But I By Backward Steps Would Move


Some men a forward motion love,

But I by backward steps would move

– Henry Vaughan, “The Retreat”

South Bend, IN. I have this dream of one day being able to teach a series of courses on intellectual history in reverse chronological order. The usual practice with such courses is to begin with the ancient Greeks and Romans and move systematically through the Medievals, and from thence onward to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and finally Modernity. I, however, would like to start with contemporary problems and issues and move backwards, first into the Twentieth Century, and from there back to the Nineteenth, back to the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Medieval Period, and end finally with the Romans and Greeks.

That is, I admit, a rather odd suggestion.  Why would I make it?  Well, the virtue of starting with the Greeks and moving forward in chronological order is that one can show the value of tradition.  One can show the ways in which later thinkers appreciated and built upon the heritage of their predecessors.  It is reported that the Twelfth Century theologian and philosopher Bernard of Chartres used to say that “we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”  Centuries later, Isaac Newton, among others, was to repeat the same sentiment in a letter to Robert Hooke: “What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much in several ways, and especially in taking the colors of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”  Years later, Samuel Taylor Coleridge would similarly write in The Friend: “The dwarf sees farther than the giant, when he has the giant’s shoulder to mount on.”

The problem with starting with the Greeks and moving forward in chronological order, however, is that it can (and often does) leave the students with a false sense of an inevitable Hegelian “progress” in history.  That is to say, it encourages them to think of the past not as something to be venerated – as a standard to which we must match our meager talents – but as something old, worn-out, and stale that we have left behind as we have “moved on” to greater and greater heights of understanding and accomplishment. In “The Dry Salvages,” one of The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot writes:

It seems, as one becomes older,

That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—

Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy

Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,

Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.

And isn’t this our abiding temptation?  By turning history into “a mere sequence,” or “encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,” into a long ascent or “development,” we often turn history into “a means of disowning the past.” Homer, Virgil, Thomas Aquinas, Dante: What are they but “dead white males”?  They didn’t have condoms.  They didn’t have i-pods.  They didn’t have genetic engineering. What could people without such things possible have to teach us now?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.  Indeed posing the question this way is to mistake technological progress for sociological or moral progress. Not every scientific and technological advance is matched by an equal degree of wisdom how to use it for man’s ultimate benefit and welfare.  If it were, we wouldn’t be faced with the dangers of nuclear annihilation or environmental degradation or de-humanizing exploitation by the mass media.  So although Homer, Aquinas, and Dante didn’t have i-pods or genetic engineering, they did have in abundant supply something we often don’t: wisdom. They understood profound things about the nature of the human person.

Thus my proposal would be not to start with Homer, Plato, and Aristotle and move forward, as though we’ve left them behind (in our dust) with all our later developments.  Rather I would like to start with a survey of modern culture and then show the ways in which how we live and think today had its origins in the intellectual movements of the Nineteenth Century: with Mendel and Darwin, Marx and Engel, Wundt and Freud, Weber, and Durkheim. Then I would try to show how those same intellectual currents of the Nineteenth Century were, in their own way, reactions and responses to the intellectual problems and questions they had inherited from their Enlightenment and Romantic Era predecessors.  And on and on we would go, further and further back to the foundations of thought, back to the Romans and Greeks, where would find set in clearest relief the fundamental questions that underlie all the later disputes.

It was the Twentieth Century philosopher and scientist Alfred North Whitehead who once remarked: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”  That may be a bit simplistic.  I would prefer to say that the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle.  But then again, I may be biased.  So perhaps the safest thing to do would be to agree with the Book of Ecclesiastes that “there’s nothing new under the sun,” and say that, by looking at the disputes between and among the Greeks – the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics, the Sophists, the Pythagoreans, as well as the Platonists and Aristotelians – and by reading those in conjunction with the great Greek tragedians Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, and then comparing them all with Homer’s epics, we will find there in outline the same basic questions, the same basic disputes, and the basic same problems that provoke us today.

What is the fundamental nature of matter?  At root, is it fundamentally some kind of “stuff” or is it defined by mathematical formulas?  Read Thales, Anaximander, Democritus, and Pythagoras. Does “might make right”?  Is justice merely the rule of the stronger?  Read Plato’s Republic or the Melian Dialogue in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars.  What is the nature of the soul?  Read Plato’s Phaedo or Aristotle’s De Anima. Do diverse cultures share certain moral principles in common?  Read Herodotus’ Persian Wars and Aristotle’s Politics. It’s not that all these different thinkers agree.  Far from it. The point is that they disagree in interesting ways.  That is to say, they disagree in fundamental ways. They disagree on the most basic principles and approaches to the fundamental issues facing mankind.  Where are we from?  Where are we going?  What is the nature and destiny of the human person?  What can we say about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful?  How should such things affect human life?  And what about suffering and death? Is there anything that survives death? What is the point of it all?  In their various approaches to these fundamental questions, the ancient Greeks set in clearer relief the basic positions that lie behind not only our questions and disagreements, but a lot about what lies behind most of the questions and disagreements people have had throughout history.

Reading later thinkers is not unimportant, however, because each age has to face these fundamental questions in different guises.  Aristotle thought Plato’s Republic was too “idealistic” and thus unrealistic.  So did Machiavelli, but in a very different way.  Unlike Aristotle, Machiavelli thought that “might makes right” and virtue, instead of being something that bound human passions and desires, was precisely the ability to bring about what one desired.  Virtus was merely another word for “manly strength.” Thus for Machiavelli, as so often for us, “manly” was simply taken to be synonymous with “strong” or “powerful” or “capable of acting decisively.” That is, of course, one definition of what is to be a “man.”  Aristotle would have said “man is a rational animal” and “man is by nature a social animal.”  That would be an interesting position to consider in a culture as dedicated to individualism as ours.  But it is only one of many.

Descartes thought that thinking must begin solely with thoughts and knowledge had to be gained deductively, like proofs from axioms in geometry.  His English contemporary John Locke disagreed and declared that thinking begins with experience of the world.  So began a long philosophical dispute between the so-called “idealists” and the “empiricists” in European thought.  It is an interesting debate and worthy of attention.  But it’s also not unimportant to note that the basic battle-lines between the sides were already drawn in the debates between Plato, with his philosophy of the disembodied eternal “forms,” and Aristotle, who thought the “forms” of things did not exist apart from their embodied existence.

Thus for Plato, to get at the Truth of Things, one must bring one’s mind into contact with the eternal forms, such as the eternal form of “Justice” or “the Good,” and then decide upon what ought to done given that insight.  For Plato, once we come to understand what is “truly Good,” then we can act rightly, distinguishing what is “truly Good” from what is only “apparently Good.”  But for Aristotle, all this is too ethereal, too unconnected with the lived experiences of actual human beings.  So Aristotle does not begin with trying to get clear some notion of “Goodness per se,” rather he starts out by surveying the world around him – like a scientist – to find out what works and what doesn’t.  These are two very different models of prudence.  One, Plato’s, begins from the general idea of the Good and tries to apply it to particulars. The other, Aristotle’s, begins from the various experiences of the Good one comes across in the world and tries to build up out of those experiences some helpful general principles.  That battle is one we continue to fight out in our own day in the disputes between the ethicists of the Utilitarian sort (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) and those of the Deontological sort (“Do what the categorical imperative demands”).

And on and on the list could go, showing how the roots of modern debates are sunk deep within the soil of ancient philosophical reflection.  It’s not that one shouldn’t study the modern debates.  Quite the contrary, I’ve suggested we should begin with the modern debates.  It’s simply that by moving backward toward the Greeks, we can show how our current questions and disputes are in important ways an echo of even more basic questions and disputes that have been going on for centuries. The point of drawing the students’ attention back to the foundational issues, then, is not to dismiss the moderns, but to help our students see that, as Aquinas (echoing Aristotle) once remarked: “a little error in the beginning leads to a great one in the end.”

A professor I knew used to say to his students: “Look, there’s nothing as interesting and alive and relevant as Homer and Sophocles and Plato.  And there’s nothing as dull and dry and irrelevant as yesterday’s newspaper.”  Perhaps what they say is true:  Time will tell where wisdom lies.


Randall Smith is an Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, currently on sabbatical leave at the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame.


  1. Starting with current life experience and working backwards to origins and theory is ALWAYS the best way to teach. Academics insist on starting with origins and theory, reaching a one-sentence mention of real-life applications on the last day of the semester. If there’s time.

  2. “The problem with starting with the Greeks and moving forward in chronological order, however, is that it can (and often does) leave the students with a false sense of an inevitable Hegelian “progress” in history.”

    I have encountered this myself, time after time. It is indeed exceedingly frustrating. Worst of all I’m pretty sure it’s unconscious as well as pervasive, which means one cannot defeat this ingrained inclination merely by warning against it. As the author of the article observes, ideally one would design the very experience of the course itself in such a way as to discourage knee-jerk Hegelian assumptions coming into play.

    Dr. Smith, do you have any more detailed thoughts as to how one might implement a “backward-stepping” course?

    I’ve thought another possible way of short-circuiting the ingrained progressive interpretation of a chronologically-sequenced course might be by taking a sort of “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” approach.

    What I mean is that — after having heavily frontloaded with lots of Plato & Aristotle & Sophocles, etc. — one might conclude the course with those modern writers & thinkers who have explicitly gone back to medievals and ancients for inspiration. Berry, C.S. Lewis, Weaver, Solzhenistyn, etc.

    I’d appreciate suggestions from Dr. Smith (or anybody else), as the very important difficulty noted in this piece is one which I have not yet solved to my satisfaction.

    • I like your suggestion. I too like the idea that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” If there were but world enough and time, it would be great to start with some of the most basic questions that arise in Greek thought, then move quickly to the Moderns to show the contemporary relevance of these questions, and THEN move backward through intellectual history to finish again with the Greeks and the basic questions. A third possibility is to keep cycling through intellectual history from present to past to present to past, in order to show the continuity of some of the basic questions. The goal, however, in my view, must not be “merely historical” (in the most limited sense of that term). The goal should be to encourage the students to face these fundamental questions themselves and then try to see their own lives and act in the light of what they have learned.

  3. Prof. Smith,

    Very interesting idea! Thanks for sharing.

    I would be inclined to want to trace the problems we have today through their historical roots instead of just showing how the debates throughout all of time are similar. In one sense they are, but in another sense things are different now- and many of those negative differences have roots at least 500 years old. For example, in one sense the debate about whether we’re “really” our souls or “really” our bodies has been around for at least 3000 years, but living as if we’re only our souls has only been possible since the industrial revolution, after technology obscured our ties to the physical world.

    Brad Gregory is the person to expand on this. He is writing a book that traces major changes in our culture back to the reformation. Perhaps you could invite him over to sit on the front porch of 1310, one of the loveliest front porches I have ever had the pleasure to sit on, complete with a lovely view. That porch has been the site of many lively and enlightening evenings, substantial studying, and late-afternoon sits. Once I even had the tips of my brown hair snipped off while sitting on a bar stool that more commonly belongs in the kitchen, my kind roommate gently brushing off the excess hair from my neck.


    • For readers of ASR’s post who find the reference to “1310” obscure (as I imagine they would), that’s my house. And indeed it does have a great front porch on which there have been many wonderful late-night conversations and afternoon “sits” — only some of them actually involving me. ASR is one of the wonderful Notre Dame students to whom I have in the past rented my house during the school year. I come back each summer to make sure the porch (and the house) is in good repair. And then I sit on it. Have late-night discussions on it. And look out at the world from it. Until I have to leave once again in the fall. But it has always been a great consolation to me that each year the house is lived in and enjoyed while I am gone by several wonderful Notre Dame students. But it’s pretty amazing the way a simple front porch can be such a blessing to so many.

      Let me also add that I agree with you, ASR, that the debates now are both similar AND different. That’s the reason you have to trace them back to their roots. The point isn’t to suggest that “history repeats itself” (the “myth of the eternal return”), but rather to trace complicated contemporary issues back to the fundamental questions that are underlying: Where are we from? Where are we going? What is the nature and destiny of the human person? What is the nature of suffering and death? What is the nature of reality? What is the meaning of things? What makes something right and wrong? As Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out so well, most of our arguments are only pseudo-arguments. We’re often not really talking about the same things in the same respect because we don’t share the same starting points, and we don’t agree on the meanings of the basic terms. Drawing arguments back to those starting points is a way of clarifying debate. It won’t automatically bring agreement (far from it), but at least we’ll understand a bit better what we’re actually disagreeing about.

    • I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I quite understand Bruce Smith’s comment. So, for example, I’m not sure I would call teaching intellectual history in reverse order “nostaligic” since, as far as I know, it’s never been tried. It’s not as though I’m claiming it’s something they used to do “in the good old days” which we need to get back to. That would clearly be false.

      As for whether deduction and induction is a better path to truth or certainty or useful information, that, to my mind, is one of those great questions that have animated thinkers over the centuries, with some insisting on one, some the other. The problem with such arguments, however, is that they tend to be circular. People who favor deduction tend to make deductive arguments in its favor, while people who favor induction tend to give numerous examples induction’s power to bolster their claim. Perhaps the best thing would be to recognize the relative strengths and weaknesses of both.

  4. What, if any, differences existed between Plato and Aristotle in their interpretations of how the species confronts and treats technology ? Perhaps it was not as loaded a subject then as now but this would seem to bolster your argument for studying history in reverse. In fact, today’s forming opinion of technology as almost something non-human and a potential enemy …where , aside from the Industrial Revolution did this strain of thinking arise?

    It would be very interesting to track human approaches and responses to technology and how, at this juncture, our technics seems to be something devoid of or beyond an artistic expression and , in effect amoral at times, or morality served by amoral technological advancement.

    In other words, one of your chapters on reverse history might be a reverse history of machination.

  5. Any concrete study of man as being must begin, I think, with some grounding in the idea of communitas and limninality. It would be predicated on a close examination of the “leap of being” best described as the recognition of a metaxical reality which mystically occurred from 800 to 500 BCE and began the process of institutionalizing “…a basic tension and chasm between the transcendental and the mundane orders.”
    If we do not begin here than the student, whether he/she is paying some exorbitant sum for a formal education or a ardent autodidact, is never going to grasp the truth of existence, order, or reality.
    To quote Voegelin, another teacher at Notre Dame, philosophy’s greatest problems “are not blocks of meaning locked up in the subdivisions of his schema, but are lines of meaning winding their intricate way through the whole work.”
    To gain knowledge in the very complicated field of the history of philosophy one must, I think, understand the concept of “the line of meaning.” I would recommend Stefan Rossbach’s book “Gnostic Wars,” and you can read my inadequate review here:


    Voegelin explicates Plato’s significant achievement in his recognition of the “drama of the quest,” and man as the searching, questing, seeking being. And, in his discovery that the reality of consciousness and those symbols that have unfolded from the recognition of that reality defines the philosopher’s existence. And, to think I haven’t even mentioned modernity.

    I liked this piece a lot. I look forward to future contributions and the arguments, disagreements, and discussions that will surely follow.

    • With regard to Mr. Cheeks’ interesting intervention, may I humbly suggest that one place to begin with a discussion about the relationship between the person and society, and between our obligations to society and our obligations to the transcendent realm of the Good (or to the gods) is, of course, Plato’s Republic. Although I also sometimes begin with Sophocles’ Antigone and the move to the dialogues of Plato.

  6. I liked this piece, too. The problem in my college courses was that we never really got to current thought on the classic issues. History, literature, etc. always seemed to end in the 1960s (if we even got to anything post-WWII; I was in school in the 80s and early 90s). It was as if thought stopped when my professors got their Ph.D.s. It would be fascinating to a lot of us to see a class run “backward”, if only to see how we got ourselves into the messes we face now.

  7. Professor Smith I apologize for my obtuseness. I did write my comment in a hurry. Here’s the reasoning behind my comment. On October 23rd 2008 Alan Greenspan, the former long-standing chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank Board of Governors, appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform of the United States House of Representatives. He had been summoned to appear before the committee to answer questions about his role and involvement in the events that led to the Financial Crisis. During questioning he admitted that in the aftermath of the crisis he could now see that the ideological model of the world that he had used throughout his career was deeply flawed and in reality didn’t work. Here was one of the former most important and influential individuals in the world whose decisions had a direct bearing on the economic optimality of millions of people’s lives throughout the world declaring “I found a flaw … in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” In very simplified terms, or for the sake of short-hand brevity, he had discovered that there was something wrong with the Invisible Hand theory upon which “mainstream” Neo-Classical economics is based.

    What has this got to do with my comment about your idea of teaching intellectual history, or philosophy, backwards? Well I consider that Alan Greenspan’s admission that there was something deeply flawed about the Invisible Hand theory was a symbolic turning point in intellectual history. The Invisible Hand theory is one of the most important ideological theories we have because it has so much influence on our physical survival. It encompasses a great deal in intellectual thinking particularly in the social sciences stretching way back into the mists of time. The theory is concerned with concepts of freedom, property, democracy, planetary sustainability and systems thinking to name but a few. In particular though, it has implications for the way that we think as human beings. We are now aware as my previous post reference article “Testing Kant” indicates “much research from the emerging field of neuroeconomics supports a two-system cognitive/emotional model of decision making.” The author of the article would seem to me to imply that much of our decision making is influenced as much by emotion as reasoning, that in fact we are “hard-wired” to do so. This I think helps explain Alan Greenspan’s mea culpa. Why should this be? Well there was so much evidence around that Greenspan chose to ignore. To name but a few, there were historical records of regular boom-bust cycles, social dysfunction statistics for the United States and most importantly asymmetrical information theory that challenged General Equilibrium theory which was the pure theory underlying the Invisible Hand. Some pundits have argued this was because of Greenspan’s irrational attachment to Libertarianism through exposure to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. This argument though I believe masks the lesson we all have to learn that underneath Greenspan’s mea culpa was the dawning recognition that it was his cognitive/emotional model of thinking that was the problem and we need some tool that can help us avoid the pitfalls arising from this model. We have that tool. It was developed by the twentieth century philosopher, Karl Popper, in the form of Critical Rationalism which tells us it is always more productive to find the counter example that falsifies the theory than the examples that support it but still carry no guarantee of the truth of the theory. This is the type of Inductive theory I was referring to in my first post whilst the Deductive theory I was referring to was the type of social science thinking that claims to rely on abstract reasoning alone and seeks supportive examples rather than falsifying examples. Much historical thinking I believe is of the Deductive theory type I describe and we should consider suspect, hence my nostalgia remark. This is not to say that the idea of working backwards is a bad one just that we should be wary of drawing to many conclusions from social science theories that have emotional as well as reasoning content and lack evidence of serious attempts to find falsification examples. If we are wary for these reasons we should not place too much stock on finding answers from analyzing theories from the past.

    I don’t consider my argument particularly unique. It is, in fact, influenced by the ideas of a growing number of Real-World economists who oppose Neo-Classical economics and by the Reflexivity theory of George Soros, the financial investor, philanthropist and student of Karl Popper’s who would also consider himself a critic of mainstream Neo-Classical economic theory. In his book “The Crash of 2008 And What It Means.” Soros argues that when the cognitive, or reasoning function, simultaneously interacts with what he calls the participative function (the desire to manipulate the world to one’s self-interest) they may adversely interfere with each other and a reflexive situation arise where there is a lack of correspondence between the participant’s views and the actual state of affairs. In other words emotion has interfered with reasoning. The Invisible Hand theory of Adam Smith argues that we benefit from the self-interest of the butcher, the baker and the candle-stick maker but what Smith did not foresee is that this self-interest also creates enormous pressure for the survival of that self-interest against the self-interest of other competitors in the market. That competitive pressure to survive has resulted in increasing scale and concentration of wealth to the extent that 50% of the world’s wealth is now owned by two thousand large corporations and this intensification will continue to a point where the “free” market becomes the “captive” market and a very few individual CEO’s will effectively become the “Deciders”, “Allocators” or “Rationers” of what goods or services are supplied to the market. There may also be plenty of small companies supplying to these corporations, the big box stores for example, but they will be dancing to the tune of these corporations in terms of prices and type of goods and services supplied including quality. This intensification leads to great power which can already be seen in American politics where politicians are increasingly “bought” by corporations. Ultimately as “free” markets turn into “captive” markets this goes completely against the spirit and purpose of the Invisible Hand which was to allow almost any demand to be easily met by supply. There is, however, an even worse effect and that is democracy withers away and Fascism replaces it.

    It can be argued that we should use Critical Rationalism to study the social theories of the past whether forwards, or backwards, and reject and improve upon them but I’m not convinced of the need, or the merit in doing this. I argue this because I’m convinced we now have five beliefs that we can go forward with to improve our lot. These are:-

    -Firstly, to recognize that many of our social theories are and will be based on emotion as well as reason and as such can potentially generate socially conflicting pressures.

    -Secondly, to make use of Critical Rationalism to achieve a greater approximation to the truth in our social theories and also help eliminate any socially conflicting pressures in those theories.

    -Thirdly, to concentrate on maintaining social cohesion and planetary sustainability using these improved social theories.

    -Fourthly, to also recognize that social cohesion and planetary sustainability can best be achieved when economic suffrage accompanies universal political suffrage.

    -Fifthly, to also recognize that social cohesion and planetary sustainability can best be achieved through the use of arbitration processes incorporating representative and participative democracy at all levels of human association and utilizing the convenience of technology where appropriate.

    • Mr. Smith,

      My apologies. I didn’t mean to imply that you were being obtuse, merely that I didn’t yet understand what you were getting at. I have no particular objections to any of the things you have suggested, although undoubtedly others may. My suggestion is simply that behind many of our current crop of complex questions and problems there lie a group of fundamental questions. So, for example, to get at the points you’re trying to make, I might want to trace the issue back not only to Adam Smith, but to the discussions of economy among the 14th century theologians in the School of Salamanca. But from there, we might trace the issue further back (not only historically, but also logically) and ask ourselves whether behind our current debates there isn’t a fundamental disagreement about the nature of prudence. Some people think prudence means applying general principles to specific conditions in a way analogous to geometrical proofs. Others think prudence can only be gained by first having a broad set of experiences of particular situations. A third possiblity is that you need both general principles of morality AND a broad set of experiences of particular situations. Does economics involve the application of general principles to specific situations — the only problem being that human beings aren’t as “exact” as geometrical figures? (The “system” would have workout out perfectly if it hadn’t been for those darn human beings!) Or should economics be seen as something more fluid, something that necessarily involves the messy realities of human nature? Aren’t those the kind of questions that lie behind your concerns, Mr. Smith? Or have I mis-read you?

  8. Professor Smith I think the issues we are discussing are about epistemology, theory of knowledge, or how best human beings can develop prudent beliefs, or just plain old prudence. Evolutionary social development I believe hard-wired human beings in several ways. It made us a group creature where social cohesion is extremely important but emotionally predisposes us to a follow the herd instinct. This lays us open to following beliefs and ideologies that aren’t necessarily good for us or only partly good. On the other-hand we do operate on a spectrum that runs between self-concern and other-concern, we like to dominate but hate to be dominated. Both of these instincts lead us to challenge beliefs and ideologies that threaten both types of concern. Here is a link to an article by the cultural evolutionary specialists, Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd, which more fully explains this line of reasoning:-


    For the sake of prudence, therefore, we need an epistemology that allows us to challenge both our emotional herd instinct but also supports the social cohesion aspect of this herd instinct as well as the beneficial side of individualism. I like Karl Popper’s Fallibilist based Critical Rationalism because it can be used to do just that even though Popper developed the epistemology initially for the natural sciences. Here is the Wikipedia article on Fallibilism:-


    I notice, for example, that when ever I look at the book reviews on Amazon I always look at the one star reviews first to get some measure of whether there are any valid criticisms of the author’s views that might deter me from buying the book or seeking to borrow it from a library. Also, for example, I really like the current book I’m reading Ian Fletcher’s “Free Trade Doesn’t Work.” because he uses lots of statistical data to back up his counter-arguments against the conventional wisdoms of allowing unbalanced free trade. So it’s the counter-argument and the counter-example backed by empirical evidence which I think helps to develop better prudence. As I mentioned in my previous post, it’s the belief, or ideology, based on deductive reasoning alone that I’m wary of because of it’s susceptibility to the emotional instincts. For example, with capitalism I regard it as being like a fire that needs constant tending to prevent it getting out of control. It isn’t an unmitigated good as Neo-Classical market fundamentalisms would have us see it. It has the potential for being both good and bad. Accordingly, I believe our task as members of society is to look for the best knowledge acquisition methodology that will work with the fallible mental processing nature of our brains. Finding the right methodology helps us to tend the fire so that we don’t, for example, rush into wholesale abandonment of regulations which then produces a financial crash.

    With regard to reviewing intellectual thinking backwards, or forwards, are we not really talking about a selective progress review of the social science beliefs and ideologies which long term have been supported by empirical evidence? With regard to moral beliefs which are more nebulous in terms of finding supportive evidence are we not simply identifying the importance of social cohesion in the sense of One for All and All for One, the common Golden Rule, for example, of all religions? I guess though I can see some relevance in cherry picking those belief systems that turned out to be of long term validity because of empirical evidence support in order to identify any patterns but perhaps more importantly highlight those that should deservedly fall by the wayside and why and what patterns. However, I still feel my argument stands that with the knowledge we have acquired in the last two decades of research into human nature we can also now take current belief systems (built on the shoulders of giants and pygmies) and subject them to empirical evidence analysis to establish their social optimality without worrying too much about their provenance. Perhaps between both our arguments this is the compromise, between Engel’s “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways—the point however is to change it” and be careful what you wish for!

  9. Professor Smith. After re-reading your original article it has prompted me to state my argument more succinctly. You quote Aquinas as saying following on from Aristotle that “a little error in the beginning leads to a great one in the end.” That little error is thinking that we think completely rationally and now we know that we don’t (brain scans) we need to think how we can better do our thinking.

    • Mr. Smith,
      Sorry for the delay in responding. I’ve had to meet some publishing deadlines. I don’t want to overly complicate things, so let me just say, one doesn’t need brain scans to realize that we don’t think completely rationally. Only unenlightened children of the Enlightenment (which does NOT include the major thinkers of the Enlightenment) ever thought we did, or even could.

      As for how we can better do our thinking, I agree that’s a good project. I suggest we start with a good series of courses in the classical Trivium: Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic.

  10. Randy, old friend!

    Your comments remind me of the following conversation from Metropolitan:

    Adurey, asked about her favorite books:

    –by Tolstoy, War and Peace, and by Jane Austen, Persuasion and Mansfield Park.

    Mansfield Park! You’ve gotta be kidding!


    But it’s a notoriously bad book! Even Lionel Trilling, one of her greatest admirers thought that.

    Well, if Lionel Trilling thought that he’s an idiot.

    Hah! The whole story revolves around, what? the, the immorality of a group of young people putting on a play.

    In the context of the novel it makes perfect sense.

    The context of the novel! – nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is ridiculous from today’s perspective.

    Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective would look even worse?

    On another note, I saw Sister Thomas More, O.P. last week in Columbia, S.C. and learned that you have married. Congratulations! Claudine and I just had our eighth child (I think) — Adelheid Pascale-Noelle. The fourth one I delivered myself.

    I’ll update you with the relevant details of my life since last we met (at Thomas More College in Fort Worth?)

    Kenneth Covington

    • To “my friend Kenneth Covington”:
      Good to hear from you. That’s a great quotation: “Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective would look even worse.” In the context of the movie “Metropoloitan,” I don’t think such a though ever had occurred to Tom (or to most of his friends). I hope in heaven Jane Austen is being spared the gory details of our current culture and just knows enough to pray for us constantly. Thanks again.

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