Saturday, 31 August 2019

The Professor Speaks

'I don't think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn't given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn't given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins ... We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don't think you help people by making their conduct of no importance – you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that's what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.'
  That's Professor St Peter in Willa Cather's The Professor's House (which I'm reading just now). He's speaking in, I guess, the early Twenties, just before science did in fact give us some 'new amazements', in the shape of modern quantum theory – but I think there's a lot of truth in the general thrust of his argument. As Wittgenstein put it, 'We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.' And the role of scientific rationalism as a universal solvent acting to demystify human life has been spiritually and socially damaging, eroding the mythological basis that all societies need in some form or other, and encouraging a kind of moral nihilism by default. We need that sense that our little lives have an element of mystery and importance, and we need that 'pomp and circumstance' to sanctify our needs and instincts, that place where 'all our compulsions meet, are recognised and robed as destinies' (as Larkin puts it in 'Church Going'). One of the most eloquent lines in King Lear is Lear's anguished cry, 'O reason not the need!' (the need for the retinue of knights that makes him who he is). When reason gets to work corroding the mystique of our institutions and our sense of ourselves, reducing even a king to a 'bare forked animal', it can lead anywhere – to an old man being banished into the raging storm, and another old man having his eyes gouged out, and an innocent daughter being hanged. Not that I'm laying that at science's door.


  1. You're not wrong, not even a bit.

  2. Evidence for this line of thought can be found in the pathetic results when anti-religious secular interests and authorities try to compete with religion on an aesthetic level. From the rationalist symbols of the holidays and calendars of the French revolutionaries to Soviet museums of atheism to modernist monuments to Dawkins's almost comical efforts to persuade us that biological evolution is a thing of beauty, the results are sterile and short-lived. Meanwhile, the great Gothic cathedrals, Bach's cantatas, Christmas hymns, etc.last forever and keep offering nourishment for the souls of even non-believers.

  3. Absolutely. The sheer beauty of so much Christian art is much more eloquently persuasive than any argument for the existence (or non-) of God.

  4. It is not surprising that so many on the "religious side" end up placing second when they foolishly try to challenge modern materialists on their own terms by wading into scientific criticism. There are a few that can do it and do it well, but not many. At the very least, they should be insisting on rematches on their home turf.

  5. Quite so. I think there's a lot to be said for the idea of science and religion as two distinct 'magisteriums', each valid on its own terms. But if you've got Bach on your side, well...

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