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Thinking With Alan Jacobs

This week, Alan Jacobs’s wonderful new book How To Think hit bookstores. Here’s the website for the book. On it, he explains why he wrote the book. Excerpt:

Across the political spectrum, people speak with a single voice on one point and one point only: our public sphere is a great big mess. Mistrust and suspicion of our neighbors, anger at their folly, inadvertent or deliberate misunderstanding of their views, attribution of the worst possible motives to those whose politics we despise: these are the dissonant notes we hear struck repeatedly every day, especially on social media. And while none of this began with the big political stories of 2016 — the Presidential election in the U.S., the Brexit decision in the U.K. — those events seem to have increased the volume pretty dramatically.

All this agitated hostility has grieved me, especially since I know and love people on all sides of the current culture wars. As someone who lives in both academic and religious communities, I am reminded every day of how deeply suspicious those groups can be of one another — and how little mutual comprehension there is. I’ve reflected a great deal on the major causes of our discontent and mutual suspicion, and I’ve wondered whether there might be some contribution I could make to the healing of these wounds.

This is not a book about basic logic, but a book designed specifically to help people caught up in the crossfire of contemporary debate (such as it is) resist emotion and think clearly and logically. It’s a fun book to read, and a useful one. I’m going to have a Q&A with Alan on this site next week, but for now, I want to offer you this excerpt from the text. A little background to this passage. Megan Phelps-Roper was the subject of an amazing profile in The New Yorker, by Adrian Chen, following how she came to question the world as presented to her by the Westboro Baptist Church, in which she grew up. Her semi-apostasy from Westboro-ism came because someone outside the church patiently engaged her mind, and she came to see that the interpretation of the world the Phelps family had given her was wanting. Second, “sapere aude” (“dare to think” or “dare to be wise”) is the rallying cry of the Enlightenment. So, here’s the excerpt:

But when I think of Megan Phelps-Roper, whose story isn’t finished yet, whose final verdict on her upbringing in Westboro Baptist Church has not been made and may never be made definitively, the story that comes to my mind is Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Le Guin tells us of a utopia built on a single (but perpetual) act of cruelty, and of those who, once they face that cruelty, find that they can no longer dwell within their perfect city. But Le Guin does not tell us of the beautiful Technicolor world that they enter when they leave Omelas; nor does she describe anything like the Savage Reservation that [Aldous] Huxley offers as a radical counterpart to the mainstream society of his drug-fueled “brave new world.” Rather, she gives us this:

They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

This ending deprives us of the easy comforts that Sapere aude stories tend to offer—the reassurance that, though life in the bigger world may be hard at times, may even be miserable, it is nonetheless the right trade to make because the security of community is not really the most vital thing in the long run. Le Guin’s swerve from the more familiar form of the trope says: We don’t know that. To think, to dig into the foundations of our beliefs, is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction.

Dwell on that for a bit. It’s true, isn’t it? A friend of mine who was raised fundamentalist told me that in her childhood school, a teacher warned the students to be very careful about questioning things too much, “because that’s how the devil gets a foothold.” We laugh at that, but there’s actually wisdom in it. If inquiry is completely open-ended, it could take us to dark and dangerous places. It’s easy to imagine a fussy fundamentalist grammar school teacher warning kids against reading non-Christian books. And it’s easy to make fun of that. But what if we were talking about a secular high school teacher warning students not to read too deeply into, say, white nationalist literature, or not to open their minds to the writings of the Marquis de Sade? Is this not the same kind of thing the fundamentalist teacher is doing? And is there not wisdom in respecting the power, evil though is may be, of certain books or ways of thinking, and the inadequacy of unformed young minds to counter it?

Or more prosaically, wouldn’t we appreciate it if a science teacher warned students not to waste time reading pseudo-scientific books (e.g., New Age material masquerading as science)? I would. But I would be disturbed if that science teacher told my kid not to read religious books, because they are full of lies. And I would be equally disturbed if a religion teacher told my kid not to read books about evolution, because they are full of lies.

My point is that if you look closely enough, we are all inconsistent about our standards for conducting inquiries into the truth of things. All reasoning occurs within a tradition, and a tradition by definition excludes many paths as being dead ends — some of them dangerous dead ends, others simply pointless. If you reject all thoughts and expressions outside a narrowly defined tradition, then it’s doubtful that you can be said to think much at all. But if you admit any claims as possibly true, then you will be so swamped with data that you will never make any steps forward towards knowing the truth.

Dante deals with this in the opening of the Inferno. The protagonist, a lost pilgrim named Dante, is stranded in a dark wood. He doesn’t know how to get out of it. He tries to do so on his own, but cannot make progress. Suddenly, the ancient Roman poet Virgil appears to him out of the mist. The pilgrim Dante is amazed, and calls him “my teacher, my authority.” Virgil and tells the pilgrim that, “It is another journey you must take if you wish to escape this savage place.” The journey ahead is going to be difficult, Virgil says. But because Virgil is a trustworthy authority, Dante follows him.

But then Dante has second thoughts. From Canto II (trans. Anthony Esolen)

And as a man who unwills what he wills,

changing his plan for every little thought,

till he withdraws from any kind of start,


So did I turn my mind on that dark verge,

for thinking ate away the enterprise

so prompt in the beginning to set forth.

See what happened here? The pilgrim Dante had made up his mind to follow Virgil, but the more he thought about it, the more he hesitated. Virgil accuses him of “cowardice,” and tells Dante that he was sent as an emissary from the Virgin Mary, Beatrice, and St. Lucy to rescue him. Virgil invokes their authority, and reminds Dante that he decided to follow Virgil because of Virgil’s authority. He makes it clear that what Dante assumes is thinking is in fact a problem of the will.

We’re like this too, aren’t we? We tell ourselves that we’re thinking things through thoroughly, when we’re really hiding from ourselves the truth that we are afraid of where our conclusions might lead us. In my own case, this is why I refused to convert to Christianity for years, even though I was intellectually convinced. But I hid that fact from myself, instead construing myself as a careful thinker who wanted to be sure he had all the evidence before making the decision.

And yet, that fear of where our thinking might take us is understandable. In Canto XXVI of the Inferno, Dante meets the soul of Ulysses, who is in a deep circle of Hell for having led his men to their deaths. His duty was to take his weary crew back home, but instead he used his rhetorical gifts to convince them that it would be an act of great courage to explore beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, even though going past there was forbidden. They chose to follow Ulysses, and all ended up dead. In truth, Ulysses’s quest for discovery was not a noble one, but rather simply indulging his curiosity — and it cost them all their lives. The truly courageous thing for him to have done would have been to heed the warning not to go beyond the bounds of the Straits, even though his heart desired it. But Ulysses construed transgression as an act of bravery, when in fact it was cowardice.

It seems to me that all our thinking takes place between the bounds set by Dante at the start and near the end of Inferno. It is impossible to think absent the direction of our will, which cannot convince the mind that something that is false is true, but can, without our being conscious of it, direct the mind only to admit certain data to its reasoning.

Becoming a real thinker, then, requires discernment, especially moral discernment. Most of all, it requires a constant, indeed lifelong, struggle to keep from lying to ourselves. And as Alan Jacobs says, we must avoid comforting ourselves with the false story that at the end of our intellection we will find happiness and satisfaction.

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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