Book Review: Living Philosophies

Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time
, edited by Clifton Fadiman, Doubleday, New York, l990.

Six decades ago Clifton Fadiman published a book called Living Philosophies. In it several distinguished men and women set down their personal speculations, faiths and doubts. The present collection retains one of those essays, Albert Einstein’s rejection of an anthropomorphic God and his declared love for beauty, mystery and contemplation of the “marvelous structure of the universe.” This piece deserves reflection, but then so do most of the thirty-five other credos in the collection. A list of the contributors’ names would perhaps be sufficient review, for these alone, combined with the brisk editorial  skills of Fadiman, guarantee a fascinating read: Arthur C. Clarke, Robertson Davies, Jane Goodall, Desmond Tutu, Jonas Salk, Mortimer Adler, Abba Eban, Norman Cousins, Jeanne Kirkpatrick etc . . . One could dip into the anthology anywhere and find richly textured and articulate world-views. It is limited, of course, for the editor has attempted to bring together what he conceives as a representative cross-section of modern, thinking persons. By and large this turns out to be a sampling of educated, affluent, highly successful people, a class that C.S. Lewis once called Late Western Man. There is a pattern to their assumptions. With few exceptions, their ideas might be roughly summed up this way: “I am an idealist but a realist; I hope for a collective solution of the human problem; I no longer believe (or never have believed) in a transcendent God and organized religion. I believe in man.”

There are some breaks in the pattern, such as Norman Mailer’s surprisingly metaphysical questions, his predictable unpredictability, but this is a false lead, since he ends where most of the essayists end, assserting the tired cliché that if God is to be found it is certainly not within the confines of a church. There are other revealing moments, such as the behaviourist B.F. Skinner’s chilling defense of determinism, and the physicist Freeman Dyson’s advocacy of the new eco-religion of Gaia. Elie Wiesel continues to grapple with the problem of evil, the silence of God, and his perenniel declared failure to understand why despair and hope continue to circle each other in the cock-pit of existence. Back to back with this moving but dark essay is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Golems of the Twentieth Century,” in which he discusses the legend of the artificial man created by magic. “Our technology,” he says, “has turned into a mad, uncontrollable golem.” Like Wiesel, Singer is a survivor of the holocaust, but has emerged as a man of hope. He believes in God, in the character of the individual human person, and in art and literature; he strongly repudiates the “essential mistake” in thinking that politics is the answer to human problems.

Hans Kung’s diatribe against the charism of the universal Church and its orthodoxy is anything but cool, though it is expressed in measured tones. It is very political. Like many academic revolutionaries, he is enamoured with a vision of man which is optimistic and immanentist, and with startling myopia he posits the organs of institutional religion as the real monsters of history. He goes on to say that the world he hopes for is one freed from domination by “an all-powerful world regime or world beurocracy; no domination in the name of religion; no old or new physical coercion on behalf of religious juridicism, dogmatism or moralism; no authoritarian exercise of power by hierarchs or bonzes, ayatollahs or gurus.” In Kung’s world the Pope and an Ayatolla are fundamentally the same thing: tyrants, exercising their tyranny most cruelly, no doubt, over the freedom of theologians. It is forgotten that for some centuries now the Church has had no police and no armies, and her only power lies in her authority as a voice of truth in the consciences of men, an authority which can be rejected without any material fears whatsoever. Yet Kung continues to erect the straw-man of an Inquisitional Church and to attack her authority as the major stumbling block that lies in the path of a brave new church and an era of universal harmony for man. One wonders if he has examined the problem raised by the spectre of a world in which everyone has become his own Pope or Ayatollah, in which everyone has become infallible (everyone, that is, except the Pope of Rome). Kung’s ultimate faith appears to lie in some quasi-mystical magisterium of the will of the people or a so-called consensus of theologians, and also implies their infallibility. He seems to have ignored the colossal evidence of man’s propensity to self-delusion and evil provided by the events of our very instructive century. His hope is, admirably enough, for the salvation of all persons, but it is a salvation that “will be recognized and realized by the people themselves.” Where is Christ in all of this? Kung’s style, a blend of passionate outburst and reasonable tone is the perfectly attractive note to strike in a society that rarely thinks about the real meanings of words. He exhorts us to trust in man as a form of faith in God. In this as in many other elements of his personal philosophy he reveals the subjective nature of his worldview. It is built on an edifice of impressions and longings, the very same longings shared by the orthodoxy he so grossly characterizes and despises. We might take heart, however, from the fact that he is not only against Roman Catholicism, but castigates the biblical fundamentalism of protestantism and the traditionalism of eastern Orthodoxy as well. Clearly, it is basic Christianity which is under fire. Kung’s church is an ultra liberal mental construct fueled by the old heresy of Modernism, and drawn into the future by what is actually a very ordinary utopianism. The realism of the  Catholic Church is dismissed; his own theories, he suggests, are the true realism.

It is thus with considerable pleasure that one turns to the reflections of a layman, physician, and writer of exceptionally good fiction who just happens to be an orthodox Catholic from the American South. Walker Percy’s essay, “Why Am I A Catholic?” is worth the price of the entire book, and then some. The question deserves a civil answer, he says, then proceeds through a slow, meditative beginning as he chews over the question in the manner of a Southern gentleman. His is a world in which there is still time to ponder, and the fruit of this is a wide-ranging, humourous  and bluntly honest answer spread out over eleven pages. Every sentence bears the unmistakable imprint of truth, humility, an honest man asessing the world with clear eyes. “The reason I am a Catholic is that I believe that what the Catholic Church proposes is true.” He goes on to add that when the subject of religion arises in the South, the occasion is usually an uncivil one. He observes wrily that educated persons will note in passing, “Of course the Roman Catholic Church is not only a foreign but a fascist power.” When among less-educated persons at the local barbershop, one is likely to hear, “The Catholic Church is a piece of ….” The present age is demented, he says. It is the age of the “Theorist-Consumer,” possessed by a sense of dislocation, loss of personal identity and alternating sentimentality and rage. “It is the most scientifically advanced, savage, democratic, inhuman, sentimental, murderous century in human history.” Yet, he adds, “…the present age is better than Christendom. In the old Christendom, everyone was Christian and hardly anyone thought twice about it. But in the present age, the survivor of theory and consumption becomes a wayfarer in the desert, like Saint Anthony, which is to say: open to signs.”

There are other Catholics present: Theodore Hesburgh is very American and very much a priest-academic whose philosophy turns out to be a commentary on the social ills of the world, with an afterword about the transcendent. Elizabeth Longford’s discussion of “Continuity and Change” is one of the most human and touching pieces in the anthology. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz writes what I think is the centerpiece of the entire book. Titled “Erosion,” it articulates the primary human dilemma of our century, the loss of the sense of human personhood as a direct result of the decay of Christian civilization. Milosz is at once a Nobel laureate, artist, and Catholic of strong faith, which gives added weight to his assessment of the present culture of the West. I suggest that this essay should be studied in any university that is concerned about the restoration of culture and about the status of the human person. Milosz’s reading of the signs of the times stands head and shoulders above the bulk of the companion pieces in this volume. For the most part those essays do represent the times and the minds which proport to lead us. They are rational man explaining and theorizing all the way down as he sinks into a totally subjectivized world. By contrast, the few genuine luminaries such as Milosz remind us of what yet may be possible if we rediscover the true sources of culture and philosophy, that is, authentic spiritual roots.

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