Tucson, AZ. One of the pleasing genres of contemporary journalism is the coverage of bizarre happenings in academe that shock the sensibility of the middle classes. You know the types: there’s the frivolous: a professor specializes in research on Frank Sinatra impersonators, on the potty practices of various African tribes, or delivers a conference paper titled, “Flash Dance, Middle March and the Italian Male Body”; and then there’s the scandalous: courses on the sociology of deviance or “a wildly popular class called Human Sexuality.”
Almost everyone seems to get something profitable out of these features of the contemporary academy. The vast public gets to shake its head in dismay or disgust, and the faculty involved, whose lives are usually composed of a series of humiliations at how socially useless and insignificant they are (they who believe, with Marx, only in praxis!), suddenly become controversial and dangerous. If the great masses equate visibility with celebrity and celebrity with greatness, why would the “educational workers” and functional nihilists of the current academic dispensation take a higher view? They do not. And so, when they shock the increasingly rare, “shockable” Nan and Pop, they feel as if the revolution is at last moving forward and they are in the vanguard. I have not mentioned what the students get from such spectacles, but that is my subject.
The latest such episode is, in my memory, the most shameful. Psychology professor John Michael Bailey, of Northwestern University, teaches the above-mentioned course on human sexuality, and hires Ken Melvoin-Berg, “co-owner of Weird Chicago Tours,” to speak to his students in an after-class session. Melvoin-Berg brings along two specimens of his trademark weird sexuality. Faith Kroll and Jim Marcus say they came to answer questions, but stayed for the orgasm. Kroll promptly stripped and lay down naked on stage, while her “fiance” performed a sex act on her with some kind of mechanical device. Kroll tells the papers that the response was uniformly positive.
“It was a fun and educational experience,” sex guide Melvoin-Berg told the Tribune. And the students, he said, “seemed to be incredibly pleased. We had a number of them that got closer and closer.”
Fun and educational. Closer and closer. Oh, I get it.
Either way, it sure beats some boring lecture on Indo-European languages or hearing Beowulf read in the original or trying to figure when you’ll flunk out of Engineering Graphics 103.
The University defends the holding of a pornographic sex show as exemplary of its commitment to engaging “in teaching and research on a wide variety of topics, some of them controversial and at the leading edge of their respective disciplines. The university supports the efforts of its faculty to further the advancement of knowledge.”
We ask, “What knowledge?”
As it happens, I just gave a talk at Northwestern the other week, in which I discussed T.S. Eliot’s critique of Stoicism, ancient and modern. According to Eliot, Stoicism is a trans-historical phenomenon that emerges when persons become so alienated from all community that they become incapable of fulfilling their political natures and feel thrown back upon themselves. Lacking the communal resources to pursue a good life in this world or the next, they conceive of the private reason as the only place where happiness might be “made.” Pierre Hadot describes this ancient Stoic condition with elegant simplicity. For the Stoic, the Cosmos consists of an already realized and determined rational order. Morality consists simply in the assent of reason to that order; one is good if one’s reason accepts that order’s course. The logical exercises of Stoic life consist in a constant disciplining of the reason, a training to see the rational order of things as they are and to accept them. This involves stripping away all possible projections from one’s own mind to see the bare order of things. Hadot cites Marcus Aurelius, for instance, who trained himself to conceive of the act of making love as the simple brushing and bumping of bodily parts. Stripped of all “anthropomorphic” or “subjective” “sentiment,” one sees things for what they are and accepts them. This, for the Stoic, is “happiness.”
Eliot attacked Stoicism in the plays of Shakespeare and Seneca, in the philosophy of Nietzsche, and in the fatalism of Charles Eliot Norton. He never mentions the most obvious modern incarnation of the Stoic position, however: that of Sigmund Freud. For Freud, too, the order of things is determined and unalterable, though we need not deem it “rational.” Therapy consists in the process of self-adjustment that makes the person capable of living in and accepting of the existent order. For Freud, of course, therapy consisted in the talking cure, in a confidential confession and discussion with the trained psychoanalyst. But we have long since extended psychoanalysis, our modern Stoic logic, beyond the office couch to the world as such. Indeed, our educational “system,” from the earliest elementary years up through the extracurricular libertinism and activism of the college campus — and above all in the contemporary social science classroom — amount to little more than a training ground for young Stoics in the age of the American market empire.
We train our children to “accept difference,” that is, to presume that the existence of a vast incoherent panoply of desires and wants is in some sense rational, unalterable–a good in itself despite all appearances. The purpose of education is little more than to promote “diversity” and “self esteem,” that is, to teach students to accept uncritically the differences without and the differences within. Once this is accomplished, the child will be “well-adjusted” and “tolerant.” The educational liberal’s advocacy of “social change” does not consist of encouraging human beings to be better than they are now. It does not tell them, “You are fallen and imperfect creatures, but through the cultivation of character, you may make yourself capable of the self-government necessary before serious thought; through the cultivation of the intellect, you may attain the capacity to contemplate the True, the Good, and the Beautiful; and through the infused virtues of faith, hope, and love, you may not only contemplate but pitch your tent in the reality of these things and live accordingly.” Rather, “social change” means adjusting individual psyches and social structures better to accommodate already existent wants and desires, accepting them as normal. Perversion and proclivity becomes “choice,” and all choices are normal, that is, they are already part of the unalterable course of things. (There is my explanation, dear reader, for the proliferation of “awareness” weeks in our day).
Why it should be deemed impossible or oppressive, say, to stop men prey to bestial desires from fulfilling them with cows or other men, and yet perfectly plausible to convince society as a whole to accept these things, repugnant though they are to those with a sense of what a good and happy life looks like, may seem a mystery to all but the experts at the Kinsey Institute. But Eliot may be of some service here. Those who live in a Stoic age find the order of things implacable, but the human psyche malleable, and so they couch all hope in the therapeutic modification of the psyche until it accepts anything and everything. Eliot writes, in “Religion and Literature” (1935), the “adaptability to change of moral standards is sometimes greeted with satisfaction as an evidence of human perfectibility: whereas it is only evidence of what unsubstantial foundations people’s moral judgments have.” The universe is hard, but social psychology is easy. Thus, someone with Bailey’s dubious capacities can become a distinguished professor and amateur social engineer.
Bailey’s course does nothing other than prepare his students to greet the vast spectacle of the world around us with a combination of pleasure and indifference. They may take what they find in that world as an item for consumption or titillation, but they must leave the rest to everyone else without condemnation. Moral indignation, or even sensitivity to the awfulness of human perversion, is to be dismissed as a failure of adjustment. The ideologies of the contemporary classroom propose that the transformation of society into a condition of perpetual peace can only be achieved by forcing students, and all persons, to set aside their ethically-infused interpretations of the order of things as mere “projections” of the will onto that order.
For reasons that some may find mysterious, human sexuality is a particularly enduring repository of such “interpretations” — that is, of significance, customs, and evaluations, which human beings are generally unwilling to part with; and, when they do part with them, they invariably replace the old signs and customs with new ones no less dogged. Thus, the person who rejects the normal course of human sexuality as ordained to marriage, monogamy, and children, tends to create a new totem of absolute liberty intermixed with one principle or another (consent, most often, or, what we might call, the pleasure principle). Hence, what looks to Bailey like a harmless, indeed beneficial, spectacle intended to free students from their “repressions” and “hang-ups,” which they had previously taken for “standards” and a sense of moral dignity, appears to the non-Stoic as a violent act, a forcing of one professor’s private totem onto the public in general. It does not lose this appearance of violation, even when we learn that the students were not forced to remain for the “show.” It is not the students’ consent that matters, but the violence to moral standards done by the Stoic “logical” project in its commitment to dissolving all such standards as willful projections, failures of self-adjustment, and acts of oppression.
As the passage from Eliot quoted above suggests, he would offer a surprising response to the Baileys and other totalist Freudian Stoics of our age. Eliot generally did not approve of state censorship (at least when it came to works of art that made pretense of artistic or literary merit — a category he refused to define). Censors always judge the acts of a few deviants in light of the prevailing standards of society at a given moment. Those standards are patently variable and prey to modification with every new wind of doctrine. Social mores are generally unmoored. On the other hand, he strongly approved the restoration of the Index of Forbidden Books long maintained by the Catholic Magisterium. The Index took as its standard of condemnation, not the passing sensibility of the hour, but the definite canons of truth: what we call, in praise or blame, dogmata.
The morality of the Stoic-Freudian and the bourgeois morality it so often scandalizes are alike in their manifesting the insubstantial character of our standards when they are conceived on merely secular or social lines. In a pithy formulation, Eliot notes, “If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.” While Eliot, here, as elsewhere, seems to have a troubling understanding of the foundation of nature on the grace of supernature, his point is still well taken. Our age has sought to maintain standards and codes of speech and conduct even as we have consistently denied that those things have any foundation beyond popular consent or habit. When a professor comes along to embarrass us, we react with outrage, but with an outrage that has difficulty finding any harsher words than, “That is inappropriate!” Because the sensation of being shocked and made indignant satisfies us in some way, we are almost grateful for the evil; after all, it makes us feel for a moment that we actually have some kind of coherent set of standards based on a sustainable canon of beliefs in light of which one such as Bailey stands condemned.
But, what happens when Bailey replies to righteous indignation thus?:
“My hesitation concerned the likelihood that many people would find this inappropriate . . . My decision to say ‘yes’ reflected my inability to come up with a legitimate reason why students should not be able to watch such a demonstration.”
Could we give him any “legitimate reason” of our own? The story of the modern West is the story of human beings who have lost the capacity to explain what they do in any terms beyond those of the therapeutic Stoic. If we say such-and-such is against society’s standards, what we mean is it is against the order of things. Well, then Freud, or Kinsey, or Bailey, comes along, wielding a “compelling” binder of statistics to show us that the order of things is not now what we think it is, and so we had better adjust.
This incapacity of our society to provide a “legitimate reason” does not, of course, mean that none are forthcoming.
Human beings, as intellectual and political animals, are ordered to a particular end: to the knowledge of God, and to the life lived in loving Him. We find no final peace in honor, glory, property, good company, or even in physical pleasure — great goods though all these surely are. The only place where our intellect seems capable of resting is in the thought of God. The most virulent atheists testify to how necessary and absolute is this thought, for they cannot leave it go and “let discussion cease.” The only persons who seem capable of not thinking much about God are those typical lazy Stoics of our age who constitute the mass — not of psychology professors, but — of respectable adults and students. In their condition, what has come to be called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, they generally affirm the existence of God, that the world is a pretty good place, and that there are a few basic laws of ethics that keep one in good standing in a benign universe. Such a God does not require discussion to be believed, because the holder of that position never claimed to have any compelling reason for the belief — but only to affirm that to think otherwise might be rather depressing and there is no reason to be depressed. Who wants to be depressed anyway? This Benjamin Franklin school of religion does not beget thought about God, but merely spares one the burden of it. The set of conventions and customs that emanate from such a position are perforce loose, general, and most likely to give principal place to a species of “tolerance” aptly summed up as “Whatever blows up your skirt, so long as it does not get your panties in a twist.”
While this unsubstantial but almost universal ethos sometimes reacts with disgust and self-righteousness before sickening displays such as that at Northwestern, it usually responds to the dissolution of the standards it nominally holds with a Stoic shrug. What, after all, can one do? One does not know exactly what “knowledge” is being “advanced” in the college classroom, but one generally does not care, either.
Only if one has a vision of how absolute human nature is in regard to its end does one become firmly disgruntled before those displays that would deny or frustrate it. And of this we may be sure, the kind of philosophical materialism that modern Freudians and Stoics presume has a pretty absolute metaphysics: the world is at it is, and subjective adjustment is all; all claims we make about the meaning of the material facts of things are impositions, probably fueled by some insidious ideology; the only imperative must be to live in accord with those meaningless facts, which means, of course, one may do as one likes with them as well. This position at once presumes the absolutely determined nature of things and their absolute subservience to this or that human will. As such, the desire to change the world, as opposed to persons’ “attitudes” about the world, and the desire to give meaningful form to those “attitudes” that may in some respects restrain them and subordinate them to some higher good — both of these notions our modern Stoics deem as a kind of mania.
Because the Stoic position denies the end of the human person in a truth beyond himself, it bequeaths to him a whole range of what I think we may more rightly call “manias.” Sensing that life must have some purpose beyond the pleasures of the hour, the Stoic sets out on an endless quest of therapeutic melioration: looking after one’s health; medicating oneself with an antidepressant or a depressant; seeking the perfect relationship, or the ideal “self-image,” the quest for social justice or sexual or “identity” liberation. Every new project seeks to be the final one, and, at its end, one discovers a new project that must be conquered; restlessness begets more restlessness, because one has all the while been looking for peace in all the wrong places. As Pascal observed centuries ago, the incessant activity of human beings in search of happiness is a sure sign that there is such a thing as happiness, but we have willfully denied ourselves the opportunity to find it. The Stoic position is the firmest such denial. For we cannot find happiness in ourselves, nor in finite things, but we can find a happiness beyond all such creatures in the uncreated.
The Freudian species of Stoicism, with which our age is rife, observes how persistent is the sense of meaning and importance that inheres in human sexuality, and that these attributes, when not acknowledged and submitted to in the venerable traditions of chastity, monogamy, marriage, and children, tend to pullulate an abundance of alternative totems and mythologies. And so it tends to emphasize the absolute centrality of sexuality as well as its absolute subordination to human will: in contemporary parlance, everyone has a “right” to unconditioned sexual expression of his choice, and yet, to sustain this as a right in the face of the obvious individual and social consequences of sexual perversions, one must trivialize sex to allow it the freedom to take its central place in human life. This leads the Stoic not only to deny man’s end, but to furnish a great battery of ideology that frustrates our natural capacity to fulfill our ends. To vary that last statement, the Stoics make it very hard for a contemporary person to become fully himself, to do and be what he was made to do and be.
However great a good the pleasures of human sexuality may be, their very evanescence suggests that one cannot find lasting peace in them. Bernini’s sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila suggests that there is something sensually erotic in the divine, but he surely was not thinking merely of the passing pleasures of sensation. The very disappointment of these sensations in their passing should remind us that true happiness cannot lie there alone, and that the mere accumulation of sexual adventures cannot be strung together into a makeshift immortality. And so, the greater place the pleasures of the body take in a society, the more difficult will human beings find it even to seek the lasting happiness their intellects desire; that happiness is not essentially found in the life of the body but in the life of the spirit. If the enlightened professor preaches to his students, again and again, the imperative liberation of the body, he is probably not doing much to make them capable of thought beyond the body.
But the materialism and exaggerated sensuality of our age does not simply work to frustrate the human desire for the peace of the intellect. In denying such greater goods, it seeks to disenchant and undermine the great goods of sexuality as well. Sex, like eating, sleeping, birth, death, and the offices of the toilette, as Hannah Arendt and Rachel Gurstein have powerfully argued, are the most fragile of human activities. They are fraught with meaning and mystery, they give fundamental dimension to human life, but these things cannot survive the harsh light of spectacle in the public realm. With Aurelius, it is possible for us momentarily to reduce sexual love to a bumping of bodies in the dark; and when this physical reduction is conducted again and again, relentlessly, to prevent meaning and mystery from welling up as they are wont to do, one knows one is living in a culture of exposure: we seek to kill off the sacred significance to every activity and aspect of our lives to free them up for our use and control.
The consummate expression of this is to be found in Bailey’s classroom: sex on the academic stage, ecstasy by machine and for public consumption with a specious air of intellectual respectability, can work wonders on a human soul still early in the process of trying to figure out the meaning and purpose of life. Such displays tell the rows of students present, “Nothing survives the unflattering glow of the fluorescent bulb. Go forth and do what you will, knowing that people have done much ‘worse’ in the order of things.” But, of course, something does survive such exposure, but the students present are being robbed of the capacity to understand, appreciate, and articulate it. A convenient, but disastrous, lesson.
As Eliot says, a society committed to avoiding the thought of God is also a society committed to avoiding thinking about itself, and the meaning of its existence and actions. Such a society, though it may blush before the spectacle of Bailey and Northwestern, finds therein precisely the kind of “advancement in knowledge” and education it deserves (an advancement not exactly new but ancient, after the fashion of the world’s oldest profession). Though any serious university and any serious scholar ought to spend his life entering ever more deeply into mystery, in search of the language to share that mystery without dissolving it, a culture committed to the indifference of things should expect to find its universities flattering that indifference by undermining here and there, again and again, those small persistences of significance that adhere to our everyday lives.
The modern West’s dirty little secret is that it does not want any more secrets. It wants, rather, to engineer a world in which subjective “self-adjustment” is the only good, and where, consequently, a few unsubstantial social standards soften the otherwise unsparing light of Stoic logic. As Eliot keenly saw, this process of disenchantment and vulgarization is not really one of “secularization,” but of creating myriad therapeutic “substitutes” for religious belief. Needing to believe, and unable to sustain belief in the real God or to live in a real community, we seek our solace in whatever pleasures happen already to be in the order of things. Bailey’s lecture hall and stagecraft exist in order to convince us we are right and statistically, not to say morally, normal to do so.