Libraries & Spaces
The Liberal Arts College and the Contemporary Climate of Opinion1
John Courtney Murray, S.J.
The liberal arts college confronts today a most subtle and serious problem in the form of the climate of opinion that prevails in our contemporary world. Upon its success in meeting this problem depends in large part its value to the American community. This, in briefest statement, is my theme.
What is the most characteristic feature of the contemporary climate of opinion? I would call it the devaluation of intelligence; or the discount of rationality; or a disposition to doubt or deny the capacities of human reason; or a narrowing of man's mental vision; or a diminution of the powers of the mind and a consequent contraction of the dimensions of reality. All these formulas would be valid, but they are abstract. Perhaps it would be better to illustrate the phenomenon rather than attempt to define it. The areas of illustration are many.
First, there is philosophy. Our generation has witnessed the rise to dominance of the anti-intellectual philosophies, so calledthe various forms of pragmatism and instrumentalism, of positivism and materialism, the cult of the history of thought rather than thought itself, and, of course, linguistic analysis, which is the philosophy to end all philosophy. All these modes of philosophical thought have one thing in common: they represent something less that the full use of the intrinsic capacities of intelligence; they include some refusal of the mind to rise to the full height of its powers. Concretely, they deny to human
reason the power to affirm transcendent truth, to make the passage from the realities of the physical world of experience to the higher realities of the metaphysical order where Truth is spelled with a capital and has a universal bearing and validity. These anti-intellectual philosophies are still dominant. Presently their ascendancy is being challenged by a new disposition to "return to metaphysics"; but they continue to set the climate of opinion. And in this climate intelligence is at a discount.
There is, secondly, the area of religion. It is widely assumed today that religion has nothing to do with the affirmation of truth. Religion does not touch the intelligence but only the heart. Religion is "experience," not knowledge. If you believe in god, it is said, He exists—for you. And to believe or disbelieve is simply a matter of choice, not of understanding. And even the choice is determined by sentiment or temperament: "I choose to see," Saroyan makes his Josiah say, "because I am by nature a religious man." Religion is not an area in which one seeks the truth in order to know it, to assent to it as true, and to consent to its implications for life. Religion has no warrant in the dictates of reason or in the facts of history. Its sole warrant resides in the experience that it "helps." In a word, the uses of intelligence are exiled from the world of religion. And thus intelligence itself is discounted.
Third, there is the field of law. A prominent jurist has said that in this field today we are witnessing "a contest between the force and validity of principles, precedents, resason, free will and impartial justice—and the impact of emotion, irrationalism, bias, environment, and juristic skepticism in the legal order." The traditional notion
of law as reason has suffered badly at the hands of various types of jurisprudence and legal theory that have won popularity. Law, it is said, is simply the factual will of the legislator; it is "what the courts will enforce." Rights too, it is said, are purely "factual terms," designating certain patterns of social behavior that are, at the moment and for the moment, considered desirable or undesirable. Or again, it is said that rights denote simply interests; they may claim no absolute value and constitute no fixed norms. And justice itself is no more than the balancing of interests into some acceptable equilibrium of social forces. The famous half-truth, that "the life of the law is experience," has prevailed, to the submergence of its complementary half—that the deeper life of the law is reason. And in this climate of legal opinion, reason itself is at a discount.
Fourth, there is the area of politics. Here the contemporary flight from intelligence, and failure of intelligence, are finally beginning to be recognized as portents and perils. The great English theorist, Sir Ernest Barker, called attention to the fact that the two great political movements of our times have each represented the irruption of the irrational into political affairs. There was the irrationalism of the Nazi doctrine of Blut und Boden, blood and soil. There is the irrationalism of the Communist doctrine in its interpretation of man and the state, of history and progress and social order. I might also call attention to the variety of irrational forces that stand behind what is called today the "revolution of rising expectations," with its concomitant new brand of "nationalism," in the emergent nations of the Near East, Africa, and the Far East. All these movements are alien and opposed to the political tradition of the West, which is a tradition of reason in political affairs.
I would not maintain that the structure of the state and the conduct of public affairs are solely a work of reason; other non-rational elements enter, as, for instance, geography, material interests, the curious reality known as national temperament, etc. On the other hand, it is the glory of Western civilization that is has developed over the centuries a doctrine of constitutionalism. Reason elaborated the doctrine, under the guidance of both philosophy and experience. And the function of the doctrine is to see that the foundations of the state are laid in reason, that the broad purposes of public policy are defined by reason, and that the conduct of public affairs is subject to rational criteria. This whole tradition of constitutionalism is today subject to severe question—whether it has endured, or can endure, or even be any longer validated.
The question has been raised here at home, within our own national boundaries. You can see it in its severity in two recent books, both by experienced journalists, skilled observers of the political scene, who are likewise attentive to the deeper currents that determine the course of affairs. I shall simply note their essential theses.
Max Ways, in Beyond Survival, asserts and demonstrates that the United States is presently in the most profound crisis of its history. The crisis was not brought on by any decline in American power; we have the power to do anything that we want to do. Rather, it is a crisis of purpose; we no longer seem to know what it is we want to do. And the confusions of national purpose, he says, are traceable to the corruptions in the public philosophy. There seems to be no longer among us a set of convictions, commanding consensus, to which we can turn in order to grasp our identity as a civilized nation and thus set the course of our action in history as a nation. Groping in this intellectual confusion, we have
laid hold of the slogan of "survival" as the only available definition of national purpose. The trouble is that this slogan is of little help in determining the structure of policies that are necessary—even to survive. This rapid summary does poor justice to the range and depth of Ways's thought. But for my limited purpose at the moment the essential point is clear enough. I hold that the decadence of the public philosophy, to the point where the very term is suspect, argues a corrosive doubt, not to say an open denial, of the capacity of human reason to set a sound footing under the life of the nation. In the present climate of political opinion, in which the destinies of America and the direction of its policies are argued, reason is at a discount.
The second book, America the Vincible, by Emmet Hughes, also will suffer by rapid summary. He writes "the annals of the unavailing years," those of the past decade. And he searches for the reason why they have been, in his repeated adjective, "unavailing." He says: "We sense that the fatal fault must belong to some source essentially beyond the spheres of military power and economic action. We become vaguely aware that the trouble must lie in the concept as much as in the act, the definition as much as the deed. And we begin to suspect that the great and hidden hinge, upon which the history of these years has turned, is not merely the matter of what we have done in the world, but what we have thought about the world." Politics is basically a problem of thought, an essay in understanding, before it becomes a problem of action, an effort in pursuit of ends. But we have failed to grasp this fact. It is through a failure of intelligence that the years have been unavailing.
Hughes says: "The trail of America, in this age or in any age to which American may endure,
must end as American began: as a test of intelligence. No facade of power can—for long—hide a failure of that faculty. No affluence of wealth can—for long—fill a want of thought. For a nation born in the brain of free men must there find its life or suffer its death. As it thinks, it therefore knows itself to be." But we have not thought well, and therefore we are coming to know the illness in our being. There has been a devaluation of intelligence, primarily shown (as Hughes demonstrates) in the dethronement of politics from its rightful sovereignty over the other orders of national action—military, economic, technological. It is for politics, as it is for reason, to determine the ends of policy and to shape fit means to them. In particular, it is for politics to discipline power, and the technology that creates power, to serve the ends of policy. If politics has failed in its function, a deeper failure is proved. The reason of man has failed to find its true height, from which alone it can hope to set the firm hand of control upon events.
It would be possible to illustrate form other areas of American life2 this same phenomenonthe same doubt or denial, explicit or implicit, of the capacities and responsibilities of reason. But what I have said may perhaps suffice. It would be further interesting to explore the historical origins of this phenomenon. But what I would have to say would take too long.
I must, however, pause a moment on the fact that the phenomenon itself has alarmed the Church. The consequence was the Encyclical Humani generis, issued by Pius XII in 1950. This document notes many prevailing errors with regard to particular Catholic doctrines, but its fundamental concern was with one pervasive error that is also a state of mind. What chiefly concerned the Church was the contemporary skepticism with regard to the inherent capacities of
reason to reach the full measure of the truth that is accessible to it. Man's confidence in his own reason has somehow been undermined. He can indeed confront quite confidently the realities of experiencethe empirical realities that can be observed, explained, and managed by the methods of science. But in the face of the higher realities that only the philosophical intelligence can grasp by methods proper to itself man stands strangely paralyzed. He can cope with facts but not with ideas. He can take hold of practical problems, but basic theoretical issues escape him. He is at home in individual situations, but uneasy in the world of general principles. He can describe events, but his mind falters over their meaning. He can be certain enough about the present, the situation here and now, but he doubts whether he can know anything with certainty about the past, the record of history. About the terrestrial world and its secular affairs he is most knowledgeable, but in the face of God and eternity the temper of his mind is agnostic.
This state of mind, widespread today, is a matter of special concern to the Church. Throughout her history she has fought against rationalism, the error that exaggerates the autonomy of human reason and is too pridefully confident of reason's competence. But she has likewise been the champion of rationality, the defender of reason's true autonomy, the supporter of a due measure of confidence in the powers of human intelligence. In the doctrine of the Church reason was darkened by original sin, but its darkness is not total. The phrase, "the light of reason," has a true meaning. So too has the other phrase, "right reason." The light of reason flickers and is feeble indeed, and it is difficult for man to sustain reason in its rightness. Nevertheless, reason is still a light whereby man can make right judgments. Faith, of course, is the fuller and steadier light, and the affirmations of faith have a greater solidity, be-
cause the authority of God sustains them. However, faith could be no light at all, if reason were not also a light. Faith supposes reason as grace supposes nature. If the genuine powers of reason are destroyed or undermined, the true notion of Christian faith suffers the same fate. Faith becomes irrational, unintelligible, indefensibleand unworthy of a man. Thus the destinies of Christian faith are linked with those of human reason.
Hence the Encyclical, Humani generis, emphatically asserted the statute of reason in the universe of truth. In particular, the Church reasserted the traditional doctrine on the four inherent capacities of human intelligence. First, reason can demonstrate the existence of God; God too belongs to the order of reason as the Supreme Reality that reason can reach. Second, reason can discern the structure of the moral order; there is a moral law that is "natural" to man, because its imperatives are those of "right reason." Third, reason can be certain about the historical foundations of Christian faith; the essential claim of Christianity to be a religion of events can be vindicated by reason with a due measure of historical certainty. Fourth, reason can achieve a limited but real understanding of the mysteries of faith by relating them to one another and to truths of the rational order.
Thus the Church convicts of error those who doubt or deny the capacity of human reason to reach certain truth in the orders of metaphysics, morals, and history. Thus the church opposes the irruption of the irrational that is characteristic of our day. Thus the church authoritatively marks up, as it were, the values of intelligence in a world in which they are at a discount. Thus, finally, the church defends, not only the Christian faith and its values, but also civilization and the basic values of the City of Man, which are the values of reason. The integrity of her own faith is the
primary concern of the Church, but part of her faith is a belief in the essential integrity of human reason. Without this belief civilization itself would perish; for high philosophy, and just law, and intelligent politics, which are the sustaining forces of civilization, cannot survive in a climate of doubt or denial of the powers of reason.
If it be true to say that this doubt or denial is widespread in today's climate of opinion, it follows that a special problem is put to the liberal arts college. This spirit of distrust of intelligence that is characteristic of the climate must inevitably infiltrate the minds of youth. The task of the college is to dispel this spirit and instill in the youthful mind a due confidence in the powers of the mind. This confidence is not prideful; the mind that knows its own powers also knows its own limits. But without this due confidence man is something less than man; he has not grasped his true dignity, and he cannot achieve his full destiny. The Church has indeed spoken powerfully against the contemporary spirit of skepticism and agnosticism. But it remains for the college to take up the task of rolling back these forces. They have already been far too successful in their attack on the minds of an older generation. If a younger generation succumbs to them, the consequences will be most serious.
In more positive terms the task of the liberal arts college, as defined by the needs of the time, is the restoration of the Tradition of Reason. This is, in fact, the essential tradition of the liberal arts. It is our patrimony from the past, which the college undertakes to transmit as a legacy to the future. It has been laboriously amassed through centuries by a work of critical constructive intelligence. But its only depositary is the living minds of men, where it must be kept alive by being taught and learned. The process of disciplined argument is the price of
its constant renewal. The Tradition is always "there"; but it has always to be newly discovered in each generation. The truths it contains are forever certain, but they have always to be newly understood. The truths are forever valid, but they must always be made newly vital. The truths were "found" by men in the past, but they have continually to be "pursued" by men in the present. And the Tradition as a whole, since it is a living thing, muut develop, if it is not to decay.
This task of conservation and development of the Tradition of Reason is not only the proper task of the liberal arts college but also the test of its value to the community. For this patrimony of rational truth, and an underlying confidence in the power of reason to maintain its affirmations against the corrosive spirit of modern doubt, is the source and warrant of the public philosophy of the West. The Tradition of Reason sustains the tradition of law and supplies the discipline of force that force may serve the rational purposes of law. The order of freedom is defined by reason; so too is the order of justice. Reason, in the end, sets limits to government by constituting an order of human and civil rights. The rightness of reason is the final bulwark of public morality. The restraints of reason give form and purpose to the work of politics and direct the action of the state toward the common good. Not even religion will supply the lack, if reason fails in its functions; for religion cannot form a civilization except as its truths and precepts are mediated to the temporal order through a rational philosophy.3
It is along these lines that one may gauge the performance and measure the value of the liberal arts college to the American community. In this hour of crisis—spiritual, intellectual, political—the United States faces a severe test of its purpose. We stand under the judgment of history, whose verdict will be severe. And the basic ques-
tion is, whether this nation, which is tributary to Western civilization for its constitutional structure and style of political life, will rightly conceive and strongly fulfill the high public purpose that alone is worthy of it, namely, to serve the civilization that was created by the Tradition of Reason.
This public purpose cannot by rightly conceived or faithfully fulfilled unless the Tradition of Reason is itself vigorously alive among us. The performance of the liberal arts college is therefore decisive. And I may be here permitted to say that, measured by the criterion of its loyalty to the Tradition of Reason, the performance of St. Joseph's College will successfully stand scrutiny. The value it sets on the virtues of intelligence, the resoluteness which which it seeks to life its students to the full height of their rational powers, the confidence that it displays in the capacities of the human mind in order thus to develop the confident mind in its students—these are just standards by which the judge its value to the community of Philadelphia and to the larger community of America. St. Joseph's College does not fear judgment by these standards.
(1) Editor Note: Originally published as 1959a: "The Liberal Arts College and the Contemporary Climate of Opinion," a pamphlet produced by St. Joseph's College, from a talk given in November, 1959. A copy of the pamphlet can be found in the Murray Archives, file 6-480. I have cut some sections of the talk, as indicated in further notes.
(2) Editor Note: I have dropped to other areas that Murray here considered, namely, the fields of law and politics, since these topics are taken up in Section I. In his discussion of politics, Murray here relied on Max Ways, Beyond Survival, and Emmet Hughes, America the Invincible.
(3) Editor Note: Murray concluded with some general comments on the 'loyalty" of St. Joseph's College to the "Tradition of Reason."