The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
15.2 (Spring 2015)
Faith & Cultural Meltdown
The Word, the Truth, and the Light
John R. Harris
For some reason, this journal has attracted a certain amount of discussion about the elusive Sasquatch in recent months (though, come to think of it, the references have appeared in fiction rather than in discussion). Maybe that has primed my mind for the present reflection. I have long been intrigued by Bigfoot and his partner in Wildman folklore, the Neanderthal, because of the challenge they pose to a progressivist mindset only loosely based in real science. While the Sasquatch may not exist at all, the main arguments against his reality reduce to the assumption that, since he doesn’t wear clothes, he can’t be as smart as we are. The Neanderthal, yesteryear’s Bigfoot, is now known to have walked upright, created artifacts suggestive of symbolic thinking, rather cleverly collected and prepared his food, and most likely communicated with spoken language. The Victorian image of a big, dumb, hulking, hairy brute only somewhat more erect than a gorilla was based on arthritic spinal remains misinterpreted by “experts” who just knew that homo sapiens stood at the top of the staircase. With Darwinism thickly in the air, new finds in anthropology were readily parsed into sub-human gradations.
Those who may wish to wade through my essay in this same issue about liberating literature from the academy will find that the “staircase” image, too, has been knocking around in my head. I suppose I might as well come clean and confess that I am less and less convinced of humanity’s cultural or collective progress. Age and observation incline me ever more to believe that a healthy Neanderthal would have made a much more desirable student in a Basic Geometry class than a fully clothed primate sporting ear buds, grinning over a Facebook page, and drifting off to sleep in moments of lull.
All facetiousness aside, I propose as a point of departure that we consider “the word”: not the gospelist John’s logos, but mere words as representations of objective reality. Yet as John declares, in words lies a beginning. Once a species, whether ours or the Neanderthal’s or perhaps a cetacean’s, learns to vocalize perceptions, nothing is ever again the same. That species, at that moment, acquires the ability to speak and recognize truth, and hence to conceive of and fashion lies. It shatters the moral sound-barrier. It becomes capable of sin. Within it dwells the embryo of a soul.
Might an intelligent adult gorilla conceal a tourist’s backpack of tasty goodies from her sister? I don’t know; but she surely could not be said to do so “consciously”, in any sense that we could understand, since she would lack words to designate “backpack”, “good”, and the rest. She would be incapable of objectifying her action and contemplating it as an option, a possible behavior to be enacted or rejected. She would not recognize herself as an author of this or any other behavior. She would be as much a natural extension of the inanimate objects over which she “deliberates” as the aroma emanating from the box of concealed chocolates.
Give such a creature the power of words, however, and all of this changes. Asks Big Sister, “Have you eaten?” Answers her hairy sibling, “Yes.” “What have you eaten?” “Nuts. From tree.” “What have you eaten just now? What were you chewing just now?” “Nuts. Nuts from tree.”
Now Little Sister has lied. She has declared (in the terms of Gulliver’s Houyhnyms) “the thing which is not”. She has created a picture of the world which she knows to be at odds with the true picture. She has erected a wall between herself and Big Sister, and she can no longer think of the two of them as projections of the same being, two appendages of the same clan. She has become an individual.
And, of course, her act of creation goes much deeper. In generating (somewhat haphazardly) her individuality, she has also produced a latent hostility. The wall separating her from Big Sister is a defensive one. Big Sister will be angry if she should discover the forged reality so glibly presented to her. Yet Little Sister will probably add further touches of forgery if the need arises. “Let’s not go through bushes. I want water. Let’s go down to valley.” If the hoax carries much farther, Little Sister may indeed begin to project thoughts distinctly different from her own into Big Sister’s head. “Silverback is in valley, and they fight. I change words. Not valley. Water in rock puddle, on top of hill.” Perhaps—not today or tomorrow, but some day soon—she will even rationalize her imposture. “Big Sister always have more, get more, take more. I keep good things this time. It is… right!”
When a being can express with some degree of objectivity both what is and what is not, then that being begins to inhabit both the actual world and—in speculation—other possible worlds. Reality becomes not simply what is, but what might be; for not all projected worlds are patent lies, if their “due date” is not today, right now. When Little Sister revised her attempted manipulation by altering course from the valley to the hilltop, she was judging the likely consequences of two alternative behaviors. She was exercising choice: she was manifesting free will.
A being at the nascent stage I have dramatized is naturally a long way from virtue; but the necessary prerequisite for good behavior is the mere ability to visualize alternate behaviors. One cannot choose right over wrong if one cannot choose at all.
This is the relatively unambitious endpoint of my reflection. I could press on into that abyss of the soul, as Heraclitus calls it. Yet it seems to me that, as our popular culture abounds ever more in visions of extra-terrestrials and crypto-hominids and supernatural apparitions, we might do well to stop here and look around. To put it bluntly, any being that can initiate speech should be capable of moral responsibility. (I emphasize the initiating act lest I allow into my definition an Artificial Intelligence programmed to respond to certain prompts.) We are sometimes made to think that we should treat kangaroo rats and crested barn owls with the same respect we show to our fellow humans. There is certainly a moral case to be made for not exploiting the readily exploitable—but, in the instance of creatures without moral will, this case has to do with our self-governance rather than with our duty to others. We should not, that is, plow up a rare habitat to build more spas and casinos just because any destructive behavior in pursuit of another spa or casino reduces our own dignity. The situation would be entirely different if we needed the land to keep children from starving; but in the service of our appetite for frivolity, even the uprooting of a few dozen cactuses is a shame. Such behavior used to be called wantonness, when people yet had enough decency to recognize the behavioral phenomenon as a flaw.
At the same time, some among our brethren appear to think themselves justified if they detonate bombs in stores that sell mink and sable clothing items. They will comfortably annihilate fellow beings possessed of souls without benefit of a hearing—themselves the judge, jury, and executioner—for the sake of lower animals unaware of their own existence. Wantonness has never been punishable by death in civilized societies; cold-blooded murder, on the other hand, has typically been so.
A further point of interest in the panorama is the prospect of a post-verbal humanity—a degenerate humanoid whose expressive functions have been taken over by his ancestors’ mechanistic creations. This sad evolutionary cul-de-sac will be incapable even of Little Sister’s degree of self-awareness, individuality, and choice. Some elite few of us, in other words, may dehumanize vast multitudes of us in the near future if present trends continue. Then a mass extermination of two-legged vermin will be much more defensible on superficial grounds; but, of course, the role of the elite in lobotomizing the many will be the real genocide. If it happens, this subjugation of higher beings will be the most diabolical chapter ever written by the human species, far exceeding the comparatively benign mass murders of Stalinist and Maoist henchmen. At least a bullet in the heart before an opened trench allows one to die bearing witness to high heaven of the crime. Our great-grandchildren may simply have their batteries removed.
I can’t explain with utter clarity why I believe that our species will one day encounter another, either from this planet or from beyond our solar system, that speaks… yet I do believe as much. If a creature can speak (or can originate speech), then he or she possesses at least the seeds of a soul. If a being has a soul, than God has endowed him or her with the ability to understand the personal responsibility involved in willful action, and also to understand that other beings in this condition have souls and are not to be moved about forcibly like furniture. When I hear testimony on popularly pitched documentaries that extra-terrestrials may have abducted this or that innocent wayfarer to scan a brain or study genitalia, I am not at all credulous; but were such events actually to have taken place, then the beings who did them are not higher beings. Higher in capability… perhaps so: but all the worse are they, then, for debasing higher gifts to serve lower ends. These ET’s strike me as carbon copies of our would-be genocidal progressives playing around with AI substitutes for human will.
Whatever your planet, whatever your mission—whether you wear clothes or grow long hair—you have learned “the thing that is not” if you can speak. A being possessed of that moral potential who has indeed ascended to a higher moral state further knows that the better option is always to speak “what is”. If free will is the birthplace of our soul, then truth is the diet upon which it grows healthily. Every lie raises a wall; and such walls not only require the constant maintenance of further lies—they graft upon our new individuality the false distinction that we are not like those just beyond our defenses. We rationalize the deceptions that keep our neighbors out. In doing so, we both assign vile, forged motives to them and ascribe our own motives to much more worthy ends than they truly serve. Our common humanity is a vital part of our human individuality—but the liar forgets how to see himself in others, and thus eventually forgets how to see himself altogether.
With the truth comes the light. That we are mired in constant lying today fully explains why we live in such darkness. Butchers claiming to serve God as they decapitate their human brothers for a lurid display on YouTube, newscasters who kill one story while manufacturing another, politicians who court votes with money they don’t have and brand their opponents as uncharitable bigots, professors who demand freedom of speech so that they may bully students into reciting ideological cant, scientists who finesse results so that their grant may be renewed and their résumé fattened, athletes whose training regimen includes imbibing metabolism-altering drugs, a medical-pharmaceutical establishment that hawks vaccines and procedures more to recoup an investment than to attempt a high-percentage cure, “clean energy” industries whose products leave a wake of “cancer villages” in the Third World, priests and ministers who promote on “Christian” grounds incidents of law-breaking that happen to nourish the congregational coffers, trustees of children who noisily declare their spaces “gun-free zones” while providing security officers with pepper-spray….
As the antic hay of lies—patent lies to others and invertebrate lies to oneself—is danced round and round our daily activity, the sun seems to grow dimmer and dimmer. Moral beings cannot survive in an atmosphere of deceit. Most of our lies now, I think, are of the “speculative” variety: that is, they may not be fully, transparently false just yet, and one can always hope that tomorrow’s sun will rise in the west. (Such hope seems especially defensible when daylight has grown almost invisible.) Yet even these fatuities almost always cover up substantial, demonstrable lies. If Little Sister had told Big Sis that a puddle in the hilltop rocks awaited them just to avoid the valley, there might really be—and probably would be—a puddle somewhere amid the rocks. But she would never have faced a choice between the two alternative routes at all if she had not been trying to conceal her stash of goodies.
The light of faith does not burst forth gleaming from any collection of hard facts. On the contrary, every hard fact in the universe can only lead us to a precipice from which we recognize that we cannot know the full truth, right here and right now. Yet that precipice is a critically important destination, and the path to it is cobbled with truths—only with truths. An unclad troglodyte speaking his first words is farther along the road than a mandarin in tweeds or silk suit whose professional network systematically silences dissent. All that is not light is shadow.
John Harris is the founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values. He and his family reside in Tyler, Texas.