Monday, January 28, 2019

Plato’s Cave

The standard one-line summary of the Enlightenment goes like this: Because religion is based on blind faith, the founders of modern Western thoughts sought to free science and philosophy from its irrational embrace, to reduce or eliminate its influence on public life, and to re-orient even private life toward improving this world rather than preparing for an illusory afterlife.

A long line, but a nice summary.  As Feser has demonstrated, however, the Christian religion does not rest on blind faith but on the metaphysical worldview that one can trace back to the Greeks.  It was not and is not a battle between science and religion, but instead a battle between two competing metaphysical worldviews.  Feser has demonstrated the emptiness of the modern worldview. 

From where was this modern worldview born?  Feser offers that some of the groundwork was inadvertently laid by medieval thinkers such as Ockham and by the Protestant Reformation, with some early modern thinkers less hostile to religion than others – trying, albeit in vain, to preserve some elements of it.  Ultimately, it took bloom in the Enlightenment.

It took centuries for this modern worldview to take hold, precisely because the worldview born in ancient Greece held sway for so long – and because that ancient worldview rested on what was obvious common sense.

Ultimately the costs of this modern philosophy are to be found in our morals – or lack of any foundation for any morality.  Feser notes that it is easy to point to National Socialism or communism, but even the liberal West cannot withstand criticism: in all cases, human beings are reduced to “congeries of mechanical forces” a “disgusting…dehumanizing…and utterly incoherent” vision.

If there is no such thing as a natural order (again in the classical realist sense) then there can be no basis for morality at all.

No need to offer the countless examples to prove the point.  As Feser offers, “the pathologies in question are in any event blindingly obvious to anyone sympathetic to the classical philosophical worldview” as described by Feser in this book.

Had you told a William Gladstone or even a John F. Kennedy that the liberalism of the future would be defined by abortion on demand and “same-sex marriage,” and that the avant-garde would be contemplating infanticide, bestiality, and necrophilia, they would have thought you mad.

Feser suggests that you cannot even attempt the reductio ad absurdum with a liberal, as he will merely thank you for the suggestion.  They are blind, like those in Plato’s Cave, thinking you mad for describing the world outside.

From an article in The Atlantic Monthly in 1948, by W.T. Stace – an empiricist and not in sympathy with the Aristotelian-Thomistic worldview: the turning point came when seventeenth century scientists turned their backs on “final causes,” an invention not only of Christiandom but reaching back to Socrates.

The conception of purpose was frowned upon….This, though silent and almost unnoticed, was the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated through the world.

Stace continues, offering that our picture is purposeless, senseless, and meaningless.  “Nature is nothing but matter in motion.”  And so goes man – purposeless, senseless, and meaningless.  “Everything is futile.”

If our moral rules do not proceed from something outside us in the nature of the universe – whether we say it is God or simply the universe itself – then they must be our own inventions.

We are left with our likes and dislikes, but we know how variable these are.


Feser offers that what we are left with is to return to first principles.  Given that we today have no foundation upon which to build a moral society – including the morality of non-aggression – this suggestion would seem to be one that libertarians take seriously when considering liberty as the objective.

But to consider “final causes,” one cannot at the same time say “anything peaceful.”  The two are incompatible.  I always struggled with that phrase – “anything peaceful.”  It seemed a right thing to believe as a libertarian, yet something told me it was dangerous to liberty.  It is clear to me now why this is so.

As I hope is clear by now, I do not suggest legislation and prison for “anything peaceful” acts.  Correction of these belongs to family, church, and society at large.  For this to come about, it seems theologians, pastors, priests, and philosophers have some work to do.  Most of these are currently failures at this task.


Feser’s final chapter is entitled “Aristotle’s Revenge.”  In it, he summarizes his takedown of the modernists.  To make a long story short, they cannot avoid final causes in their arguments, yet attempt to use these arguments to eliminate final causes from philosophy; their arguments only make sense when understood in Aristotelian terms…and, therefore, their arguments make no sense.


  1. So Feser ends with the irrationality of the modern philosophy?

    I am watching a video about presuppositional apologetics currently and the exact same phrase, “Nature is nothing but matter in motion” is used. That is of course a presupposition that is self-defeating because then the universe is unintelligible. We can't know anything about anything if materialism is true because reasoning and thinking can't come from simple matter. It violates logic. Of course logical tenets themselves show materialism to be false.

    1. RMB, yes; to be clear, Fewer concludes that modern philosophy is irrational.

  2. "Feser offers that what we are left with is to return to first principles."

    But we cannot get the toothpaste back into the tube...

    And even if we could, don't you think we would get the same result?

    1. Rien, we cannot say what will happen if this return to first principles occurs - or, in my way of thinking, if Christian leaders start acting and speaking as if they actually were Christian.