“I think it’s been very hard for Speaker Boehner and Republican Leader McConnell to accept the fact that taxes on the wealthiest Americans should go up a little bit, as part of an overall deficit reduction package.”
This haplessly phrased bit of Obamaspeak is one out of many illustrations of a confusion between fact and opinion that comes about as close to lying as any device known to politicians and journalists. Pick up any newspaper or watch any news program, and you will find countless examples—and not all of them from the same politician. In the same interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press, President Obama delivered this masterpiece of obfuscatory illiteracy:
The only thing I would caution against, David, is I think this notion of, “Well, both sides are just kind of unwilling to cooperate.” And that’s just not true. I mean if you look at the facts, what you have is a situation here where the Democratic Party, warts and all, and certainly me [sic], warts and all, have consistently done our best to try to put country first.
It would be unfair to wonder why Gregory did not challenge Mr. Obama’s nonsensical assertions. He is, after all, the journalist who declared he would not “fact-check” his guests, as rival Jake Tapper has taken to doing. In a world where politicians think they can eliminate violence by banning guns or create middle-class citizens by giving more money to welfare dependents, facts and opinions are more or less the same thing.
Gregory is hardly alone in confusing fact and opinion. Listen to Andrea Mitchell, opinionating on nuclear arms and the Libyan revolt (emphasis mine):
That is in fact what Hans Blix and Mohamad ElBaradei thought. . . . I think we all have to face the fact that the insurgency is a lot stronger than they anticipated, and that is part of the story, a big part of the story, and it is probably the most important part of the story still right now. . . . In fact, we are relying on the Europeans to do the heavy lifting right now.
I probably do not need to point out that what other people think can hardly be a fact, that the success of the Libyan insurgency had a lot to do with arms and money given by the United States, or that we, in fact, supplied money and ammunition to the Europeans to create the illusion that it was their operation. Just the facts, ma’am.
There is no need to cite further examples, when it is more elegant to put this in the form of a general rule, which can be stated as follows: Whenever a public person, whether in politics or in the media, introduces a statement with a phrase using the word fact (as in “The fact is,” “The fact of the matter is,” or “Face or accept the fact that”), the statement that follows will very likely be an entirely subjective opinion. More simply put, Fact=Fancy.
How do we know that we know something? It is an old question, though by no means a universal one. Epistemology is a typically Western preoccupation. Though Chinese and Indian sages expressed skepticism about the human capacity for knowledge, only Greek philosophers appear to have raised this question systematically. Some (Heraclitus, Epicurus) were inclined—not without exception—to value sensory perception, while others (Parmenides and Plato) looked for truths beyond the realm of the senses. All were aware, however, of the problem. As Socrates, the godfather of most philosophical sects, put it, when informed that the Delphic Oracle had pronounced him the wisest of men: He was only wise in the sense that he knew that he knew nothing. Late in life, Plato became increasingly skeptical about what he knew, and this strain was taken up by the later Platonists who influenced Cicero. The extreme point was reached by the Skeptics, who subjected every piece of received wisdom and every “fact” to a withering logical analysis that would be revived by David Hume.
While Christians, obviously, cannot be Skeptics, much good can be accomplished by Christian thinkers willing to apply skeptical caution to dogmatic assertions. As I suggested at our most recent summer school, the via negativa practiced by Christian mystics (e.g., God is not good because He is beyond our conception of good) constitutes a wholesome Christian form of skepticism.
Civilization—that is, civilization in the sense that Aristotle, Vergil, Dante, and Jefferson would have understood it—depends on several quite basic Greek insights: Perhaps the most important, which goes back to Parmenides, was Aristotle’s law of noncontradiction, that something could not really and truly both be and not be X. He was not talking about subjectively relative terms such as hot and cold or the more than 50 shades of gray in our visual field, but about absolutes. Poetry and higher math aside, three cannot both be three and not-three, any more than the boiling point of water can be and not be 100° Celsius at sea level, at least not without introducing other factors into the question.
As clever as they were, neither the Egyptians nor the Babylonians had figured this one out or, at least, were willing to apply it rigorously. As brilliant as God’s chosen people were, they never developed either logic or the sciences that flow from Greek logic, though since the Hellenistic era, Jewish thinkers have made a rich and full use of Greek philosophical methods.
Perhaps equally important as Aristotle’s great law is the distinction between reality, or being, and mere appearance (doxa), fact and opinion, objective and subjective. It is a theme that pops up nearly everywhere in Plato. While ordinary people are content with appearances, lovers of wisdom are eager to gain a glimpse of ta onta, things as they really are.
This distinction is not native to the human race. In his brilliant essay La mentalité primitive, the anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl pointed to a characteristic of primitive minds: that they cannot routinely and systematically distinguish between objective reality and an image (a dream, a reflection in a pool or mirror, an impression left on a bed). A great deal of magic is based on the inability (or refusal) to make this distinction. It is why simple people often brush out their image from the bed, and why a man may suffer when his image is tortured or burned. The underlying principle of voodoo conforms to the contours of the natural mind. (Bram Stoker’s Dracula cannot be seen in a mirror because he does not actually exist. Similarly, Vergil tells Dante that his shadow is in Naples, where his body was taken after he died in Brundisium.)
Like most brilliant and original theorists, Lévy-Bruhl ignored all the devils in the details. Critics leaped on his obvious omissions: Even the most primitive men and women will frequently make all the routine distinctions without which they would not get through the day. Even a firm believer in voodoo will not necessarily curl up and die if someone stabs the impression left on his bed sheet, and the superstitious man will typically trust the messages of his dreams only insofar as they are consistent with his own needs or desires. But the use of such words as frequently, necessarily, and typically only make Lévy-Bruhl’s argument. To be civilized is to acknowledge that two plus two only and always—not just often and typically—make four.
Purely rational people are rarely encountered, and when they are, they may prove to be monsters. Nonetheless, those who have been educated in the Greek tradition are pretty consistent in not falling for superstitions, and they are less likely to get taken in by deceptive images. They know (or at least try to know) the difference between what is true and what they wish to be true.
A sharper and more useful correction of Lévy-Bruhl’s thesis was made by the English anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard, who pointed out that even in the civilized societies, many (I should say the vast majority) continue to operate according to the voodoo mentality of their paleolithic ancestors. He did not have in mind, I believe, an otherwise rational man’s reluctance to step on a crack lest he break his mother’s back but the incorrigibly irrational mindset of ordinary men and women who seem incapable of distinguishing between fact and fancy. It is only by grasping this obvious truth that we can understand the mindset of people like Barack Obama or David Gregory. It is not just that journalists and politicians routinely tell every sort of lie—which they do—but that they have never bothered to learn how to distinguish between reality and opinion.
As Socrates and Plato were well aware, truth is harder to find than an honest member of Congress. Few of us are philosophers, and fewer still ever take an interest in the deeper epistemological question of how we may know that we know what we (think we) know. In politics, journalism, history, and scholarship, however, there are more elementary obstacles to the pursuit of truth.
Millions of people spend their Sundays not in church but watching the political pundits and puppets spinning the news. I have never figured out why anyone watches. What can we learn, for example, from a politician who reads a speech someone has written for him, filled with facts and figures the speechwriter has borrowed from sources he does not understand and really does not wish to understand? Even speaking off the cuff, politicians simply repeat the talking points that more intelligent though less photogenic advisors have drummed into their wooden heads. Why should anyone pay the slightest attention to anything that such people say?
The so-called journalists on television are no less actors than the politicians they interview. When Brian Williams or Andrea Mitchell or Anderson Cooper is flown to Tel Aviv or Cairo and put in front of a recognizable landmark to comment on the latest crisis, who in his right mind would listen to what the newsreader is saying? Why, in fact, should we take any interest in what the newswriter has written, unless we know that he has taken the time to inform himself deeply on the place and its people? The manifest leftist bias of journalists and television performers is much less of a problem than their ignorance and, to be candid, stupidity. A spoiled rich boy like Anderson Cooper can be sent to Yale, but he cannot be made to learn anything. As Dorothy Parker so memorably put it, when asked to compose a pun on the word horticulture, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” That was decades before Marilyn Monroe showed up on movie sets, clutching her translation of Proust.
The most acute scholars and the most honest journalists (such people exist, but they are known for getting fired) make mistakes and propagate erroneous opinions, but they, even when they are wrong, have earned the right to have an opinion. They are the proverbial one-eyed kings in the land of the blind. All the other statesmen, columnists, and bloggers are at best targets for low-minded satirists. They may be in a position to destroy a good man’s reputation or send his sons off to kill and die in an unjust war, but there is no truth in them.
When Hillary Clinton is interviewed by CBS correspondent Wyatt Andrews on Syria, you can be sure of one thing: Neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Andrews has the slightest idea of what he is talking about. Neither has any experience of Syria or the Middle East; neither knows any Arabic or any history beyond what he was told in tenth-grade world history. Each one surely knows that neither of them has a right to an opinion on this or virtually any other serious subject under the sun, and yet they go through for the ten-thousandth time the dishonest charade of pundit-actor and actor-statesman.
One of the worst demerits of democracy is the assumption that anyone can grow up to be president. After Bill Clinton, George W., and Barack Obama, obviously anyone not only can but has, albeit without the benefit of growing up. There was a time when even politicians who were evil scoundrels had something better than a fourth-grade knowledge of history and a mind that could see through the rhetorical haze of their party and grasp some bit of reality. Teddy Roosevelt may have been mad, as I think he was, but he was not a fool; Winston Churchill may have been entirely unscrupulous, as I believe he was, but he was no ignoramus. In America’s plummet to the abysm of ignorance and incompetence, Obama is, admittedly, the end of the line, though who knows how much lower our leaders can go in our political Limbo: Chris Christie? Donald Trump? Nancy Pelosi? Sarah Palin? Obama is only the nadir of a great American tradition that rejects intelligence and education in favor of the imagined virtues of the common man. McKinley and Truman were bad enough, but everyone in the Obama Cabinet makes Give ’em Hell Harry seem like a philosopher-king.
So, it seems not quite fair to blame anything on the poor schmo who currently squats in the White House. Even mocking him, I feel a little like the bully who beats up the four-eyed geek in the schoolyard. Obey the law, pay your taxes, salute the flag, and defer to authority, whether that authority is held by Marcus Aurelius or Elagabalus, but pay no attention to public men and women, unless they deserve your respect.
In Plato’s myth of chariots driven by winged charioteer-souls, true philosophers follow the god to the heights, where they gain a vision of reality. Others would eventually have to be reborn according to how much reality they had perceived and remembered. If they had soared high and seen much, they would be reborn as philosophers or musicians or lovers of beauty. Lesser men in descending order would be reborn as righteous kings, honest statesmen, athletes and laborers, and so on. In our discussion, we have gone from the high plane of Socrates and Aristotle down to the level of practical politics. Let us now descend further to the everyday level on which most of us large-brained apes spend our lives. Where should we look for information, much less truth on questions of politics or history or law?
Turn on your favorite talk-radio pundit—Rash or Muck or Sham—and listen for a half-hour, all the while asking, What does Mr. Hannity know about Israel or Mr. Limbaugh about the Constitution? And if they do not know any more than the average member of their audiences—as surely they do not—then why is anyone listening? Anyone who quotes Hannity or Alex Jones—except in jest or exempli gratia—forfeits his right to an opinion. In the current mock-debate between Alex Jones and Piers Morgan, anyone with any discretion will step aside and let the nasty children pelt each other with mud.
So disgusted have I grown with other people’s opinions that I have come to distrust my own. I often think of Proust’s character, Charles Swann, who,
when challenged . . . to give an opinion, or to express his admiration for some picture . . . would remain almost impolitely silent, and would then make amends by furnishing (if he could) some fact or other about the gallery in which the picture was hung, or the date at which it had been painted.
I used to give speeches and take part in seminars and debates on every subject under the sun, from Homeric heroism to conservative politics, but as I became convinced that my colleagues and antagonists were incurably ignorant, I began to wonder how much I really knew about anything, when it came down to brass tacks. Short of radical skepticism, I think one can distinguish, among potential sources of information, scholars like Clyde Wilson and Donald Livingston from popularizers who speak the truth only by accident. How many uplifting lectures have I endured at conferences, knowing that the speaker did not possess any of the tools necessary to make a mature judgment on the careers of Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Cranmer, or Thomas Jefferson?
Young people are forever asking me to suggest a few books that will help them get up to speed on Greek literature or American history. I always give them the same answer, which they receive in much the same spirit as the rich young man heard Jesus’ admonition to sell all his possessions and follow Christ.
I have some sympathy for the victims of American education, but very little for the pundits who lead these little ones astray. I used to have a colleague who could chat with seeming authority on the important books and big ideas that were in the air. If anyone questioned him, he would turn out to have borrowed everything he knew from prominent neoconservatives who had not actually read the books, though they could cite review articles in the New York Review of Books, a publication invented to degrade serious discourse. My colleague even wrote books that some people read and quoted. Dr. Johnson would have called him a liar—for pretending to knowledge he did not have and claiming authority he did not earn.
“Que sais-je?” asked Montaigne. He was an evil writer, but the question is crucial, for anyone who thinks or writes. Those who wish to utter opinions, it seems to me, have only two choices. They may content themselves with repeating acknowledged authorities, so long as they have taken the trouble to convince themselves of the soundness of the experts, whether scientists or popes. (Authority wanted: Charismatic preachers or half-educated pundits need not apply.) The much harder alternative is to acquire the necessary intellectual outfit themselves. (Scriptural interpreters wanted: No Greekless zealots need apply.)
Even if a man spent his life doing nothing but study, his fund of knowledge would be slight indeed. If a little learning makes a man proud, a great deal of learning should make him humble. I know it will sound vainglorious, but I hope I may live long enough to become as ignorant as Socrates.
Insane is he who hopeth that our reason
Can traverse the illimitable way,
Which the one Substance in three Persons follows!
Mortals, remain contented at the Quia;
For if ye had been able to see all,
No need there were for Mary to give birth . . .