PHILOSOPHICAL LUCUBRATIONS IN BROAD DAYLIGHT
BOO RELATIVITY . . . J. Budziszewski, author of Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Spence Publishing Co., Dallas, 1999), 51 this year, teaches in the government department at U. of Texas. I have his book from the library, having heard of it from Peter (the Friendly Absolutist) Kreeft, from Boston College, who spoke 2/24 at a U. of Ill. at Chicago Newman Club conference on "human dignity and health issues." In his allotted 45 minutes at this conference, Kreeft administered a "spanking" to relativism, and it was fascinating.
A book by Kreeft, A Refutation of Moral Relativism: Interviews with an Absolutist (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, also 1999), lies on the home desk, having popped out at me from the same shelf. More later on Kreeft, whom I accused after his talk of "holy hedonism" because of his espousal of joy in the Lord in pursuit of the Absolutely Absolute.
Returning to Budziszewski (hereafter JB or Bud), he grew up Catholic in Milwaukee but, full of the 60s, outgrew that or thought he did. By the time he appeared before a U Texas hiring committee with a new Ph.D., he was a nihilist, imagining himself "one of the few who [had the nerve to] believe such things . . . who could walk the rocky heights, where the air is thin and cold" and the philosophy barren and comfortless.
Accordingly, he offered the committee a double manifesto -- (1) People "supply" (make up) good and evil and (2) they are not responsible for what they do -- and laid out a 10-year plan for establishing political theory on these two foundations.
THE EX-NIHILIST . . . That got him his job teaching the young, which he now things was ridiculous and scandalous. Later he jeopardized his getting tenure by singing quite another tune. This included jettisoning "the illusion of moral neutrality" and wondering "why we kill the weak," each of which became chapter titles in Revenge.
He decided he had fallen prey to "smokescreens" that hid things he knew but wouldn't admit he knew. He became "more Nietzschean" than the old nihilist himself and found he could believe the dreadful better than most and thereupon declared himself "smarter and braver" than others. (Chi Trib columnist Eric Zorn once similarly characterized religious belief as comfort to the weak, in a note to me, back when we exchanged emails.)
Taking a good look at himself, JB was horrified but denied the horror, which meant he had to deny "the wonderful" too. That tore it. He returned to "the Savior" and recovered memories of the philosopher (himself) as a young Catholic. His career, built on belief in nothing, he feared was over, because having rejected the premise of what he had already produced, he had to put together a new body of published work. The tenure review would come, and there he'd be empty-handed. More to come on that problem, which he did solve.
GO AHEAD, MAKE ARGUMENTS . . . Arguing his point these days, he presents what's agreed on, in what he calls the classical way -- what the modern philosopher Wittgenstein called the "assembling of reminders," the recognizing of what we already know. For instance, no one approves of cowardice or lying; so we may begin with that as a given. These are among first principles taken for granted. Deny them, he says, and you're in trouble.
He is for arguing things, vs. accepting them. He takes what he calls the "noetic" or "apologetical" approach -- not apologetic, as in being sorry, but as in "apologia," by Newman or Socrates, who each argued his defense. The nihilist, on the other hand, does not argue but looks at the mess, the Babel still with us after all these years, and calls it good. Accepting babel, he places himself above it all, under no obligation to refute. Disputing Christianity, for instance, is "too crude" for his taste. To which our author says, Sorry, it won't work. The rapist's and the woman's views collide, for instance. But her idea is better. She's right and he's wrong. We know that. There's no ignorance here of the sort the pluralist advances as reason for neutrality.
SWINGING WILD . . . As for the fetus, we just don't know, says the pluralist. Is it (he? she?) human (of a protected species) or not? If we kill it (him? her?), we might not kill a human, so we should feel free to do it, says the pluralist. Swinging an axe in a crowded room, we might not hit anyone, so go ahead?
The pluralist, declining to argue, offers a "license to be arbitrary," presuming the legitimacy of an idea "but [sparing] itself the trouble" of demonstrating it.
So he and we argue from ignorance for the freedom to zap the fetus. Opinions differ (who are we to say?) about his or her or its humanity, so let there be freedom to off the little creature -- as if someone might be standing behind the bush I use for a target, but so what? I use it for a target anyway, firing away.
We are big on what it means to be human -- possessing unique dignity and inalienable rights for gosh sakes -- but woefully unclear on who is human? We haven't a clue? Should we get one before we go suctioning and curetting and chemically suffocating, disabling whatever it is we have there? This "license to be arbitrary" is the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't of intellectual and moral life. Where's the integrity?
WANNA BE A NIHILIST? GO TO SCHOOL . . . Revenge of Conscience author J. Budziszewski covered holes in his pre-conversion argument by saying one had to take an ironic view of reality. In any case, having tossed out free will, "for all practical purposes" he denied the good. But arguments were secondary in any case; he had decided to be nihilist, and that was that.
The problem isn't not knowing what to do but deciding not to do it. "Most of us sin and then start doubting [God's] existence," he writes, not the other way around.
In addition to natural stubbornness, he had been taught nihilism. In school, not at home, he heard morality differs society to society. But as CS Lewis argued, marriage is a constant, if not the number of wives a man may have. Ditto bravery as the norm, though opinions differ about what to be brave about. Thus he learned "the false anthropology of the times." It looked good to him.
English teachers told him to distinguish between fact and opinion, and moral propositions always fell among opinion. Social science teachers cited the difference between "facts" and "values" -- the atomic weight of sodium was fact, condemnation of murder was value. This he learned as logic, but it "had nothing to do with logic [but] was merely nihilism . . . in disguise."
Along the way, he bought pan-materialism, rejecting "minds, moral law, God . . . the properties of matter," and belief in matter too, which made all reality incoherent, and he bought that too, feeling quite proud of himself for discovering this, since figuring things out, which he couldn't do, didn't matter either. Finally, he fell under the spell of Nietzsche, who decided that laughing (a la Woody Allen) or shutting up (not thinking about it) is the best solution. (more to come)
THE TROUBLE WITH PHILOSOPHY . . . As for the book Revenge of Conscience, it may be too dense and humorless for my uses. Too intense. The author is a very heavyweight philosopher, and I, while mentally nimble and with good memory, am not. He's a shortstop, surveying the field, standing back on edge of infield, seeing more and welcoming the time, if only seconds, to decide. I am a third basemen, 10 to 15 feet closer to the ball as it leaves the bat -- committed to the quick decision, if measured in seconds, preferring the quick decision. I bobbled more grounders playing shortstop than playing third.
So in reading and thinking. I have good hands and move quickly in the short run, am gifted in other words with a certain mental acuity. But heavy philosophical lifting is not my long suit. I could sight-read Virgil at 22, but at 23, facing the cruel abstractions of minor logic and metaphysics, I floundered. So at this point, Mr. B. and his Revenge may not be my best bet.