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The Post-Truth Civilization

A reader who posts under the name “Du Bartas” left this excerpt from the English philosopher R.G. Collingwood’s 1940 book An Essay on Metaphysics:

Let us suppose a civilization whose most characteristic features had for many centuries been based upon the predominance, among those who shared it, of the belief that truth was the most important thing in the world, and that consequently scientific thinking, systematic, orderly thinking, theoretical and practical alike, pursued with all the energy at his command and with all the skill and care at his disposal, was the most valuable thing man could do. In such a civilization every feature would be marked with some peculiar characteristic derived from this prevailing habit of mind and not to be expected in a civilization differently based.

To take a few examples. Religion would be predominantly a worship of truth in which the god is truth itself, the worshipper a seeker after truth, and the god’s presence to the worshipper a gift of mental light. Philosophy would be predominantly an exposition not merely of the nature of thought, action, &c., but of scientific thought and orderly (principled, thought-out) action, with special attention to method and to the problem of establishing standards by which on reflection truth can be distinguished from falsehood. Politics would be predominantly the attempt to build up a common life by the methods of reason (free discussion, public criticism) and subject to the sanction of reason (i.e., the ultimate test being whether the common life aimed at is a reasonable one, fit for men who, no matter what differences divide them, agree to think in an orderly way). Education would be predominantly a method for inducing habits of orderly and systematic thinking. Social structure would be predominantly of such a kind as to place in the most honourable and commanding position those who were intellectually the élite of the people, the priest-kings of the god of truth, men of science and learning on the one hand, men of affairs on the other. Economic life would come into line with the prevailing habit of mind by converting customary methods of production, distribution, transport, &c., into “scientific ones”; that is, by applying the notion of orderly and systematic thinking to economic matters no less than to any others. These half-dozen instances should suffice.

Now let us suppose that such a civilization had been in existence for a long time, during which the application of its fundamental principles had reached a somewhat elaborate development. Suppose, for example, that the rationalization of economic life had reached such a point that its populations could not be kept alive at all, or protected from starvation and disease, let alone kept in the degree of comfort to which they had become accustomed, except by the ceaseless exertion of innumerable scientists. And suppose that now within this same civilization a movement grew up hostile to these fundamental principles. I will not speak of a conspiracy to destroy civilization; not because I shrink from a notion so reminiscent of a detective novel, but because what I am thinking of is something less conscious, less deliberate, less dependent upon the sinister activities of any mere gang, than a conspiracy: something more like an epidemic disease: a kind of epidemic withering of belief in the importance of truth and in the obligation to think and act in a systematic and methodical way. Such an irrationalist epidemic infecting religion would turn it from a worship of truth to a worship of emotion and a cultivation of certain emotional states. Infecting education it would aim at inducing the young to abandon the habit of orderly thinking, or to avoid forming such a habit by offering to their imitation examples of unscientific thinking and holding up the ideals of science to contempt by precept and example. Infecting politics it would substitute for the ideal of orderly thinking in that field the ideal of tangled, immediate, emotional thinking; for the idea of a political thinker as political leader the idea of a leader focusing and personifying the mass-emotions of his community; for the ideal of intelligent agreement with a leader’s thought the idea of an emotional communion with him; and for the idea of a minority persuaded to conform the idea of unpatriotic persons (persons not sharing that communion) induced to conform by emotional means, namely by terror.

Read on:

Next let us suppose that the tissues of the civilization invaded by this irrationalist disease are to a considerable extent resisting it. The result will be that the infection can progress only by concealing its true character behind a mask of conformity to the spirit of the civilization it is attacking. The success of the attack will be conditional on the victims’ suspicions not being aroused. Thus in educational institutions an explicit proposal to abandon the practice of orderly and systematic thinking would only bring those who made it into disrepute, and discredit them with the very persons they were trying to infect. But so long as nothing like a panic was created, liberties could be taken which would quickly have proved fatal among persons whose faith in scientific thought had not already been weakened. Let a sufficient number of men whose intellectual respectability is vouched for by their academic position pay sufficient lip-service to the ideals of scientific method, and they will be allowed to teach by example whatever kind of anti-science they like, even if this involves a hardly disguised breach with all the accepted canons of scientific method.

The ease with which this can be done will be much greater if it is done in an academic society where scientific specialization is so taken for granted that no one dare criticize the work of a man in another faculty. In that case all that is necessary to ensure immunity for the irrationalist agents is that they should put forward their propaganda under the pretence that it is itself a special science, which therefore other scientists will understand that they must not criticize. Thus irrationalism will avail itself of the privileges accorded to science by a rationalist civilization in order to undermine the entire fabric of that civilization. [Emphasis mine — RD]

The reader is lastly to suppose, if he will, that the situation I have described is the one in which, together with the rest of the world, he now stands. I do not wish him necessarily to confine this to a matter of mere supposition; I will confess that to myself it is more than a supposition, it is a fact, and I think the reader might be well advised to consider it in the same way.

I’m just going to let that one sit there. You could take this in a number of directions, but note well that Du Bartas left it as a comment on the post about the witch hunt at Providence College, the Catholic institution in which a pro-LGBT mob, aided and abetted by the administration, is baying against an undergraduate who publicly asserted that the Roman Catholic church teaches the truth about marriage.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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