Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In the 12th century Bernard of Chartres first pointed out that we have more knowledge than those who came before us not because of our greater intelligence and understanding, but because we are “dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants,” and can see farther because of the accumulated achievements of generation after generation of intellectual pioneers who preceded us.
That intellectual modesty and respect for tradition that once characterized Western Civilization has been scorned and spurned by modernity, leading to many of the bad ideas and lethal ideologies that have plagued the last two centuries. Indeed, we are historically unprecedented––but only in the coexistence of an astonishing depth of knowledge about nature and its laws, with a profound lack of the wisdom and common sense once possessed by even our illiterate forbearers. Rather than acknowledge the traditions and wisdom on whose shoulders we sit, we arrogantly imagine ourselves to be self-created giants.
Our hubris comes from the remarkable success of Western science at understanding the material world and its laws, and then using that knowledge to create transformational technologies. But the wonders of technology led us into a category error. We began to think that human beings could be understood in the same way and with the same predictability as we achieved with the material world. Such knowledge in turn would lead to “scientific” techniques that could transform humans and correct the evils caused by ignorance, tradition, and superstition.
This illusion and the hubris it nourishes dominates our culture, especially among those called progressives, who endorse the arrogance of technocratic elites who believe power backed by the “human sciences” can reshape and improve humans, and so create a perfect society free from the suffering and misery of the past.
To achieve this aim, however, the wisdom of our ancestors about the permanent flaws of human nature and the tragic limits of human existence had to be discarded. The adoption of this grandiose project created the arrogance that we see among progressives today, and the lust for power and limitation of personal freedom necessary to compel humans to live according to the dictates and prescriptions of those who fancy they possess such knowledge. The dwarves of scientism and technocracy thus have to scorn the giants on whose shoulders they still sit, ignoring the debt they owe to the wisdom that developed over many centuries of trial-and-error and painful experience. Hence the mantra “Hey ho, hey ho, Western Civ has got to go,” and the hatred of the “dead white males” who created that civilization, for our technocrats cannot admit any authority or tradition or wisdom that challenges their own.
Yet the arrogance of the technopolitical left blinds itself to its own folly. Technological sophistication has not been accompanied by increased moral or even practical wisdom. Instead it ignores the eternal tragic laws of human existence: unforeseen consequences, the limitations a complex human nature places on our knowledge, the stubborn persistence of free will and its destructive caprices, and the need for humility in the face of how much we don’t and can’t know–– all have been ignored, leading to disastrous results for our social and political lives.
Marxism, of course, remains the premier example of the hubris of scientism and the belief that the imagined “laws” of history can be understood like the laws of physics, and that humans and society can then be improved by the skilled application of coercive power. The toll of that arrogance was 100 million murdered not in wars, but in political violence sparked by the attempt to reengineer human nature. Yet despite that instructive and monitory example, despite the more recent evidence, in Cuba and Venezuela, of collectivism’s penchant for murder, misery, and tyranny, our sophisticated “bright” dwarves today are still touting the social and economic superiority of socialism, communism’s offspring.
Of course, murderous tyranny has been a constant of human history, for it reflects the unalienable destructive flaws of humanity. But the Enlightenment project was supposed to eliminate that misery and oppression by removing its material causes, and improving human nature. The proof that the project has failed to achieve that grandiose goal can be seen today in those who still demand to reshape our social-political order according to the collectivist blueprint bloodily rejected by history. The wise question of Juvenal––Who will guard the guardians? –– is ignored by the self-proclaimed smartest people in history.
But this same arrogance of the technocrat, this same blindness to the failure of his schemes and projects, is visible in more mundane policies. And no place is fuller of examples than California. It is a monument to the hubris of modernity, with its stark coexistence of the highest of high-tech industry, along with poverty and decaying infrastructure; where San Francisco and its gleaming towers, stunning vistas, and storied bridges rise above streets festering with feces, garbage, hypodermic needles, and the human detritus usually found in Third World hell-holes, or in lurid postapocalyptic fantasies.
Take the water issue. One of nature’s greatest gifts to California is the annual Sierra snow-melt that drains into the rivers and fertile soil of the San Joaquin Valley before flowing into the Pacific. In the 19th century settlers began digging ditches to direct the water onto their fields. Soon came dams and reservoirs to store the water for longer use and a hedge against droughts. Thus was born one of the world’s most valuable agricultural regions, which accounts for half the state’s $46 billion ag industry, including over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts.
So what have our blue-state dwarves––the beneficiaries of the skill and labor of those who came before them and built California’s infrastructure––done with this legacy? They have refused to build more dams and reservoirs, and cut back on the water allotted to farmers, this year giving Valley farmers only 20% of their allotment. Worse than that, since 2008, during the peak of drought, 1.4 trillion gallons of water have been dumped into the Pacific.
And why? Affluent progressive environmentalists, who don’t have to provide their own food, and who fancy themselves the possessors of ecological and global warming “science,” are harming an essential industry and driving up food and energy costs in order to protect the Delta Smelt, a two-inch bait-fish. There is no scientific demonstration of how the extinction of the Delta Smelt would harm humans or threaten their existence, any more than the extinction of 99% of all the species that ever existed has held back the human race.
Instead, bad environmental “science,” old nature-love clichés, and a Disneyfied understanding of humanity’s relationship to nature are driving the smartest people in history into doing things an illiterate farmer in 1850 had too much common sense to do.
So too with many of our national policies and practices. Welfare programs and transfer payments have created a dependent class who don’t have to work. As a result, we have a low workforce participation rate at the same time as a shortage of workers. Our 1850 farmer could have predicted that outcome. Tradition and experience taught his generation that given human nature, if you give somebody something for nothing, he will soon expect something for nothing as a right, and his character will be degraded by sloth and dependency.
Likewise, the educational system is failing because it has been corrupted by dubious pseudo-scientific theories about learning, and by curricula aimed at shaping children to create some vision of the “new man,” as the Soviets called the improved human of the future. In contrast, for two millennia children had been educated by teaching them foundational skills and knowledge through the discipline of memorization and repetition. They were educated well enough to create the high-tech civilization that has lifted the human race to levels of material well-being and comfort our ancestors imagined for the gods. So what have our modern dwarves done? They have rejected those common-sense principles and methods as oppressive “drill and kill,” and replaced them with pedagogical fads like “new math,” and psycho-babble like “self-esteem” even though no empirical data exist that link a child’s positive self-perception to mastery of skills and knowledge.
Anyone with common sense and experience of human nature could predict the outcome of rejecting traditional schooling––ignorance, a grandiose sense of self, and an intolerance for effort. Encouraging callow youths’ inflated self-regard and subjective feelings, rather than developing their minds and characters with discipline and challenges, only creates incompetent solipsists, “snowflakes” demanding “safe spaces” that shield them from “microagressions.” Such people are possible only in a world brimming with surplus wealth. But what will happen when those riches lessen, and the luxury of entitled ignorance is no longer affordable? What happens when a pampered generation must face a tragic reality and discover that their feelings aren’t worth a hill of beans in this crazy world?
The arrogance of modernity’s dwarves stems from rejecting the tragic wisdom of the past upon whose shoulders we sit. But rather than keeping that wisdom alive and passing it on to the next generation, progressives either ignore or demonize the very foundations of their own existence. And as traditional wisdom and history have frequently shown us, sooner or later, the bill for that hubris will come due, and we will have to pay the price.