November 7th 2015

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COVER STORY Machines getting too clever for our good

CANBERRA OBSERVED Labor on the offensive against all argument

EDITORIAL El Niño caps tragic results of water deregulation

LIFE ISSUES Altruistic surrogacy leads to baby trafficking

CLIMATE CHANGE U.S., EU have hot air in store for climate gabfest

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Best marriage research backs Church's teaching

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Symptoms of a civilisation in crisis

THE DRUGS DEBATE An introduction to navigating the "ice" age

RELIGION IN RUSSIA Soloviev and the great vision for religious unity

PUBLIC POLICY Asia-Pacific conference sees through drug push

CINEMA Martian botanist left to cultivate his garden: The Martian

BOOK REVIEW Progress in the dock

BOOK REVIEW ASIO in the early years


Bishops being prosecuted for supporting man+woman marriage Here is what you can do

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Progress in the dock

News Weekly, November 7, 2015



by Roger Sworder

Angelico Press (Sophia Perennis).
Paperback: 172 pages
ISBN: 978-1621381471
Price: AUD$28.99


Reviewed by Brian Coman


From a perusal of the title of this new book by Roger Sworder, we may well ask why such a seemingly arcane subject would be of any relevance to News Weekly readers. After all, any attack on modern science hints at obscurantism. Science has delivered us so much. Thanks to science, we live longer, suffer fewer diseases and, in almost every way, live more comfortable lives. Who cares what some longhaired poet said a couple of centuries ago!

But the story of the rise of modern science and of that suite of modern philosophies that accompanied it is not just a matter of human progress and neither is it some wholly benign process. There is another side to the story. Many decades ago, C.S. Lewis (in The Abolition of Man) warned of what he called “the magician’s bargain”. He was here referring to the ancient idea that the magician sells his soul in order to gain power (think of Marlowe’s Faustus). He went on:

“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious – such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”

If Lewis were alive today, he might wish to update his “disgusting and impious” things – developing ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction, devising ever more efficient means of killing the unborn or, contrariwise, developing methods of producing human life which obviate the traditional union of a man and a woman in marriage and turn the miracle of new life into a mere scientific procedure.

And so, in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, we have a choice: either we conceive of ourselves as rational spirits “obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasure of our masters who, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses”.

The basis of spiritual life

When Lewis refers here to the Tao, he has in mind what Roger Sworder, in his brief Introduction, calls the intellectual apprehension of Being. It is the basis of all spiritual life and, by obvious implication, of all religious belief in a transcendent Reality.

Now, if we choose the spiritual path, we do not have to reject all scientific knowledge out of hand. It is simply a matter of seeing it as the ancients saw it. Science, for them meant real knowledge and the highest form of knowledge was metaphysics – “the science of the One”.

Knowledge of the material world may have been important, but it was of knowledge of an inferior kind. The “natural object” produced by analysis and abstraction was not reality but only a view. Under this conception of science – we might call it a sacred science – one could, as Lewis says, “investigate Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life”.

Sworder demonstrates that this ancient view of science has never really died out, and he uses the work of certain of the Romantic poets of the 18th and 19th centuries to show how their opposition to the new secular science was, in fact, a defence of a view of the world which had obtained from the time of Parmenides of Elea (500 BC) to the end of the Renaissance.

Quoting from the published work of William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in England, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville and Edward Arlington Robinson in America, Sworder reveals to us an important aspect of their work which has been largely ignored, not just by their contemporaries, but by supposedly learned scholars right up until the present time. It has been ignored purely because it runs counter to the view (and it is no more than a view) that the modern scientific method is the only way in which reality can be studied and properly represented.

Having demonstrated how his selection of poet-philosophers prose­cuted their view of modern science, Sworder ends the first section of his book with his own definition of Romanticism and of the Romantics. Here, it is worth quoting him at some length:

“For the Romantics, poetry was still a major medium of philosophy and they continued to believe in ancient and medieval conceptions of human destiny. They believed that our purpose is to know God directly. For them the faculty of intellection and the Being which it contemplates were central. Alike, the German and English Romantics denied that this Being, the ultimate goal of science, could be approached through empirical methods. They supposed that the Enlightenment had erred when it deprecated and discounted Classical and Christian visions of human fulfilment. On these grounds they rejected much of Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Locke, Voltaire and Hume, and they hoped for the return of a natural philosophy in which Nature was animated, not mechanical.”

The divine mania

Sworder’s view of the poet, on this reading, is essentially a Platonic one, for it was Plato who advanced the view that genuine poesy originates with divine inspiration (even though he would banish the poets from his ideal Republic). Here he would find an ally in the great German Catholic philosopher and neo-Thomist Josef Pieper.

As Pieper says: “We will certainly not go so far as to claim a divine voice speaking simply and directly through the medium of the poet. And yet, would we consider ourselves to be completely correct if we affirmed that the intense emotional power of great poetry is entirely without any connection to the ultimate, all embracing divine foundation of the world?” (Josef Pieper, Divine Madness: Plato’s Case against Secular Humanism).

Now, before leaving this short discussion of Sworder’s Romantics, I should like to return briefly to C.S. Lewis. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis attempts to convey to us just what he means by the term joy. In his youth, as he tells us, he had three fleeting experiences of something which was neither happiness nor pleasure and this something he calls joy. He struggles to define it but nonetheless tells us that it is “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction”.

Significantly, one of these experiences was occasioned by reading a couple of lines from Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf. “Instantly,” he says, “I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described … and then, as in the other examples [of joy], found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.”

These experiences of Lewis, I propose, fit the general schema outlined by Sworder and suggested by Pieper. And, of course, as we all know, Lewis did finally come to a much closer communion with this joy in his later life when he became a Christian.

The second section of Sworder’s book is a miscellany, though there are connecting threads – ancient Greece is never far away. The first two offerings are dialogues, one between student and tutor, the other simply between two scholars, A and B. The tutorial is in two parts, one on evolution, the other on automation and the value of human work in nature. The modern reader will be surprised, I think, to learn that Aristotle advanced ideas remarkably similar to those of Charles Darwin, and the substance of Sworder’s piece here is a very entertaining analysis of Darwinism and some of its implications.

In these dialogues, incidentally, Sworder is admirably fair-minded, and one is reminded of the old Scholastic schema of argument and counter-argument. The dialogue between the two scholars is simply called “A dialogue on eternity”, but it covers a huge philosophical territory and, as always, Sworder successfully goads you into joining the argument. Part of the next essay, titled “Plato’s jokes”, actually harks back to the first part of the book because here, among other things, Sworder defends Plato’s seemingly inconsistent stance towards poets.

The next essay, with the title “Hypnosophy”, is a straight spoof. You must imagine a contemporary Oxford Don, shut away in his ivy-encrusted room, and writing on some little-known aspect of Greek antiquity. He writes, of course, in the modern style, with all the arrogance and contempt for the past that that entails. Sworder has his measure perfectly. It is a delightful little piece of nonsense, made all the more so by a short poem at the end which purports to be a translation of a Hypnosophist fragment by “Rev. Grube”. In fact, it is quite a fine poem by Sworder himself and has been published in a recent compilation.

The last essay, “A Chinese way of work”, concerns a conception of human work found in parts of the Chuang Tzu, dating from about 300 BC. It reinforces both the Classical Greek view and the Christian view of work as being both contemplative and active. As Sworder rightly says: “A spiritual working class is one foundation of a stable society.”

After you have read Sworder’s book, you might care to reflect for a moment on one of the first public utterances from our new Prime Minister. It is important, he said, that “Australia seizes the opportunities of these, the most exciting times in human history”. Are these the most exciting times in history? Materially speaking they may be, but spiritually we are surely in an age much darker than any in the past.

As Sworder says in his Preface: “We cannot be careful enough when we claim we know more than our ancestors did.” That their knowledge was of a different kind alters nothing. Like Mary in the Gospel account of Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38-42), our distant forebears knew that “one thing alone is needful” and they chose “the better part”.

Brian Coman is a retired biologist. His most recent book, Against the Spirit of the Age, is published by Connor Court. An earlier collection of essays, A Loose Canon, is available from Freedom Books.

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