What Harvard Taught Me without Meaning to
Copyright 2017 Lauren Mandaville
Published by Lauren Mandaville at Shakespir
Idrealist: Someone realist enough to look the world in the face as it is, and idealist enough to do so without forgetting how it should be.
To Harvard. You welcomed me with open arms, paid for my education, and helped shape me into the person I am still in the process of becoming. The resources and conversations you opened up to me, the incredible caliber of your students and faculty, and above all, the excitement and ravenous curiosity with which you survey the world, have helped and encouraged me more than I can say, and, independent of what I am about to write, I will be forever grateful.
Calling all Dreamers
I know it sounds silly to say that I want to change the world. In a way, the world is always changing, whether for better or worse, whether we want it to or not. Meanwhile, there are some things that will never change: we are still dealing with greed, hate, envy, pride, the same problems that plagued Socrates and Sennacherib. I know it’s clichéd to say that I want to do great things.
And yet I am unwilling to give it up. There is something in me, something that wants to reach for the stars, something that wants to pick up a sword and go on quests and fight dragons, and is loath to do anything less grand and significant. The contrast in my school essays is egregious at times, between what I care about and what I just have to do. I don’t want to spend my life on the latter, with an ‘I only work here’ nine-to-five mindset. I have so much energy, so much potential, and I must devote it to something that really matters, something worth believing in.
I have been across the country and across the world; I have studied everything from physics to philosophy, and everywhere I have looked for that sense of wonder, that thing that makes life worth living. I went to Harvard and majored in Philosophy, the study of life’s big questions, and in Middle Eastern Civilization, perhaps the greatest cultural crossroads in the world, in the hope that somewhere, I could find answers.
The road to truth was not as direct as I’d hoped; I found it by following some very strange clues – things that should have lined up, and didn’t. Firstly, I found that I was more at home studying abroad in Jerusalem than I was back in Massachusetts. Of course, the minor things varied less at Harvard: the food, the language, the traffic patterns (although the driving is pretty crazy in both places). But there was one, much more important, thing I found in Jerusalem. I found a culture that understood.
In Jerusalem, it’s normal to base your life on your beliefs. If Amir thinks there’s a God, he doesn’t just debate it and write a few essays; he eats differently, dresses differently, acts differently. His beliefs manifest themselves in major life changes, and in limitations on behavior. He devotes himself to something beyond. Not everyone practices these things, but no one does a double-take at them. If I tell someone that I chose my major partly because of my religious beliefs, people approve instead of looking at me like I’ve grown a second head.
At Harvard, in contrast, the idea of making major life decisions or refraining from certain behaviors based on your beliefs is shocking. I remember one history seminar where we discussed Augustine’s Confessions. He speaks of his promiscuity and materialism before converting to Christianity, and how he changed his behavior. Not only did the ensuing class discussion reveal how little people know about Christian doctrine, it included an overwhelming distaste and bewilderment at the idea of ordering one’s sexual activity or career ambitions around one’s belief system.
This aversion never ceases to amaze me. My classmates saw an objective purpose as a limitation on action; I see it as a very necessary foundation for action. If we are not to base our choices on the way we believe the world is, exactly what are we supposed to base them on? If we are not to center our lives on the overarching meaning and purpose of the universe, exactly what are we to do with them?
Are we to give up our grand dreams of meaning and purpose and resign ourselves to doing a decent job at life? Are we to delude ourselves into thinking that our ambitions of the moment are larger and more eternal than they really are? Are we to follow our feelings, our feelings that we don’t even understand ourselves, that are always shifting, that we know lead us into trouble, that are never satisfied? Is this living?
Something has happened to the West. Belief has become separated from life, and both are estranged from truth. We talk about the big questions, but we don’t try to find their answers. We just string together some vaguely mystical words, with shreds of meaning left from former days, like the prayer at my college convocation, which invoked “everything forever comforting.” No one explained what that meant; I suppose it means whatever you want it to mean – in other words, nothing at all.
And because we’ve forgotten to care about truth, whatever answers we come up with have nothing to do with our day-to-day lives, and we’re left with nothing worth caring about. Our great institutions of learning continue to pump out papers and research, but they’re headed down so many rabbit holes, and if you bring up questions like afterlife or adventure, they’re nearly always ‘outside the scope of this course.’ Our studies are missing all the most important things in life.
This is the chronicle of my search for meaning through higher institutions of learning. I came from a small town in Texas and headed to a bastion of enlightenment, but in the end, I found that Harvard had found none of the things I was looking for – in fact, they often wanted me to stop looking. They didn’t have answers that satisfied me, nor did they have answers that made sense. Something was missing. Everything was missing. And yet that very absence gave me my answer.
When my Yale interviewer asked me what I wanted to write my thesis on, if I could choose anything, I said “philosophy, because it connects everything.” Philo-sophia, love of wisdom, the study of living well, the study of all that is in the universe, and how it fits together, of the largest questions in life in both scope and significance.
Or at least, that’s what it is in theory; when I started classes, I found something quite different. Philosophy is no longer taught as the study of living well; it no longer has much of anything to do with wisdom. We examine theories and read books mainly as an academic exercise; they aren’t allowed to touch our souls. That would be messy.
We talk about whether Kant’s logic is sound; we never bother to ask whether he was right. We see Descartes as an interesting anomaly, but we don’t really care that we can’t refute his arguments for radical uncertainty. In a seminar on Marx, we were repeatedly told that we must disregard the entire history of communism; we cannot judge Marx’s theories by the way Marxism plays out in real life. This, despite the fact that Marx’s main problem with philosophy was that it was all talking and no acting, that it was cut off from real life.
In fact, in modern philosophy we sometimes forget we are talking about real life at all. The big questions are considered matters for private reflection; goodness forbid we take the most important things in life and study them in a concentrated matter. How could we be objective in our studies if we studied things that would make a real difference in our lives? How could we care about our beliefs if we had to be serious enough about them to ensure they made sense?
But even this so-called objectivity in the end rings hollow. My professors stayed away from discussing whether writers were right or wrong, because they didn’t want to push ideas on us. But at the same time, they were pushing implicit biases, biases against religion and idealism, against an objective morality or an objective meaning in life. They assumed that such things didn’t exist. If you’d asked them, they would never tell you they wanted people to abandon their religions. They’re okay with your believing in such things, so long as you don’t go so far as to act as if they’re true. I must confess I still fail to see the difference.
Take the Philosophy of Personal Identity, a semester discussion class I was required to take for my major. On paper, it sounds interesting enough, but there was a problem. When I think about identity, I think of persons. My mother is a distinct person, a metaphysical entity, a distinct being over and beyond her physical body, a soul. She makes choices that affect the physical world and moves through space and time. She may change; she may even forget me, forget everything. But she will always be my mother, and nothing can change that, not because I feel strongly about it, but because it is an objective fact.
My philosophy seminar, on the other hand, began with the assumption that this was all superstition. There is no such thing as a soul and no such thing as a person; the very idea was “dead decades ago.” What appears to be a distinct being is actually only a way of arranging atoms, a collection of traits – not a particular thing at all, but only a type of thing. I have no unique claim to be me; what makes me myself can be copied, multiplied, destroyed and recreated at will with sufficiently advanced technology.
It is interesting to note that this flew in the face of all my classmates’ and my intuitions. There is a famous thought experiment that posits that, as a means of transporting you, your body is destroyed and an identical copy, implanted with the corresponding memories and dispositions, synthesized somewhere else. And no matter how many times our instructor insisted that everything transferred, we all felt that something wouldn’t make the trip, that we’d missed something. And what we missed was our souls, was ourselves.
But we never discussed this; it was “outside the scope of the course.” Instead of talking about whether there is an afterlife, or what it means to be human, or what makes it the case that each person is unique and priceless, we spent the entire semester piddling away with other questions, like “if I lose all memory of my past for five minutes, and then regain it, am I the same person I was?” “If every cell in your body is regenerated over a seven-year period, can someone be guilty of an eight-year-old murder?”
We wrote essays explaining a convoluted sentence about a particular memory theory. We talked and talked about syllogisms and syntax and cells, but somehow we never got around to who we are; it was as if we were talking about some completely unrelated topic, someone else’s identity, and then applying it to ourselves. Because when we started from ourselves, from our intuitions and experience, the arguments we were making ceased to make sense.
This is why, when we talk about belief in philosophy, we differentiate between what Marcus admits in a logic classroom and how he behaves in ordinary life. We assume the two things go different ways. In a logic classroom, Marcus knows he has no free will, because starting from the fashionable assumptions, that’s what comes out. But in his ordinary life it certainly seems like he chooses of his own free will. His usual explanation for this illusory perception is that it’s necessary to get along in the world. That this necessity and perception might stem from the fact that Marcus does, indeed, have free will – and thus that his starting assumptions must be wrong – never occurs to him. It would be unfashionable.
And so it went on through all my philosophy classes, this double life that disallows talking about what really matters. The question that cries across the ages – how then should we live, what is wisdom? – goes not only unanswered, but unasked, because we have forgotten how to connect logic and life.
Ever since Socrates asked for a definition of virtue separate from any particular virtuous act, philosophy has been trying to separate ideals from action. This is not in itself a bad thing, but we have taken it to extremes, and so lost our way. We forgot that virtues have to be about persons. We have reduced the ideal of Love to a series of propositions, forgetting that love exists only between a lover and a beloved, that it cannot exist in a void. We have cut it off from life and from the one great Lover of us all, and it has shriveled and died.
Why have we done it? Because we are tired of knowing that we are not perfect, and so we try to redefine perfection, to separate virtue so thoroughly from life that we no longer notice that we have not attained it. We have tried to put everything into neat boxes, and in attempting to purify our ideals, we have ended by sterilizing them. We have syllogisms when we need stories; we teach when we should touch. It is a common phrase among logicians that their subject ‘is not about anything’ because it only organizes thoughts; it cannot produce them. Logic is cold, hard bedrock: it is a sturdy foundation, but it cannot give life.
And so, as soon as we define philosophical virtue into oblivion, discussions of real virtue pop up somewhere else – in movies, in songs, in late-night ramblings – because we cannot live without it. Except that now, we have discarded our tools for dealing with the real thing. We have ceased the study of virtue, the study of living well. We have abandoned the love of wisdom. Instead, we call virtue ‘a matter for private reflection,’ meaning that we shall settle for being decent chaps and discard our ideals, because we know we cannot reach them without some radical rebirth.
But philosophy was not my only major; the other was Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations – or as most of us know it, Middle Eastern Studies. Philosophy tells us how to study the larger questions; religion attempts to tell us what the answers are. Philosophy is the form; religion is the substance, or at least claims to be. Where philosophy gives us soundness, culture gives us story. We need both at once; we need sound stories.
And so I decided to study the Middle East, the greatest cultural crossroads of the world, a land swimming, perhaps drowning, in different beliefs and attitudes. I hoped that in studying it, I could find how our beliefs about the world impact our beliefs about morality and meaning, and how this in turn influences our actions. I was somewhat surprised to hear that they have no impact at all.
Cultural studies and the social sciences, you see, have reduced our ideals in a different way than philosophy. Instead of making Love into a proposition, they have made it into a feeling. Philosophy says that there may be such a thing as perfect Love, except that it has nothing to do with us; cultural studies says that love is all about us, but that there is no such thing as perfection. There is no ideal. Because love requires a lover, and an ideal Love would require an ideal Lover, one as transcendent and immutable as the ideal itself.
This they cannot countenance; they would rather give up on ideals altogether. Epicurus said the gods were perfect, but not interested; Feuerbach said god was interested, but only as a human construction. If we are to establish our ideals, we need both perfection and personhood at once, and this can only be found in monotheism – specifically, in the brand of monotheism where God became flesh in order to bring the world back to perfection. But you will never hear this discussed or even argued against in cultural studies today. They have nothing to do with belief.
At Harvard, when we studied events in the Middle East, past and present, religion barely came into it. We spoke of forces – economic, geographic, governmental, societal – that led to one outcome or another, but no individuals were mentioned, much less discussions of individual choices and reasons and their validity.
Nowadays, we analyze other cultures and traditions as if they were something separate from beliefs about the world, not the result of individual decision and practice. We reduce personal choice to stimuli and response: all the different forces that drive mankind are sorted into nice little boxes at our feet, and we stand above them and peer down into them.
Of course, we cannot keep up this pretense when it comes to ourselves. If I believe that pornography ought to be illegal, I do not mark my belief down to my upbringing or recent political events or the social climate. I base it on what I believe to be objective facts about the world: legal pornography will lead to unacceptable levels of addiction, exploitation, violation, and family instability. The problem comes when I refuse to acknowledge that the same process of reasoning exists for those who disagree with me, and go back to insisting that they are influenced by social forces, or their own vices, or their upbringing, instead of bothering to listen to their point of view.
This double life and standard, where my own beliefs are the result of rationality, and my opponents’ are the result of irrationality, led to exactly the behavior one would expect from some of my classmates. Every culture is equally valid, they would explain, with a condescending tone, because they were not seriously interacting with other belief systems. What they meant was that matters of culture or religion are mere points of view or opinions, not claims about what is true and what is false, or what is right and what is wrong.
Everyone is right in another society – that is, until we come to something specific, like the status of women or homosexuality or profiling. Suddenly the cultural observer is no longer gazing benignly down at believing people. Now he has reached something that he himself has beliefs about, and suddenly only he is right, and everyone else had better get on board or be labeled a bigot.
This lack of real connection and discussion is a shame, not only because of the needless resentment and disrespect it engenders, but because this comparison and conflict between cultures is where we really begin to get down to what matters. What do these different frameworks say about life’s big questions? Which do they think are important; what are their answers; do they make sense? Where we differ, who is right? What can they teach us? What are their stories? How does their belief show in their lives?
But none of this can be seen when you leave individual beliefs out of the picture. If all you see are economic or societal forces at work – populism or capitalism or class divide or hate or racial division – you’ll never see the people. You’re missing the trees for the forest, and this is a problem, because a forest is nothing if not trees. You miss people’s reasons for acting when you stick them in boxes; you start making up motives to make yourself look better, dismissing points of view because you don’t understand them, instead of taking the time to learn. Not only do you miss what’s most important – people and choices and beliefs and purposes – you miss even the basic facts.
Take the controversy over wearing a hijab. There are many, many articles out there attributing the rising trend to one societal pattern or another, but as my Palestinian professor in Jerusalem reminded us, every person who wears a hijab has her own reasons for doing so. I have friends who wear the hijab; they are normal people who make their own choices based on their beliefs and preferences. This is not to say that there are no patterns, but let’s not focus on the patterns and miss the people, because the patterns will fade, and the people will last.
Let’s go back to the Middle East and talk about ISIS, talk about suicide bombers and terrorists in general. First the experts tried to say that it was economic forces or lack of opportunity or education that drew people to ISIS. Eventually, though, they had to admit that it was precisely the well-off, educated young people who were running away to fight. In fact, research shows that suicide bombers are often specifically prohibited from being mentally unstable, suicidal, or motivated by materialism.
No, it is not only money or resentment or bloodlust that draws people to do extreme things in the name of religion. It is something much stronger. It is the everlasting longing of mankind to be part of something bigger than themselves, to devote themselves to something that matters. It is the same thing that draws us to superheroes and storybooks, only twisted into something terrible. The same yen that helped drive me through college, helped drive that plane into the Pentagon: the yearning for a larger meaning. As long as the West refuses to meet or even acknowledge this yearning, young, hot blood will look to fill it elsewhere, even in the most terrible of places.
This misunderstanding of the experts, the refusal to see what conflict and culture are really about, is a barrier we must pass if we are to understand the Middle East, and cultural conflict in general. We cannot always be reducing to boxes such movements as Political Islam, anti- Westernization, or the Muslim revival currently sweeping Europe. Certainly there are other factors that play into all of these, as they play into everything, but we must for once take these people at their word and face the things that really matter: we are in conflict because our views of the world and how it works cannot be easily reconciled.
We are understandably shy of wars over religion and belief; they have caused much bloodshed over the years. But in the end, is there any other kind of war? Is it better if we only bleed and kill over oil reserves or warm water ports, and not because we feel our way of life threatened? We read Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations in one of my first classes at Harvard, and everyone spoke as if it were ridiculous and wrong-headed. But if we are not to hate other cultures, surely dismissing their conflicting beliefs out of hand is not much better? Surely an honest disagreement is better than this double life and disregard?
The issue has only become more obvious with the influx of Islamic refugees into Europe from the Middle East. The conflict between traditional European culture and Islamic culture cannot be handled by the current system, because it does not acknowledge any cultural conflict. It cannot, because to do so would make cultures systems of ideas that connect with life and action, and not simply things to be reduced to forces and sorted into boxes.
We would have to face the fact that we disagree on not only what is right and wrong, but what is true and false, and that some of these disagreements cannot be reconciled; we must choose which we will serve. We can’t all just believe ‘what’s right for us’; what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong, just like in any other area of life, and disagreements on certain things are irreconcilable.
I have spoken about Islam, but Israel also cannot be understood without reference to Jewish culture. What is it about this cultural identity that has held a people together over the course of millennia, all over the world? The modern essays I read didn’t mention it, but I found an answer in a history paper describing Diaspora Jews in the third century AD, an answer that helped me understand more than Judaism.
It was the conscious distinctness of Judaism, manifested in distinctive religious practices, that kept it from fading into the fabric of Rome like so many other peoples. It was distinct because it refused to take Rome’s laissez-faire attitude toward religious practice and polytheism; it insisted that certain things were true and right, and others were not. It drew lines and it did not cross them. And Rome fell, and Judaism remained. Because it remembered the things that mattered.
The Social Sciences
Of course, classes designated under Middle Eastern Studies are not all about culture; they are sociology, anthropology, history, and the like all cobbled together into one. And I took many other classes on government, international law, et cetera, and continued to look for meaning. But as I discovered these trends – these trends of leaving out the most important things, and the resulting double life – I began to see them everywhere.
Take anthropology and sociology. For having such grand names – the study of man and of his interactions – there is very little of import in much of their study. Why? Because once again, they refuse to interact properly with their subjects. They do not see religions and beliefs as ideas to be respected as equal to our own, to be judged and accepted or rejected based on their merits. They are interesting phenomena to be observed. My classes examine my theism the same way they examine my taste in clothing: as a matter of fashion.
My first problem with this is that it is talking about talking; we are always talking about people’s concepts of evil or creation and cosmic forces, and never about the things themselves, which are much more interesting and important. We are missing the point again. Of course, perhaps I shouldn’t expect every discipline to point back to the important things (although I do); perhaps a certain framework in social studies should be let alone.
The problem is that this framework will not leave me alone. Like any other belief system (and it is a belief system, a system that says that beliefs and ideals have no real influence), this one influences our actions. And the influence is not good. This belittling attitude leads to an irrational failure and refusal to understand the other side; disagreements in our own society, as well as those with other cultures, are put down to ‘their’ flaws or irrationality, and never considered as reason-backed choices, to be respected and debated as such.
People who take this track rarely bother to understand other points of view before condemning them; they are too busy sorting dissenters’ Freudian motivations into so many boxes. They don’t understand where people are coming from. I know, because they don’t understand where I’m coming from. I’m from a small town in Texas, deep in the Bible Belt, fairly conservative and fairly Republican. It was very informative watching people’s attitudes toward the 2017 election.
The day before the election results came in, the atmosphere was one of benign tolerance and cooperation. I remember at lunch hearing someone explain the annual election results viewing party to a friend – “we watch it together, and then we release the balloons, whoever wins, as a bipartisan celebration of democracy. We’re stronger together.” Then they lost – they didn’t release the balloons.
The campus was in shocked mourning for a week afterwards. Classes were held in the face of a great tragedy, comparable, many said, to 9-11-01. Dramatic monologues filled Harvard Yard; you could hear snippets as you walked past: “I’ll tell my grandchildren, I tried to stop it.” A reign of terror had descended; fascist rallies in the streets were expected any day. Counseling services appeared all over campus.
And meanwhile, amidst this wake for the death of tolerance, even more interesting comments could be heard. “Uneducated white males aren’t really qualified to vote.” “All Trump voters are racist – isn’t that obvious?” “I can’t conceive how any decent person could choose that, that – over her.” Or, on the other side, “You can’t blame them; if I’d grown up without the benefit of Harvard, I would have voted that way, too.” “It’s not their fault they don’t understand how the world works.” The fact that roughly half the voting population disagreed with them was put down solely to ignorance, bitterness, prejudice, and greed.
Except that I know many of these people, and they’re not sexist, and they’re not racist, and they’re not hate-filled, and they’re not ignorant. They have PhDs; they volunteer at homeless shelters; they support interracial marriage. They went to UChicago and UPenn; they’ve traveled all over the world. They have all the information and all the sense and character that you could want – and they still voted the way they did, not in spite of their reason but because of it.
People start with different assumptions about pragmatism and priorities, or about likely courses and consequences, or about the nature and purpose of politics, and those assumptions lead them to different conclusions. This is a subject for discussion and rational debate, not for moral condemnation. To assume that someone disagrees with you because she is a bad person, and not because she has logical reasons, is not only divisive, it is lazy; it is willful ignorance. This conversation needs to be had about the populist movements rising all over the West, from Brexit to Germany to Italy, and about many other controversial issues in the US today: abortion, the nature of marriage, and immigration, to name a few.
It also needs to be kept in mind when considering theism. Too often, the debater never bothered to understand the point of view she rejects, and so she misses the point. “We got rid of Zeus and Apollo; what’s the difference in getting rid of one more god?” Nothing at all, except that we are not rejecting a particular polytheistic god; we are rejecting the idea of God, rejecting theism, and as any logic or math professor can tell you, saying that some example of F does not exist is quite different than stating definitively that no F exists. To treat the idea of theism as only one more instance of religion is to treat theistic belief as a societal phenomenon instead of a belief system; it misses the point.
We must stop attempting to reduce belief and behavior to societal factors and personality quirks; we must stop looking down and remember how to look up. We derive our belief systems from things that are bigger than ourselves, big enough to answer the big questions, big enough to sustain our lives and longings. To reduce them to or base them on anything less will inevitably miss the point – and cause them to crumble.
I was watching a television show from the 1950s, and one denouncement of the villain jumped out at me. “Only the law matters to you!” the innocent man called from where the soldiers held him. “To you, morality is mere words – I am in the presence of a scoundrel!” The words struck me because I have friends who are firmly convinced that morality really is nothing but words – and the result of this is indeed that government policy and law are all that matters when determining right and wrong.
Take the entire discipline of international law. It is predicated on the assumption that we come from different cultures that cannot reconcile our divergent beliefs about the world, and thus we cannot base our actions on our beliefs. We must all instead come to some sort of practical consensus and agree to abide by it for pragmatic reasons, and this is what international law is: a set of formal agreements that help nations to get along.
The problem with this, besides the scary thought that the government has begun to legislate morality, is that it misses the point. Men do not go to war because of political arrangements or legal loopholes; they go to war because they believe their cause is just. Once again we have looked at the concepts and missed the individuals, and in missing the individuals we have missed everything.
You can talk to a man about treaty obligations and trade arrangements until you are blue in the face, but you will not convince him to risk his life for them. On my training cruise, I learned that the US Navy offers ridiculous sums of money to incentivize nuclear-trained officers, but at the same time everyone warned me that I wouldn’t make it through if I was doing it for the money. It’s a double life, yet again.
Read a few Medal of Honor citations. You will not find laws or incentives. You will find morality. You will find men. It is morality, it is value and camaraderie and purpose, that drive men to fight and kill and bleed and die. We are still in the tradition of Horatio, fighting for the ashes of our fathers and the temples of our gods, whether we say so or not. The atheists tell us that without religion, without belief in the divine, we would have nothing worth killing for. Perhaps they are right (although Mao and Stalin would say otherwise), but there would also be nothing worth living for.
I have said that this attitude, this reduction of things to neat little boxes that can be understood and controlled, keeps us from understanding other cultures. But other cultures are found not only across the world; they are found across the ages. I loved and still love history; looking through its eyes, we can see the great, glorious worlds of our ancestors, where belief permeated every aspect of life. We can learn from the past and plan for the future. But history, too, we have lost.
History’s perspective is all too often what philosophy calls a ‘dead option’; we cannot even conceive of its possibility. And in losing our ability to look at the world through another civilization’s eyes, we have cut ourselves off from our heritage, from millennia of men who looked up at the stars and sought and found meaning in them.
I felt this estrangement especially strongly the week we discussed religion in my class on the Roman Empire. The professor started by explaining to us that there were “gods everywhere – under your chair, behind your seat, above your head. Gods, gods everywhere – better not make them angry! Do you understand?” I am quite sure 90% of the class did not.
It was, just like my philosophy seminar, as if we were discussing some faraway topic, unconnected with ourselves. The religion of Rome, like its language, is dead to us; we have only the symbols and shells of it. The idea of seeing yourself as part of a larger world, of a tradition and a struggle stretching back to the dawn of time, surrounded by forces you cannot control, of benign and malign spirits struggling for the souls of men, men whose stand is doomed, but who stand nonetheless – did anyone in the room that day grasp this, or see Rome’s decisions through their eyes and reasoning?
I fear not. When we looked at religion in Rome, we studied religions only as they represented larger patterns, the idea of cultural mixing or citizenship, for instance, or the gradual shift towards an imperial mindset. Once again, everything was seen in terms of trends and forces; for all the talk of expanding our study to marginalized peoples, there were very few people to be seen.
For instance, in the course of the class, we read a first-hand account of the Christian martyr Perpetua under Caracalla. We discussed all sorts of things – symbolism in Roman gladiatorial execution, images of Roman and Christian womanhood, patriarchal revisions of the text – with the notable exception of what drove Perpetua to die rather than deny her beliefs. In other words, the entire point of the account.
History is no longer a study of dates and names; it is a study of trends and tendencies. There are no more crises, no decisive battles, no watersheds, no last stands, no heroes, no conquerors, no great men. For all Harvard’s talk of our capacity to change the world, no one seems to have changed it in the past. Empires rise and fall with no more human intervention than the rising and ebbing of the tide.
But this is preposterous. ‘Caesar’ ended as a title, but it began as a name. When the battle of Actium ended, the power of the emperor was not codified in a position; it was held by a person: the person of Gaius Octavian, Caesar Augustus. If he had not acted, history would have continued without him, but the point is that he did act, and with his actions he changed history. Octavian’s actions set off a chain of events that has still not ended, that has led to the content of the sentence you are reading at this very moment.
We have forgotten our great men of the past, or at least we have done our best to belittle them. We either make myths of them, and take man out of heroism, or we emphasize their faults and minimize their achievements, and so take the heroism out of the man. We do our best to wipe away every lingering glimmer of adventure or legend; we want the hard facts, and being depressing and deflationary is now a requirement for all real facts. And so we have ceased to study heroism in history; we have missed the point.
And we have cut ourselves off not only from the heart of history, but from its head as well. When we study history wrongly, we miss many of the lessons it could teach us about the present. For instance, I’ve spoken of a failure to understand past cultures and persons, but there also exists a refusal to understand, the same refusal as that which divides us in the present. Bring up the Crusades and you will immediately hear the same condemnations and derision as I have outlined in the present, without any attempt to understand who these men were and why they fought.
Do we honestly believe that these tens of thousands of men all marched off to risk their lives out of nothing but resentment and greediness? Can it not be that they thought there was something greater at stake? Or take the movement to remove public monuments to anyone out of touch on certain hot topics. Do we not realize that if we remove monuments to everyone less than perfect, we shall have to give up building them at all?
As 1984 reminds us, cutting ourselves off from history leaves civilization not only vapid, but vulnerable. We begin to repeat our mistakes. In 132 BC, the emperor Hadrian decided to add one more god – the god Jupiter – to the monotheistic Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Rome was a porous polytheistic society that welcomed nearly all comers, as far as gods went; as soon as a military unit conquered an area, they would adopt the local religion and add it to their own, spreading it in their travels. What’s the difference in adding one more god?
The answer, as it turned out, was quite a bit: coming on top of growing tensions, this provocation led to one of the bloodiest revolts in Jewish history, led by Simon Bar Kokhba. The Jews and Christians of the first few centuries were targeted not because of any particular belief, mind you, but for the cardinal sin of intolerance. You could believe in any god you wanted, as long as that didn’t interfere with your primary loyalty to Rome, and as long as you didn’t believe in it too terribly strongly or exclusively. Does this begin to sound familiar? But this never came up in class. We have managed to render history not only boring, but useless.
Do you remember first learning to drive? Always before, long road trips had just been sitting in the backseat, passing the time, letting the countryside fly by. When you’re driving, you realize that these things don’t happen of their own accord: you have to make them happen. A long road trip can suddenly become a series of near misses and wrong turns, breathless risks and abrupt slams on the brakes, a constant struggle to get where one is going, knowing that a split-second mishap or miscalculation could be disastrous.
This is what history is – human civilization charting a course through the wide world, with ever-inexperienced drivers in the front seat, risky precisely because we are trying to get somewhere. And this is no first-world, GPS-guided trip; this is a trip through uncharted territory, at breakneck speed in pouring rain. And society’s leaders, who should be at the wheel, are claiming that there isn’t any wheel, that we are all simply sitting in the backseat, passing the time as the ages inevitably fly by. Doubtless we shall still go somewhere, but that somewhere is liable to be off the road.
Why do we bother studying history, do you think? Why did those far-off individuals who first set curriculum think it was important? So we could mispronounce obscure references while trying to sound smart? So we could sit through PowerPoints about people with vaguely strange superstitions? Or was it perhaps that history used to be connected to ourselves, a signpost that could guide us in the present?
History, after all, is far older than we are. Is it not a fascinating thought that in the times we think of as ancient history, they had ancient history of their own? The American Revolution hearkened back to the age of the Crusades; the Crusades hearkened back to King Arthur; Arthurian England looked back to Rome; Rome looked back to Greece; Greece looked back to Troy. Troy had its own legends.
Legend and history were not always separate. The Norse legends traced all their kings, including that of their present day, to one original line of great kings, and those kings came from the gods; the Chinese and Mesopotamian and Greek and Roman and Indian tales are the same. History was a chain that connected the present day directly with the answers to the big questions. It told us where we came from and where we were going, how we should live, and that we were part of a bigger world, with a larger context. And the context remains familiar, though it has all but vanished from the study of history.
In all the legends of all the world, we find a constant hearkening back, stories of a Golden Age when there was peace on earth and goodwill between men, before evil and suffering entered the world. And always there is a Pandora’s box, a theme running through all the fairy tales of the world, one simple rule that could not be kept, one simple act of trust that could not be maintained. Always there is the story of a descent from greatness and perfection; always there is a fall. And yet, even after the fall, there is movement forwards, there is the hope of glory, from Osiris to Persephone to Balder, from Ragnarok to Revelation.
Stories from all over the world tell of a flood, the first cleansing of evil from the earth by divine judgment. They tell of fire-breathing reptiles and superhuman warriors who claimed divine descent. And they tell of men and women who rose up in the face of these evils and conquered. The most obvious explanation for all these independent accounts would seem to be that, despite confusion about the details, they are rooted in truth; they point back to events and forward to a more complete divine revelation, one I believe to be found in Christianity.
Now, I am aware that it is very unfashionable to posit that people believe things because they have good reason to. If millions of people have come to believe that a certain man died on a cross in a certain year, the only question usually asked is whether they did this out of niggling guilt for childhood sexual urges, or out of burning resentment against earthly happiness. Once again, the double life and corresponding double standard emerge: when we don’t believe something, we never bother to consider that it was evidence, and not the lack thereof, that led someone else to believe it.
The ancient stories are accounts of a world of adventure, where it is possible to be a hero and fight for honor and goodness in the face of evil and overwhelming odds. They tell us that we, too, are part of a great, wide world, large enough to wonder at, a world full of daring and excitement and meaning and import. And that is the world that I know I was meant to live in; it makes my heart thrill and my blood rise and my spirit ring. I will not settle for a world any smaller. But this is precisely what Harvard’s history would give me.
You would be justified in suggesting that all the things I have accused modern education of leaving out are those things that are not meant to be decided by universities; they are things each man must find for himself. But modern universities have done more than ignore the important things; they have reduced them to the point of ruling them out. Not only have they taken meaning out of the disciplines, they have left no space for it at all, except as make-believe. The modern scientist is often the epitome of this type of thinking; he has decided that anything he cannot put into a test tube has to go. The entire world is now no larger than an Erlenmeyer flask.
Because I took all my Naval Science classes at MIT, I know a lot of engineering majors; there are also quite a few at Harvard. I’m amazed by what they can accomplish, and I have enjoyed the physics I’ve studied at Harvard; in fact, I will soon become a naval officer designated for nuclear reactor training. But science majors are, quite frankly, nothing but aggravating when it comes to discussing philosophy, because they are forever missing the point.
If you ask an engineering major if it’s wrong to needlessly cause pain, in order to discuss cruelty, she will respond by saying that the victim might enjoy pain. If you ask if she would be afraid of torture if she knew she would have her memory wiped beforehand, in order to discuss identity, she will argue that the shock from the memory loss would neutralize the pain. Whatever factor you are trying to isolate for discussion, she will find some way of completely ignoring. And so you never get anything done.
I took a music history and theory class at Harvard, and we spent a few weeks analyzing Rite of Spring. At one point, one of the science majors explained that Rite of Spring infuriated initial hearers because of an exponential neural reaction to stimuli contrary to expectations. This is, in fact, a more complicated, reduced way of saying that people don’t like unpleasant surprises. (By the way, you will find that, strangely, reducing things almost always makes them more complicated, not less.) The complication introduces two problems.
First, it speaks as if science has discovered some new cause or motive, when it has really only found a new vocabulary for the effect or symptoms. Second, it ignores choice: it speaks as if the reaction is involuntary, when we all know that you choose your attitude, however often we forget – in fact, an earlier viewing of Rite of Spring by critics and journalists produced no such outraged reaction, although the neural stimuli were even more unexpected. But the science major insisted.
But this is more than a quirk of certain people; it is a problem with an entire domain. Science as a discipline has forgotten how to play well with others; it has appointed itself as sole arbiter of truth in the universe. Anything that cannot be explained in terms of physics does not matter, does not really exist. This is problematic because it manages to rule out most of what people live for, not to mention people themselves.
Science has become so concerned with rules and methods, it has forgotten the wonder it was meant to unlock. It is so busy delineating it has forgotten to discover. There is no room for wonder anymore, because there is no room for anything large enough to wonder at. We must be able to categorize and explain everything, and by doing so to exert power over it; we must be, not merely steward, but lord and master of all, like an over-possessive lover.
Modern science, reductionist science, will also go to great lengths to make facts fit untenable theories – and this is possible because science relies much more on assumption and interpretation than the modern scientist would have us believe. But in touting the ultimate reduction, the modern scientist also finds himself in the midst of the ultimate double life.
One the one hand, he is a starry-eyed idealist, claiming to carry the torch of knowledge for mankind, forging a brave path into a bright new world, building a better tomorrow. And yet, if he is right, all his efforts are pointless, meaningless; the human race will come and go, and the universe will continue cold and lifeless. There are no ideals.
In the same way, he speaks as if he is the sole arbiter of truth, ridiculing and pitying in turn those who disagree with him as enemies of enlightenment and knowledge. He prides himself on his objectivity and ability to find clear answers. But if he is right, the interactions in his brain are mere physical processes, set in motion by the Big Bang. There is no choice or virtue, and there is no real truth; we cannot know that what happens in our heads matches what is going on outside them. Truth is a construction, an artifice – a lie.
Again, he is obsessed with progress, with the idea that he is better than his ancestors – so much so that he lies about what they knew in order to make his progress look greater. Man has known for millennia that the earth was round, and for all the talk of Middle Age archers thinking that angels carried arrows, they still shot straighter than you or I could. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, not pygmies, as he would have us believe. And yet, despite this fixation on progress, if the modern scientist is right, there is no overarching purpose to the world, and so he has nowhere to get to, no central point by which to determine his direction. He can only ever be marking time.
Science undergirds and reinforces all the trends I have mentioned before this. According to the story of modern science, history really is just a long chain of cause and effect; there is no room for the human spirit. The entire causal chain can be laid out in quarks and atoms, without need for a further cause, without need for soul or will or choice. Empires really do rise and fall with emperors just happening to be at their heads; all of history is really only a gradual slog out of the muck before we sink back into it forever. We are by definition cogs in the machine; everything that exists only exists as a part of the machine. We can no more move against it than wheel-spokes can start turning opposite the wheel.
Ancient paintings of forests were a mix of fact and story, like legends, placing them (and us) within the larger context of the universe. This gave way to realism, and as the enlightenment progressed, realism became fragmentation, and context was forgotten. People were so busy taking apart what a tree was made of, that they forgot what a tree was. And humanity, too, has become fragmented. We were so excited to discover that our bodies were made of cells we could study, we forgot we were anything but cells. The humanities is increasingly usurped by biology.
Modern science has brought to perfection the art of leaving out everything that matters. It can describe an entire human being in nothing but physical traits and genomes; it can give you a cell-by-cell blueprint of a man, and theoretically synthesize one. But what of the synthesis of ideas? What of creativity and imagination, and dreams and passion and art and wonder and reason and ideals and virtue and worth? What of them? They fit nowhere; they have been left by the wayside, discarded as so many unneeded parts. But without them, there is no point in building the machine to begin with.
When I went to Washington DC for my nuclear power interview, I spent an afternoon seeing the sights. First I visited the Museum of Natural History. They had a big sign up: “What does it mean to be human?” And then they listed the traits: opposable thumbs, walking on two legs, etc. Next I visited the World War II monument, and found this quote:
[_They had no right to win. Yet they did, and in doing so they changed _
_the course of a war…even against the greatest of odds, there is _
_something in the human spirit – a magic blend of skill, faith and _
valor – that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory]
The human spirit cannot be found in nature. But it affects nature, nevertheless; in fact, it defies nature. Nature barrels toward death and destruction and entropy and randomness, but we strive for life and productivity and order and meaning.
In science I also found the ultimate reason we have lost our way. We were meant to explore and understand nature, to create orders and systems and artifices. The problem comes not when we want to understand, but when we want to grasp and contain, everything that is in the universe. The physical things, more than anything else, we can control and manipulate and understand, at least theoretically. And so if we can reduce everything in the world to the physical, we can control it. Except that what is left is not worth controlling.
The things that matter most – contentment, love, respect – cannot be whistled for; they must be earned. Certain lieutenants will puff out their chests and chide you for not showing proper protocol; an admiral will ask you your name and pass the time of day. He doesn’t need to stand on ceremony; he stands on his own two feet. Everyone with influence knows that pulling rank is only necessary when you lack real control. A universe of the sort that can be commanded is not the sort worth having.
Science, just like sociology, cannot be the lens through which we understand the universe; it is simply not large enough. This all-consuming science is the ultimate reduction, the final phase of explaining away all that matters in the world. We have killed meaning, we murderers of all murderers, the way you kill a whale in captivity or smother a plant so much it dies. All that is worth caring about in the universe is dying, and yet our champions of knowledge and truth refuse to see that they’re losing anything that matters.
And so I went looking for answers at Harvard, but they no longer even ask the questions. Even in spite of themselves, though, they showed me the truth through what they did not say. I realized that they did not give me answers because they had none; they knew, deep inside, that they had none, that if you start from man and try to build the world around him, it will not work. They start with atheism and materialism and secular humanism, and then they try to cram real life into the boxes these create, but it’s too big to fit in – and thank Heaven for that! Because if I had to fit in those boxes, I would suffocate.
Perhaps my story is best circumscribed in another anecdote. When William James, a quite famous philosopher, was at Harvard, they were just constructing the new philosophy building. As the story goes, they asked him what quote to put on the side, and he said to quote Protagoras: man is the measure of all things. When they constructed the building, they instead quoted the Psalmist: what is man, that Thou art mindful of him?
I still read the words on the side of the building every time I go to class, and smile. They have kept the artifice, and the artifice is still engraved with the truth, even when those inside it have forgotten. So it is with the disciplines of academia, for they began as a study of truth, and one way or another, they will continue to bring it to light, if not as straightforwardly as they might.
A note, for those who would accuse me of hiding from the truth about the emptiness of life, instead of facing it like a man. What is truth? What do you think it means, to face something like a man? Do you think there is such a thing as courage in the universe, such a thing as knowing that the enemy is insurmountable, and facing it nonetheless, because it is your duty? It that what you want me to do? Because if you think that possible, the universe must be much bigger than you give it credit for – or else all your ideas of grand despair are nothing but vain, petty words. And I don’t think they are.
The sun of idealism seems to be hidden from our sight, increasingly darkened behind thick cloud. But it is not the sun which is wrapped in smoke; it is ourselves. A fog of obfuscation has descended across the west, leaving men with only a shadow and shell of what living really is. This reductionism that has spread across all our learning and all our thought is one great curse, one great lie. It tells us that the most fundamental parts of life are the physical parts, and everything else is merely an extension, when exactly the opposite is true.
It is ideas and ideals, persons and values and reasons and choices and wills and souls and hopes and dreams, that form the core of the world, and the physical exists as the medium through which they manifest. If you start from the first, the second also is sacred and precious; if you start from the second, nothing is.
The philosopher is right to say that we need ideals and perfection, and they are not found in mankind or nature. The sociologist is right to say that we need more than logical concepts; we need relationships. The old-school materialist is right to say that logically prior to these ideals and relationships must be the individual. But because they refuse to accept an ideal individual who can at once act in history and embody perfect virtue, because they will not countenance divinity, they have lost everything, and are wandering in the dark.
The humanists say that all these unseen things had to be preceded by humanity, but that is false; they had to be preceded only by person, and so they are – by the person of God. Only when we start here can all the rest make sense, can we rest on solid ground when we speak of truth and meaning and purpose and worth, of beauty and good and of evil and sorrow. Only when we start here can we focus on the things that matter – or if we start from the things that matter, and we follow them unto the end, this is where we shall find ourselves.
Modern learning, modern thinking, have separated life’s big questions from the answers, and as a result we have forgotten how to ask the questions properly, and so when we search for answers we get nothing but watery substitutes; we have forgotten how to insist on and check for substance. We have traded in the grandeur and gravity of Homer and Malory for the cheap thrills of SyFy and CGI.
We can barely remember the heights from whence we’ve fallen, and we have entirely forgotten how to return to them. Instead of looking where the answer lies – in intuition and faith – we have relied solely on reason, and in doing so have warped it out of its natural shape and into a monstrosity.
Reason is good, even essential, but man cannot live by reason alone. The need for proof becomes a madness, a sickness, a paranoia that can never be quenched. Life is about more than logic and proof; it is about living itself, about reality, about the things that we know deep down inside ourselves, even if we cannot say why – perhaps because we cannot say why. We cannot control them, but only wonder at them; that is what makes them precious.
This, then, is my defense of ideals against all the derision and dismissal I have seen them receive, my damning censure of reductionism as both a realist and an idealist. On the one hand, it sins against realism; it twists the facts to fit its assumptions; it is willfully ignorant and insipid; it has made itself ridiculous in its vanity:
First, its supporters spout utopias and speak of the essential goodness of human nature, claiming that science and technology will wipe out evil and bring world peace. Yet at the same time they invent prejudices and divisions where none exist and wail over the state of the world, all the while remaining willfully blind to real cruelties and evils knowingly perpetrated by people around the globe. They will accept no excuses for the crassly-worded email, but they tumble over themselves making excuses for the mass murderer, because an evil so great will not fit in their shriveled, shrunken, controllable little world.
Second, they speak about forces in society – economics and politics and culture – as if these things shaped humans instead of being shaped by humans, as if they could continue on their own instead of existing only as interactions between individual persons who choose and will. Yet at the same time, they ridicule the idea that abstract ideas or concepts can exist independently of the human mind, insisting that everything depends on how we feel and what meaning we create for ourselves. At once, we control everything and nothing.
Third, they speak about religion as a million different things, and scrutinize it from every angle, and make sure to respect and accommodate everyone’s beliefs, and study them in the schools. Yet at the same time, if anyone bases his life around his beliefs, or tells them that the world is a certain way, or that they should refrain from certain behaviors, they look at him as if he had suggested reinstituting human sacrifice. They cannot understand the connection between truth and action, the longing to devote oneself to something eternal, and so they miss the motivations of millions for actions both normal and extreme – and this lack of understanding has led to needless death.
Fourthly, they speak of toleration, lauding its benefits and condemning the slightest whiff of bigotry, sacrificing truth and even logic so that no one should feel offended or left out or criticized or inferior. Yet at the same time, if anyone disagrees with anything they really care about, they cry Nazi, and rush to burn him in effigy and shame him in the streets. A room devoted to tolerance can quickly turn hostile if certain topics are mentioned, and those who disagree with the accepted opinion know enough to keep our mouths shut.
Finally, they make man somehow much too large and much too small at once. They call him the highest being in the cosmos, the master of the world; they say he can grasp all the secrets of the universe and in this way hold it in his hand. They claim he knows no limits; they would build a tower of Babel that touches the sky. Yet at the same time, they say that man is no more than another animal, that he has no soul, no will, and no worth, that his choices are nothing but cause and effect, that all he does will come to nothing.
And so, in its vanity, reductionism has forsaken realism, has descended into the depths of ludicrousness. But this is not my primary condemnation.
Much more important than its sins against realism are its sins against idealism, its shrinking of the horizons, the death of dreams. It is for this mortal sin that I cannot forgive reductionism: that it would have me settle for a world without wonder. This is the highest of all conceivable corruptions: not to tempt man away from goodness, or even to teach him to hate it, but to teach him that it is not worth bothering about.
Reductionism claims to be humanism, because it puts man on top of everything, but it has almost no humanity left in it, only electrons whizzing in a void. It has been so busy shrinking the world into a controllable size that it has shrunk itself into nonexistence; it has forgotten all the most important questions of life. It has no room for them, has no space for anything big enough to matter, anything too big to contain in nice little boxes all in a row. And so it has turned against health, beauty, magnanimity of soul, against life itself.
“Good enough,” is the cry of reductionism. Don’t bother panting after truth like you would after water in the desert; whatever meaning you manage to piece together is good enough. Don’t bother seeking purpose like a shipwrecked sailor straining to spy land; making a decent living is good enough. Don’t bother yearning to right your unrightable wrongs or reach the unreachable star; just don’t make too much of a ruckus, and you’ll be good enough. No! I say. I refuse to settle for less than I was made for.
This is what western man has settled for. He is so busy looking down at his neat boxes that he has forgotten to look up and see the stars. His world has shrunk. It is not even black, only bleak; there’s no color, no clear lines, no clear progress, just a doleful trudge through undifferentiated ages, all magic drained out of it. And it has left nothing untouched by its corruption; every discipline, every textbook, every seminar, every genre is riddled with it.
This, then, is my eternal indictment of reductionism – that it has left out all the things that are most important, that it has taken wonder out of the world, magic out of the stars, mystery out of the universe. And even after sacrificing all this, it is less realistic than ever before, so unwilling to see reality that it is getting people killed out of vain ignorance. Because man would rather rule absurdity, than not rule, would rather destroy than fail to dominate absolutely. “Better to reign in hell on earth, than serve heaven.”
About the Author
Lauren Mandaville graduated Harvard with honors and serves as a Surface Warfare Officer (Nuclear) in the United States Navy. She has additional studies at MIT, Cambridge, Hebrew University and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. She enjoys travelling, singing a capella, kickboxing, learning foreign languages and drinking tea.
Modern society and modern education have become hopelessly entangled in reductionism, the idea that the world can be reduced to a series of influences or forces, or ultimately a chain of quantum interactions. This firstly, does not fit the reality we live in, and secondly, discards something even more important than logic: idealism. As I went through my studies at Harvard, I encountered reductionism, in which atheism and methodological naturalism invariably result, at every turn. I eventually rejected it in all its forms, along with its underlying assumptions, and I would invite you to do the same. We need God – not only to be rational, but to be human.