Reflections on Nature, Knowledge, and Learning
Love for “nature” in the modern sense grows in inverse proportion to one’s ability to love nature in the ancient sense. That is, if humans today were more interesting, less mindlessly slavish, less devoted to the emptiest pursuits, and more open to the consideration of ideas, beauties, and ways of living truly alternative to those promoted in the popular culture, I would probably be far less enthusiastic about birds, trail walks, and looking at the sea. As things now stand, however, those obsessions with “nature” (modern sense) are indispensable to maintaining my sanity. Socrates was disdainful of stepping outside the city walls, for as he frequently tells his companions, he prefers to be where his fellow men may be found, for they are his teachers. Today, by contrast, the thinking person’s most ardent hope must be to find a way to escape from what his fellow men might teach him.
No age is more susceptible to blind faith in official experts and popular knowers than an age of relativism and irrationalism. This may appear paradoxical, in that relativism and irrationalism deny on principle the very possibility of superior understanding and rational truth-seeking, seemingly rendering experts and knowers obsolete. For the vast majority of humans, however, the indoctrination to relativism and the dogmatic encouragement to immediate pleasure and comfort actually make the mind far more susceptible to blind faith, rather than less so — particularly in those areas where the avoidance of fear or the heightening of pleasure and comfort are at issue — because, left by one’s indoctrination without recourse to the power of one’s own reason as a source of clarity, one inevitably, as a matter of natural reflex, clutches at whatever external form of stability and assurance presents itself. And when religion in the proper sense, i.e., dogmatic deference to the guidance of a higher being, runs counter to the spirit of the age, as it does today, this leaves only submission to higher humans as the required source of assurance. But when the possibility of a spiritual rank-ordering among humans is radically nullified by relativism and nihilism, one is left with no standard for judging whom to trust as one’s stabilizing guide, apart from the standard most intractably apparent to all in a materialist age: practical power. And practical power means, in the main, government authorization along with the quasi-authorization of popular establishmentarianism — or, one must also admit, the quasi-authorization of popular anti-establishmentarianism.
The primary purpose of the university in a democratic egalitarian age is to counter the worst tendencies and instincts of such an age, namely its inclination to regard the Now as the True, and to elevate youth and the superficially novel above the old, tested, and lasting; the preference for immediate pleasure over hard-earned understanding, and for the comforting reinforcement of one’s mental and material habits over the discomfort of being challenged to question one’s received certainties; the inclination to rationalize one’s every itch and inclination as “progress,” while rejecting all critique of one’s desires as “reactionary”; and in general the overemphasis on the feelings, which tie us ever more inextricably to the body — the self — over reason, which frees the soul, to the extent possible to humans, from the bonds of society’s cave, bonds which those enslaved to their feelings increasingly mistake for liberation.
Today’s university has made the very opposite aim its primary purpose, namely to reinforce and buttress all the worst tendencies of the age by providing these with the most sophisticated rationalizations. Hence, it is no surprise that the university no longer feels it has any right to demand any sort of learning or spiritual evolution from its students, but rather assumes that its existence as a social institution is justified only to the extent that it follows those students by catering to all the stunting and corrupting attitudes and preferences in which those students’ souls have been embalmed by public school and corporate mass entertainment for eighteen years before entering the “halls of higher learning.” In other words, university now has nothing to offer the young but job skills training and popular moralism — that is, exactly what they have been trained by their state and corporate rulers to view as the only possible purposes of life, namely working for the establishment and feeling self-righteous about their lack of interest in any way of life different from the one they have blindly accepted.