My title for this post is borrowed from a short essay first published in 1952 by the Thomist philosopher, Josef Pieper. “Man’s ability to see is in decline,” argues Pieper in that essay, meaning not, of course, the physiological sensitivity of the human eye, but “the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.”
Pieper’s essay came to mind as I read, and very much enjoyed, Cardinal Dolan’s recent ebook, True Freedom: On Protecting Human Dignity and Religious Liberty. The opposition to genuine freedom in our culture, the Cardinal contends, comes down to a “trinity of culprits”: pragmatism, utilitarianism, and consumerism. These three ideologies are not so much “first cousins,” as the Cardinal describes them, but the three heads of a single Hydra: an understanding of human action and fulfillment that credits human purposes at the expense of natural ends. A purpose, according to Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, is simply a desire of an agent; an end, by contrast, is a telos or perfection “built in” to human nature. Pragmatism, utilitarianism, and consumerism all either reject or ignore natural ends. These ideologies focus, rather, on the best means of achieving whatever purpose an individual or community may happen to have, whether it comports with human ends or not.
Insofar as a culture rejects or ignores human ends in favor of purposes, that culture can be called a culture of death. For in such a culture the focus is on getting one’s hands on whatever it is one happens to want, and the power to resist the temptation to do whatever it takes to get it becomes atrophied. By contrast, a culture of life prizes above all the gift of human being itself, and not only the perfected ends of human nature, but also the potential or capability that may or may not (as in the case of the handicapped and unborn) ever be realized.
But how do we persuade a culture that has lost sight of the priority of “being” over “having” to see rightly again?
In a 2011 speech to the German parliament, Pope Benedict decried systems of law not based on human ends. Interestingly, in discussing this speech, Cardinal Dolan depicts such a positivist system as one that “denies that mere observation of how things are cannot tell us how things should be and how people should behave from a moral perspective—in other words, it denies that one can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’” Somehow, then, our culture has to learn once again to see human beings in such a way that we perceive in their dignity moral obligations. “Observing the reality of someone or something,” says the Cardinal, “should lead us to act in specific, inescapable ways.”
For example, if the pre-born baby in the womb is a human person from the moment of conception—an is, insists the Cardinal, “that comes not from the Catechism but from the basic biology taught to high school students”—then that baby’s life ought to be respected and protected by law.
The specific challenge for our culture, then, is to learn how to see the “oughts” inherent to the being of human nature. But again, how?
There is no single means: A total intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation is required. But one key ingredient of such a formation, one often left out of discussions of our political and cultural woes, is the role of the arts. In his essay, Pieper proposes the following remedy for those suffering from moral dull-sightedness: “to be active oneself in artistic creation, producing shapes and forms for the eye to see.” The philosopher John Haldane, in an essay entitled “Thomistic Ethics in America,” published over a decade ago in the journal Logos, comes to a similar conclusion: “I think the effort to render [facts about human nature] vivid in phenomenological consciousness is best pursued by those possessed of literary and artistic imagination, rather than by philosophers.”
So, in order to recover our moral sight Pieper urges us to become, in whatever small way, artists; Haldane proposes that we at least partake of the fruit of literary and artistic imagination. The artists, indeed, have anticipated our cultural problem. To take just one example, the critic Hugh Kenner characterizes James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) as “the voice of the machine.” We may think of it as “stream of consciousness,” but the thoughts that swirl through the mind of Joyce’s hero, Leopold Bloom, make up not so much a stream but a whirring mechanism of stimulus and response. As Kenner suggests, Bloom’s thoughts parody the image of the mind as super-computer—that is, the mind as the processor of ways and means, but utterly blind to the perception of ends.
Joyce, nearly one hundred years ago, saw something about how Western European culture was misperceiving the human being, as did, after him, Eliot and Waugh and Greene and O’Connor and Percy. But then something happened. To be sure, it was already happening. Writers and artists began to lose the ability to see the human person aright, and the institutions devoted to forming young artists also became like the blind leading the blind.
It is time for those in our culture still blessed with the eyes to see to pay heed to the Platonic insight that moral, intellectual, and political formation depend upon the right cultivation of the arts. To the ancient Athenians, the theatron, the “seeing place,” was the chief source both of entertainment and moral enlightenment. For us today, the traditional theater has (unfortunately) only a marginal impact. Our public seeing places are, instead, television and music, the cinema and the popular novel. We cannot afford to abandon these sectors of culture. We cannot castrate, as C.S. Lewis advises, and then bid the geldings be fruitful.
We need new “seeing places” to help us perceive “the visible reality as it truly is.”
Daniel McInerny is the author of High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare, and the Kingdom of Patria children’s series.
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