“Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought.”
– G.K. Chesterton
“Deep currents alone account for eddies on the surface; they alone deserve to be attacked by an action of any magnitude.”
– Henri de Lubac
“All beliefs are held within a context or framework of the taken-for-granted, which usually remains tacit, and may even be as yet unacknowledged by the agent, because never formulated. This is what philosophers, influenced by Wittgenstein, Heidegger or Polanyi, have called the ‘background’.”
– Charles Taylor
Underlying Assumptions is a Journal devoted to advancing viewpoints that are contrary to the commonly accepted presumptions of both Modernism and Postmodernism. The consequence of this devotion is that the reader will find viewpoints here that are rarely ever articulated in today’s public square. The core understanding behind the essays of Underlying Assumptions is that how we live every day is based upon a vast number of assumptions that we take for granted and rarely question. This is practical and necessary. We cannot think through the philosophical presuppositions that underlie each of our actions in a given day. Instead, we form habits, practices, and conventions that guide us, and without thinking about them we share many of these habits, practices, and conventions with our society, our generation, and our culture. The assumptions upon which our lives are based come natural to us and we do not often think about them.
Moreover, while it may be antiquated to do so in the digital age of bite-sized, online, stream of consciousness puff pieces, Underlying Assumptions uses the literary medium of the contemplative and discursive essay. As lovers of well-composed English sentences and cultivators of an ever growing appreciation for the music of language, we aspire to that old-fashioned and illustrious essay writing tradition practiced with profound insight by such diverse characters as Addison and Steele, Dr. Johnson, G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers, Karl Kraus and Virginia Woolf, William F. Buckley, Jr. and James Baldwin, David Foster Wallace and Marilynne Robinson.
This means that we are not interested in writing and publishing mere personal opinion or disjointed fragments of the nondeliberative, random, self-expressive babbling that passes for online writing in so many corners of the web. There is no particular reason why any of our authors personally merit your attention. Neither is there cause for the reader to care in the slightest what random personal flights of fancy our writers may feel like indulging in at any given moment. However, we are confident at Underlying Assumptions that the substance, content, and ideas that we seek to point towards are worth the reader’s attention. Indeed, there are things that merit our life-long, committed, and abiding attention. And our attention is a scarce resource that we must not take for granted in an age where we take far more for granted than we know.
Susanne Langer wrote that there “are natural ways of thinking. Such implicit ‘ways’ are not avowed by the average man, but simply followed. He is not conscious of assuming any ‘basic principles.’” However, it is sometimes important to be conscious of these basic principles which you normally take for granted. It is also valuable to understand that our unquestioned assumptions do not exist within a moral void. Many of our presuppositions and conventions have been intentionally created for specific purposes. It may behoove us to know what those purposes were. It would be wise, when your assumptions shape you into the person that you are, to understand what those assumptions are and why or if they are worth assenting to.
It is said that we live in a time of increased polarization between increasingly partisan camps, that we are in a culture war in which we must choose a side, and that towing the party line is necessary for any prospective leader to earn the trust of his own camp. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is known for explaining that our public discourse suffers from an incommensurability where not only do our opposing viewpoints disagree about what is true and false, but we disagree over what standard to use to judge between disagreements over what is true and false and lack a higher standard by which to judge between competing standards. This is bleak indeed. But it gets worse.
In After Virtue, MacIntyre also writes how we live in an age of “moral pluralism” where we have mistakenly applied the idea of consumerism to rational thought, picking and choosing philosophical principles as if they were commodities. Our culture encourages us to be detached from the ordered intellectual traditions of the past in order to follow the dictates of our own individual wills. This results in “an unharmonious melange of ill-assorted fragments” where the “various concepts which inform our moral discourse were originally at home” in rationally coherent theories and practices which fit together and “enjoyed a role and function supplied by contexts of which they have now been deprived.” The result is that today’s atomized individual, whether by choice or random happenstance, collects an incompatible and contradictory assortment of concepts and assumptions. These assumptions detached from any coherent context do not fit together. Indeed, they were never meant to. Thoughtlessly holding to such a mismatched collection of assumptions ends only in schizophrenic instability and disintegrating non sequitur attempts at rationalization of we know not what.
All of the above means that our Journal will advocate from the following coherent first principles:
First and foremost, this is a Journal rooted within historic catholic orthodox Christianity. The viewpoints of this Journal are Christian in the old-fashioned and only meaningful sense of the word. We hold that the basic and essential doctrines of Christianity are not up for debate. Denying them puts one outside of the historic orthodox Christian tradition by definition. But you do not have to know what they are in order to deny them. Unfortunately, we now live in a modern disenchanted age where the vast majority of us do not seem to even know the basics of what Christianity actually teaches and we live as if we hold assumptions which are contrary to essential Christian doctrines. This can only be remedied by remedial education for the ill-informed. If you read Underlying Assumptions, you will find reasoning that is informed by the Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian creeds. We hold to the old sacramental worldview. This means that we hold to a world that is enchanted – a world that is imbued with spiritual meaning and spiritual powers that lie and work behind the scenes.
We are convinced that we must hold to the orthodox catholic faith in these turbulent times. In I Timothy 6:20, the Apostle Paul wrote: “O Timothy, guard what has been deposited with you, avoiding the voice of profane novelties and of opposing ideas, which are falsely called knowledge.” St Vincent of Lérins expounds on this in his Commonitorium: “‘Keep the deposit.’ What is ‘The deposit’? That which has been entrusted to you, not that which you have yourself devised: a matter not of wit, but of learning; not of private adoption, but of public tradition; a matter brought to you, not put forth by you, wherein you are bound to be not an author but a keeper, not a teacher but a disciple, not a leader but a follower. Keep the deposit. Preserve the talent of Catholic Faith inviolate, unadulterate. That which has been entrusted to you, let it continue in your possession, let it be handed on by you. You have received gold; give gold in turn. Do not substitute one thing for another. Do not for gold impudently substitute lead or brass. Give real gold, not counterfeit.” In an age where one finds a strict fundamentalism in some churches and a loose “Moral Therapeutic Deism” in other churches, keeping to traditional historic Christianity has become rare. It is time to stop substituting trite evangelical church-speak or surface level modern platitudes for real, in-depth, traditional Christianity.
While we will advocate for the historic doctrines of the Church, it is not that sound doctrine (orthodoxy) is more important than sound practice (orthopraxy). Nor is it that one’s deeds matter more than one’s beliefs. On the contrary, it is that orthodox practices derive from orthodox doctrine, and vice versa. Destructive practices, in their turn, form false doctrine, and again the other way round. Rigid adherence to one is no excuse for carelessness and thoughtlessness in the other. Both practice and doctrine are important, and loss of one always leads to loss of the other. Stated most simply, this Journal advocates from the position that what you do (rather than what you say) proves what you believe. From this proposition, it necessarily follows that what you believe proves what you will do. To this end, we will advance the view that rich and sound theology can be found in all three (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) branches of the Christian Church. And they all point to the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the One who is our only hope in a lost world.
Second, the essays published by this Journal will take the countercultural position that standards of beauty are objective rather than merely subjective. There are standards of taste that have to do with the moral sphere, and this is relevant to how one spends one’s leisure. What you watch, what you read, what you see, what you listen to, shapes you into who you are. Therefore, “despite the profound difference between beauty and moral value,” writes Dietrich von Hildebrand, “there exists at the deepest level a qualitative inner kinship between the highest and most sublime beauty and the morally good in its highest form.” These are values worth pursuing, and they are increasingly difficult to pursue in an entertainment driven pop culture that pressures against any aesthetic standard at all.
Each one of us is capable of cultivating a taste for those things which deepen our own humanity. As Edmund Burke writes: “sensibility and judgment, which are the qualities that compose what we commonly call a Taste, vary exceedingly in various people. From a defect in the former of these qualities arises a want of Taste; a weakness in the latter, constitutes a wrong or a bad one.” Our tastes can be good or bad, educated or uneducated, based on experience or based on inexperience. In other words, our tastes can be acquired, and they can be improved. Therefore, our tastes can be judged by higher standards than mere random individual choice.
It is this conviction that has led Underlying Assumptions to pursue many of the same sensibilities advocated for by T.S. Eliot in the “New Criticism.” Indeed, there is no reason why the “New Criticism,” besides being applied to literature and poetry, cannot also be applied to film, to music, and to every other art form. These are not just matters of consumer demand meeting market supply. “When I describe something as beautiful,” reasons Roger Scruton, “I am describing it, not my feelings towards it – I am making a claim, and that seems to imply that others, if they see things aright, would agree with me. Moreover, the description of something as beautiful has the character of a judgement, a verdict, and one for which I can reasonably be asked for a justification.” Here, we are interested in learning how to see things aright and asking for reasonable and educated justifications for any aesthetic judgment. We understand that our tastes can be educated, improved, and enhanced in vision, feeling, sensibility, sympathy, and empathy. The short time we have to invest in such things does not need to be wasted.
Third, this is a Journal committed to restoring the increasingly lost ground of Traditionalist Conservatism. This is the old conservatism of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. Classical liberalism it is not. In fact, Burkean conservatism rejects the liberalism of the Enlightenment in both its classical and modern forms from John Locke to John Rawls. In its place, the Burkean viewpoint cherishes tradition as the collected wisdom from past ages; practices moderation both in preserving and reforming; upholds our relational nature and attachment to local place; restores an ontology of enchantment and enjoyment of the good, the true, and the beautiful; and follows a coherent epistemology of realism combined with the Aristotelian and Thomistic virtues. Readers may be surprised to find that traditional conservatives are friendly to those seeking to protect the environment, opposed to an unrestrained free market, and passionate about restoring civic goods such as real education for the poor and disadvantaged.
Indeed, while Burkean conservatives can be found in both the Republican and Democratic parties, they have been increasingly without a home within today’s political establishment. Currently led by the likes of Roger Scruton, Patrick J. Deneen, and Chad C. Pecknold, Burkean conservatism is perhaps the most articulate, nuanced, and historically informed minority voice in today’s politics. For readers who are not acquainted with this viewpoint, they would do well to read Russell Kirk’s foundational and introductory work The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (1953). For readers who would like to understand Burkean thought in more depth, we would encourage them to explore the roots of Modernity and the intellectual history that traces how various theological disputes led to the philosophical assumptions that most of the population now takes for granted.
Key to understanding these principles are the following increasingly important works which will be cited from and explored regularly in the essays published in this Journal: Ideas Have Consequences (1948) by Richard M. Weaver; Order and History, volumes I-V (1956-1985) by Eric Voegelin; Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (1957) by Owen Barfield; Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988) by Alasdair MacIntyre; Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (1993) by Louis Dupré; A Secular Age (2007) by Charles Taylor; The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (2012) by Brad S. Gregory; Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge (2013) by Thomas Pfau; The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (2013) by Yuval Levin; The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (2014) by Matthew Crawford; and How to be a Conservative (2014) by Roger Scruton.
Fourth, readers will also find that Underlying Assumptions publishes writing by thinkers and authors who have increasingly found themselves not at home in either of today’s major American political parties. Both Democrats and Republicans have become advocates for a destructive liberalism, promoting a way of life that is neither morally sound nor reasonably sustainable. Both parties should take warning, as the number of political “parties” that have died in the history of politics are countless. Because of corruption and lack of imagination in their leadership, the Federalist Party died in 1816 and the Whig Party died in 1856. As the 2016 party nominations of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton clearly demonstrated, both Republican and Democrat leadership is failing at a very basic level. Either it is time for one or more major political parties to rise up to replace one or more of the old ones, OR it is time for a devastating takeover to occur within the ranks of the current parties. A large number of our leaders need to be permanently kicked out of office and replaced.
While the two-party system is not necessarily flawed, almost everyone can agree that the two major American political parties are fundamentally flawed. So what ought we to do? The party lines are now without meaning. Alasdair MacIntyre sums up the current state of our political discourse by reminding us that we have lost standards by which to judge our different assumptions. As a result, “[f]rom our rival conclusion[s] we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion. Hence perhaps the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate.” True reform is a return to form, a return to some older and reliable standards of judgment by which rational discourse and meaningful argument can be had.
Pure pursuit of economic profit is not a standard of judgment. Pure absolute liberty of the isolated and atomized individual is not a standard of judgment. Division into rival “identities” is not a means of achieving rational and meaningful discourse. But there are standards of judgment that we can hold in common. Justice, mercy, and humility (Micah 6:8) are too rare in our politics today. We all still ought to have our humanity, and all the greatest acts of heroism, all the greatest works of art and literature, all the greatest acts of self-sacrifice point towards our common humanity. We sense a moral law in our hearts, even if we have not fully worked out the source from which it derives. We are capable to applying this moral law to our own treatment of our fellow human beings. These are basics, but we are losing them. Here at Underlying Assumptions we envision a new political coalition (or political party) that combines a love of tradition and a devotion to home with a moderating willingness to reform and a prudent energy to restore. Let’s see what we can do.
Fifth, and contrary to the trendy postmodern newspeak of ivory tower academics, this is a Journal committed the anti-ideological. “Social and political categories have become totalizing. What has virtually disappeared is the sense of culture or art as a force resistant to ideology,” warned Eugene Goodheart. This is true. Political ideology has intruded into almost every sphere of our way of life. This intrusion is unhealthy and abnormal, not because politics is not a part of everyday life (we are political by nature and ought to daily pursue the civic good of our own polis). This intrusion is unhealthy because of the rigid, doctrinaire, polarizing effects of ideology. It is simply not true that we all have an ideology. We each have a philosophy, whether we hold to it in theory or in practice.
The Postmodernists who will insist that you have a ideology will also insist that you have an ideology without knowing it, that you can’t help having one, and that if you are smart you will therefore adopt the ideology of the Postmodernists. This ideology that you will be encouraged to adopt will be one of constant suspicion, disillusionment, critique, and resentment combined with dreams of exercising power towards the ends of a Utopian vision of liberation. Within ideology, there is little room for the ancient realism that acknowledges the corrupt nature of man, admits the law of entropy’s application to human civilizations, and advises against all political or scientific aims towards the perfectibility of man.
At this Journal, we are against all ideologies. We deny that the new-fangled eighteenth century term “ideology” (or “the science of idiocy”) means the same as the time-honored ancient tradition of philosophy. We deny that any systematized set of man-made principles can explain the answer to the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything. Given reality, history, and human nature, every single past attempt and all future attempts to “immanentize the eschaton” have failed and will fail. And each failure is at the cost of increased human misery. As William F. Buckley, Jr. explained: “Eschaton means, roughly, the final things in the order of time; immanentize means, roughly, to cause to inhere in time. So that to immanentize the eschaton is to cause to inhere in the worldly experience and subject to human dominion that which is beyond time and therefore extraworldly. To attempt such a thing is to deny transcendence: to deny God; to assume that Utopia is for this world. All of these things Professor Voegelin draws out in the Gnostic heresy of yesteryear.” Here, in Underlying Assumptions, it is our goal to resist all ideological attempts to immanentize the eschaton.
Sixth, Underlying Assumptions is a Journal informed by an abiding commitment to conserving, cultivating, and nurturing the natural resources of our earth and home. To this end, we reject the typical “liberal” environmentalist solution of placing control and decision making in the hands of a remote centralized government power with little knowledge or understanding of the individual needs and problems of local community, ecology, and place. To this end, we also reject the typical supposedly “conservative” solution of “letting the free market correct itself” by trusting that those interested in economic profit will necessarily act in their long term rather than their short term interests. There are certainly both moral and economic arguments to be made for the necessity and advantages of environmental conservation. But over the course of the last six decades that liberal environmentalist activists have protested and argued, the pollution and destruction of our natural world has only increased. Meanwhile, conservatives have, to their shame, ignored this issue at the very worst of times. Yet there are many reasons why conservatives ought not to fight for the preservation of our environment. This should not be a partisan issue. It is, in fact, a universal human issue, one that we can no longer leave to political platforms and elections.
In 1939, T.S. Eliot wrote: “We are being made aware that the organization of society on the principle of private profit, as well as public destruction, is leading both to the deformation of humanity by unregulated industrialism, and to the exhaustion of natural resources, and that a good deal of our material progress is a progress for which succeeding generations may have to pay dearly.” That was over four generations ago, and the exhaustion of our natural resources has only accelerated in speed. “Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien in 1962, and the mass deforestation of the earth’s largest forests have proved Tolkien prophetic. One of the most important issues of our time involves our forests and our agriculture. That modernized, market driven solutions have wrecked devastation on both our forests and farms is a fact that is growing increasingly apparent as we are continuing to deal with the consequences of poor quality, mass produced food and an increasingly dry and warm climate. You do not have to agree to the rather one-sided proposition that fossil-fuels are causing global warming to agree that our status quo rate of pollution and consumption of our planet is unsustainable.
One of our most eloquent voices for preserving our natural home is Wendell Berry. In 1969, Berry wrote: “We have gone far toward using up our topsoils and our forests and many of our other natural resources. We have come, or we are coming fast, to the end of what we were given. The good possibilities that may lie ahead are only those that we will make ourselves by a wiser and more generous and more exacting use of what we have left.” This wiser, more generous and more exacting use of what we have left is a necessity. Primarily and most importantly, local communities must take steps to begin restoring and replanting the places in which they live. Secondarily, state, federal, and international law will all have a place in conserving our environment. Regardless of your own views upon a single issue such as global warming, we have seen enough environmental devastation to know that these questions must be addressed in the 21st Century, no matter one’s partisan point of view.
Careful Contemplative Writing
Seventh, our rejection of stream of consciousness writing means that the pieces published by Underlying Assumptions will be carefully thought out, edited, proof-read, and reinforced by citations to credible source material. Our online public discourse has degenerated into using social media such as Twitter and Facebook to bypass the traditional checks and filters of informed opinion and high quality published writing. Instead of informed opinions, we receive instant mass opinion, which converges and dissipates with fleeting speed that is difficult for even the social media addict to consistently follow. As Roger Scruton has noted, “[a]lmost every day there pops up on my screen a petition from Change.org or Avaaz.org urging me to experience the ‘one click’ passport to moral virtue, bypassing all political processes and all representative institutions in order to add my vote to the cause of the day.” Our discourse and conversation is growing shallower because we only allow it to come in fragments and only consider it relevant for a very short time.
However, as Scruton argues, “[w]e are not creatures of the moment; we do not necessarily know what our own interests are, but depend upon advice and discussion. Hence we need processes that impede us from making impetuous choices; we need the filter that will bring us face to face with our real interests. It is precisely this that is being obscured by the emerging” culture of social media. It takes time to form an educated opinion. It takes days, months, and years to develop well-thought out positions. It takes caution and delay to avoid merely going along with the latest internet fad. Therefore, Underlying Assumptions has been launched in order to provide a place for writing that is not written for the fleeting events lived out by the flies of summer. We seek and attempt to create careful, contemplative, thoughtful writing.
Therefore, these essays and reviews are not written to generate mass attention. Instead, they are written to inspire rare and meaningful conversations. Every author writing for Underlying Assumptions keeps Dr. Samuel Johnson’s caution to writers in mind: “He that endeavours after fame by writing, solicits the regard of a multitude fluctuating in pleasures, or immersed in business, without time for intellectual amusements; he appeals to judges prepossessed by passions, or corrupted by prejudices, which preclude their approbation of any new performance.” Instead of fame, popularity, web presence, webpage traffic, or approbation, we write out of love for the act of writing itself; love for the beauty of language artfully constructed; and love for the truth, beauty, or goodness of the substantive content about which we write. Here it is the depth of ideas themselves, not the authors’ mere identities or personal lives, that are most valued.
Eighth, here at Underlying Assumptions, we have been forced to reckon with the increasing effects of the technological revolutions that have swept the last couple generations. This leads to an increasing sense of urgency, because it is easy to feel as if no one else is paying any attention. David Foster Wallace wrote that “the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” No matter your religious or political persuasion, if you live in today’s time, you are immersed in a reality with technological controls and influences never before known by man. Yet this reality comes with a problem. Every technology, as Neil Postman has explained, “has an inherent bias. It has within its physical form a predisposition toward being used in certain ways and not others.” Every technology, in other words, has its own epistemology. There is an epistemology of the automobile, an epistemology of the television, and an epistemology of the computer. These epistemologies have created the world that we live in today.
It is time that we listened to the wisdom of the far-sighted who prophesied the problems that our technological revolutions have led us to. “There is the tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien in 1944. “Unlike art which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind, it attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this World; and that cannot really be done with any real satisfaction. Labour-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labour. And in addition to this fundamental disability of a creature, is added the Fall, which makes our devices not only fail of their desire but turn to new and horrible evil. So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the Giant Bomber. It is not an advance in wisdom! This terrible truth, glimpsed long ago by Sam Butler, sticks out so plainly and is so horrifyingly exhibited in our time, with its even worse menace for the future, that it seems almost a world wide mental disease that only a tiny minority perceive.” It is important that we understand how the technology we use shapes how we think, let alone how it shapes how we live. Our increased and unrestrained use of technology has a cost, and it is a cost that future generations should not have to bear.
“A message denotes a specific, concrete statement about the world,” wrote Postman. “But the forms of our media, including the symbols through which they permit conversation, do not make such statements. They are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality.” The technological forms that you use work unobtrusively to shape the reality in which you are attempting to communicate. You ought not to remain unaware of this simple fact, particularly in cases where the technological mediums you use create habits of thought that make what you want to communicate impossible. Irving Babbitt wrote that the “risk we run nowadays is that of having our minds buried beneath a dead-weight of information which we have no inner energy, no power of reflection, to appropriate to our own uses and convert into vital nutriment. We need to be on our guard against allowing the mere collector of information to gain an undue advantage over the man who would maintain some balance between his knowledge and reflection.” The purpose of Underlying Assumptions will be to fight against this undue advantage.
Finally, it is not just that our rapid technological advances have greatly affected and changed our capacities to think. Our modern ideology of technology has also begun to hamper and eat away at our very relation to our own physical tools and possessions, changing the nature of work itself. As philosopher Matthew Crawford writes, “There seems to be an ideology of freedom at the heart of consumerist material culture; a promise to disburden us of mental and bodily involvement with our own stuff so we can pursue ends we have freely chosen.” In our current age, atomistic individual choice is held up as the highest good, and our radical commitment to technology is based upon this commitment. “Yet,” Crawford warns, “this disburdening gives us few occasions for the experience of direct responsibility. I believe the appeal of freedomism, as a marketing hook, is due to the fact it nonetheless captures something true. It points to a paradox in our experience of agency: to be master of your own stuff entails also being mastered by it.” In other words, there is a distinction to be made between true and fake agency, real choice and fictitious choice. Utilizing technology to free oneself from the greatest amount of work, effort, and thought possible can also free oneself from the greatest amount of control, understanding, and discernment possible. And without understanding of how the tools you use shape you, such tools will begin to form and fashion your very mind and will. You will find that this Journal is interested in uncovering the overlooked ways in which technological consumption is often designed to make you into a consumer best suited to the needs of an economy producing numberless goods of distraction and entertainment.
Lastly, this Journal is devoted to publishing writing that is informed by an awareness that another of the most critically important issues of the twenty-first century is education. When schoolchildren are taught the underlying assumptions of modern liberalism, they do not make conscious inferences to reason their way to accepting one position over another. Rather, the great power of the classroom is that young students have not yet any clue of what is at stake. As C.S. Lewis warns in The Abolition of Man, it is not a philosophic theory that a modern teacher places into the students’ minds, “but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition [the students] to take one side in a controversy which [they have] never recognized as a controversy at all.” Instead of teaching children the elementary basics of human education, such as language, reasoning, and art, our modern education system makes indoctrination of pet ideological theories the priority. The devastation that modern reforms have caused to our education is unheard of in human history. Our students graduating from the top universities of the West now know less than the student leaving the grammar school of a mere century ago. Not only has the average university graduate not read the basics of literature and philosophy, but he or she is unable even to identify them. The best that has been thought and said is tossed by the wayside. We are all being forced to start carte blanche without any internal resources other than that of our mere atomized selves. This is not what it means to be educated.
For thousands of years, to be educated meant to learn multiple languages and to acquire a wealth of vocabulary combined with a detailed knowledge of history, literature, poetry, music, civics, and crafts. Shrinking vocabularies, a reliably documented characteristic of modern generations, leads both to a shrinking capacity for depth of thought and to an inability to articulate truths regarding our human condition. Theodore Dalrymple, a doctor, wrote of his experience working with the disadvantaged in hospitals and prisons in the slums of the big city: “With a very limited vocabulary, it is impossible to make, or at least to express, important distinctions and to examine any question with conceptual care. My patients often had no words to describe what they were feeling, except in the crudest possible way, with expostulations, exclamations, and physical displays of emotion. Often, by guesswork and my experience of other patients, I could put things into words for them, words that they grasped at eagerly. Everything was on the tip of their tongue, rarely or never reaching the stage of expression out loud. They struggled even to describe in a consecutive and logical fashion what had happened to them, at least without a great deal of prompting. Complex narrative and most abstractions were closed to them.”
The problems that come with a limited vocabulary are compounded if one is never taught the basics of grammar. As David Foster Wallace argued, knowing grammatical rules, such as the “injunction against two-way adverbs (‘People who eat this often get sick’) …, rules about other kinds of misplaced modifiers (‘There are many reasons why lawyers lie, some better than others’) and about relative pronouns’ proximity to the nouns they modify (‘She’s the mother of an infant daughter who works twelve hours a day’)” really do “serve clarity and precision.” Bad grammar leads to imprecise and vague thinking, and therefore to imprecise and vague speaking and writing. Richard Mitchell declared that “prose that clouds responsibility also diminishes humanity.” Speaking and writing that is unclear, equivocal, and obscure is the speaking and writing favored by bureaucrats and politicians and corporate advertisers, except they do it to avoid responsibility and to cloud the meaning, or lack of meaning, of what they say. And they manipulate those people who have less mastery of reasoning than they do. It is clarity and precision of reasoning that follows a mastery of vocabulary and grammar. This is why it is no coincidence that the the “Trivium” (Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric) of the Classical School first teaches Language to five-year-olds, and then teaches Logic to ten-year-olds.
This classical education is what modern generations have been cheated of. Because of the progressive reforms in our schools, we were taught “subjects,” separate and distinct from each other, fragmented and without any overarching whole. As Dorothy Sayers explained in her important essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, “The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to ‘subjects’ at all. First, he learned a language; not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of a language, and hence of language itself – what it was, how it was put together, and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language; how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument. Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language – how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.” This is the education that was given to children across civilization, regardless of whether they would later move to a craft, trade, or a scholarly profession. This is what we have lost. Our vocabularies are now smaller. Our reasoning powers, and our ability to discern the credible from the incredible, are weaker. And our mastery of elegance and beauty is disappearing. Being human means that we ought to be able to perceive the meaning that is richly soaked into reality. This is the meaning that, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay On Not Knowing Greek, “is just on the far side of language. It is the meaning which in moments of astonishing excitement and stress we perceive in our minds without words; it is the meaning that Dostoevsky (hampered as he was by prose and as we are by translation) leads us to by some astonishing run up the scale of emotions and points at but cannot indicate; the meaning that Shakespeare succeeds in snaring.” Here at Underlying Assumptions, we ask why anyone should be cheated or deprived of such meaning. It is time we returned to the sort of education that enhances the powers of grasping this meaning.
In summary, this is a Journal dedicated to the old-fashioned pursuit of truth. Our sensibilities are many and we welcome diverse points of view. Different published authors here may disagree and debate with each other, and there is no manifesto of systematic pronouncements to which any author here must subscribe his or her name. At the same time, we all will attempt to advocate for the historic Christian point of view, in all its complex variety. We will revel in the fact that our unpopular sensibilities are traditional, conservative, anti-ideological, and questioning of both the classical and modern versions of liberalism. We are lovers of art and believers in beauty. We are convicted of the necessity of conserving, cleaning, replanting, and rebuilding the natural health of the forests, oceans, air, farms, and wild places of our planet. We will challenge anyone’s commitment or allegiance to either of the two current American political parties in their current form with their current leadership. We will question whether the mere fact that we have the technology to do something means that we ought to do it. We will try our best at offering clear, slow, thoughtful, and careful thinking and writing published in a media form that encourages and rewards the unclear, the speedy, the thoughtless, and the careless. And we will work towards advancing the self-education necessary for those generations who were swindled by modern “education,” and the advancement of the classical school movement for our children, our grandchildren, and future generations.
Henri de Lubac wrote: “Everybody has his filter, which he takes about with him, through which, from the indefinite mass of facts, he gathers in those suited to confirm his prejudices. And the same fact again, passing through different filters, is revealed in different aspects, so as to confirm the most diverse opinions. It has always been so, it will always be so in this world. Rare, very rare are those who check their filter.” This Journal is dedicated to increasing the number of those who are in that very rare group of people who check their own assumptions. James V. Schall writes that “[w]hen a culture is in the process of denying its own roots, it becomes most important to know what these roots are.” This Journal is dedicated to learning what these roots are.
Note: This introductory summary is being posted upon the launch of Underlying Assumptions on September 3, 2017.
While there is a small collection of post-dated essays and reviews by Editor-in-Chief J.A.A. Purves, it is the goal of this Journal to publish regular essays every week by various authors. We are currently recruiting writers, so if you are interested in writing for Underlying Assumptions please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.