Wittgenstein Wednesday: April 3, 2019


A good simile refreshes the intellect. 

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1929), Culture and Value, 1

Although it’s not technically a simile, this quote makes me think of the prologue to the Gospel of John. I think of this not only because of the metaphorical language John employed in his prologue to make a deep philosophical and theological point, but also because in doing so he probably made his point more clearly than had he employed just straight-on, fact-reporting prose. There is some entertaining irony in this observation. That in order to most clearly express an idea, I have to equate or liken two very dissimilar things to one another. To do this in his gospel, John drew on language and concepts that already had some significant history behind them.

The Greek concept of the Logos (λóγος) found a variety of uses in diverse philosophical schools. Most significantly, at least for the way John uses the term, were the Logos in Plato and Stoicism. Rather than going too far afield in a discussion over the distinctions between the two schools’ view of Logos, I’ll stick to a simple, generic definition: The philosophical Logos was a term that designated the divine aspect or principle that brings order to the universe. And this is obviously the idea that John is employing at the beginning of his gospel.

Rather than simply saying something like, “Jesus is a divine being who existed eternally and was somehow responsible for bringing the world as we know it into existence,” he wrote in metaphorical language that his Greek-speaking audience would understand and equated Jesus with something that, in all likelihood, they never would’ve connected with him. In doing so, he made his point more forcefully and effectively than he would have or could have otherwise. In many respects, what John was trying to do was introduce this new way of looking at things by tying it deeply and significantly to certain old ways of thinking. 

In a way, he was trying to say, “take a look at this new thing that’s really an old thing you already know manifested in a way you don’t recognize.” Like Wittgenstein’s simile, he was trying to refresh the intellects of his readers.

This thought has significance today.

I think it’s endemic to human nature to disregard the past while simultaneously knowing the necessity of the past as a foundation for the present. We arrogantly and almost flippantly brag about our present superiority (scientific, intellectual, technological, ethical, political). In doing so, we uncritically assume that the present is qualitatively better than the past. Of course, this is certainly true in many respects. We often cite things like infant mortality, adult life expectancy, airplanes, and the internet as evidence. This is all very true. But the science that gave us that medicine and technology was accomplished within a certain culture. And that culture has a certain continuity which is traceable across centuries and millennia.

I was pleased to see that Jordan Peterson was invited as a speaker to Liberty University. Although many evangelical Christians are suspicious of Peterson because of his unorthodox analysis of the biblical text, I find his project to be one that Christians should be wholly on board with. One might ask, “What is that project and why should Christians support it?”

In order to properly get a grasp of Peterson’s project, one must tune out and turn off the various media sources that claim to offer valid interpretations and critiques. Instead, people should do what thoughtful, intelligent consumers of ideas ought to do: simply listen to and read what the man has to say. For myself, having taken my own advice, I would summarize Peterson’s thought as this: All of the benefits and progress that have accrued in Western civilization have done so precisely because of Western civilization; thus, to continue accruing progress and benefits, we should act decisively to preserve and perpetuate Western culture. Christians should support his project because, despite the fact that his exegesis is more Jung and Eliade than Augustine and Aquinas, he roots Western civilization (correctly) in Judeo-Christian ethics.

That being said, why should anyone care? What makes this an important project for Peterson or anyone else?

The past is the foundation of the present, and the future’s past is today’s present. Thus, if we want to continue accruing the benefits and progress that have blessed our civilization thus far, we would be wise to protect and cherish that civilization. Not to mention the fact the people of the future will undoubtedly find faults in many of the things we say and do today, even as right as we believe we are. I have no doubt that one of the errors they will detect (one can only hope) is the cultural suicide that is pervasive in the West today.

In his book, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis adopts the Eastern term Tao to describe the universal ethic that undergirds right human action and judgment. I don’t wish to fully critique Lewis’ work, but I do wish to observe that he (a Christian) adopted a non-Christian term to represent something he undoubtedly believed in the objective sense, as a Christian. Lewis’ perennialism is noteworthy, praiseworthy, and worthy of emulation.

I’m speaking, like Lewis, as a Christian inside a liberal democracy.

In most of the world’s liberal democracies today, it would appear that most self-described liberals want us to believe that the only universal ethic is that there is no universal ethics. Rather than affirming a universal foundation for right action and judgment, many so-called progressives find any judgment, especially that of right action, to be abhorrent and undesirable. Unfortunately, they’re quite wrong.

The existence of a society in which people can say the kinds of things progressives say today is predicated on universal ethics, right action, and good judgment. And ethics, right action, and good judgment need a foundation — one that’s universal. One might be inclined to call this universal principle of order the Logos.

Although I, Lewis, and Peterson speak from a predominantly Christian perspective, we can all find the perennial (i.e., universal) elements across diverse cultures, religions, and mythologies that substantiate what we call Western civilization. For those who accuse people who respect — even revere — those foundations and the culture that it fosters of being regressive, repressive, or evil should look again.

As Peterson is often quick to point out, as much as people today laud Nietzsche’s announcement that “God is dead,” they are not up to the task that Nietzsche pointed out was necessary in reaching that conclusion — they must be prepared (and capable) of reinventing ethics and civilization. You cannot reject the religious and mythological foundations of our culture and ethics and still expect to rely on those ethics.

Fortunately, most of the people who think like Peterson, Lewis, and even insignificant me have a ethical foundation of patience, forgiveness, and grace. And that’s more than I can say for those who bash Western culture and civilization. Self-described liberals today are anything but — like it or not, reasoned, libertarian conservatism is the new liberalism. Actually, it’s the original liberalism. But that’s a different conversation for a different day.

For now, it’s good enough to observe that many in today’s society that want to tear Western civilization down could stand to have their intellects refreshed.

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