A View From Rocco's: Professor Gradgrind's Magisterium & Recent Catholic Modernism
(The Remnant, November 15, 2009)
"There are times when an elevated spirit is a true infirmity. No one understands it. It even passes for a kind of parochialism."(Chateaubriand)
My closest friends at Rocco's are generally looking pretty gloomy these days. They attribute their gloom to the fact that the newspapers are filled with reports of big-buck bonuses, while nothing in their own personal economic lives seems to be in any way improving. Some people, they lament, are clearly "making it". Why can't they be among them?
Alas, poor souls! They do not realize that "making it" for them is utterly impossible. "Making it" would entail remaking themselves according to the revolutionary dictates of Professor Gradgrind's Magisterium, and this they are in no way ready to do. Nor should they do so, whatever the wisdom of the moment might dictate.
Who is Professor Thomas Gradgrind? He is one of the main characters in Charles Dicken's Hard Times (1854), and an enthusiastic collaborator in the construction of the new capitalist, industrialized, "making it" Britain of the nineteenth century. What is his Magisterium? It is a teaching regarding the character of an autonomous natural order of things; a very specific example of what we Catholics would broadly call Modernism.
Gradgrind as educator considers himself bound to raise children to understand and obey laws of nature built upon obvious "facts" that no one under any circumstances can even question, much less disobey. Let us allow Dickens to introduce us to him and to his educational philosophy as he sets to work in a classroom filled with students:
"'Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir! In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!...'
"The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim."
Teaching the Facts about the laws of nature was ultimately rather easy for Professor Gradgrind. It did not involve anything more than teaching knowledge of a simple machine closed in upon and content with itself:
"Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir - peremptorily Thomas - Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic."
Gradgrind's instruction came at a price, however. His Magisterium required that whatever other non-mechanical Facts had shaped his students in the past be ruthlessly purged from their benighted souls:
"Thomas Gradgrind now presented Thomas Gradgrind to the little pitchers before him, who were to be filled so full of facts. Indeed, as he eagerly sparkled at them from the cellarage before mentioned, he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away."
An opening to the mechanical Facts bought at this price of a closing to knowledge of a different and perhaps broader quality could be utterly baffling to those multi-dimensional fools whom Gradgrind was dedicated to enlightening. Hence the circus girl Sissy's confusion regarding how to respond to the Professor's command to define a horse---an animal that to her was everything from mere beast to noble symbol. And hence, also, Gradgrind's sense that her discomfit confirms the truth of his mechanical wisdom. He triumphantly appeals to one of the pupils he has already remade to definitively resolve the issue of ignorance and enlightenment:
"'Girl number twenty,' said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger... 'Let me see. What is your father?'
'He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.'
Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.
'We don't want to know anything about that, here. You mustn't tell us about that, here. Your father breaks horses, don't he?'
'If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.'
'You mustn't tell us about the ring, here. Very well, then. Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?'
'Oh yes, sir.'
'Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.'
(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)
'Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!' said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. 'Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy's definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.'"
Finally, in one quite extraordinary passage, Dickens offers a Platonic judgment on the final results of Professor Gradgrind's Magisterium and the remaking of human beings that it involves. The extra, broader---and possibly higher---illumination that Sissy might have brought to those buried in her modernist cave of a classroom, where only a little light involving simple mechanical Facts shone, cannot be permitted to penetrate. Thus, Bitzer, the student called upon to enlighten her, is seen to be not only in desperate need of further light himself, but also stripped of whatever visible defining features he probably once possessed. Gradgrind, the self-proclaimed Master of Them That Know, therefore reveals to us that he has no clue concerning real darkness or enlightenment at all:
"The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. For, the boys and girls sat on the face of the inclined plane in two compact bodies, divided up the centre by a narrow interval; and Sissy, being at the corner of a row on the sunny side, came in for the beginning of a sunbeam, of which Bitzer, being at the corner of a row on the other side, a few rows in advance, caught the end. But, whereas the girl was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to receive a deeper and more lustrous colour from the sun, when it shone upon her, the boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed. His cold eyes would hardly have been eyes, but for the short ends of lashes which, by bringing them into immediate contrast with something paler than themselves, expressed their form. His short-cropped hair might have been a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face. His skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white.
'Bitzer,' said Thomas Gradgrind. 'Your definition of a horse.'
'Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.'
Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
'Now girl number twenty,' said Mr. Gradgrind. 'You know what a horse is.'"
Professor Thomas Gradgrind, as presented by Dickens, is one of the all too many arrogant ideologues emerging out of the eighteenth century's so-called Enlightenment. All Enlightenment thinkers insist upon building their knowledge of the universe and man's role within it upon "nature" and the "facts" of natural life. Never mind that their notorious disagreements over what these "obvious" natural facts might be---class struggle, laws of supply and demand, race, sex, national identity---have caused contemporary societies shaped by them to endure psychological and physical suffering of a subtlety and intensity unknown to earlier human beings. Each proponent of each and every varied, Enlightenment-inspired key to nature's teaching and the human liberation that must come from acceptance of it has been absolutely and arrogantly certain that his school possesses the sole rational, infallible path to Freedom and Progress.
It is this certainty that requires a program of revolutionary remaking of men and women, clearly described in the 1700's in Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, the Emile, and the Social Contract. Natural man is declared trapped in an unnatural condition. He needs urgently to be returned to life in a natural way. Souls who offer resistance to nature and nature's laws must be subject to a consciousness-raising education awakening them to their true natural selves and the well being that they still so pathetically reject. None of their continued calls for nuance or consideration of other, broader facts in making decisions regarding both nature's rules as well as individual and social happiness can be rationally addressed. Reason, by definition, is on the side of the man of Enlightenment alone. Unnaturalness, and therefore irrationality and even non-humanness as a whole, are the lot of his opponents. The arguments of those in unquestioned need of being remade must be either ignored or ridiculed. When, as has all too often happened in the last few centuries, the revolutionary Will to Power that underlies the whole Enlightenment vision of intelligence triumphs, and a remaking of human beings is actually undertaken, the Gradgrinds succeed in giving the world the appearance of operating as they say it does. In the name of nature's laws they cut off sources of light that draw from the whole of nature---not just the ideologue's portion of it---essential facts to teach us. They make natural men as unnatural as they are capable of becoming. And since the Gradgrinds are the masters of the dessicated and unnatural world and individuals they create---i.e., the ones who "make it"---they have yet another argument for rejecting further criticism of their vision. Critics are envious losers in addition to being mentally incompetent. As neat Sophist approaches goes, this Enlightenment pedagogue's program is probably unmatchable.
Now my good friends at Rocco's are "Sissys" as opposed to "Bitzers". They are bewildered by the Gradgrind Magisterium and resist being remade according to its teachings. If they were to "make it" in a world that were shaped by its principles---say, by winning the lottery, which is the only way they could do so---they would find that they would be still more miserable than they were beforehand. They are too natural, normal, and, I would argue, too unconsciously Catholic in their mentality, to do violence to their souls either as "losers" or "winners". I feel very sorry for them---and ultimately for all of us---in consequence, and this for three reasons.
First of all, I feel sorry for them because we do live in a world ruled by the Gradgrind Magisterium. Moreover, we live in a country that has found a seemingly foolproof way to propagate its teachings while convincing almost everyone that we have not been revolutionized by them one bit at all. It has been the particular genius of the Anglo-American Enlightenment---which Chris Ferrara and I have spent years explaining in these pages and elsewhere---to continue to allow people the freedom to present their own varied magisterial teachings for the guidance of their little, impotent, cocktail party worlds, while insisting that they live their practical political, social, and economic lives in line with Thomas Gradgrind's vision of reality.
Secondly, I feel sorry for my friends for not realizing that it is only Catholicism that can provide them the arguments to understand their predicament fully; that only Catholicism can end their tongue-tied, Sissy-like bewilderment in the face of the sophistic arguments and power of their naturalist "liberators".
It has been the particular genius of the anti-Enlightenment Catholic movement of the post-revolutionary era to spell out with greater discernment than ever before what it is that is wrong with Gradgrindism in all of its forms, ancient and modern, violent and Anglo-American. What that counterrevolutionary movement has taught us is that the "facts" of nature are always those of a world where evil is mixed with good and perceived by limited individuals open to error and sin. This means that the perceived natural "facts" are often not those of nature as such but of erroneous and fallen aspects of it: the errors of a narrow vision which tell us that might makes right; the fallen, selfish, materialist concerns that lead us to take advantage of the sins of the world to ride roughshod over everything else that our "better selves" warn us to avoid. And this, in consequence demands two things: 1) that what is narrow in our natural vision be corrected by broader factual information; and, 2) since "every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights", that the facts regarding nature, seen under the full sunshine of supernatural truth, always be recognized as trumping those of Gradgrind's half-blind Magisterium.
All those who prefer to view nature with blinders on, refusing the "boat rocking"effect brought about by correcting what is narrow and parochial through the dictates of what is broader and higher, place a dead weight on the human mind and spirit. They form a depressingly similar force throughout the ages---what I like to call a Grand Coalition of the fallen natural Status Quo. A truly open mind helps to crush this Coalition's influence, but one cannot possess such an open mind and explain its conclusions coherently without the divine wisdom and ultimate organizing principles provided by the Catholic Faith. Again, most of my friends at Rocco's do not have that faith.
Finally, I feel sorry for all of us that Catholic Modernists---just another name for the naturalists I have been describing---seem to have gained the upper hand in the United States among the "salt of the earth" here; namely, conservatives and traditionalists. Prominent among Modernism's recent supporters are libertarians, all of whom insist upon the bending of the classical and Catholic tradition, politically and morally, to a naturalist economic order explained by simple, mechanical, uncontestable, Gradgrind-like "facts". Such Modernists tend to treat all criticism of their narrow facts as either the product of naive minds eager to return to a society where Everyman milks a cow for a living (certainly not my decidedly urbanite vision of existence) or, all too predictably, as the envy of losers who just do not know how to "make it" in a totally sensible market environment. The truth that we critics loathe the kind of world that has been constructed by these "facts" as a one-dimensional and unnatural zoo does not seem to be taken as anything other than a sign of our need for revolutionary consciousness-raising and further re-education.
These Catholic Modernists have convinced otherwise solid believers that Gradgrind's Magisterium is the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. Many well-meaning conservative and traditionalist Catholics in the United States, justifiably proud of their loyalty to Catholic dogma, have thus proven decidedly unwilling to examine whether these dogmas really mean anything serious in their daily economic, social, and political activities; whether they really rock the boat of a fallen status quo.
While looking for abstruse philosophical and esoteric explanations of Modernism and the way it has corrupted the Catholic Faith in our day, they have lost sight of the very essence of Modernism: once again, the treatment of nature as a closed system, sufficient unto itself, whose laws can be understood on its own terms, without reference to its marred character and its desperate need for redemption. While holding up the Catholic banner, they have welcomed the modernist libertarian invader, his naturalism, and the teachings of his Gradgrind Magisterium into their souls.
Some Catholics, suspicious that all may not be well with the libertarian vision, seem to be terrified into silence by the sheer number and specificity of the works that these Modernists produce. They ought to take heart from Aristotle's explanation of how the discerning rational mind can spot a quack and avoid his ministrations without being a knowledgeable surgeon himself. Catholics should realize that libertarians are quack doctors, and precisely because they are not operating with all of the knowledge that they need in order to make sensible statements about their chosen field of endeavor. They can write as many books as they want to on every economic issue imaginable, from the role of the Federal Reserve to the value of strip malls, and even make some solid points along the way. Nevertheless, there is no way that anyone can take any of these specific insights seriously until they abandon their embrace of the Gradgrind Magisterium and subject their "facts" to correction and consideration alongside non-economic natural concerns and divine truth. Until they do so, they will always be "Bitzers": sucked dry of everything valuable they might have to say. No one should lose a night's sleep worrying how to answer their massive but blind economic data. One should worry, instead, about how to counteract the damage this narrow knowledge is causing in the souls of its victims.
All of which brings me full circle, back to my Stammtisch and my friends at the cafe. Rocco's clientele is not unique. There is a world out there filled with normal but bewildered people who are not "making it", wonder why this is the case, and have a gut but unformed feeling that man does not live by "making it" through enslavement to a stunted soulless vision of nature alone. All such people deserve the chance to learn how they can really "make it" in a truly natural world. What they require is knowledge of the full Facts of Life.
Only the "boat rocking" fullness of a Catholicism that teaches that nature needs the light of supernatural truth and grace to unfold its real innate glories and explain its sad problems can answer that need. Our latest crop of Catholic Modernists cannot do this work because their teaching tool is Gradgrind's Magisterium. Let us respond to the hunger of a world that senses there is something wrong with the natural status quo with the teachings of the broader and higher Catholic Magisterium. And let us ignore the modernist libertarian taunt that we display our economic ignorance in doing so. Such taunts are only to be expected. For Chauteaubriand is wrong. Those who would shove mankind back into the darkness of the cave and fasten a blindfold over its eyes always, at every moment in history, make the effort to lift minds and hearts to the light appear ridiculous.
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