As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Nassim Benchaabane looks at James V. Schall’s “On Choosing Not to See” from Telos 136 (Fall 2006).
Two tourists happen upon a waterfall on the order of Niagara. One describes it as “sublime,” the other as “pretty,” but “pretty” is the wrong description. This scenario, from a passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, is not merely about the proper use of words. It poses a more serious question, a question of objective reality, and it weighs heavily not only on philosophical studies such as epistemology, metaphysics, and ontology, but also on life in general. This is the powerful question at the heart of James V. Shall’s “On Choosing Not to See,” a profound and expertly written article that carries a controversial declaration: modern society, often a constructed alternate to the truth of what is, is gripped by our power to choose “not to see.”
Why, we might inquire, if there is one world, one human nature in which we all participate, are there so many convoluted and contradictory theories about how to live the one life we are given in the one world we all inhabit? Modern “tolerance” theory wants us not to “judge” other views in terms of good or bad, truth or falsity, but only in terms of “different” and “very different.” Still, we cannot help notice that one claim always serves, within this world of universal tolerance, to cause bitter antagonism. That is the notion that there is a right way to live. That there is a right and wrong that is true and grounded in what is. This “right” way, moreover, is not merely another human concoction or confabulation. And if there is a right way, there must be likewise a wrong way to live. This view, which has ancient roots, as do the modern theories that oppose it, is more and more looked upon as the principle that undermines modern culture. Insofar as modern culture is based on simple, naive relativism, this is true. (170–71)
Schall’s argument may appear to have a much older sensibility, out of place in today’s world. It is a direct contradiction to relativism and perspectivism, which underpin modern political and ethical discourse today.
To Schall, there is a hierarchical order of greatness in the value of things. What merits the use of either the word “pretty” or “sublime” is the reality of the thing itself in nature, and we can judge if our response to things is adequate by a standard criteria. This criterion is implied by the fact that we may grow to love a thing we once took distaste in and vice-versa:
This position is not to deny the principle de gustibus non est disputandum. If someone insists on disliking lovely ripe tomatoes in the summer or in liking garlic ice cream, we cannot simply call them mad. But we are probably not wrong in suspecting that something is wrong with their evaluation of these things, which, in our evaluation of them, will always have something objectively to like or dislike about them. The accurate naming of things what they are is a work given to man even from Genesis in Adam’s naming the animals. We cannot act unless we know what things are and are able to speak what they are to those who understand us. (169–70)
Therefore the real question, Schall writes, is whether the tourists know the waterfall at all, for they are at present seeing their thoughts and feelings imposed upon it. But the theory that the tourists’ perception might then determine their reality is not only “absurd,” to Schall, but has the dire consequence of “depriving us of the world itself.”
We thus walk about in a world in which nothing, as it is in its true being, can affect us. Things are not what they are but what we think they are. And if we think that a waterfall is “pretty,” who can disagree with us since there is no reality available to us, as there evidently was to Coleridge, by which we can inquire whether our ideas correspond to it. We cannot be moved by what is, because reality does not get through to us. We are not concerned about what our thoughts refer to. We are concerned with the thoughts themselves and try to describe them, not what they are said to know. (169)
However, Schall does not continue to focus on the epistemological process but on the moral consequences, and this focus is the defining characteristic of “On Choosing Not to See.” He argues that the Socratic method of knowing oneself as the key to wisdom and happiness is futile if we are unable objectively to step outside of ourselves in the knowing process. In knowing ourselves, we are confronted with our evils, which we must understand and conquer or attempt to rationalize. Given what Schall sees as the Aristotelian difficulty of changing a habit we are set in, it is often the latter path that is taken, leading to theories formulated precisely to justify those evils.
In fact, Schall argues that epistemological and metaphysical theories are merely intellectual aberrations, consequences of defending what one chooses to do or not to do. The only solution is an education that helps us to know ourselves by teaching us to differentiate between what is true and false, between what is sublime and pretty. In present consideration, such education could severely impact contemporary moral issues, from abortion to nuclear proliferation, yet Schall does not necessarily answer what exact values that education would teach and who would decide what they are.
In the end, Schall’s potentially controversial statements are a tool to open our eyes and further analyze our values and learning processes. Though many may disagree with Schall’s conclusion, and its implications, it is easy to see that he is one of the most formidable minds in the Catholic intellectual tradition. While blunt in its main thesis, the entire essay is written in a detailed, thought-provoking, logical, and methodical manner, drawing on thinkers such as Mortimer Adler and Samuel Johnson; meanwhile reminiscent of such great apologetics as G. K. Chesterton, leaving contesters severely ill-equipped to counter Schall’s argument. Schall’s essay offers us an insight capable of changing the way we view our modern world—and ourselves.
Read the full version of James V. Schall’s “On Choosing Not to See” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.