Sunday, April 20, 2008

Freedom and Limits

The latest issue of "Harper's Magazine" has a bracing and important essay by Wendell Berry entitled "Faustian Economics." Berry begins by noting our incapacity to face the fact of imminent changes to our lives with the arrival of "peak oil," pointing to our desperation to find the magic "technology" that will allow us to avoid any change in how we live and any accounting of the debts we have accumulated and the payments we have delayed. Tartly, he writes that "perhaps by devoting more and more of our already abused cropland to fuel production we will at last cure ourselves of obesity and become fashionably skeletal, hungry but - thank God! - still driving."

Berry's main argument is to point to the literary tradition - naming Marlowe and Milton, but drawing on Dante and including Goethe - of depicting Hell as a place without limits or boundaries. Hell is a place where bounds are not known, where judgment has been abandoned and where, because appetite roams free and wild, its denizens are enslaved to desire. We have made our own hell, largely because we have discarded the self-imposed limits of traditional human understanding, whether derived from religious, literary, or other cultural sources. "Every cultural and religious tradition that I know about, while fully acknowledging our animal nature, defines us specifically as humans - that is, as animals (if the word still applies) capable of living not only within natural limits but also within cultural limits, self-imposed." Berry quotes a passage from Milton's Paradise Lost in which the Archangel Michael, replying to Adam's request to be told the story of creation, agrees "to answer thy desire/of knowledge within bounds...[Berry's emphasis]...," explaining that

Knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain;
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.

And Berry glosses these lines thusly: "Raphael is saying, with angelic circumlocution, that knowledge without wisdom, limitless knowledge, is not worth a fart... but he is also saying that knowledge without measure, knowledge that the human mind cannot appropriately use, is mortally dangerous."

As I read these passages I found myself pondering some lines of Pope Benedict XVI's address to Catholic educators during his recently concluded trip to the United States. This address could not have failed to disappoint many who expected a fire-and-brimstone condemnation of various invidious practices at Catholic universities, including, many hoped, an Index of prohibited activities beginning with performances of the V-monologues. However, Benedict's address, while brief and often general, will, I hope, provoke a good deal of conversation - perhaps temperate and good willed, even - in particular in light of several sentences that will no doubt anger some and confuse many, seeming on the one hand to praise the unlimited openness of academic freedom but then simultaneously to demand its limitation:

"In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church's munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it."

At the heart of the Pope's faith in the great good of academic freedom as a necessary path to true knowledge is his abiding belief in the compatibility of faith and reason, and his confidence that honest and valiant exploration will yield knowledge that is ultimately compatible with faith. This understanding is accompanied by the demand to eschew justifications of teachings behind the bad-faith invocation of "academic freedom," an invocation that is made implicitly from the stance that one has the right to defend a wrong. Essentially the modish use of the words "academic freedom" rests on a debased and insidious understanding of the word "freedom" - one that, much as Berry likewise understands in his essay, is understood to mean the complete absence of any restraint or limit. Academic freedom, like any freedom, is only praiseworthy and defensible when it is employed to choose right, that God-given grant of liberty to walk the virtuous path. Freedom is not a license to limitlessness, but precisely the condition that makes the self-imposition of limits the core definition of what it is to be human.

What we see in so many universities - even ones that profess to be Catholic - is the regnant understanding of this debased form of freedom. Disciplines (note the word) that were to teach us how to be human - most centrally, how to limit ourselves and our appetites, how to govern ourselves as individuals and as members of polities - have been transformed into "liberative" studies. No discipline has fallen further from its original role as a discipline and into a "liberation movement" than English literature - and it generally doesn't matter if one attends a secular or a Catholic university. Over a dozen years ago Maureen Dowd reported on changes being made to the English curriculum at Georgetown University, where courses on Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare would no longer be required, and rather the emphasis in reading literary texts was to be on "the power exerted on our lives by such cultural and performative categories as race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality, and on the ways in which various kinds of representation aid in the construction, reproduction, and subversion of these categories." Presumptively, by exposing these "constructions and reproductions" of power, and subsequently by "subverting" them, we could be liberated ever more fully and ever more perfectly. By interrogating the texts, rather than learning from them, we could become more fully autonomous. Such is the typical fashion in which "academic freedom" is defended.

Compare this liberationist ethic with Berry's commendation of a discipline in the humanities:

"It is to the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall. A composer or playwright must reckon, at a minimum, with the capacity of an audience to sit still and pay attention. A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writer's and the reader's memory. And of course the arts characteristically impose limits that are artificial: the five acts of a play, or the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Within these limits artists achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex."

To take seriously the admonition of Pope Benedict that we must begin to use our freedom well, we must again learn the lost art of imposing limits - of line-drawing, as difficult as that practice inevitably is. Even as our English professors undoubtedly decry the destruction of the "environment" (certainly a word that reflects the belief that we "construct" the world, given that an "environment" is something outside of us - we should again be more honest and use the word nature), they overlook their complicity in their rejection of the self-governance that their discipline could and might begin to inculcate. It is a discipline that is rejected in the name of "academic freedom," and one that lies at the very heart of the betrayal of the educational aim that - perhaps uniquely in our time - a Catholic university ought rightly to provide. The great fear, of course, is that such discipline would lead to reduction of our sexual liberation. True enough: but without such constraint it is also certain that we will continue our depredations of the world - it is the nature of appetite to be indiscriminate, after all. As we use people, so we use the world, and there can be no doubting that everything is now consumed for personal satisfaction in the name of a freedom without limits. It is a freedom that now destroys all that it touches - except the truth, which increasingly tells us that we have "turned wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind."

Maureen Dowd reported a Georgetown professor to have justified the changes in the curriculum based in the desire of the professoriate "to get away from the notion that literature is sacred. That is really a secular version of fundamentalism, the belief that there are magic books that have all the wisdom, all the authority, and if students passively attend to these books, they'll have all the answers." I would submit, to the contrary, that literature is now approached in the belief that "we have all the answers" - or that all the answers can be got - and what has been abandoned is an education in humility. When we are certain that all we will find in a great text is evidence of oppression which must be "subverted," then we forestall the possibility that we can learn anything from such texts, we inoculate ourselves against curiosity and wonder, we begin with a preliminary rejection of the possiblity of education. What is needed for an education in humility and limits is just such a recognition of the sacred that is rejected here. The texts themselves may not be sacred but Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton - who surely have written as close to sacred texts as we might conceive - teach us of the noble human striving toward, the existence of, and the demands made by, the sacred. But in a world in which openness to the sacred has been banished, all that will remain is a world and humanity profaned.

1 comment:

Conor said...

Indeed. Your post recalls Tocqueville's account of the Puritans binding their moral sphere to free the political sphere for experimentation. This is not to say that their politics were wild or degenerate, but that they were active, within moral/religious circumscription. It is only in knowing the limits to acceptable action that choices can be made freely.