Reason Has Its Rights
I have a new piece up at Discourse that I wanted to draw your attention to. I wrote this last week in something of a fit of pique after the city of Charlottesville not only got around the legal hurdles and cleared away statues of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee—but then went on, in an orgy of spite, to clear away a really excellent statue of the explorers Lewis and Clark, at the same time that the University of Virginia cleared out a monument to Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark.
I paired this with conservatives' defense of what amounts to an educational surveillance state, complete with cameras in classrooms to enforce ideological limits, and drew out the common premise.
There is an old doctrine originally attributed to the medieval Catholic Church: Error non habet ius—“Error has no rights.” It is particularly associated with the “Syllabus of Errors,” Pope Pius IX's 1864 broadside against political liberalism, freedom of conscience, and the separation of church and state. The argument is that the common good requires the suppression of false ideas that might lead people into error. I mean, if an idea is wrong, how can it claim any right to be tolerated?
This view had already been undermined by less dogmatic thinkers like the American Catholic Orestes Brownson, who coined the rejoinder, “Error has no rights, but the man who errs has equal rights with him who errs not.” The whole doctrine was ultimately abandoned in the Second Vatican Council with the backing of Bishop Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.
Yet somehow “error has no rights” has ended up being the ruling principle of both sides in our current culture war.
First is the counterpart I found to the idea that "error has no rights": "The answer to the medieval principle that error has no rights is another, opposite medieval idea: that 'erring reason binds,' that there is nobility in following one's conscience even when it is mistaken." This is a huge and under-appreciated idea, and I take it to mean this: It is better to follow reason, even when your reasoning is mistaken and leads you into error, than it is to follow an authority blindly. Relying on your own mistaken reasoning may lead you away from the truth, but reason still has the potential to lead you back again. Following anything other than your own reason—feelings, conformity, authority—is even more likely to lead you into error, but it does something worse: It deprives you of the means for correcting that error.
Epistemologically, reason has its rights, and one of its those is the right to accept the risk of error rather than surrender its ability to independently assess the facts.
The second, more chilling observation is this one:
While watching these sculptures come down all across town and driving by the stubs of their plinths the next day, I was reminded of ancient ruins of past civilizations. I just happen to be in the middle of reading Catherine Nixey's 2017 book The Darkening Age. about the early Christian campaign to destroy the temples, sculptures and books of the Classical world. Well, it's not a complete coincidence because there is a very distinct parallel. Like the ancient Christian fanatics, we are measuring the triumph of virtue not by what we create, but by what we destroy....
Think about that when you listen to Rose Ann Abrahamson, supposedly representing the Native American perspective, talking about the Lewis and Clark statue: “I feel that it should just be melted down…. I feel that it's entirely offensive, and it should be obliterated.”
The abandoned plinths (which will eventually be removed in their turn) leave the entire town of Charlottesville without any public figurative art, with nothing to say about its own history one way or another.
I'll be writing a review of Nixey's book in the coming weeks, but so far the big thing I've learned is that the destruction of Classical art, architecture, and literature was not primarily a product of the chaos and wanton vandalism (in the original sense) of the barbarian invasions. Rather, the Christianized Roman Empire spent much of the 4th Century and early 5th Century systematically razing its own high culture, leaving little for the barbarians to destroy.
That's why I think we should be as alarmed as possible when we see people doing anything remotely like this today—and it's also why I don't accept faith and Christian traditionalism as an answer to the woke iconoclasts.