Home/Alan Jacobs/Francis Bacon, High Noon, and the Student Protestors

Francis Bacon, High Noon, and the Student Protestors

Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in "High Noon"

This is a kind of scholarly-geeky follow-up to my earlier post on the ways that humanistic study can — doesn’t always or necessarily, but can, if the good will is there — promote compassion, fellow-feeling, mutual recognition. But if the good will is not there, and there is no curriculum of study in place to promote it, encourage students to consider its value … well, then you get protests and demands.

This is not to say protests and demands have no place in social life — but it’s pretty clear here that on many campuses today demands, and stringent demands at that, are the first recourse: we may take as a fairly representative example Dean Mary Spellman of Claremont McKenna College, whose obviously sympathetic email to a troubled student merely led to her forced resignation. That’s one side of this demand culture — zero tolerance, single sanction (expulsion from the community) — and the other side is the attempt to herd faculty as well as students into cultural/racial/sexual sensitivity courses, in order, ideally, to make such errors impossible.

A lot that can be said about this has already been said: that it’s an obvious repudiation of free speech, that it’s reminiscent of Maoist and Stalinist re-education programs, that it’s an error-has-no-rights model, and so on. And I don’t strongly disagree with any of these arguments, though I think I have more sympathy with at least some of the protestors than many of my fellow conservatives. But what strikes me about the whole approach is how … well, Baconian it is. Sir Francis Bacon, not Francis Bacon the painter or Kevin Bacon. Bacon’s early attempts at inaugurating what we would now call the scientific method, and extending it into the whole of philosophical reflection, seem to me to prefigure rather eerily the thoughts of the student protestors.

As I said, this is a geeky sort of take on the whole business. But please bear with me.

In his New Organon of 1620, Bacon lays out his method for inquiry. He begins by stating, “I propose to establish progressive stages of certainty,” and agrees that many of the medieval scholastics who emphasized the power of logic wanted to do the same thing. He doesn’t think they went about it the right way, but he and they have this in common: “they were in search of helps for the understanding, and had no confidence in the native and spontaneous process of the mind.” That’s true of our modern protestors as well: “the native and spontaneous process of the mind” — the white male mind anyway — is notoriously unreliable.

With that agreement in mind, let’s turn to how Bacon differentiates himself from the logicians:

But this remedy comes too late to do any good, when the mind is already, through the daily intercourse and conversation of life, occupied with unsound doctrines and beset on all sides by vain imaginations…. There remains but one course for the recovery of a sound and healthy condition — namely, that the entire work of the understanding be commenced afresh, and the mind itself be from the very outset not left to take its own course, but guided at every step; and the business be done as if by machinery.

Emphasis mine. The mind of someone like Mary Spellman is “occupied with unsound doctrines and beset on all sides by vain imaginations”: she can only be cast out, so the community can turn to the more promising work of educating younger people. They will “be guided at every step”; and since the lessons they have to learn are fixed and invariant, “the business [may] be done as if by machinery.”

In a vitally important essay that I referred to in an earlier post on this constellation of issues, the philosopher Charles Taylor calls this Baconian habit of mind “code fetishism” or “normolatry.” And in summarizing the thought of Ivan Illich, Taylor develops his point:

Even the best codes can become idolatrous traps that tempt us to complicity in violence. Illich reminds us not to become totally invested in the code — even the best code of a peace-loving, egalitarian variety — of liberalism. We should find the centre of our spiritual lives beyond the code, deeper than the code, in networks of living concern, which are not to be sacrificed to the code, which must even from time to time subvert it.

This probably won’t be the last time I revisit these ideas by Taylor, because they are so vital for understanding multiple pathologies of our current public square. This Baconian disciplinary “machinery,” executing the normolaters’ preferred codes, simply eliminates the possibility of strengthening our “networks of living concern.” The code-fetishist model must be resisted at every turn, and the people best placed to do that are people who have been formed within a deeply humanistic model of inquiry and debate. Nothing is more needful in the current campus environment than a renewal and re-empowerment of the humanities.

There’s a great moment in the movie High Noon — a moment that keeps recurring to my mind as I think about the current conflicts on campus. Despite having promised his fiancée that he will leave town with her, Marshal Will Kane decides he has to stay to fight the Miller gang, who are about to terrorize the town. He makes a strong case, but she — vitally, a Quaker — says, “I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong, there has to be a better way for people to live.”

Those words keep echoing in my head (I even hinted at them in my previous post on these matters): I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong, there has to be a better way for people to live. Alas, the way things play out in the movie doesn’t give me a lot of encouragement.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

leave a comment