Vital Signs

The Demise of Human Understanding

Who in modern Western society has not heard of that category of citizens honorably known as intellectuals?  They profess to be the thinking part of the nation, the people whose special calling is to ponder public or private matters.  Not possessed of a particularly low opinion of themselves, they even lay claim to a spiritual power forfeited, in their eyes, by all former clerics.

I would like to set the record straight.

There was a time when most people believed that the world was ruled by some transcendental Reason (the Stoic creed), or that it was not only ruled but created by that Reason (the Christian Faith).  So it was only natural that those who were deemed to have some access to its designs be revered and ranked among the most useful officers of the commonwealth.  This was the case in all Western societies for centuries: Philosophers (or theologians) were the keystone of society.

But then a cataclysm occurred, which in three centuries, from the 16th to the 18th, wiped out all but traces of the previous civilization.  Whatever its causes (which range from the development of trade to the Reformation), this upheaval amounted to a stark denial either that there might be a sort of ideal blueprint for men to follow in their acts or in their thinking or, if there was, that it be their lot to know it.

But this meant the death knell had tolled for philosophy and theology, at least such as they...

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