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The Madness of Intellectuals


ARS Electronica CC

James V. Schall, S.J. - published on 08/12/15

Our culture is gripped by a willful misunderstanding of human nature

“The ‘tremendous’ consequences of marriage, this ‘institution that puzzles intellectuals so much’, is, of course, children, who are, generally speaking, younger than their parents’, a fact that is ‘perceptible even to intellectuals’. For children mean the ‘renewal of the race itself’. And it is only common sense that ‘the only people, who will or can give individual care to each of the individual children, are their individual parents’. But common sense has been cast out of the ‘modern academy of fads and fashions conducted along the individual lines of a luxurious madhouse’.”
—Ian Ker, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography (Oxford 2011), 388.

Many facts are too well–known to need much repetition. Or put negatively and more philosophically, there are things impossible to deny without affirming, what are generally called “first principles” or “truths known by their very statement (per se nota). One of these “facts," as Chesterton amusingly pointed out, is that, “generally speaking," children are "younger than their parents.” That such a fact even needs to be pointed out, as it does, teaches us much about the human mind, especially in those who claim the human mind as their profession. And once children actually exist (from conception), their best caretakers, as particular individuals, are or ought to be (some parents fail or abandon their children) the particular parents of the begotten children. If someone else does or has to substitute for this primary responsibility, it is due to the death or incapacity of parents, to their irresponsibility, or, more dangerously, to state policy that claims primary jurisdiction over lives and deaths of all children.

Not a few theories maintain that some people or institutions other than actual parents should take care of children. Such theories are so disordered that they appear to take place in the intellectual “madhouse” that the modern world has become in its thinking about children. This sense of “madness” was often expressed recently when videos of selling fetal parts from abortions were seen. The blindness of too many intellectuals, judges, scientists, and politicians to the consequences of their own theories of love, family, and children is itself a fertile subject of philosophical investigation. It is also, not surprisingly, a familiar theme in both classical philosophy and Scripture.

The traditional populations of the countries of what was once called “Western Civilization” are dying out, not because of war, pestilence, or poverty, but because men and women are not marrying to have their own children. At least until population-control movements gain more complete political control, children are still being born in various parts of the world. Many of these children are brought or flee to Europe and America to survive and to do the work that the absent Europeans and Americans are not alive to perform.

The world abortion statistics since 1980 tell us that over one billion, three hundred million babies of all sorts have been killed in the womb usually, as in China and India, due to government policy. In American and Europe the law makes possible the same massive elimination of children in the womb by legislated or decreed “human rights." Such “rights” make human life depend not on what it is but on the “choice” not to bring it forth by one or both parents, with the assistance of abortionists. A human child before birth has no evident legal standing, even if, scientifically, it is clearly a human life, Population decline, in turn, instigates population movement.

This population movement, as Aristotle already saw, is almost always a cause of strife and conflict over mixing differing customs, religions, and economics. In both the United States and Europe, we hear talk of “invasions” from Mexico or from Islamic countries. Increased numbers of immigrants, especially if they stubbornly retain their own culture and language, end up by causing separatist movements or a taking over of the dying local regime no longer willing or able to defend or justify itself. Contemporary democratic theory often wants to resolve these recurring conflicts between new peoples and old residents by introducing a public policy of relativism. No one can argue publically that any view is true as it would “offend” someone else.

It is assumed in such a “democratic” view that if all religion, culture, and thought are banned, we will have left nothing but people with no reason to agree or disagree with each other about anything. A people unable or incapable of talking about anything important soon becomes a vapid and empty people who have nothing much to stand for, whose only god is that there is no god. If nothing is true, why bother? This theory, coming largely from Hobbes, explains much of the anti-religion bias that we now see in Europe and America. The First Amendment’s freedom of religion has been transformed into a “freedom” of private world views. A religion that claims to be true is itself the chief threat to domestic peace, particularly if it maintains the sanctity of all human life. The only way for religion to survive and flourish is to follow the Muslim model of using violence and state power to protect a particular religion from any outside influence.

In her book, Love and Economics, Jennifer Roback Morse brought up the question of why economists in particular have such a difficult time understanding the family. After experience with her own family in the light of classic economic theory, she concluded that economists try to apply economic principles of justice and exchange to family life. It turns out that any family that is ruled by pure justice will quickly fall apart. The family is only ruled by pure justice when it is in trouble. When what is “due” to me, or what is mine and thine become the principal criterion of family life, the family ceases to function as a family. Why?

One of my nephews used to laugh about the difficulty one of his daughters caused the family in her youth and growing up. As time went on, his daughter married and had four children of her own as did her father and mother. When her own children reached teen-age, they began to cause the usual teen-age concerns to parents. Her bemused father, who loved and helped all the grandchildren, said to his daughter: “See now you have to deal with the same grief that we had to deal with when you were the same age!” I suspect this is not an uncommon family experience. There was a kind of poetic justice involved. But, of course, the point here was not justice, but that there was something more than justice that had to motivate and rule any family.

This was Morse’s point about economists and family life. The family, though not unconcerned with it, is ruled primarily by love and sacrifice, not by justice. As I like to put it, no man or woman, when they reach say fifty can write out a check payable to parents in return for the “services” that they rendered to them and therefore have no more relationships with them. Family relations are lifetime, not temporary, relations. They are concerned with life and death and the things that cannot be calculated. In a sense, a child never repays to his parents for what they did for him when he was little.

First of all, conception and birth themselves are free and un-calculable. A parent knows that he has been a successful parent when he sees his son or daughter lose nights of sleep and worries caring for his grandchild. He knows at that point that, as an adult, his offspring did finally understand what family life meant, both love and sacrifice. It meant accepting what is more than justice. This was Morse’s point. This is why too, when this relation breaks down, we have  the equivalent of a social neutron bomb, not just some little inconvenience. The bond of love is and ought to be that much stronger than the bond of justice.

In the beginning, I cited Chesterton’s remark about “the tremendous consequences of marriage” that intellectuals had such a difficult time comprehending. The primary “consequence” of marriage (and of no other institution), of the union of one man and one woman, is the child. Any talk about marriage that speaks of this institution as if that were not essential to its reality simply does not grasp how “the race renews itself." Now, it is true today that “producing” children can and does happen outside the institution of marriage, outside the womb of the mother.

But what cannot be escaped, and this is the sticking point, is that sperm and ovum must be found in some actual human beings. What many do not understand, be they intellectuals or otherwise, is that no child should ever be begotten in any situation but in a family, in the marital relation of husband and wife. Whenever this origin does not happen, whenever the begetters are not prepared for the consequence of caring for the child and the race, the whole culture is in serious trouble. The notion that this primal condition is not what we should have and aim at is at the origin of most of our civilizational problems.

The only thing to add is that when children are conceived and born in less than responsible conditions, they remain human children with specific origin in a man and a woman. Sacrifice and generosity require that others help and seek to restore, as well as possible, what was lacking by adoption or other kinds of care. But the practice of simply killing unwanted children before they are born or using their parts for various “scientific” or “cosmetic” purposes is simply a violation of what it is to be human. What many intellectuals do, in this context, is to devise arguments to justify these practices. And yet, the justification does not hold as reasonable. It is closer to insanity.

This is why the “first principle” or “fact” that Chesterton pointed to, namely, that “generally speaking” we find that “children are younger than their parents," by its very statement, shows the intelligence about children  that is already found in the nature that we are all given. The unravelling of the family that we see in our time is indeed the work of a “madhouse.” Many evidently have chosen to live in this “madhouse.” They cannot, however, escape from it until they understand why this “madness” exists and their part in continuing it. It consists in acting, as Chesterton intimated, on a wrong understanding of the origins of human children and what they are. 

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures  (St. Augustine Press, 2014).

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