Recently I flipped through an essay by Roger Scruton called “How I Became a Conservative,” where he charts his course to philosophical conservatism from the Student Riots of 1968's Paris to his professorship in the 1980s. He mentioned how during the Student Riots, a friend of his (one of the rioters) justified the mayhem with a book by Michel Foucault called The Order of Things. Scruton had few kind words for the book, but one thing he did say stuck with me: “The book is not a work of philosophy but an exercise in rhetoric. Its goal is subversion, not truth...."
That last remark in particular wedged itself into my mind. As a member of the postmodern “millennial” generation, I have found myself flummoxed by the strange audacities committed in our name. Rampant relativism, divisive and demonizing identity politics, the near deification of doubt and skepticism, and a narcissistic insistence on a conformity to our own “authenticity,” i.e., if something doesn't speak to or resonate with us then we have no ears for it and that's that. A lot of books have been written in defense of these foibles, some of them religious in content, most of them mystical in tone.
It is that mystical quality that intrigued me. When I would read the histories (or “archeologies”) of Foucault or the popular theology of Rob Bell, I found a common consistency: what they said was sometimes gibberish (with Foucault) or innuendous (with Bell), but it was always artful, infused with a pathological flair of delivery. Some of Foucault’s best chapters are his last ones, where he drops all pretenses to scholarship and simply slips into the artist that he is, weaving an intoxicating and provocatively put pack of extraordinary lies. Bell is even better, being an artist from start to finish. Whether or not his books are products of serious study, they are certainly products of creativity.
Anyone with a critical eye can see through all the ornamentation to the real substance of such works, which is either radical utopianism (Foucault) or old theological liberalism (Bell) dressed up in newer, fancier garb.
Yet such works gain traction, and it is because of their fancy garb. There is something to be said for the power of beauty: it has a moral force, for good or ill. In the best case, it will create true love, which will drive you towards acts of true goodness. So in Paradise Lost, Satan himself is struck “stupidly good” when he sees the unfallen beauty of Eve (IX.455-66); and so also in The Divine Comedy, Dante’s journey is predicated on love, viz., the love of God mediated through Beatrice, a love Virgil often invokes to spur Dante on. In the worst case, false beauty (evil and error disguised as beauty) will create perverted love, which will drive you towards destructive ends. So in “Book I” of The Faerie Queene, Redcross is turned further from the journey of holiness by the false beauty of Duessa. In either case, beauty has great moral power: it shapes our sentiments, which in turn shapes our actions, which in turn shapes our culture (esp. our arts and entertainment), which in turn shapes us further. It is an inevitable and valuable as well as perilous cycle, especially if it falls into the wrong hands.
As such, its abuse is incredibly dangerous. It can turn a man’s heart faster than any syllogism. As a writer, I speak as an artist myself and not just an academic: in the grand scheme of any debate, rhetoric often trumps logic. That is the meaning behind Scruton’s statement. It’s not what you say but how you say it, and if you speak it well then you can bombard people with any number of things, hiding your true meaning and purposes behind a flurry of colorful lights, like a fireworks display obscuring an incoming storm.
The exact purpose of all this rhetoric is indeed “subversion,” and the goal of subversion is the destruction of every so-called “truth” that totalizes us and thus imprisons us. Such a task can sound very noble, especially if you dress it up with terms like “tyranny” and “liberty,” “oppression” and “authenticity.” It can even speak of “truth” in a sense, i.e., all of the “truths” we've been given are just the oppressive constructs of previous generations, calcified over time. We must tear down those constructs so that we can get to the real essence of things (if there even is such an essence). One could very well argue—and I believe some do—that subversion is all about "truth": the destruction of its counterfeits and the discovery of its true form or nature.
Calling “subversion” the search for truth through destruction reminds me of The Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf recounts his ill-fated meeting with Saruman. Gandalf discovers that Saruman has rejected his title of “the White” and has instead become “Saruman of Many Colors.” Gandalf retorts that he “liked white better.” Saruman sneers at this: “White! It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten, and the white light can be broken.” Gandalf's reply is another statement that has stuck with me: “In which case it is no longer white, and he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
Tolkien was referencing a medieval theory of light. Medieval Christianity viewed light as the perfect physical image for God, being not only pure and clarifying but also a hypostatic unity of multiples. Such logic is fundamentally Trinitarian, as is all of Christianity. Every inch of Christian thought and act and artistry revolves around this central notion of separates being one while remaining separates (neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance). The Trinity is the highest expression of this (three in one). There is also the Incarnation (God and Man) as well as the Atonement (God and man). The Church fits the bill (one body, many members), as does the Bible (66 books of different genres written at different times and places in different contexts, yet all unified around a singular theme, i.e., Christ). The Liturgy is built upon many separate elements coming together to form a singular worship, while the sense and structure of stained-glass windows and the cathedrals they adorn give vivid concrete testimony to the amassing together of many into one (without losing the many).
For the Christian, existence (from the foundations of ontos or dasein to the spectacles of quarks and quasars) has always been a fragmented whole, a great and glorious tapestry of many threads of many colors(!) woven into a singular image. Reality, truth: these things have always been a work of art, not a didactic platitude. Truth cannot be summarized in a statement or a system; that is why it was summarized in a person (John 14:6). The swirling complexities of reality are captured by the irresistible gravity of an incomprehensible center that is God. But that capture does nothing to diminish the complexities, any more than gravity diminishes the stars. On the contrary, it is their capture by gravity that gives us the beauty of the night sky, with its constant constellations and expansive Milky Way. From the foundations of Trinitarian doctrine, you arrive at a philosophy of light, which says that it is neither unity nor diversity, neither calcification nor fragmentation, but rather the whole spectrum working in unison, in perfect, sublime harmony and holism.
It is this Trinitarian logic of synthesis that has been missed by the radicals of yesterday and today. They fear solidification at every turn, so they tear it down. To them, the light is nothing to them but blinding, so they break it that they might better see. But then it is not light at all, just disparate colors scattered about without direction or clarity. And in such a catastrophe, one of two things typically happens. Either they revel (or despair) in that prismatic chaos they have created, or they try to contain the madness by reducing everything to one of the disparate colors. Thus, everything becomes a reductionism: it all boils down to economics, or genetics, or sex, or race, or class, or truth-to-power, or pacifism, or socialism, or patriotism, or doubt, or whatever else comes and goes in fashion. Whatever way they go, they have broken the whole, and have left the path of wisdom.
I end this post with a parable, told by G.K. Chesterton in the first chapter of his book Heretics. It is not his best book, but it is relevant here. Each chapter has Chesterton dealing a deathblow to a different kind of reductionism, for subversion (rhetorical or otherwise) has been in vogue for a long time now, which is why today we are practically drowning in it:
Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmedieval practicality.
But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted an electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, and some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery, and some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes.
So, gradually and inevitably, today, tomorrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we may have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.