Capitol building and rebuilding

Last week I read David McCullough’s “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For”, which is a great collection of his speeches. Here’s McCullough in the chapter “A Building Like No Other”, speaking in 2016 to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society in Washington, D.C.:

Two all-important lessons of history stand clearly expressed in this our national Capitol. The first is that little of consequence is ever accomplished alone. High achievement is nearly always a joint effort, as has been shown again and again in these halls when the leaders of different parties, representatives from differing constituencies and differing points of view, have been able, for the good of the country, to put those differences aside and work together. …

The second lesson to be found here is that history is about far more than politics and war only. So much that is most expressive of American life and aspirations and contributions to the human spirit is to be found in the arts—in architecture, paintings, sculpture, and engineering genius. We Americans are builders at heart and in what we build we often show ourselves at our best. You have only to look around at so much to be seen in this great building.

In view of the current political climate, let me point out, too, how much of what we see throughout the building was the work of immigrants. William Thornton, a physician who won a design competition for the Capitol in 1792, was a native of Tortola in the British West Indies. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the first professional architect to take charge of the design of the building, including this hall, was born and educated in England. James Hoban, the architect who restored the White House after it was burned by the British during the War of 1812, and who also worked on the Capitol, was from Ireland. And Collen Williamson, the stone mason who oversaw the laying of the foundation of the Capitol, was a Scot.

Then there was amazing Constantino Brumidi, the artist whose vibrant frescoes fill the uppermost reaches of the great Rotunda under the Capitol dome and whose decorative genius brightens the corridors and hallways of the Senate wing in such a manner as rarely to be seen. A tiny figure who stood only five feet five inches tall, he was exuberant in spirit and produced work here of such monumental scale as had never been seen in our country.

There was also Carlo Franzoni, the sculptor who did the statue of Clio, the muse of history, over there, above the main door keeping note of the history taking place here.

Brumidi and Franzoni, as you might imagine, were both from Italy, as were any number of workers, skilled masons, and stonecutters.

It might also be added that our capital city, Washington, was itself the design of an immigrant, the French engineer Pierre L’Enfant, and that the two finest, most famous movies ever made about Congress, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Advise and Consent, were directed by immigrants, Frank Capra and Otto Preminger, respectively.

And yes, there were the African American slaves who did much of the work on the Capitol—how many in all will never be known, but play a large part they did. Notable evidence of their labors are the pillars that stand all about us here. “Hired out” by their owners, they cut the marble in the quarries.

Building and rebuilding the Capitol took more time and labor and patience than many might imagine.

Things went wrong. There were angry differences of opinion over matters of all kinds. There were accidents, numerous injuries, and one dramatic, narrow escape.

At work one day on his frescoes in the upper reaches of the great dome, Brumidi slipped from his scaffold and only just managed to catch hold of a rung of the ladder and for fifteen minutes hung for dear life with both hands some fifty-five feet above the marble floor until a Capitol policeman happened to glance up and rushed to the rescue. Brumidi by then was seventy-two and had been at work in the Capitol for twenty-six years.

The great dome famously took form through the Civil War and remains as intended the colossal commanding focal point of our capital city. It is primarily the work of two exceptional Americans, architect Thomas U. Walter and structural engineer Montgomery C. Meigs, each a story. Walter started out as a bricklayer. Meigs, a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, was all of thirty-six when he took on one of the most challenging engineering assignments ever and created what stands as a masterpiece of nineteenth-century engineering with inner and outer cast-iron shells weighing nearly nine million pounds.

A great lover of the arts and an artist himself, Meigs also had much to do with the art that was to fill the building—including the part played by Brumidi and the choice of the American sculptor Thomas Crawford to create the nineteen-and-a-half-foot-high Statue of Freedom that would stand atop the dome.

Completed in 1868, the gleaming dome remains the focal point of our capital city and though there have been modifications and additions to the building in the years since, it remains essentially as it was then, a symbol of freedom, the structure bespeaking more than any other our history, our American journey, evoking and encouraging powerfully pride in our system and, yes, patriotism.

And now we are in the midst of another election season, which like so many before will determine much to follow—more than we can possibly know.

Over there above the door, on the side of Clio’s chariot, is the work of the Massachusetts clockmaker Simon Willard. It has been doing its job a long time, since 1837, one hundred and seventy-nine years ago. It ticks on, still keeping perfect time.

My feeling is Clio, too, is attending to her role now no less than ever, taking note of the history we are and will be making.

On we go.

What incredible vignettes from our Capitol’s creation. I’ll never be able to see the Capitol dome again without thinking of 72-year old Brumidi, hanging for fifteen minutes from the rafters above the marble floor. To speak with him after his rescue, and to learn what sort of things a person thinks about in that situation.

Saint Francis, the realist

I’m reading G.K. Chesteron’s “Saint Francis of Assisi”, and this section on Saint Francis’s love of nature is conveyed in a sort of fullness:

Saint Francis was not a lover of nature. Properly understood, a lover of nature was precisely what he was not. The phrase implies accepting the material universe as a vague environment, a sort of sentimental pantheism. In the romantic period of literature, in the age of Byron and Scott, it was easy enough to imagine that a hermit in the ruins of a chapel (preferably by moonlight) might find peace and a mild pleasure in the harmony of solemn forests and silent stars, while he pondered over some scroll or illuminated volume, about the liturgical nature of which the author was a little vague. In short, the hermit might love nature as a background. Now for Saint Francis nothing was ever in the background. We might say that his mind had no background, except perhaps that divine darkness out of which the divine love had called up every coloured creature one by one. He saw everything as dramatic, distinct from its setting, not all of a piece like a picture but in action like a play. A bird went by him like an arrow; something with a story and a purpose, though it was a purpose of life and not a purpose of death. A bush could stop him like a brigand; and indeed he was as ready to welcome the brigand as the bush.

In a word, we talk about a man who cannot see the wood for the trees. Saint Francis was a man who did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost a sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man. But he did not want to stand against a piece of stage scenery used merely as a background, and inscribed in a general fashion: “Scene; a wood.” In this sense we might say that he was too dramatic for the drama. The scenery would have come to life in his comedies; the walls would really have spoken like Snout the Tinker and the trees would really have come walking to Dunsinane. Everything would have been in the foreground; and in that sense in the footlights. Everything would be in every sense a character. This is the quality in which, as a poet, he is the very opposite of a pantheist. He did not call nature his mother; he called a particular donkey his brother or a particular sparrow his sister. If he had called a pelican his aunt or an elephant his uncle as he might possibly have done, he would still have meant that they were particular creatures assigned by their Creator to particular places; not mere expressions of the evolutionary energy of things.

That is where his mysticism is so close to the common sense of the child. A child has no difficulty about understanding that God made the dog and the cat; though he is well aware that the making of dogs and cats out of nothing is a mysterious process beyond his own imagination. But no child would understand what you meant if you mixed up the dog and the cat and everything else into one monster with myriad legs and called it nature. The child would resolutely refuse to make head or tail of any such animal. Saint Francis was a mystic, but he believed in mysticism and not in mystification. As a mystic he was the mortal enemy of all those mystics who melt away the edges of things and dissolve an entity into its environment. He was a mystic of the daylight and the darkness; but not a mystic of the twilight. He was the very contrary of that sort of oriental visionary who is only a mystic because he is too much of a sceptic to be a materialist. Saint Francis was emphatically a realist…

“Saint Francis was a man who did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost a sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man.”

Robert Caro: On Power

Robert Caro’s “On Power” is a great 100 minute reflection on what has basically been the theme of his entire, extraordinary writing career. I transcribed this particular excerpt from his narration, where he talks about the impact of one of the most colorful stories from The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which I read earlier this year:

For James Roth, Robert Moses would not move the [Northern State] Parkway one foot. Jimmy Roth, who had watched his father and mother sweating side by side on the land, told me about how in years to come his father would keep talking, over and over, about what had been done to them. “I don’t know that I blame them for talking so much about it,” Jimmy said. “I’ll tell you, my father and mother worked very hard on that place, and made something out of it, and then someone just cut it in two.”

Ina found some of the other families who were dots on the map, and I talked to them, so over and over I heard similar stories, about how Robert Moses’s Northern State Parkway had ruined their lives, too. The injustice of it. The wrong of it. There had been no need for the Parkway to run through the Roth’s farm. Looking at the maps it was clear that the route could have been moved south a tiny distance that would have saved the Roth’s farm and their lives, and the farms and lives of 22 other families with very little difficulty. To the south of their farms was an empty area of farmland. Robert Moses just hadn’t wanted to be bothered moving it, and because the Roths didn’t have any power, he hadn’t had to be bothered. And that was a lesson for me: regard for power implies disregard for those without power.

And the Northern State Parkway is very clear demonstration of that. The map of the Northern State Parkway and Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, is a map not only of a road, but of power, and what happens to those who are unwitting caught in power’s path.

In the moments when I learned about James, Helen, and Jimmy Roth, things changed for me. My idea of what the book should try to be changed. I saw what I hadn’t seen before. If my book was to analyze power fully and honestly, in all its facets, when I got to the Northern State Parkway, the story, if it was to be an honest story, could not only be about the construction of the consequences of the Northern State Parkway and the power of the robber barons. The story of the farmers was a part of the story of the Northern State Parkway, part of the Robert Moses story, part of the picture of power I was trying to learn how to draw, and not an incidental part, either.

And that, I saw now, in that moment, was what I wanted my book to me. What I guess I always wanted my book to be. What my book had to be, if it was to accomplish what I wanted it to accomplish.

In order to write about power truthfully, it would be necessary to write not only about the man who wielded power, and not only about the techniques by which he amassed power and wielded it, but it would be necessary also to write about the effect of power, for good or for ill, on those on whom it was wielded, on those who didn’t have power. It would be necessary to write of the effect of power on the powerless.

There are, of course, personal implications in a decision like this.

It took Caro seven years to write The Power Broker, necessitated the sale of his house, involved desperation, and ultimately came to fruition to some degree from sheer luck. The Power Broker manuscript numbered more than one million words, in telling the truth of both the triumphant genius of so much of New York and Robert Moses, as much as it tells the truth about the true human costs of achieving the New York that today we think of as having been there as long as anyone remembers.

Robert Caro spoke with Jeff Slate about On Power, which was assembled from two recent speeches, specifically addressing the question, “Do we need a Robert Moses today?” His answer:

Well, the quick answer to your question—“Do we need someone like Robert Moses?”–I would say no. He caused such immense human hardship, many times when he did not have to. It was a use of power that ruined the lives of people where there was really no reason to, except that they didn’t have power and he did, so he could run over them.

On the other hand, as I tried to show in the book, we do need someone with vision. You know there are very few people who saw this immense vision that Robert Moses had. Put it this way, in each of his twelve offices he had a huge map. There’s a picture of one of his offices in The Power Broker, and the map takes up a whole wall. And when I was interviewing him–when he was 78 or 79, but had boundless energy–he’d jump up with his pencil in his hand and he’d start sketching in the air, saying, “Can’t you see, we’ll put a highway here to Fire Island that’ll hook up back to Long Island there.” He saw this entire Metropolitan Region–New York, Long Island, Westchester, and the parts of New Jersey near New York City–as one picture and he was uniting it all. Because he had that vision and he put that energy behind all of his work.

So Robert Moses’ don’t come along very often, and you need the genius of a Robert Moses, and I tried to show that in the book. But you also can’t let someone like that have power, unfathomable power, with no check on him, because look what happens. I think his career is an example, among other things, of what happens when you give power with no check on it to somebody.

What’s so revealing about The Power Broker is that Robert Moses seized upon the unrealized power of public authorities to do more than any elected official ever could, due to the traditional limits and checks on the power of elected officialdom. In this way, Moses’s power was inexplicable and impossible to anticipate.

Discovering how to effectively empower someone with the scope of Moses’s vision—while at the same time limiting his power—is consequently a riddle.

Secular totalism

A fourth and final excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.” This time on secular public engagement and the necessity for mutual respect and true pluralism in order to avoid a lame secular mono-culture:

In 2005, in a lecture at the University of Lodz in Poland on “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas posed another question (again I abbreviate): Are secular men and women ready to admit that toleration is always a two-way street? Religious persons must be ready to learn toleration not only for each denomination’s convictions and commitments, but also for those of atheists, agnostics, and other secularists. In a similar way, nonbelieving secularists must learn to appreciate the creeds, reasoning, and convictions of their fellow human beings who are believers. “For all their ongoing dissent on questions of worldviews and religious doctrines,” says Habermas, “citizens are meant to respect one another as free and equal members of their political community.” Those on all sides must be ready to stand in the shoes of the other, in order to see the other’s point of view “from within.”

As Pierre Manent has pointed out, the history of the last six or seven generations seems to show that Christianity has had an easier time identifying with democracy, and done so more successfully, than secular people have done in recognizing the contributions Christians and Jews have made to the intellectual comprehension of rights. The question Habermas poses is succinctly summarized: Is there sufficient moral energy among secular peoples to overcome this failure to take religion seriously?

Civic Duties of Religious Persons

On the side of religious people, Habermas also poses a test. Among themselves, they may explain their convictions in the language of faith, and even of the Bible. But in public life, at least those believers who enter into politics or activism have a special obligation to employ a “neutral” secular language. Perhaps Habermas is thinking more of the situation of France or other secular European nations with high proportions of Muslim citizens, where he wants to put pressure on Muslims to become more open to Western views, not to stay closed within their own. Perhaps he believes that the preponderance of peoples in European nations is secular, so that among them secular speech is most readily accessible to the largest number. Whatever his motives, his warning is that language in the public sphere (specifically, governmental offices) should be solely secular, lest religious language invite social divisiveness. Yet Habermas is far more open than John Rawls on these matters.

In his lecture “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas writes:

“The citizens of a democratic community owe one another good reasons for their public political interventions. Contrary to the restrictive view of [John] Rawls and [Robert] Audi, this civic duty can be specified in such a tolerant way that contributions are permitted in a religious as well as in a secular language. They are not subject to constraints on the mode of expression in the political public sphere, but they rely on joint ventures of translation to have a chance to be taken up in the agendas and negotiations of political bodies. Otherwise they will not “count” in any further political process.”

In “Faith and Knowledge,” Habermas adds, “The liberal state has so far imposed only upon the believers among its citizens the requirement that they split their identity into public and private versions. That is, they must translate their religious convictions into a secular language before their arguments have the prospect of being accepted by a majority” (emphasis added).

For his part, Habermas does not want to put believers at a disadvantage, although he holds that all parties, including believers, must do their best to give reasons understandable to the other parties. So he lays burdens on both believers and unbelievers: “But the search for reasons that aspire to general acceptance need not lead to an unfair exclusion of religion from public life, and secular society, for its part, need not cut itself off from the important resources of spiritual explanations, if only so that the secular side might retain a feeling for the articulative power of religious discourse.”

By contrast, the assumption that Rawls and others make is that the secular mode of speech is actually “neutral.” In the experience of many believers of various faiths, secular speech is anything but neutral. Speech limited to secular categories has its own totalistic tendencies. It penalizes or even quarantines those with religious points of view, whose insights and public arguments are not given due weight by narrowly secular officials. Curiously, in a set of lectures at the University of Virginia in 1928, Walter Lippmann made a parallel observation about the famous Scopes trial three years earlier. In a lecture framed as a conversation, the “Fundamentalist” says to his counterpart the “Modernist”:

“In our public controversies you are fond of arguing that you are open-minded, tolerant and neutral in the face of conflicting opinions. That is not so…Because for me an eternal plan of salvation is at stake. For you there is nothing at stake but a few tentative opinions none of which means anything to your happiness. Your request that I should be tolerant and amiable is, therefore, a suggestion that I submit the foundation of my life to the destructive effects of your skepticism, your indifference, and your good nature. You ask me to smile and to commit suicide.”

The Modernist does not grasp the total surrender he is asking the person of faith to make by submitting one source of knowledge (faith) to another (reason), when the latter seems to him inferior.

The parallel challenge that Habermas throws down for secular people, then, is an even newer one: that they, now, live in a “post-secular” age and must not be content with understanding social realities in a solely secular way. They, too, must enter into the two-way dialogue by stepping into the shoes, horizon, and viewpoint of those who are believers, just as is expected of the believers vis-à-vis the secularist.

If the tender roots of something like universal democracy are ever to survive and spread around the world, these conceptions—these breakthroughs for a universal ethos of public communication, and mutual reaching out to understand others from within—make an indispensable contribution. But these new rules for public discourse also renegotiate the historical preeminence that “the enlightened” assign themselves, and the language of contempt by which they have taken believers less than seriously. These rules call upon secularists, too, to be learners, and to master the new morality of communicative discourse. It is a morality that calls for mutual respect.

“[T]he assumption that Rawls and others make is that the secular mode of speech is actually ‘neutral.’ In the experience of many believers of various faiths, secular speech is anything but neutral. Speech limited to secular categories has its own totalistic tendencies.”

Everything isn’t permitted

A third excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, this time concerning the strange fact that in human nature we find that “everything isn’t permitted”—not everything is condoned in our heart, and not everything is approved by our conscience:

One of my favorite parts of the Sam Harris book is his attempt to explain away the horrors of the self-declared atheist regimes in modern history: Fascist in Italy, Nazi in Germany, and Communist in the Soviet Union and Asia. Never in history have so many Christians been killed, tortured, driven to their deaths in forced marches, and imprisoned in concentration camps. An even higher proportion of Jews suffered still more horrifically under the same regimes, particularly the Nazi regime, than at any other time in Jewish history. The excuse Harris offers is quite lame. First he directs attention away from the ideological character of the regime, toward the odd personalities of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. No, the problem is the ideology, the regime, the millions of believers in atheism. Harris ignores the essential atheism of the ideologies of the regime, “scientific secularism” and “dialectical materialism.” Yet it is these ideologies, not just a few demented leaders, that bred a furious war on God, religion, and clergy. The nature of a regime and its ideology matter more than mad leaders. Yet here is Harris, limping: “While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements are often delusional…The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths.” In other words, delusional atheists are not really atheists.

Would Harris accept a claim by Christians that Christian evildoers are not really Christians? The real problem is not that tyrants reject the “dogma” of religion, but that they derive their furors from a dogmatic atheism that brooks no rival. They build a punitive totalitarian regime far more sweeping than their own personal madness.

Enthusiasts such as Harris may dismiss the argument that atheism is associated with relativism. Sometimes it isn’t. Some atheists are rationalists of a most sober, moral kind. Nonetheless, the most common argument against placing trust in atheists is Dostoyevsky’s: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” There will be no Judge of deeds and consciences; in the end, it is each man for himself. Widespread public atheism may not show its full effects right away, but only after three or four generations. For individual atheists “of a peculiar character,” brought up in habits inculcated by the religious cultures of the past, can go on for two or three generations living in ways hard to distinguish from those of unassuming Christians and Jews. These individuals continue to be honest, compassionate, committed to the equality of all, firm believers in “progress” and “brotherhood,” long after they have repudiated the original religious justification for this particular list of virtues. But sooner or later a generation may come along that takes the metaphysics of atheism with deadly seriousness. This was the fate of a highly cultivated nation in the Europe of our time, Germany, before it voted its way into Nazism.

George Washington considered this risk in his Farewell Address: “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” If morality were left to reason alone, common agreement would never be reached, since philosophers vehemently—and endlessly—disagree, and large majorities would waver without clear moral signals. Adds Alexis de Tocqueville:

“There is almost no human action, however particular one supposes it, that does not arise from a very general idea that men have conceived of God, of his relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, and of their duties toward those like them. One cannot keep these ideas from being the common source from which all the rest flow.

“Men therefore have an immense interest in making very fixed ideas for themselves about God, their souls, their general duties toward their Creator and those like them; for doubt about these first points would deliver all their actions to chance and condemn them to a sort of disorder and impotence….

“The first object and one of the principal advantages of religions is to furnish a solution for each of these primordial questions that is clear, precise, intelligible to the crowd, and very lasting.”

This extremely practical contribution is one reason Tocqueville saw religion as essential to a free people, and unbelief as tending toward tyranny.

Moreover, in times of stress distinguished intellectuals such as Heidegger and various precursors of postmodernism (including deconstructionist Paul de Man) displayed a shameless adaptation either to Nazi or to Communist imperatives—or to any other anti-Hebraic relativism. Even the elites may lose their moral compass.

Everyone worships. In other words, the question isn’t whether to worship, but who or what ideas or things we will worship. Every culture, similarly, has a viewpoint it seeks to achieve and so can never be neutral in its structure. If we’re interested in pluralism, it’s necessary to guard against creating a monoculture that stifles concrete difference while pursuing abstract universalism.

Nihilism

A second excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, this time on nihilism and the universal experience of nothingness:

When he was asked, What is nihilism? the answer Nietzsche gave was my neighbor’s: “The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ finds no answer.” Later he approached the definition another way: “Something is to be achieved through the process—and now one realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing.”

In our age and in our kind of society—mobile, fast, free—the experience of “nihilism” is common even among fourteen-year-old “valley girls.” Boredom today is the first taste of nothingness. “Waddya want to do tonight, Beth?” Beth, chewing gum: “I dunno, what do you wanna do?” Nowadays, one of them is likely to have a cell phone to her ear. The interest of the other runs to shopping malls, movie theaters, boys in cars….

The experience of nothingness is, therefore, practically universal. Yet some in the two groups mentioned earlier seem blessedly to have been spared it. Trying to understand it, however, I prefer to speak of this experience without the -ism, prior to any ideology about it, as “the experience of nothingness.” How we are to understand that experience, in Nietzsche’s way or in any other, is a different matter.

It is an experience I well know in my own life. Everybody does.

Without being tedious, but to make certain that the point is as clear as examples can make it, let me mention Joan, who married for the first and only time when she was forty-three. Not immediately but some three years later and much to her surprise and joy, Joan conceived a child. Months of happy expectation followed. On the day after the child’s exhilarating birth, however, she learned that the dear little boy was afflicted with a rare disease that meant her son would probably live only until nine or ten, and would for all the years until then need extraordinary care. The question “Why?” arose inside her with much anguish.

A couple I know of had a handsome, athletic, extremely smart, and warmly popular son who excelled in almost everything in high school. It was only at the end of his first year in college that his health faltered, and then slowly it became apparent that he was afflicted with an incapacitating case of schizophrenia and would have to be hospitalized. His adoring parents were crushed. He was an only child. Their world fell apart.

A student I once had in class had been acing all her classes at Stanford, a perky and happy and optimistic young woman determined to get into medical school, in the tradition of her family. She had not a doubt in her mind. Her sailing was exceptionally clear. Until one day. One day it suddenly hit her very hard that she did not really want to become a doctor. Her grandmother had years ago, seeing the child care for a wounded robin, been the first to say that Janette would make a great doctor. Janette’s life dream had been implanted in her imagination from that day on.

Now suddenly, as a sophomore, some inner tunnel collapsed and all her dreams came tumbling down. The irrepressible thought had overpowered her: that she had been thrown into this project, it was not her project, she had never given it any real thought. She was just so darn good at it, and her record had gotten her into the university of her dreams, and everything looked far too rosy to endure. And it didn’t. She began to show the symptoms of the experience of nothingness that many sophomores come down with: She began to sleep a lot.

She could hardly get out of bed. She could no longer see any point to it. With her friends she was, as never before, short and cynical. They knew she wasn’t well. But she wasn’t sick, either, except with the disease of autonomy and inner freedom.

Granted that I am overcome with the experience of nothingness, how should I live? The alternatives come down to two: some form of suicide (drugs, drink, fast living, killing time will do) such as Albert Camus contemplated in the Myth of Sisyphus. Or this: creatio ex nihilo, reaching down into nothingness to create a new being. But by what light? Following which stars?

Woody Allen found his: “The heart wants what it wants.” Even the U.S. Supreme Court has abandoned the Constitution to dabble in its own philosophy of life in Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.” This is not the American legal and moral tradition, but contemporary postmodernism. …

Nothingness Inside Out

I went back to reflecting on illusions and realities in later months. Something told me that Nietzsche’s mad nihilism is not the only, nor the best, theory for explaining life-crushing experiences of the sort he adverted to. I noticed that Nietzsche and Sartre, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, and all those other early writers on nihilism did one remarkable thing at variance with their theories: They wrote books for others to read. In a world that makes no sense, why would they endure the hours and hours of sitting on their backsides, moving old pens across resisting pieces of blank foolscap? If everything is as meaningless as they say, why would they do it?

And since some people seem oblivious to the experience of nothingness, what is it that those who have the experience do, that others don’t do?

I began reflecting on what goes on inside the experience of nothingness, first within myself, and then among others I could talk to about it. Here a brief summary will have to do. The normal way in which Nietzsche, Sartre, and we ourselves come to an awareness of the experience of nothingness is through four activities of our own minds and wills. The one Nietzsche and the others most stress is ruthless honesty, forcing ourselves to see through comforting illusions and to face the emptiness. The second is courage, the habit that gives force and steadiness to our ability to see truly. Without courage, we would avert our eyes, as so often we have done.

Third is the ideal of community exemplified in reaching out to others through books—the good moves outward to diffuse itself. There is a kind of brotherhood and sisterhood among those who recognize the experience of nothingness in one another. There is a sort of honesty and cleanness in it one wants to share. One of the marks of “the good” is that, as the Latin puts it, bonum est diffusivum sui—the good diffuses itself. It wants others to participate in it.

Fourth is practical wisdom, that is, practical reason applied to action, by an adult experienced enough to take virtually everything concrete into account—or at least to avoid most of the common mistakes of the inexperienced. When the experience of nothingness hits, one cannot simply take to one’s bed. Well, sometimes one does, but then one can’t stay there. Moment by moment, in a kind of staccato, action keeps calling to us. Sooner or later, I have to start acting as an agent of my own future again. “Granted that I have the experience of nothingness, what should I do?”

Yes, there are such things as relativity and meaninglessness and pointlessness. Question is, What are we going to do even if that is true? We will not be able to escape practicing honesty, courage, community, and practical wisdom—or else withering into dry leaves for stray winds to blow about. The choice is ours, and unavoidable.

These four virtues do not constitute a complete quiver of all the virtues needed to be a good man or a valiant woman. Still, these four do constitute quite an admirable list. They are a wonderful starting place for an ethic rooted in the experience of nothingness. Here is the point at which Albert Camus began his own ascent out of the problem of suicide (The Myth of Sisyphus), on the road to the heroic and clear-eyed compassion of Dr. Rieux in The Plague. Sartre, locked inside his own solitariness, writing that “hell is other people,” faltered on the idea of community. No, hell is not other people. Hell is total isolation within one’s own puny mind. It is solitary confinement. (To step out of philosophy for a moment and into the terms of Christian faith: Hell is the solitary soul who freely and deliberately rejects friendship with God.) Hell is becoming conscious of what one has irretrievably chosen for oneself. This Hell has been deliberately chosen.

What we do with the experience of nothingness depends on our proven reserves of practical wisdom, community, courage, honesty. By the end of our lives, learning from experience, we ought to be wiser than we were in the beginning.

If you haven’t read Michael Novak’s 1994 Templeton Address, “Awakening from Nihilism,” at Westminster Abbey, do so. All of these themes are more exhaustively and better elaborated upon in that speech.

Faith, reason, and history

I’ll be excerpting four times from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, which I recently finished. The first concerns faith and reason:

Even his good friends, Dawkins writes, ask him why he is driven to be so “hostile” to religious people. Why not, they say, as intelligent as you are, quietly lay out your devastating arguments against believers, in a calm and unruffled manner? Dawkins’s answer to his friends is forthright: “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise…Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.” Dawkins refuses to be part of the public “conspiracy” to pay religion respect, when it deserves contempt.

Yet his complaint about “unquestioning” faith seems a bit odd. Some of us have thought that the origin of religion lies in the unlimited drive in human beings to ask questions—which is our primary experience of the infinite. Anything finite that we encounter can be questioned, and seems ultimately unsatisfying. That hunger to question is the experience that keeps driving the mind and soul on and on, and is its first foretaste of that which is beyond time and space. “Our hearts are restless, Lord,” Saint Augustine recorded, “until they rest in Thee.” These words have had clearly echoing resonance in millions upon millions of inquiring minds down through human history ever since. “Unquestioning faith?” The writings of the medieval thinkers record question after question, disputation after disputation, and real results in history hinged upon the resolution of each. Many of the questions arose from skeptical, unbelieving lawyers, philosophers, and others in the medieval universities; still others from the Arab scholars whose works had recently burst upon the Western universities; still others from Maimonides and other Jewish scholars; and a great many from the greatest pagan thinkers of every preceding century. Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia.

To be sure, Dawkins at least does think there are some religious people who can be converted to atheism by his arguments. He describes them as the “open-minded people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take,’ or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it.” Dawkins presents such believers with an ultimatum: Either join him in “breaking free of the vice of religion altogether” or remain among the close-minded types who are unable to overcome “the god delusion.”

On the fifth page of his book, Dawkins describes his hopes: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” It surprised me that Dawkins would turn out to be such a proselytizer. Most of all what surprised me is that, while all three authors write as if science is the be-all and end-all of rational discourse, these three books of theirs are by no means scientific. On the contrary, they are examples of dialectic—arguments from within one point of view, or horizon, addressed to human beings who share a different point of view. Surely, one of the noblest works of reason is to enter into respectful argument with others, whose vision of reality is dramatically different from one’s own, in order that both parties may learn from this exchange, and come to an ever deeper mutual respect. Our authors engage in dialectic, not science, but they can scarcely be said to do so with respect for those they address. Thus, Dawkins: “Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination…Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan.” Here, of course, Dawkins flatters himself. “Screwtape” would have been far more insidious.

What most surprised me in the Dawkins book, however, is its defensiveness. He describes atheists, particularly in America, as suffering from loneliness, public disrespect, spiritual isolation, and low self-esteem. In one passage he recounts a letter from a young American medical student recently turning from Christianity to atheism. A medical student? Surely at least some of the doctors and scientists working near her are atheists. Nonetheless, the student writes: “I don’t particularly want to share my belief with other people who are close to me because I fear the…reaction of distaste…I only write to you because I hoped you’d sympathize and share in my frustration.” In an appendix, which Dawkins kindly adds for such unsupported souls, he offers lists of organizations in which lonely atheists may find community and solace. He devotes not a few pages to boosting his community’s morale—how large their numbers are, how smart they are, how comparatively disgusting their antagonists are.

Building a Culture of Reason

I have no doubt that Christians have committed many evils, and written some disgraceful pages in human history. Yet on a fair ledger of what Judaism and Christianity added to pagan Greece, Rome, the Arab nations (before Mohammed), the German, Frankish, and Celtic tribes, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, one is puzzled not to find Dawkins giving thanks for many innovations: hospitals, orphanages, cathedral schools in early centuries, universities not much later, some of the most beautiful works of art—in music, architecture, painting, and poetry—in the human patrimony.

And why does he overlook the hard intellectual work on concepts such as “person,” “community,” “civitas,” “consent,” “tyranny,” and “limited government” (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…”) that framed the conceptual background of such great documents as the Magna Carta? His few pages on the founding and nourishing of his own beloved Oxford by its early Catholic patrons are mockingly ungrateful. And if Oxford disappoints him, has he no gratitude for the building of virtually every other old and famous university of Europe (and the Americas)?

Dawkins writes nothing about the great religious communities founded for the express purpose of building schools for the free education of the poor. Nothing about the thousands of monastic lives dedicated to the delicate and exhausting labor of copying by hand the great manuscripts of the past—often with the lavish love manifested in illuminations—during long centuries in which there were no printing presses. Nothing about the founding of the Vatican Library and its importance for the genesis of nearly a dozen modern sciences. Nothing about the learned priests and faithful who have made so many crucial discoveries in science, medicine, and technology. Yet on these matters a word or two of praise from Dawkins might have made his tiresome lists of accusations seem less unfair.

I don’t wish to overdo it. There have been and are toxic elements in religion that always need restraint by the Logos—the inner word, the insight, the light of intelligence—to which Christianity from the very first married the biblical tradition: “In the beginning was the Logos”—the inner word, the light, in Whom, and by Whom, and with Whom all things have been made ( John 1:1 NAB). Still, any fair measuring of the impact of Judaism and Christianity on world history has an awful lot of positives to add to the ledger. Among my favorite texts for many years, in fact, are certain passages of Alfred North Whitehead—in Science and the Modern World and Adventures of Ideas, for instance. In these passages, Whitehead points out that the practices of modern science are inconceivable apart from thousands of years of tutelage under the Jewish and Christian conviction that the Creator of all things understood all things, in their general laws and in their particular, contingent dispositions. This conviction, Whitehead writes, made long, disciplined efforts to apply reason to the sustained Herculean task of understanding all things seem reasonable. …

The path of modern science was made straight, and smoothed, by deep convictions that every stray element in the world of human experience—from the number of hairs on one’s head to the lonely lily in the meadow—is thoroughly known to its Creator and, therefore, lies within a field of intelligibility, mutual connection, and multiple logics. All these odd and angular levels of reality, given arduous, disciplined, and cooperative effort, are in principle penetrable by the human mind. If human beings are made in the image of the Creator, as the first chapters of the book of Genesis insist that they are, surely it is in their capacities to question, gain insight, and advance in understanding of the works of God. In the great image portrayed by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling—the touch from finger to finger between the Creator and Adam—the mauve cloud behind the Creator’s head is painted in the shape of the human brain. Imago Dei, yes indeed.