In Search of the real University of Chicago

Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion (1941)

by Mortimer Adler

      The founding members of this conference are, for the most part, professors in American colleges and universities. They are eminent representatives of the various academic disciplines, among which are the three mentioned as most relevant to this Conference -- science, philosophy, and religion. The presence of historians and humanistic scholars is justified by the modern extension of science to include the so-called social sciences, with which all research about human affairs and culture can be affiliated. Most of these professors belong to one or more of the several learned societies which meet annually for the reading and discussion of papers that purport to make contributions to truth, or at least to what is academically recognized as learning.

      Hence, the reason for this Conference, for this additional meeting at which more papers are being read and discussed, must be some need for the professors to get together in a different way and for a different purpose. If the public wonders why we are gathering here this September, we must justify this Conference as trying to do something which is not, and perhaps cannot be, accomplished in the ordinary processes of our academic life -- in classrooms, faculty meetings, or the sessions of learned societies.

      Some explanations have already been given. We have come together because we all share, for different reasons and in varying degrees, an uneasiness about something we call the present situation. Whether or not we are ready to say that God's in his heaven, we cry with one voice that all's not right with the world. I wish I could credit my colleagues with one further agreement, namely, that the present crisis is only superficially a conflict between democracy and totalitarianism in the political arena, or between individualism and collectivism in the economic sphere. If that were the full nature of the crisis, why should we waste time talking about science, philosophy and religion?

      The fact that we have chosen to consider three major components of human culture should indicate that we all have a vague sense of cultural disorder as the root of our troubles, as the source of a threatening doom. Far from being prime movers, Hitler and Mussolini, or, if you wish, the Stalins and Chamberlains, are but paranoiac puppets, dancing for a moment on the crest of the wave -- the wave that is the historic motion of modern culture to its own destruction. A culture is not killed by political conflicts, even when they attain the shattering violence of modern warfare; nor by economic revolutions, even when they involve the dislocations of modern mass uprisings.

      A culture dies of diseases which are themselves cultural. It may be born sick, as modern culture was, or it may decay through insufficient vitality to overcome the disruptive forces present in every culture; but, in any case, cultural disorder is a cause and not an effect of the political and economic disturbances which beset the world to day.

      The health of a culture, like the health of the body, consists in the harmonious functioning of its parts. Science, philosophy and religion are certainly major parts of European culture; their distinction from one another as quite separate parts is certainly the most characteristic cultural achievement of modern times. But if they have not been properly distinguished, they cannot be properly related; and unless they are properly related, properly ordered to one another, cultural disorder, such as that of modern times, inevitably results.

      This Conference, one might suppose, has been called to consider the illness of our culture; more than that, to seek and effect remedies. One of the troubles is that scientists, philosophers, and theologians, or teachers of religion, have long failed to communicate with one another.

      The structure of a modern university, with its departmental separations, and its total lack of order among specialized disciplines, represents perfectly the disunity and chaos of modern culture. Since nothing can be expected of the professors locked up in their departmental cells, since reforming our institutions of higher learning (to make them truly universities) seems to be impossible, since the ordinary processes of academic life manifest the very defects which must be remedied, the professors have been assembled under the special auspices of this Conference with the hope that lines of communication can be established. That done, one might even hope for communication to lead to mutual understanding, and thence to agreement about the truths which could unify our culture.

      If what I have said is not the purpose of this Conference, I can see no justification for it whatsoever. The fact that all the professors gathered mention the Present Crisis, without trying to agree about its nature and causes; the fact that they manifest some concern about Democracy, without trying to define it and understand its roots; the fact that, in a baffling variety of senses, they refer to Science, Philosophy and Religion, without trying to solve the intricate problem of the relationship of these disciplines, -- all this amounts to nothing.

      An undertaking of this sort is not needed to make professors think or talk this way. Nor is it needed to give them an opportunity to write and read papers which do credit to their specialized scholarly achievements. Unless this be a Conference in more than name only, unless it be a concerted effort to reach a common understanding of our cultural failure and a common program for its reform, this gathering will be as vacuous and futile as many another solemn conclave of professors, advertised by high-sounding and promising titles.

      But if I have stated the only purpose which might justify this Conference, then I must also say that it cannot possibly succeed. I do not bother to say that a conference, however good, cannot succeed in reforming modern culture, or even in correcting one of the main causes of its disorder, namely, modern education. That goes without saying. To expect such results would be to ask too much from even the best of all possible conferences. I mean, much more directly, that one cannot expect the professors to understand what is wrong with modern culture and modern education, for the simple reason that that would require them to understand what is wrong with their own mentality.

      If such a miracle could be hoped for, I would not be without hope for a peaceful deliverance from our manifold confusions. Since professors come to a conference of this sort with the intention of speaking their minds but not of changing them, with a willingness to listen but not to learn, with the kind of tolerance which delights in a variety of opinions and abominates the unanimity of agreement, it is preposterous to suppose that this Conference can even begin to realize the only ends which justify the enterprise.

      Instead of a conference about science, philosophy and religion in relation to democracy, what is needed is a conference about the professors of science, philosophy and religion, especially American professors whose intellectual attitudes express a false conception of democracy. The defects of modern culture are the defects of its intellectual leaders, its teachers and savants. The disorder of modern culture is a disorder in their minds, a disorder which manifests itself in the universities they have built, in the educational system they have devised, in the teaching they do, and which, through that teaching, perpetuates itself and spreads out in ever widening circles from generation to generation. It is a little naive, therefore, to suppose that the professors can be called upon to solve the problem of the relationship of science, philosophy and religion in our education and in our culture -- as naive as it would be to invite the professors to participate in a conference about what is wrong with the professors.

      We do not even have to wait until this Conference is over to discover its futility and the reasons therefor. The glorious, Quixotic failure of President Hutchins to accomplish any of the essential reforms which American education so badly needs, demonstrates the point for us. In fact, if he could have succeeded, this Conference would not be necessary now. The fact that he did not succeed may make this Conference necessary, in the sense that fundamental rectification's of modern culture are imperative; but if we understand why, in the nature of the situation, Hutchins could not succeed, we also see why a conference of professors about the defects of the modern mentality must be self-defeating.

      What did Mr. Hutchins propose? He proposed, in the first place, that man is a rational animal, essentially distinct from the brutes, and hence, that education should cultivate the moral and the intellectual virtues. He proposed, in the second place, that science, philosophy and theology are distinct bodies of knowledge, radically different as to methods of knowing as well as with respect to objects known. But he went further. He said that theoretic philosophy delves more deeply into the nature of things than all the empirical sciences; that, as theoretic knowledge, philosophy is superior to the sciences by reason of the questions it can answer. He said that practical philosophy, dealing with ethical and political problems, is superior to applied science, because the latter at best gives us control over the physical means to be used, whereas practical philosophy determines the ends to be sought, and the ordering of all means thereto.

      Hence the structure of a university should not be a miscellaneous collection of departments from astronomy to zoology, with all treated as equally important theoretically and practically, but a hierarchy of studies, ordered educationally according to their intrinsic merits. Because of the fact that our secular universities harbor a diversity of religious faiths, Mr. Hutchins placed metaphysics at the summit instead of theology. For man the highest knowledge, and the most indispensable to his well-being, is the knowledge of God; and since the ultimate conclusions of metaphysics comprise a natural theology, metaphysics is the supreme subject-matter in the domain of natural knowledge.

      But Mr. Hutchins would have to admit (and he indicated his willingness to do so) that if there is a better knowledge of God, and man's relation to God, than metaphysics offers, then such knowledge is superior to philosophy, both theoretically and practically, just as philosophy is superior to science. Traditional Judaism and Christianity do, of course, claim that there is such knowledge, the sacred theology that rests on faith in God's revelation of Himself. It is properly distinguished from both science and philosophy as a supernatural knowledge, which man cannot have without God's direct aid.

      Why did Mr. Hutchins fail? Anyone who has ever attended a faculty meeting knows the answer. It can be discovered by any one who will read the reviews of The Higher Learning in America, written by the professors, or what is worse, the professional educators. He failed not because his analysis was patiently demonstrated to be in error; not because someone proved that philosophy does not exist or is inferior to science; or that religion is superstition, and sacred theology a rationalization of some make-believe. He failed because he was asking the professors to change their minds and to agree about something. He failed as much with the professors of philosophy as with the professors of science; he failed even more with those teachers of religion who regard themselves as liberal.

      What Hutchins proposed ran counter to every prejudice that constitutes the modern frame of mind, and its temper. The professors being in the vast majority, and ultimately controlling, as they should, educational policy, it was naive of Mr. Hutchins to suppose that he could reform education by appealing to truths the professors ignored or denied. Worse than naive, he had the effrontery to assume that if the professors were ignorant of certain truths or had neglected the implications of others, they would submit themselves to teaching on these points. Since the professors cannot conceive themselves as being taught, certainly not by anyone without a Ph.D. in their field, the man who tries to argue with the plain intention of winning agreement must really be trying to impose his doctrine. The simplest way to deal with a fellow like Hutchins is to call him a fascist.

      Now I want to make one thing absolutely clear. I am not begging the question in this issue between Mr. Hutchins and his opponents, by proceeding as if I have proved the former right and the latter wrong. I know I have not proved the truth of any of the theses mentioned, nor have I proved the falsity of their contraries. With the time at my disposal that would be impossible to do under any circumstances; and even with much more time I would not try with this audience.

      With a few notable exceptions, the members of this Conference represent the American academic mind. It is that fact itself which makes it unnecessary, as well as unwise, for me to make any effort in the way of reasoning. I know too well, from much experience, the opinions of this audience, and of all the professors they represent -- about the nature and relationship of science, philosophy and religion.

      I also know, because I have tried so many times to present an analysis with the fullest of supporting arguments, precisely what reactions such procedure calls forth. Fortunately, there is no need to verify this once again, because on this occasion I am concerned only to show the futility of a conference of professors about science, philosophy and religion.

      That can be shown very simply. Either the prevailing opinions of the professors are right or they are wrong. Let us suppose, for the moment, that they are right, that what is now generally taught in American schools about the relation of science, philosophy and religion, is the true account. If it is true, there is nothing wrong with modern culture, for modern culture, in all its practices and institutions, embodies these opinions. On this alternative, therefore, it is difficult to see why there should be any conference about science, philosophy and religion.

      If, however, on the other alternative, the prevailing- professorial opinions on these matters are wrong, and if, in addition, modern culture suffers grave disorders precisely because it embodies these opinions, then there is some point to a conference which would seek to correct the prevalent errors. But then it is point less to ask the professors to consider the problem. They have already considered it and told us their answers in all their teaching and all their educational decisions. The same majority point of view will dominate this Conference, as in the Hutchins controversy.

      Of course, the minority view will get a hearing, with all that indifference about the truth which hides behind the mask of tolerance, but it is a foregone conclusion that no body's mind will be changed; in fact, everyone knows that is not the aim of a conference, anyway. Hence, when all is said and done, the relative weights of majority and minority opinion will be registered once more. The Conference will have exhibited the characteristic mentality of our culture, and those who are deeply concerned about changing that mentality will be confirmed in their pessimism that nothing, simply nothing, can be done to reform our education or to reorient our culture.

      Now I am well aware that my colleagues do not think there is any such clear-cut division between a majority and a minority view of science, philosophy and religion. For one thing, they do not like to acknowledge the existence of clear-cut issues, with truth on one side, and error on the other; if there were such issues, then anyone who undertook to think about them might be obliged to risk his academic reputation by coming to a definite conclusion.

      For another thing, the professors do not like to feel that they share even a common majority opinion with each other. The sacred individuality of each professor can be preserved only by differing. When one is in substantial sympathy with what a colleague has to say, he still safeguards his freedom of opinion by saying the same thing some other way. Most professors seem to feel that agreement, even if freely reached, violates their personal integrity.

      Nevertheless, I charge the professors -- and here I am speaking of the vast majority -- with being in substantial agreement on one side of the crucial issues this Conference faces. I say that most of them are positivists. I know that-there are enough varieties of positivism to permit the professors to retain their individuality, but I insist that behind the multiplicity of technical jargons there is a single doctrine. The essential point of that doctrine is simply the affirmation of science, and the denial of philosophy and religion.

      Again I am aware that the professors will smile at my simplicity. Whoever heard anyone, except a few violent extremists, flatly denying philosophy and religion; as a matter of fact, such dogmatic denials are made only by a small circle of "philosophers" who blatantly advertise themselves as positivists. The very presence at this Conference of scientists, philosophers and theologians shows that the representatives of the several disciplines respect each other; the fact that they are willing to listen to each other's papers shows the spirit of cooperation which prevails among them. One even begins to wonder about the sanity of those who talk about the disorder and disunity of modern culture. The real problem of this Conference must be the perils of Democracy; it certainly cannot be the issue about positivism.

      Despite such blandishments, I repeat my charge. The professors, by and large, are positivists. And, furthermore, I say that the most serious threat to Democracy is the positivism of the professors, which dominates every aspect of modern education and is the central corruption of modern culture. Democracy has much more to fear from the mentality of its teachers than from the nihilism of Hitler. It is the same nihilism in both cases, but Hitler's is more honest and consistent, less blurred by subtleties and queasy qualifications, and hence less dangerous. I shall return to this point after I have supported my charge.

      Within brief scope, the easiest way to force the professors into the open is by making the issues sharp and clear. Let me do this first with respect to philosophy, and then with respect to religion.

      With respect to philosophy, the following propositions must be affirmed. He who denies any one of them denies philosophy.

  1. Philosophy is public knowledge, not private opinion, in the same sense that science is knowledge, not opinion.
  2. Philosophical knowledge answers questions which science cannot answer, now or ever, because its method is not adapted to answering such questions.
  3. Because their methods are thus distinct, each being adapted to a different object of inquiry, philosophical and scientific knowledge are logically independent of one another, which means that the truth and falsity of philosophical principles or conclusions does not depend upon the changing content of scientific knowledge.
  4. Philosophy is superior to science, both theoretically and practically: theoretically, because it is knowledge of the being of things whereas science studies only their phenomenal manifestations; practically, because philosophy establishes moral conclusions, whereas scientific knowledge yields only technological applications; this last point means that science can give us only a control over operable means, but it cannot make a single judgment about good and bad, right and wrong, in terms of the ends of human life.
  5. There can be no conflict between scientific and philosophic truths, although philosophers may correct the errors of scientists who try to answer questions beyond their professional competence, just as scientists can correct the errors of philosophers guilty of a similar transgression.
  6. There are no systems of philosophy, each of which may be considered true in its own way by criteria of internal consistency, each differing from the others, as so many systems of geometry, in terms of different origins in diverse, but equally arbitrary, postulates or definitions.
  7. The first principles of all philosophical knowledge are metaphysical, and metaphysics is valid knowledge of both sensible and supra-sensible being.
  8. Metaphysics is able to demonstrate the existence of supra-sensible being, for it can demonstrate the existence of God, by appealing to the evidence of the senses and the principles of reason, and without any reliance upon articles of religious faith.

      These eight propositions are not offered as an exhaustive account of the nature of philosophy, its distinction from, and relation to, science. I have chosen them simply because they will serve like intellectual litmus paper to bring out the acid of positivism.

      Let the professors who claim to respect philosophy -- and this goes as much for the professors of philosophy as for the others -- decide whether they affirm every one of these propositions. Those who say that philosophy is just another kind of knowledge but not superior to science might just as well call philosophy opinion and deny its existence. Those who suppose that philosophical principles or conclusions are dependent on the findings of science; those who suppose that real technical competence is necessary in order to solve scientific problems, whereas none is needed for philosophical problems; those who think that philosophy comprises a variety of logically constructed systems, among which you can take your choice according to your preference among postulates; those who say philosophy is all right, but metaphysics is nonsense, and there is no rational knowledge of God -- all these deny philosophy. They are positivists.

      If the professors were clear of mind and forth right of speech, they would come right out and say that they regard philosophy as opinion, not knowledge But professors are unaccustomed to simple affirmations and denials. They give true-false tests, but never take them. They will, therefore, avoid the test I have presented by saying that it is all a matter of how you use words, or that it all depends on your point of view, or something equally evasive. Yet, by their evasions shall you know them, for those who affirm philosophy to be knowledge neither hesitate nor quibble on any of these points.

      With respect to religion, the following propositions must be affirmed. He who denies any one of them denies religion, in any sense which makes it distinct in character from science and philosophy.

      (1) Religion involves knowledge of God and of man's destiny, knowledge which is not naturally acquired in the sense in which both science and philosophy are natural knowledge. (2) Religious faith, on which sacred theology rests, is itself a supernatural act of the human intellect, and is thus a Divine gift.

      (3) Because God is its cause, faith is more certain than knowledge resulting from the purely natural action of the human faculties.

      (4) What is known by faith about God's nature and man's destiny is knowledge which exceeds the power of the human intellect to attain without God's revelation of Himself and His Providence.

      (5) Sacred theology is independent of philosophy, in that its principles are truths of faith, whereas philosophical principles are truths of reason, but this does not mean that theology can be speculatively developed without reason serving faith.

      (6) There can be no conflict between philosophical and theological truths, although theologians may correct the errors of philosophers who try to answer questions beyond the competence of natural reason, just as philosophers can correct the errors of theologians who violate the autonomy of reason.

      (7) Sacred theology is superior to philosophy, both theoretically and practically: theoretically, because it is more perfect knowledge of God and His creatures; practically, be cause moral philosophy is insufficient to direct man to God as his last end.

      (8) Just as there are no systems of philosophy, but only philosophical knowledge less or more adequately possessed by different men, so there is only one true religion, less or more adequately embodied in the existing diversity of creeds.

      These eight propositions, like those concerning philosophy, are far from exhaustive. They are intended simply as a device to bring professorial positivism -- or shall I call it "negativism?" -- out into the open. Those who claim to respect the distinct place of religion in modern culture, but refuse to grant that religion rests upon supernatural knowledge, or that it is superior to both philosophy and science, either know not what they say or are guilty of profound hypocrisy. For unless religion involves supernatural knowledge, it has no separate status whatsoever; and if it rests upon supernatural knowledge, it must be accorded the supreme place in the cultural hierarchy.

      Religion cannot be regarded as just another aspect of culture, one among many human occupations, of indifferent importance along with science and art, history and philosophy. Religion is either the supreme human discipline, because it is God's discipline of man, and as such dominates our culture, or it has no place at all. The mere toleration of religion, which implies indifference to or denial of its claims, produces a secularized culture as much as militant atheism or Nazi nihilism.

      Philosophers who think that all the significant questions men ask are either answerable by reason or not at all, are naturalists in a sense analogous to the positivism of scientists who think that science alone is valid knowledge, and that science is enough for the conduct of life. If the professors are positivists, they are certainly naturalists. They dishonor themselves as well as religion by tolerating it when, all equivocations overcome, they really think that faith is superstition, just as they really think philosophy is opinion. The kind of positivism and naturalism which is revealed in all their works and all their teaching, is at the root of modern secularized culture.

      Now let me guard against misunderstanding once more. The various propositions I have enumerated I do not regard as matters of opinion. I think their truth can be proved. But I have not done so. I have done absolutely nothing to show that positivism and naturalism are false doctrines. My only aim was to show that the professors are, whether right or wrong, positivists and naturalists. My only hope was that the professors might examine their conscience in the light of clearly defined issues, and acknowledge plainly what they really think. I know, of course, that that is too much to hope for. But since actions speak louder than words, no one who understands the issues will be deceived by what the professors have to say, how ever much they fool themselves. The professorial reaction to the proposals of Mr. Hutchins, the professorial conduct of this very Conference, give the lie to professorial speech, the polite discourse, the insulting tolerance, which conceals the dismissal of philosophy as opinion and religion as superstition behind expressions of specious respect.

      The central problem of mediaeval culture was the relation of faith and reason, religion and philosophy, supernatural and natural knowledge. The so-called mediaeval synthesis, the cultural harmony and unity of the mediaeval world, depended on the solution of that problem. It was not solved by conferences, although in the middle ages something much better than conferences of this sort took place: patient, honest, forthright, hard thinking discussion.

      Centuries of earnest disputation, despised by modern professors as logic-chopping and wordy dialectic, prepared the way, because in every case the disputants were seeking to agree about the truth, not to maintain their individuality by holding to a difference of opinion. When, after such preparation, the time was ripe, two men solved the problem by sheer intellectual mastery of every relevant truth: Moses Maimonides solved it for the Jewish community, and St. Thomas Aquinas for the Christian world. That later Jews and Christians did not sustain the solution, or even repudiated it, was part of the cultural tragedy which the modern era went through at its birth.

      The central problem of modern culture is more complicated, and much more difficult, than the mediaeval, because in our times science has become a distinct and important enterprise, both theoretically and practically. The modern synthesis, the harmony and unity of modern culture, will be achieved only when all the goodness of science can be praised without sacrificing any of the goodness in philosophy and religion, only when the truths of philosophy and religion can be integrally retained without losing any of the genuine advances in knowledge or production that science has contributed.

      The modern synthesis must necessarily include the mediaeval solution, but it can do so only by carrying the mediaeval principles to a higher level of comprehension. In order that every cultural good shall be preserved to the fullness of its own unique value, each must be recognized precisely for what it is, and according to its distinctive character it must be ordered to the others. Since in the world of values, there is no order without hierarchy, science, philosophy and religion can never be harmonized so long as they are all asked to lie down together, but only when each is called upon to perform its proper function, whether that be to serve or to rule.

      The time is obviously not yet ripe for a modern solution. There are not enough scientists who understand the truths of philosophy and religion, nor enough philosophers and men of faith who are at home in the domain of science. Much work by representatives of all three disciplines is required to prepare the way for the modern analogue of Maimonides or Aquinas, perhaps even centuries of patient discussion and incisive disputation.

      This Conference might have been an occasion for such work. That it was called at all indicates a vague realization of the task to be undertaken. But if I am right about the professorial mind -- and I look to the actual proceedings of this Conference for confirmation -- there will be no discussion of fundamental issues, nor even a formulation of them. The members of this Conference are not cooperatively seeking to agree about the truth, through the painful ordeal of intellectual debate. Each is content to express his own opinions, and to indulge everyone else in the opportunity for similar self-expression.

      The various propositions I have enumerated are either true or false. Each, therefore, can be regarded as constituting a problem, a two-sided issue at least. Should it not be the business of this Conference to take up such problems in a definite order, and to direct all its intellectual energies to their solution If a group of men do not come together because they have common problems, and ultimately seek to reach common answers, there is no more community among them than there is in a modern university, or in modern culture itself.

      As I have already said, the failure of this Conference to do the only work which justifies its existence, perfectly symbolizes the absence of cultural community in the modern world; worse than that, it justifies the most extreme pessimism about an impending catastrophe, for until THE professors and their culture are liquidated, the resolution of modern problems -- a resolution which history demands shall be made -- will not even begin. The tower of Babel we are building invites another flood.

      The failure of this Conference is due not only to the fact that the professors are, for the most part, positivists; but even more so to their avoidance of what is demanded for fruitful intellectual procedure. Unlike the mediaeval man of learning, the modern professor will not subject himself to the rigors of public disputation. He emasculates discussion by treating it as an exchange of opinions, in which no one gains or loses because everyone keeps his own. He is indocile in the sense that, beyond the field of science, he cannot be instructed, because he acknowledges no ignorance.

      Hence anyone who would try to instruct him about philosophical or religious truths would be regarded as authoritarian, as trying to impose a doctrine. He is scandalized by the very notion of a commonly shared truth for all men. Even though such truth can be attained only by the free activity of each mind, the fact that no mind is free to reject the truth seems like an infringement upon his sacred liberties. What he means by truth in science and by agreement among scientists permits him to talk as if he were a truth-seeker and willing to agree; but that is because the contingent and tentative character of scientific knowledge so perfectly fits the egoism, the individualism, the libertinism, of the modern mind.

      The greater necessity and finality of truth in philosophy and religion oblige a mind in ways it will not suffer. On fundamental questions, which means all the questions beyond the scope of science, he wishes to keep a thoroughly open mind forever; he wishes neither to be convinced of anything nor to convince anyone. Hence he would not participate in a conference which required everyone to agree upon the fundamental questions to be answered, and measured its success by the degree to which such answers were commonly achieved as a result of the most patient discussion.

      I have so far pointed out the significance of this Conference for the state of our culture, and the doom it forebodes. In conclusion, I wish to indicate briefly the bearing of my analysis upon the crisis of Democracy. Let me say at once that I hold Democracy to be the greatest political good, the most perfect form of political community; and I hold this not as a matter of fine feeling or local opinion, but because I think it is a conclusion which can be demonstrated in terms of the truths of moral and political philosophy. Now, what can positivists say about such a demonstration? Obviously, they must repudiate it. Outside the sphere of science nothing can be demonstrated, and the proposition that Democracy is the best political order certainly lies outside the sphere of science. What is neither self-evident nor demonstrable must be an opinion, which attracts or repels us emotionally. Anyone who denies that philosophy is knowledge denies, of course, the self-evidence of moral principles and the validity of moral demonstrations.

      Hence the professors can be for Democracy only because they like it, not be cause they know it is right. They talk a great deal about natural rights and the dignity of man, but this is loose and irresponsible talk, in which they lightly indulge because they do not mind contradicting themselves. There are no natural rights if there is no natural moral law, which is binding upon all men every where in the same way. Man has no dignity if he is not a rational animal, essentially distinct from the brutes by reason of the spiritual dimension of his being. This should be enough to make clear that positivists are forced to deny the rights and dignity of man, or hold such views only as prejudice, rationally no better than Hitler's prejudices to the contrary. But to reinforce the point that the professors have no grounds for any of their fine feelings, let me add that the same facts which warrant man's dignity as an end to be served by the state also imply that man has an immortal soul, and a destiny beyond the temporal order. In short, one cannot have reasons for affirming Democracy and at the same time deny the truths of philosophy and religion.

      Of course, the sort of democracy to which the professors are sentimentally attached cannot be demonstrably approved, for theirs is an essentially false conception. The social order they would like to preserve is the anarchic individualism, the corrupt liberalism, which is the most vicious caricature of Democracy. Objecting to any inequalities in value, objecting to any infringement of absolute individual liberty by loyalties and obligations to superior goods, they want a democracy without hierarchy and without authority. In short, they want chaos, not order, a society in which everyone will be as free as if he lived alone, a community in which common bonds will not bind the individual at all. Even when they speak enthusiastically about this false ideal, the professors seldom claim that they have rational grounds for its defense. The very fact that they so frequently refer to democracy, not as a government or as a political order, but as a way of life, reveals them as exponents of a false religion. This religion of democracy is no better than the religion of fascism. One is the idolatry of individual liberty as the other is the worship of collective might.

      One of the greatest achievements of the modern world is the discovery of the moral and political reasons for the democratic ideal, as well as actual experimentation in the field of democratic processes. But though it be in this sense a child of modern times, Democracy will not be fully achieved until modern culture is radically reformed. Science contributes nothing whatsoever to the understanding of Democracy. Without the truths of philosophy and religion, Democracy has no rational foundation. In America at present it is at best a cult, a local prejudice, a traditional persuasion. Today it is challenged by other cults which seem to have more might, and no less right, so far as American ability to defend democracy rationally is concerned.

      For all these reasons I say we have more to fear from our professors than from Hitler. It is they who have made American education what it is, both in content and method: in content, an indoctrination of positivism and naturalism; in method, an exhibition of anarchic individualism masquerading as the democratic manner. Whether Hitler wins or not, the culture which is formed by such education cannot support what democracy we have against interior decay.

      If I dared to raise my voice as did the prophets in ancient Israel, I would ask whether the tyrants of today are not like the Babylonian and Assyrian kings -- instruments of Divine justice, chastening a people who had departed from the way of truth. In the inscrutable Providence of God, and according to the nature of man, a civilization may sometimes reach a rottenness which only fire can expunge and cleanse. If the Babylonians and Assyrians were destroyers, they were also deliverers. Through them, the prophets realized, God purified His people. Seeing the hopelessness of working peaceful reforms among a people who had shut their eyes and hardened their hearts, the prophets almost prayed for such deliverance, through the darkness of destruction, to the light of a better day. So, perhaps, the Hitlers in the world today are preparing the agony through which our culture shall be reborn. Certainly if it is part of the Divine plan to bless man's temporal civilization with the goodness of Democracy, that civilization must be rectified. It is probably not from Hitler, but from the professors, that we shall ultimately be saved.

Courtesy of Mortimer Adler's Center for the Study of Great Ideas