Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Keeping the Barbarians at Bay

The decline of civilization and the rise of technology or scientific progress have certainly co-existed side by side throughout history. Today, superficial minds take the innovative genius of nooks, i-pods and i-pads, cell phones and computers for genuine progress. To a minimal extent they are correct. These things are marks of American genius. However, the wonders of technological progress are by no means a sure sign that America is going from good to great. In fact, it is arguable that we are living on the capital- or the momentum –that had been founded on the creativity and discipline of our Christian past.

In this excerpt from Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville makes a brilliant observation that Americans need to be ever mindful of. He cautions prosperous nations that productivity and the mere application of formulas are, by themselves, insufficient to sustain their own prosperity. Busybodies or even hard workers are indeed valuable for a nation’s productivity. However, people who are too busy for meditation on the deeper truths of life and hence fail to study first principles- be it spiritual, moral, social or political –cease to trace right conclusions back to their source. They also do not follow their own flawed premises to their logical conclusions. With this, what naturally follows is an arrest of progress and then decline sets in. The causes of success as well as failure escape the minds of these in such a busy climate.

This is why praying and thinking in silence is so important nowadays. A good prayer life and study of theology and philosophy lends itself to a better understanding of the deeper truths in life. It helps us to see the relationship between the seemingly unrelated facets in our day to day existence. Too often, however, in the absence of thinking and daily meditation, people become victims of appearances and superficiality. They are continually disappointed by the contents of the book because they judge the book based on its cover. To be sure, an attractive cover does not make for a good book. In part, this explains why people are growing more discontent with relationships, marriages, parenting and careers. It is easy to forget about those principles which bring about a fulfilling life. But what applies to daily living also applies to our public institutions and society at large.

Tocqueville said, “If the light by which we are guided is ever extinguished, it will dwindle by degrees, and expire of itself. By dint of close adherence to mere applications, principles would be lost sight of; and when principles were wholly forgotten, the methods derived from them would be ill-pursued.” Indeed, many in America cannot account for the reasons behind their own nation’s greatness. I would even add “fiscal conservatives” to this mix. After all, they too hold those socially liberal views that undermine the integrity of souls, marriages, the family and education. They too are at a loss to explain why John Adams, the second U.S. president of the United States, would say that the Constitution is made for a religious people or why George Washington, our first president, would say that morality cannot be maintained without religion. And the very proposition that freedom cannot be had without morality is a truth too many do not even agree with any more.

Without an adhesion to basic truths in the natural and supernatural order, traditional methods and institutions which led to our nation’s security and prosperity are ill-pursued. And to be sure, the public education system, the media and government are major accomplices of this. With that said, it is up to Christianity to recover the basic principles that made America great. Tocqueville uses China from the 1500’s as an illustration that nation's forget why they rose to prominence. The Chinese people had reached the heights of scientific progress but later had lost sight of those very principles which inspired it.

As for presumption that America will always retain its blessings, we need to recall Tocqueville’s warning: “It is then the fallacy to flatter ourselves with the reflection that the barbarians are still far from us...” We too can forget the basics.

Excerpt from Democracy in America (1835):

“Equality begets in man the desire of judging of everything for himself: it gives him, in all things, a taste for the tangible and the real, a contempt for tradition and for forms…

Nothing is more necessary to the culture of the higher sciences, or of the more elevated departments of science, than meditation; and nothing is less suited to meditation than the structure of democratic society…

Men who live in democratic communities not only seldom indulge in meditation, but they naturally entertain very little esteem for it. A democratic state of society and democratic institutions plunge the greater part of men in constant active life; and the habits of mind which are suited to an active life, are not always suited to a contemplative one. The man of action is frequently obliged to content himself with the best he can get, because he would never accomplish his purpose if he chose to carry every detail to perfection. He has perpetually occasion to rely on ideas which he has not the leisure to search to the bottom; for he is much more frequently aided by the opportunity of an idea than by its strict accuracy…

The world is not led by long or learned demonstrations; a rapid glance at particular incidents; the daily study of fleeting passions of the multitude, the accidents to the time, and the art of turning them to account, decide all of its affairs. In the ages in which active life is the condition of almost everyone, men are therefore generally led to attach an excessive value to the rapid bursts and superficial conceptions of the intellect; and on the other hand, to depreciate below their true standard its slower and deeper labors…

If the light by which we are guided is ever extinguished, it will dwindle by degrees, and expire of itself. By dint of close adherence to mere applications, principles would be lost sight of; and when principles were wholly forgotten, the methods derived from them would be ill-pursued. New methods could no longer be invented, and men would continue to apply, without intelligence, and without art, scientific processes no longer understood.

When Europeans first arrived in China, three hundred years ago [1500’s], they found that almost all the arts had reached a certain degree of perfection there; and they were surprised that a people which had attained this point should not have gone beyond it. At a later period they had discovered some traces of the higher branches of science which were lost. The nation was absorbed in productive industry: the greater part of its scientific processes had been preserved, but science itself no longer existed there. This served to explain the strangely motionless state in which they found the minds of this people. The Chinese, in following the track of their forefathers, had forgotten the reasons by which the latter had been guided. The still used the formula, without asking for its meaning: they retained the instrument, but they no longer possessed the art of altering it or renewing it.

The Chinese, then, had lost the power of change; for them to improve was impossible. They were compelled at all times and in all points, to imitate their predecessors, lest they should stray into utter darkness, by deviating for an instant from the path already laid down for them. The source of human knowledge was all but dry; and though the stream still ran on, it would neither swell its waters nor alter its channel. Notwithstanding this, China had subsisted peaceably for centuries. The invaders who had conquered the country assumed the manners of the inhabitants, and order prevailed there. A sort of physical prosperity was everywhere discernible: revolutions were rare, and war was, so to speak, unknown.

It is then the fallacy to flatter ourselves with the reflection that the barbarians are still far from us; for if there be some nations which allow civilization to be torn from their grasp, and there are others, who trample it themselves under their feet.”