Faculty parties are excruciating experiences—bad food and worse conversation.  It has been many decades since American professors were scholars or scientists who could take an intelligent interest in a wide range of subjects, but they doggedly persist in repeating the opinions they have picked up like so much lint.

Younger professors are perhaps the worst offenders.  Many of them would rather talk sports or retell what they watched on television the night before, but they often feel compelled to talk for effect, which is really the last thing in the world they will ever be able to do.  I remember bits of an informal party given by my professor, Douglas Young, to honor a visiting French Hellenist.  Graduate students and younger faculty members, giving vent to their deepest feelings, were analyzing an episode of Mannix, when Young, quite exasperated, blurted out, “Speaking of Aeschylus . . . ”  To which the department’s future chairman responded, “But Douglas, we weren’t speaking of Aeschylus.”

“Yes, but I want to be speaking of Aeschylus.”

Off to a bad start, the conversation turned to more serious questions, stranding the Mannix-watchers almost in mid-sentence.  In the course of the discussion, Young expressed forceful opinions on subjects as varied as Greek lyric meters and the dissolution of the Labour Party.  After an hour of this, the same future chairman, as thoroughgoing an anti-intellectual as has ever pined for a deanship, grew even more resentful, observing somewhat caustically, “There isn’t a subject on which Douglas doesn’t have an opinion.”  To which Young replied that there were vast areas of human learning on which he did not know enough to have, much less express, an opinion.

What the future chairman could not understand was the distinction between a carefully formed view on a subject that has been seriously studied—what we otherwise might call an argument or a position or an idea—and an opinion arbitrarily adopted for entirely personal or trivial reasons.  Although the word opinion is used for both, we should be able, even in the simplest things, to distinguish between a well-considered conclusion and a mere whim.  For example, I dislike most mayonnaise on the excellent grounds that I can distinguish between commercial mayonnaise and the real thing my wife occasionally makes; on the other hand, I also picked up my dislike from my father, who—since he also disliked mustard and ketchup—may simply have been prejudiced against all condiments.

Now, there is nothing wrong with prejudices.  They are the indispensable simplifiers by which we live and die.  A man does not have to understand why he dislikes Pepsi-Cola or Prussians or free verse.  He just does.  If, however, he feels he must convince someone else of the validity of his prejudice, he soon finds himself turning into an opinionmonger, like one of those poor devils paid to recite party propaganda on the television.  These days, they seem to come in pairs, like Hannity and Colmes or Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.  I’m tempted to invoke Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but neither side of these pairs is as passionate as Henry Jekyll or as erudite as Mr. Hyde.

Where do television performers get the idea that they are entitled to have opinions on, say, foreign policy or business?  The problem is not their manifest lack of critical intelligence.  A man might be as dull-witted as a Charlie Gibson, former Good Morning America chatterbox and now the star of ABC’s World News With Charles Gibson, but, after a few terms covering Congress, he has earned his right to lie about politics.  But getting inside dope on politics from commentators who have never managed a campaign or run for office is a bit like listening to music reviews written by a tone-deaf critic.

I should not be astonished, though I am too frequently, by the studied ignorance that pervades every serious debate in American life.  Every night on television, professional Christians, ignorant of biology, philosophy, archaeology, history, and theology, pretend to debunk the theory of evolution—a theory they consistently misrepresent—while their enemies, the public Darwinists (from the days of Thomas Henry Huxley to more recent experts such as Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawkins) think they have answered all the great riddles of existence, when, in fact, they do not know what the questions are, much less how to go about searching for answers.

Greed and cynicism may explain the opinions propounded by the self-proclaimed experts who caricature biology and archaeology on TBN, but scientists also lie (in the objective sense) when they pronounce on such subjects as the origin of life, global warming, or stem-cell research.  An objective lie, at least as I use the expression, is not merely a lapse in knowledge but either a mistaken judgment for which there is no excuse or else an ill-considered opinion that is offered up as an expert conclusion.  This, I take to be something like what Dr. Johnson meant whenever he said, “Sir, you lie.”  We all lie in this sense, pretending to knowledge or expertise we do not possess, but, since hardly anybody takes our opinions seriously, it rarely matters.  But, suppose I am an accredited expert on Greek philosophy (e.g., Martha Nussbaum), and suppose I should give misleading testimony, under oath, as to the meaning of a Greek word used by Plato.  Dr. Johnson would then be justified in uttering his more severe judgment, “Sir, you lie, and you know you lie,” because, in such a case, I have misrepresented either the facts or my own expertise.

The political opinions expressed by scientific experts often fall somewhere between these two hypothetical cases.  As experts on evolutionary theory, they testify on the morality of abortion or the use of fetal stem cells just as, on the other side, physicists assume the mantle of science in order to make pronouncements on biology, a field as alien to them as Egyptology.  Mankind has never been very fond of truth, but there was a time when a common culture made it more difficult for historians and zoologists to hornswoggle each other.  The historian might not have read the latest from Lamarck, the zoologist might be ignorant of Gibbon, but both had read Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides.  With what pleasure do we run across such hybrid geniuses as D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson.  As a biologist—and mathematician—he wrote the still classic Growth and Form, but as the recipient of a classical education, he was the acknowledged expert on ancient birds and trees.  Was he a superman or merely a Scot?  Thompson died in 1948, by which time the last generation of such men was already in school.  My own generation long ago showed that they can accomplish nothing, and the younger men are far worse than we were, and, yes, the world of letters has been in steady decline for centuries.

Early specialization has eliminated the common culture that could produce a D’Arcy Thompson, and we are left with an intellectual life dominated by trained savages who can do their job, understand (perhaps) some little corner of the universe (in the case of cosmologists, that corner is very tiny, indeed), but cannot integrate what they have learned into a larger picture.  When popular scientists step outside their field, they either fall back on the platitudes of the Durants or, what is worse, rely on whatever theoretical approach has been recommended by their colleagues in other departments.  Carl Sagan was, perhaps, the most extreme example, passing sweeping judgments on Christianity while lifting his opinions—and, in at least one case, an entire passage—wholesale from popular encyclopedias.  But Sagan was not even the worst of a bad lot, a position I reserve for Julian Jaynes, author of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a work that should be set on the shelf between Holy Blood, Holy Grail and Civilization and Its Discontents.

No, Carl Sagan and Julian Jaynes were not entitled to their opinions on history or theology, any more than Bill Moyers or Ken Burns is entitled to an opinion on anything.  But where would pollsters be if just any unreflective jackass did not feel entitled to vent his opinions, whether on the French Revolution or on nude sunbathing?

As Americans, we all have a right to our opinion on anything that swims into our murky awareness.  Informed or not, interested or not, we insist on having our little preferences.  The important thing is never to be without a ready-made opinion or we might, for one instant, glimpse some banal bit of reality and find it terrifying.

Disagreements over trifles have broken friendships and ruined marriages.  “You say tomato, I say tomahto.”  To save the “relationship,” either Fred or Ginger will have to give way, but, though it is true that we grow up speaking different dialects, it should not be impossible, even in principle, to say that one pronunciation is preferable to another, or that one should not put grated parmigiano on a seafood pasta or wear a striped tie with a checkered shirt or brown shoes in the evening.  I do not say that each of these judgments is infallible, only that it is not impossible that any one (and only one) of them is correct.

But “error of opinion may be tolerated where truth is left free to combat it.”

Perhaps in Mr. Jefferson’s world, but not in ours.  If a young man in Des Moines puts cheese on his bucatini con sugo di cozze or an ill-educated New Yorker regards Norman Mailer as a great writer, what chance of improvement does either have, if he cannot concede the possibility that he is wrong?  Millions of Christians have fallen for heresies as plausible as Arianism and as implausible as Calvin’s theory of predestination, but, in this case, at least, the heretics do not claim they have a right to their opinion but that they are right.  Thomas Hobbes, to this extent, was correct: “They that approve a private opinion, call it opinion; but they that mislike it, heresy: and yet heresy signifies no more than private opinion.”

Why do people insist on having opinions about things they do not care enough to study?  I meet Straussians who want to argue about Plato or the career of Abraham Lincoln but refuse to learn Greek (I do not mean take a few courses) or consider the content of Lincoln’s speeches and letters.  Straussians are, admittedly, dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equally idiotic, but they are hardly unique.  A few years ago, I was having dinner with a group of intelligent post-Marxists, and, in talking about the historiography of ancient Greece, one of them opined that Christian Meier was wrong about Thucydides.  Now, there are many things in Meier’s work with which I disagree quite strongly, but it was simply absurd for a Greekless political theorist to have, much less express, an opinion on a great historian.  He was shocked by my arrogance and appealed to an expert on German literature: “Surely, I don’t have to know German to have an opinion about Goethe, do I?”

This was not the question, I explained, because one could get a decent idea of Goethe’s greatness as a thinker by reading him in translation.  A better parallel would be a judgment on Goethe as a poet.  The political theorist agreed to the restatement of the question and was again shocked to hear his friend, the German expert, agree entirely that no one could judge Goethe’s poetry who had not read him in German.

Modern man sometimes seems like nothing more than a grab bag of accidentally acquired opinions.  Nearly 20 years ago, in a Chronicles article, Stephen R.L. Clark described the opinionated mentality as embodied in the statement,

I’m the sort of person who supports Everton rather than Liverpool, pretends to adore the Queen Mother and dislike Princess Anne, thinks that Qaddafi is insane and Gorbachev is a nicer chap than Brezhnev, and votes for Mrs. Tiggywinkle while expressing cautious disapproval of her policies.

NPR devotes hours of airtime, every week, to personal essays by freelance “writers.”  One series, This I Believe, is based explicitly on the premise that all opinions are created equal.  The internet has only aggravated this fake populism, giving every man a blog to fill with inanities.

Was it always like this?  Plato complains, repeatedly, about people who trust doxa—that is, those who know nothing but what seems good.  But Plato was being harsh.  The ordinary Athenians he lampooned believed what their parents and friends had taught them about courage and piety.  If traditional Athenian attitudes fell short of perfect truth, at least they did not, as so much Platonic teaching appears to do, make it difficult for ordinary people to lead moral lives.  We cannot all be philosophers or scholars or evolutionary biologists.

It is dangerous to put much trust in our opinions.  What difference does it make if I am right about the proper age for a child’s First Communion or the correct form of Baptism?  I am better off if I let my church tell me what to do, and, if I persist in having an opinion, then the least I can do is to enter the priesthood or, if I lack the courage, become a professor of some relevant discipline.  What good do opinions do us once we are dead?  None, and, if they have made us uncharitable, a good deal of harm.

Whether we like it or not, most, perhaps all, of what we believe has been given to us by someone—by parents, teachers, or the authors of some cheap book we found abandoned in an airplane seat-pocket.  If we are lucky enough to have been born into a wholesome (even if imperfect) tradition, we can lead good lives without thinking too much.  Plato was wrong: The unexamined life must be worth living.  Otherwise, most lives are utterly worthless.  If we have been born into a bad tradition and are fortunate enough to see some of the errors, the greatest mistake is to conclude that we now ought to be thinking for ourselves.  If Islam or liberalism is wrong, it is only because something else is right—namely, the Christian tradition—and it is small credit to us if the truth has made its way, against all odds, into our stubborn and fitful intelligence.

Too often, however, we think we are wiser than the tradition that has made us.  Exasperated with a few bad priests or ministers, we immediately conclude that Christianity or our church is bunk and that we are brilliant enough to see through the sham.  All too often, a conversion is nothing better than the realization that the Catholic or Orthodox or Lutheran Church is entirely invalid, compared with the Fourway Church of the Sacred Wheel, whose truth we and a few others have been smart enough to recognize as the one true church.  There is too much self-satisfaction in converts of every type.  They not only condemn the church of their parents to everlasting fire but, in the case of Protestant converts to Catholicism and Orthodoxy, often insist upon the most rigorous standards for a church whose traditions they hardly understand.

If we once discard the liberal illusion that our opinions mean something, we can subject ourselves to the disciplining reality of everyday experience and to the formative reality of the traditions that make us who we are and point us in a direction of who we ought to be.  Naturally, that is just my opinion.