’s true homeland, as it was for Goethe; the land where the lemon tree blooms. The poet understands the evocation of the past, in which freedom and beauty were lost, as an essential function of poetry and historical narrative. This is also the case in Friedrich Hölderlin’s epistolary novel, Hyperion. In this novel, Hyperion’s letters to Diotima evoke both the loss of freedom, love and happiness, through creation and reading. The Germans created a culture understood as a remembrance of the national past and of a past they identified as their own in Greece and Rome. This explains the importance of the study of all aspects of the past in the development of their national culture. In it, this German idea of conditional freedom was directly linked to the idea of Bildung, or education and shaping of the mind and life of each individual; and fundamental in that Bildung was the creation of the new European university by Wilhelm von Humboldt, at the University of Berlin, under the protection of the King of Prussia.

Wilhelm von Humboldt created the so-called research university, in which a professor had full freedom to teach and research his knowledge and was provided with the means to do so. This professor, be it L. von Ranke, G.W.F. Hegel, K. von Savigny, J. Liebig and so many others, would train not only students but also researchers; and thus, the institutionalization of the Altertumswissenschaft became possible. The new university gave birth to a new social and personal type, the professor, with his specific ideology and ethics analyzed by A.J. Engel.

In Germany, the university and the liberal professions (doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists), were the essential means of social ascent, in a country where the delayed industrialization did not allow until very late the birth of a rich bourgeoisie. The Jews, excluded from the university professions almost until the 20th century, took refuge in them. The German professors were free in their privileged world, isolated from politics by their knowledge; but they always depended on the political power in the public universities; and that is why they were always politically very conservative and could not react to the rise of Nazism, according to Fritz Ringer. Such was the internal framework in which the Altertumswissenschaft was institutionalized. Let us now see what it consists of.

The German word, Wissenschaft, designates any kind of systematic knowledge of a given subject, and is not exactly equivalent to the English term, “science.” There is a Judentumwissenschaft, a set of knowledge necessary to be able to understand and study Jewish culture and history; and for the same reason there is a Religionswissenschaft, which does not consist in reducing religious phenomena to a science, because then the specifics of religious experience would be reduced to nothing. The Altertumwissenschaft is a whole system of knowledge necessary to be able to study what is considered a strongly unitary phenomenon, which is the world of classical antiquity.

Its basis is the knowledge of two languages, Greek and Latin, in all their aspects: morphological, syntactic and semantic, the study of their history and all the metrical, stylistic and rhetorical forms necessary to be able to understand the texts in these two ancient languages. But this study of languages is only a part of it, since it also includes the study of archaeology, epigraphy and numismatics, as well as, of course, classical history and all literary genres: epic, lyric, tragedy, comedy, prose, history, oratory, and philosophy in its various parts, as well as all the sciences developed by the Greeks and Romans. August Boeck pointed this out in 1886; but he also indicated that philology was “the knowledge of what is known.” By this he meant that its aim was to achieve the understanding, or in other words, the updating of the experiences lived in all fields, felt and thought by the men and women of Antiquity.

Naturally, only very few authors managed to master all these fields, although some did, such as Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, who wrote on Greek language, literature, history, philosophy and religion. By doing so, Wilamowitz maintained the idea of the unity of the subject of study, and because he was aware of the hermeneutic character of all these disciplines. A classical philologist turned philosopher, Hans Georg Gadamer, thus developed a theory that gave a perfect account of the work of the philologist, the historian and the philosopher. For Gadamer, these disciplines, called hermeneutics, were structured as follows.

A hermeneutic discipline studies a cultural and historical whole that is defined by the existence of a corpus of texts which is transmitted over time, while being studied and enriched. This body of texts shapes a cultural and personal identity and creates a sense of belonging. Think, for example, of the role of the Old and New Testaments in Christianity, the Talmud in Judaism, and the Koran for Muslims. Each member of that group is recognized as such through tradition. His identity is delimited by that tradition and through its identification with the corpus of its texts. But it is by immersing oneself in it that one constantly recreates one’s identity and renews it, while at the same time keeping alive the tradition to which one belongs. Hermeneutic activity is based on reading, rereading and commenting on texts. In it, to read is to begin to write, and to write is to read again.

This going to the old textual corpus and then returning to the present is what Gadamer called the “hermeneutic circle;” and it is this circle, based on continuous and endless reading, that is the basis of the work of the historian, the philologist and the philosopher, three figures that overlap in the field of Altertumwissenchaft. Without texts, without books and without reading, all these studies become meaningless.

David Hume once said that “reason is and must be the slave of the passions,” to the scandal of moralists and Stoic philosophers. In reality Hume led a rather discreet and stoic life, and so what he meant by that phrase is that the motor of our psychic life is not thought, but feeling – passion. For that reason, it is incomprehensible that the gigantic effort, in all the disciplines necessary to be able to study classical antiquity, could have been developed, if there had not been some deep interest in it.

And, of course, there was deep interest in Germany. Greek and Latin formed the basis of the baccalaureate studied at the Gymnasium, the secondary school for those who would go on to university studies, and which, by the way, was attended by not even 10% of young German adolescents, since the majority who studied did so at the Realschule, where they studied modern languages, and sciences and techniques necessary for the development of commerce and economic or industrial activity.

The prolonged study of Classical languages made it possible to create a whole corps of professors and scholars, who made possible the massive work of study and cataloguing that made it possible in Germany to create the great corpora of inscriptions and texts, and to elaborate the great instruments of consultation, such as, the Real-Enzyklopaedie, a gigantic collective work, indispensable for study, even today; and which was developed over many years, like so many other working methods.

What did the Germans see in Greece and Rome? We might even say, why did they become obsessed with Greece, which exercised a kind of tyranny over German culture and thought? They no longer saw in it a nostalgic past, in which men had been free and happy, as had been the Greece of Schiller and Hölderlin, but a model to be followed in all areas of culture, for Greece had created philosophy, science, art and the best literature, and also provided the models on which European political systems were based.

The Altertumwsissenschaft conceived Antiquity sub specie aeternitatis, as had been the model of Roma aeterna. Ever since Constantine moved his capital to Constantinople, the double idea of translatio and renovatio developed. Rome could remain Rome elsewhere and constantly renew itself. The emperors of Byzantium remained emperors of Rome, and then also the czars of Russia, who called themselves Caesars. And the same thing happened in the West, ever since the coronation of Charlemagne, which meant the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, which survived until the Napoleonic wars, when it was neither sacred, nor an empire, nor Roman, nor Germanic, as Voltaire pointed out, but which was renewed with the Second Reich and then unfortunately with the Third Reich which was supposed to last a thousand years.

Greece and Rome were the timeless model to imitate for the entire German cultured society. If we read the 1878 book by Jakob von Falke, a jewel of German publishing for the quality of its engravings and binding, we can realize that, despite its shortcomings as a historical work, since for its time it does not cite either Droysen’s or Mommsen’s works, it reflects very well the passion of the German bourgeoisie for the Classical world. It is a luxurious book of great size that could adorn a good bourgeois salon, attesting to the admiration for that vanished world.

The paradigm of classical history sub specie aeternitatis began to be criticized in the early nineteenth century by authors such as Tocqueville, and was the subject of fierce ideological battles, as each country tried to identify with the Classical past in its own way, creating antithetical models.

The Germans tended to identify themselves, following the model created by K.O. Müller, more with Sparta than with Athens, since Sparta, a traditional state, with an agrarian base and militaristic organization, was conceived as a kind of simile of Prussia at the beginning of the 19th century: agrarian, disciplined, militaristic and conservative, as Édouard Will pointed out years ago. Similarly, English liberals, such as George Grote, identified Athens with their native England: maritime, commercial, democratic and enlightened.

And in the United States, where the presence of Classical studies was always very limited since the subject was not taught in secondary education, Classical models served on the one hand to justify their peculiar institution, slavery, but on the other hand, they were also a model for the drafting of their republican Constitution, conceived on a more Roman than Greek model. One of its drafters, however, proposed in an amendment that the new official language of the USA should be the Attic dialect, as they could no longer maintain the language of their metropolis.

In France, from the very moment of the Revolution, the Greek and Roman republican models were present, and for this reason numerous histories of Greece and Rome were published. This approach has always been present among French historians of the Classical world, even among those who had political commitments that were later very debatable, as in the case of Jérome Carcopino, in whose work this was always a fundamental component, since he believed that the study of the past could not be dissociated from the present.

After the mark left by the numerous works of Arnaldo Momigliano on the development of the historiography of antiquity and Classical studies in general, the study of the historiography of ancient history is now an academically consolidated field. Luciano Canfora has published numerous books and articles on the subject. In all these works it can be seen how all political ideologies – liberal or conservative, Marxist, Fascist, Nazi, or of any other type have needed to be confirmed through the study of their precedents in antiquity. This need to find a justification in such origins is what has so far kept alive in many cases the interest in the ancient world, and to some extent continues to do so.

However, what is happening nowadays is that these justifications are no longer undertaken by means of documented research work, carried out in accordance with the rules of the historical method, but by means of informative books of a more or less propagandistic nature. This is what is happening in the USA with authors who seek in the Greek past a legacy according to which only a strong military power can be the guarantee of freedom, economic development and democracy, tending to change the Athenian model for the Spartan one, in cases such as that of the ideologist Robert D. Kaplan. Although this new orientation is also present in the case of professional historians of Greek antiquity, such as, Victor Davis Hanson.

The Russian Revolution, the birth of Fascism, Nazism and later the Second World War, and the process of decolonization of the world brought about profound transformations in Western societies that caused the Classical models, conceived under the paradigm of eternity, to enter into crisis. Nevertheless, Classical studies managed, until recently, to maintain their vigor, because the richness of Classical sources, covering all fields (medicine, science, philosophy), and all possible aspects of social and family life, and the expression of the most varied ideas and feelings, provided an excellent testing ground for all kinds of studies. Feminism, of course, drank profusely from ancient sources and also the so-called gender studies or the history of sexuality, a subject vetoed by the authors of the nineteenth century.

The Greek sin par excellence became the object of privileged study in the departments of gender studies. Dozens of books and hundreds of articles have been published, creating a field of work that has been synthesized by James Davidson, a Classical philologist, in a comprehensive and exhaustively documented book that stretches into 634 pages. It is said that you can only study what you love, what you hate, or what you have already dreamed about. In that sense, and if we leave aside the enormous effort involved in the study of Classical languages and philology, less than that of mathematics or physics, however, Classical studies should not be in crisis and be subjected to a certain shared melancholic sensation of seeming to live out its end.

Numerous voices of alarm have been raised. Victor Davis Hanson himself, along with John Heath, has asked the question: “Who killed Homer?” According to them, only the recovery of Classical wisdom as a whole that integrates what in the USA is called “humanities” can allow Classical studies to be saved, lost in a world that values publications only by their number, obsessed by publication for publication’s sake, and in which the monographs of those who know more and more about less and less, and focused on insignificant topics supposedly very technical, have made the reading rate of the Classics decline sharply, in a parallel process to the loss of general knowledge among a good part of the professors.

In Italy, Salvatore Settis has asked himself the same question, as has a historian of Greek philosophy, Giuseppe Cambiano. The idea is repeated. Reading the Classics is fundamental because of the richness of their contents and because we cannot understand our cultural legacy without them. But what would happen if we no longer recognized, or even wanted to recognize our cultural legacy? What if what we reject is the book itself and reading, two essential components without which neither history, philology nor philosophy would make sense? Could it be that the rejection of the world of books is global and therefore that the hermeneutic disciplines have become impossible? Some believe so.

Each society creates its own system of global communication (very different in oral cultures), and among cultures with different degrees of literacy and in the electronic, visual and digital world. Marshall McLuhan had already warned of this in his now classic book, The Gutenberg Galaxy. These communication systems do not absolutely determine linguistic expression, much less thought. But they can do so, if they are used inappropriately.

Information can be processed in different ways and can be measured and quantified. All information is either assimilated or lost; and the process of assimilation takes place over time, since information is a flow. The assimilation capacity in a given time is inversely proportional to the speed of the flow. If speed is the result of dividing space by time:

S= s/t,
then the speed of the information is equal to its quantity divided by time:

S= Qi/t,
being the assimilation the division between the information itself and time. That is:

Ai= Qi/ t2

For this reason, the proliferation of information in the digital media, which of course is a great enrichment and creates very useful tools for consultation and research in the field of Classical studies and ancient history, becomes a toxic tool, if it is not used as a means to an end. The training of a historian or scholar of the humanities can only be based on the study of texts, on their reading, re-reading and analysis, and on the practice of reflective writing. Digital media are just that, media, as are printed dictionaries. A dictionary contains all the words; but in order to write, one must know how to handle language in terms of structured thought. Buying a dictionary is not enough. There are also all the letters on a keyboard; and they can be combined in millions of random ways; but a chimpanzee amanuensis will hardly create a good book.

Computer experts have drawn attention to the birth of a process of transformation of language and thought because of the abusive use of the Internet. Nicholas Carr points out that the Internet system favors parataxis over syntax. The user tends to move from link to link, in parallel processing, and to reintegrate links by superposition, not in a complex and durable structure. This explains the rejection of deep and long-term reading that is already being observed. Two Spanish professors of Greek literature have told me the same anecdote. None of their students had read the Iliad, in Spanish of course. One of them managed to get a Canto read, the other ordered it, but found that it just summaries of the “argument” taken from Wikipedia. This is not an exception, as the rejection of reading among humanities students is becoming the norm in philosophy, history and philology, sometimes supported by some professors.

The rejection of reading, and the idea that everything can be found on the Internet, contributes to the creation of what one computer engineer, Jaron Lanier, has called the “digital herd.” If everyone searches for the same thing, with the same search engine, in the same set of files, they will necessarily find the same thing. Originality thus disappears, because in history and philology it consists of discovering little-known data and establishing relationships between them that had not been found before. This requires continuous, meticulous and patient reading over many years of training and apprenticeship, as well as knowing how to find new modes of written or other forms of expression. The problem is that many teachers are contributing to the destruction of the ability to express oneself through the inappropriate use of PowerPoint.

PowerPoint is a program created for making advertising presentations. It is very useful for this and for processing images of all kinds, but not texts, which are reduced to almost childish outlines. That is why Franck Frommer considers it a program that can make us stupid. The information that is hackneyed, superimposed in a conventional way and expressed in a simplistic way is the opposite of creation and historical research and exposition, so it can be said that the history of antiquity and Classical studies will end up in a serious crisis, if we do not return to the only world that can make them possible, the world of texts, reading, reflection and good writing.

An ancient history sub specie aeternitatis is no longer possible, because the regression of Classical studies in general education makes it impossible for most people to identify with that world and consider it as an eternal model to imitate, in a world that is changing rapidly in economic, political and military areas, and that seems to want to value continuous change, and on its own, in the development of communication technologies, which make them increasingly faster and which offer so much information that is impossible to process.

If there is no global and eternal model, we must return to the world of melancholy. As we have seen, it was a world in which the past, gone forever, appears in a fragmentary way. History sub specie melancholiae can only be the fragmentary reconstruction of that disappeared past, but also the evocation of its absence and the finite expression in a small text of our infinite desire to know and not to fall into oblivion. The Greeks believed that what distinguishes melancholy is the sensation of the loss of sense and perception of the future. There is no future for the melancholic who contemplates with distance the spectacle of his own life. We have seen, following Pseudo-Longinus, how the sublime emerges in the scene of the spectator before the shipwreck. There is no single spectator before the spectacle of the past and the present world; and therefore, as long as several spectators can communicate, there will no longer be room for individual melancholy; and there will be room for the hope of leaving for the future small traces and remains among the ruins of time.


José Carlos Bermejo Barrera is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). He has published numerous books in the fields of mythology and religions of classical antiquity and the philosophy of history. Among these are The Limits of Knowledge and the Limits of Science, Historia y Melancolía, El Gran Virus. Ensayo para una pandemia, and most recently, La política como impostura y las tinieblas de la información. He has published numerous works in academic journals, such as History and Theory; Quaderni di Storia, Dialogues d’Histoire Ancienne, Madrider Mitteilungen. He is a regular contributor to the daily press.


The featured image shows, “Clio, Muse of History,” by Charles Meynier; painted in 1800.

Of Universities And Their Collapse

Briefly, I would like to discuss Allan Bloom’s anticipations, from his excellent essay on the collapse of the university. But first, let me give you an excerpt from it:

Democracy, or the egalitarian regime, must (…) perforce have utility as its primary motive: it is founded on the rule of all, and the vital desires and the fear of death are shared by all – as opposed to the desires for glory and pure knowledge which are rare. This devotion to utility is particularly true of modern democracies, the theory of which was precisely to encourage the self, regarding passions as a sure means to political consensus. Disinterested love of the truth is particularly threatened in democracy… In modern democracies the universities have… attempted to provide a basis for the cultivation of the theoretical life which finds only thin soil elsewhere in the society. The university, to the extent it represented the theoretical life, is more a memory than a reality… One need only look at academic philosophy and the social sciences to see how irrelevant the tradition has become to them. They suppose they have found new methods in the light of which the older teachings appear primitive.

In the 1960s, universities all over the world experienced protests directed against traditional forms of education. The state, accused of authoritarianism and of hindering intellectual freedoms, had completely surrendered the system of higher education. It had, literally, abandoned the University and fled. For some time, the University belonged to no one. Yet, this situation couldn’t last long, because an abandoned object, especially when it presents a significant value, quickly finds a new owner and is taken over. Thus, the University fell into the hands of business and administration, that have provided it with a new purpose: utility.

This hostile take-over of the University by the market was accompanied by a bureaucratization of academic life, its – so to speak – “Americanization;” for the American model assumes that scholars are a bit like children, who don’t know what managing a corporation means, are not aware that teaching is business as good as any other, or even better than others, especially when you consider that everyone has to finish one school or another. In this way, at European universities, where administration used to play a rather marginal role, “America” had been discovered. The University could finally begin to lay down golden eggs. In April 1968, almost 2000 German professors protested against this sort of “Americanization” of the University, as well as against the increasing role of students’ bodies and academicians with lower degrees. With no results. Decisions had been made and the battle for the University was lost. Let’s see, what this change really meant.

The change meant an alteration of a definition of the University, as well as of the institution itself, which aimed at transforming it into a corporation. Anyone, who has difficulty with composing a senseless syllabus, who struggles with filling out an 11th evaluation questionnaire this year, who opposes blackmail by troglodyte students understands this perfectly. An “Americanization” of the contemporary University is about subduing it to the administration and allowing a corporate system to shape academic structures.

Ernst H. Kantorowicz in his brilliant and humorous essay about how pre-Nazi, German universities functioned proved that limiting the University’s freedom, a bureaucratization of even the simplest tasks, such as, grading a student, is just a prelude to totalitarian solutions on a much broader scale. That is why we have to move out from the University, at least for a while, and go beyond the stiff institutional framework. I can do at the University, whatever it expects me to do. I will fill out forms, give reports, apply for grants, write in English and Chinese (No, I won’t write in Chinese!) – but I will go elsewhere to think. I am not offended. I simply accept the rule, according to which I receive my paycheck for different things, than thinking. This is the new deal, which I accept, since it has been forced upon me.

Well, I have been doing this for more than a decade now anyway. With my colleagues I run a foundation, which publishes important, though usually unprofitable books. We organize conferences, give scholarships to young academicians. We move philosophy to the opera-house and into media. We show that thinking is sexy. And you don’t need big money to do that. Big money is necessary in sciences.

The thing is that the humanities, broadly taken, is no science. It is a craft, which allows the building up of national culture. Elements of graph theory, or research on non-linear optics – this is science, and it would be good to combine it somehow with new technologies, because it is here, on the free market, where it can display its efficiency. It is different with culture. It seems too fragile to be able to hold its place in the free market, without the help of the state.

I could suggest here a number of solutions, which would support such aims of the University, for example, freeing the humanities from the obligation of parametrization, which is used to measure progress in natural sciences. Yet, instead, I will formulate a more general postulate: let’s return the University to the state. Let’s make it an element of the system of state institutions responsible for culture and national heritage.


Piotr Nowak is Professor of Philosophy at the Bialystok University in Poland, deputy editor‐in‐chief of the annual Kronos. Philosophical Journal. He is the author most recently of The Ancients and Shakespeare on Time: Some Remarks on the War of Generations. He has published, among others, in Philosophy and Literature. He is also the host of TV shows.


The featured image shows, “Lorenzo Tornabuoni Presented by Grammar to Prudentia and the other Liberal Arts,” by Sandro Botticelli, painted ca. 1483–1486.