Whither knowledge and power?

A recent discussion with Bruce Charlton on knowledge, society, and the Eastern and Western Church provokes reflection.

It’s notorious that involvement in particular activities makes it hard to keep their connection to the whole in mind. Standard examples include making money, attention to the opposite sex, and attempts to control things generally. Hence the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

The pursuit of knowledge, which after all is a kind of power, can run into the same problems. Scientific studies provide an example. They emphasize measurement and the search for mechanism, so the more single-mindedly and successfully they are pursued, the more they seem to leave God and a great many other things out of the picture.

The question is what to do about it. Life must go on, and not everybody can take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Christianity accepts the need for government backed by deadly force, which Jesus (“render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”) seems to have viewed as something legitimate in the present state of the world but not part of its ideal state. And even within religion some sort of rational philosophy and theology is necessary. Things come up now and then—errors, misconceptions, new developments, attacks on the Faith—and it’s an advantage to be able to say something articulate on whatever the specific point is. If you can’t you’re likely to give up whole fields of life.

So it seems that organized power and organized knowledge are necessary as well as dangerous. The Orthodox East, it seems, has tended to take opposing approaches to the two situations. In the case of power, it identified the overall political structure (the Empire) with the Christian community, and placed it under the command of the Emperor, who was viewed as Christ’s representative. In the case of knowledge, it rejected that kind of overall comprehensive organization. There is no such thing as an Eastern Orthodox university: instead, monasteries taught specifically spiritual subjects while other subjects—classical literature and whatnot—were traditionally the province of private scholars.

The Catholic West was more systematic and took the same approach with knowledge as with power. It accepted that each has its own nature and relative autonomy, but it’s also part of the whole so it’s also religious. In each case the religious aspect is supported by some sort of supervision from the hierarchy headed by the Pope, who as infallible (under certain conditions) and head of his own state is independent of institutional power and knowledge.

My impression is that throughout the first millennium the East took the Pope’s views on doctrinal issues very seriously. If he didn’t go along on some issue, that was a very big problem. To my mind that suggests implicit recognition of the necessity of a this-worldly spiritual authority not subject to the power of the Emperor.

However that may be, both East and West have problems now. Christendom is no more. Institutional power and knowledge are anti-Christian and increasingly anti-human. It turned out that neither approach guaranteed good results.

Still, there is hope for the future. Claims that the state can be independent of understandings of the Good, Beautiful, and True have become more accepted in governing circles, but less persuasive to anyone willing to consider reason and evidence. And as institutional expertise becomes less and less like knowledge, the point of credo ut intelligam (“I believe that I may know”) becomes more and more obvious. (That point is now commonly recognized in the degraded form of claims that all knowledge is arbitrary or based on power relations or whatever.)

It seems then that serious political thought, and the pursuit of knowledge by those who actually want knowledge, is likely increasingly to involve recognition of their limits and their dependence on something higher. The future belongs to the anti-moderns. The question then is which form of anti-modernism makes most sense and seems most likely to turn out best.

5 thoughts on “Whither knowledge and power?”

  1. Excellent summary of the state of things
    “The future belongs to the anti-moderns. The question then is which form of anti-modernism makes most sense and seems most likely to turn out best.”

    Absolutely. This is *the* starting point for discussion.

    I would add that on the trends of the past century and continuing, that type of anti-modernism which is most likely to prevail is Islam (although Christian prophecies would suggest that if or when this happens, it would not be forever, but would be the beginning of the end times).

    The problem has been that a *bit* of modernism (a bit of specialization and professionalization, for instance) always seems to bring (immediate, short-term) advantage; and then *a bit more*, and a bit more…

    – and it has apparently been impossible to put the genie back into the bottle once he was released.

    This could imply a cyclical view of history – cycles of self-destroying modernity , modernity being repeatedly re-born then declining – or that this is indeed the beginning of the end times (as Fr. Seraphim Rose argued in this respect following-on from other Orthodox elders of ‘recent’ times including his spiritual fathers such as St John Maximovitch and Archbishop Averky of Jordanville).

    • What to do?
      The differentiation of human activities is an old problem, with some standard solutions:

      1. Taoists etc. have gone for a sort of mystical primitivism. That’s the most radical solution—stop differentiation before it starts. The problem is that it saves the whole by truncating it so it’s not really the whole any more.
      2. Confucianists etc. have gone for a cultured responsible nonspecialized elite. A basic problem with the approach is whether being cultured is enough when (as Rawls suggests) culture left to its own devices without any supervening authority tends to fall apart.
      3. Jews, Christians, Mohammedans have gone for a explicit authoritative revelation that in principle trumps everything else, interpreted by a specialized class and pointing toward a final state of beatitude.
      4. The Marxists had the same idea, only it was going to be Marx’s writings, the Party, and the Revolution that were going to do the trick.
      5. Then there’s always the “shut up and do what you’re told” approach. Keep the differentiation of technical thought and function, but wipe out thought about larger issues. The ancient Chinese Legalists pioneered the approach by unifying the Empire, killing the scholars, insisting that words meant whatever the Emperor said they meant, and punishing the people if they even praised the government (it was none of their business). PC carries forward the tradition in a less violent but no less comprehensive and effective form.

      As a practical matter there’s usually been a combination of the first three approaches, with maybe a bit of the last sneaking in to make up for any weaknesses. Traditionally, European society had a hierarchical Church, a class of gentlemen, and various monks, friars, anchorites, and whatnot. I don’t see how to do better than some such combination. Maybe Eastern Christianity tended more toward the first and Western Christianity toward the second and third elements.

      I suppose the tendency today is toward the final approach in its PC form, with mystical primitivism as a sort of private hobby. (Is the latter what the Romantic movement was pointing to?) That approach is crude and extremist, and it’s important to point that out.

      I agree that Islam (a crude version of the third possibility, with some of the last added in) has some advantages. If public order disappears for lack of substantive common understandings and loyalties people will fall back on personal connections and you’ll get a Levantine social structure. People will still feel the need for an overall ordering principle of some sort, so they’ll go for one that’s easy for the average Joe to understand and plays up group loyalty more than rational universality.

      • Things are different this time
        Excellent analysis.

        But things are different this time because Islam (since 1900) is growing so fast, has such self-belief, and is becoming ever more devout and ‘radical’ (mainly due to demographic change – since the moderate/ Western Muslims do not reproduce).

        If anything else is to survive in the long term, it will need to match Islam’s unshakeable devoutness and self-belief – or else sooner or later it will be overcome; regardless of intellectual, economic, technical or military advantages.

        The West has been living off inertia and capital for so long that our resources are probably a lot less than they seem to be (like the cartoon characters who walk off the edge of a cliff, but who do not fall until they suddenly recognize their true position and immediately plummet to their doom).

        • Who knows?
          It’s hard to assess the real situation.

          If you analyze a situation simple mechanical aspects come to the fore so if there are stupid destructive tendencies at work the obvious interpretation is that the world as we have known it will end.

          It does seem that there’s a whole structure of organized mindlessness in power that makes that outcome particularly likely.

          Still, who knows? All we can do is our best, and how it comes out is how it comes out. At some basic level, of course, God always wins.


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