As the Crow Flies #2

Hello, again! It’s been a while. I’ve missed you.

A lot has happened since we last spoke. The 2017-2018 year of The Center for Western Studies has been flying through history and loving every minute of it. However, and it pains me to say this, there’s a little too much information to give you within one newsletter. I can tell you about some pretty cool stuff, though (and show you a few of the works we’ve studied, too). 

So, there was this thing called the Enlightenment. Have you heard of it? Descartes started the ideas behind this movement at the end of the 16th century, but it didn’t take off until the 18th century. It is the moment in history that flipped Earth’s spiritual and moral axis. Now all of a sudden our planet is spinning in a completely different direction, and the whole of Western Civilization is caught up in the momentum of this little thing called the Enlightenment. 

Now, you’ll have to excuse me, because this is where I get happy typing fingers. Just bear with me—this stuff has produced the social smog you breathe in every day. 

Before I dissect the monster of the Enlightenment, I want to show you her ancestors.

Our director, John Hodges, has broken down historical Western thought into three main categories: pre-modern, modern, and post-modern. 

Before the Enlightenment, the world was clothed in the ideas of pre-modern thinking. This form of belief recognized the small size of our world and our species. The idea many great minds of the earliest centuries had was that man is too small to know anything for sure. The only way that truth (take note of that word, because it used to mean something) could be revealed is if there was an omniscient God that was willing and able to reveal it to us. The universal assumption of pre-modern man was that there was a God willing and able to do just that. In Augustine’s Confessions, he discusses God’s hand through his life starting at birth. Granted, St. Augustine was a religious man, and when he wrote about deity he referenced Yahweh of the Bible. However, it wasn’t purely Christian minds that believed in the idea of an omniscient god. Plato and Aristotle also lived with the idea that there was a force and plane of being beyond ours. They called this area of philosophy metaphysics. Aristotle argued that the only way to learn about the concrete particulars of your world was through the study of general ideals (metaphysics). The two lived in the polytheistic culture of Ancient Greece, where nearly every action throughout your day was connected to one god or another. The point being that cultures all across Western Civilization held to religion to understand the reality of their world.

Now we get to the beast. The Enlightenment flipped Earth on its axis and preached the idea that everything that’s knowable in the world is knowable by human reason and intellect. “If God existed,” says the Enlightenment, “He’s long gone now, and besides, if I can’t experience Him through my five senses then how can I truly know He exists at all?” Descartes (remember him?) made the assertion that “I think, therefore I am.” In a nutshell, Descartes was determining proof of existence. Obviously anything not concretely experienced could be a lie, so only the five senses could really be counted on to determine what existed and what did not. However, he reasoned, even our five senses can be tricked into believing something that isn’t. So, he came down to his final conclusion. Because his mind is wrestling with the idea of existence, and because he can be sure of that, he can be sure that he exists. Nothing else he could be absolutely sure of, but his own existence could be justified by his philosophical ponderings. 

Can you see the problem here? Can you see how empty and terrifying this existence is? Everything is a lie except your own tumultuous mind. 

During the Enlightenment there were a lot of ideas like the one above. God was no longer assured. If he was believed in, he was mainly a clockwork god, who wound the universe up like a child’s toy and threw it into space to do what it will. He was not a present or personal god, and he had no interest in us any longer. Man turned to science, to his own unbeatable reason, to follow throughout life. The Enlightenment begged the human race to look to itself for all things, to strip away any colorful emotion or religious ties to anything, because those things held back the ability to rationalize thoroughly. Enter Emmanuel Kant, one of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. Kant separated the human existence into two places: fact and value. I’m sure you can already guess his prioritization. Facts of life were provable, objective, and therefore reliable and profitable. These were scientific thought, rational philosophy. Value, on the other hand, were the things of the human experience that were subjective, not provable, and therefore not reliable and entirely unprofitable. Kant couldn’t dismiss the fact that humans were drawn to beauty and art and God, but he told men to put those things in their proper place.

My dear friends, can you see the ruby heart of humanity fluttering bloody and desperately in the violent hand of the Enlightenment? This period of time brought us some wonderful things. Science advanced infinitely, but at what cost? As soon as God became a value, as soon as art and beauty became inessential, the world shifted entirely. 

Now I bring you to the child of the Enlightenment. Welcome to our century. It is a post-modern place. Our age cries that there isn’t a God, and therefore, nothing is knowable. Because of the fact/value establishment of the Enlightenment, we are a people afraid of absolutism. None of us are willing to make claims to truth, because how can we claim what is true? Everything is relative to us. You believe what you want, and I’ll do the same. All I can be sure of is my own personal experience. As a reaction to the extreme rationalism of our mother, we are a people led by fast-action feelings. Do what you want, when you want, with whomever you want, and the rest can meet you in hell.

However, friends, don’t despair. Believe me when I say that I know how overwhelming this all can be. If you simply walk away with this knowledge and no intention of utilizing it, I’m afraid life will remain as bleak and foggy as it seems now. But if you walk away from this short little philosophy lesson, turn around, and fight your culture to find universal truth and ask Christ for knowledge from His Holy Spirit and His Holy Scripture, then this moment of fright won’t be for nothing.

That’s what my fellow students and I are learning to do with everything they’re taught. Western Civilization was not always and certainly isn’t now a lovely utopia without flaw or pitfall. Yet we live in it nonetheless. Which means that we have a responsibility to our history and our future to learn and keep marching forward.

Thanks for joining me. Until next time!

As the Crow Flies

The Center for Western Studies kicked off the first month of the year with Homer’s Odyssey, C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, and the first two chapters of William Fleming’s Arts and Ideas.

The foundation for our program is starting with Ancient Greek literature. Where else would you start with Western Civilization? This is where Homer’s Odyssey, and Arts and Ideas came in.

The Odyssey is the book that everyone has heard of, but I was surprised to know how little I knew about it. However, from this side of that epic poem, it was well worth the trek. After all the beautiful women, terrifying sea monsters, and raging gods of endless elemental power, the Odyssey gives a fascinating insight to the values of ancient culture. Behind all the smoke and mirrors of the twenty-year adventure of Odysseus lies a rather interesting foundation of heroic values and ideal character. During discussions, we wrestled with the idea that certain values run throughout most known cultures. The question prevailed: Why? Where did it come from?

Enter The Abolition of Man. C.S. Lewis paints the picture of the Tao, this overarching value system in nearly all civilizations and religions. Beyond explaining this sense of right and wrong in each human being since the beginning of history, he also notches an arrow at those of us today who seem to consider this value system a sort of binding chain. What does a world without morals look like? What tragic shift in perspective will occur after our ever-sought dominion of Science? I won’t lie--it took hours of processing to finally wrap my mind around everything we talked about. I couldn’t be more thankful that we drowned in the book, however. Looking back, I consider it more of a baptism.

Arts and Ideas, in all honesty, threatened to be horribly boring after weeks of epic Greek mythology and staggering theological philosophy. Yet it didn’t disappoint in the slightest. Hodges and Vowell took us through the Hellenic and Hellenistic periods of Ancient Greece, explaining that the idealist mindset behind the Hellenic period was considered Apollonian (after the god Apollo), and the Hellenistic period was considered Dionysian (after the god Dionysus). I wish I could unpack everything that those two words mean, but tragically, this is merely a newsletter and not a dissertation. Here’s the basic, mindblowing bottom line: Apollo was a god of song, order, the sun (hence, intellectual light, or Enlightenment), thus Apollonian periods in the arts focus on idealism and rationalism. What is man? He is a god. Dionysus, on the other hand, was the god of wine, debauchery, wild parties, thus Dionysian periods in the arts were fueled purely by emotion. Statues of the Hellenistic period portrayed man in struggle, facing foes, muscles tensed. Who is man? He is a warrior.

Thus the first month of the Center for Western Studies closes. I’m not sure if my mind can handle many more fireworks of knowledge, but ready or not, here I come.