"Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it." If only! I'm sure that many of you have heard some form of that quip by Santayana, and I daresay that in an unguarded moment I may have actually used it in class, as if the study of history were mainly justified by its prophylactic utility. That's not fair to Santayana, who meant no such thing, but it is how the quip is commonly understood. If you don't know your history, then you are likely to step on the same landmines that your ignorant forebears stepped on, and then think how sorry you'll be.
An excellent corrective to this half-mistaken call for the study of history is a book I've just read for the first time -- to my embarrassment I say it, but everyone has his sins of omission. It's Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences (1948), one of those books like Kirk's Conservative Mind or Lasch's Culture of Narcissism that allows you to stand clear of the contemporary welter and see not only how we've arrived at the current unpleasantness, but how apparently disparate phenomena are related: the loss of the sense of transcendentals; the reduction of the people to the masses; corporate capitalism and the oxymoronic anonymity of property; pragmatic education in the service of materialist ends; and what Weaver calls "The Stereopticon," the public rapid-fire of one image after another, without cultural or historical context, at speeds that make reflection and reason impossible. The Idea, by the way, that has brought about these Consequences, is the nominalist one, given us by Scotus (whom Weaver does not single out for villainy) and Ockham (whom he does), which denies the existence of universals, and eventually replaces the quest for knowledge-as-truth with the Baconian quest for knowledge-as-power-over. In other words, it dethrones wisdom and sets up technological and bureaucratic utility in its place. It sees the world finally as a machine, and then man as a machine, or as some great inert mass to be activated for pragmatic and materialist purposes.
Some developments since Weaver wrote would bring him cause for hope: the homeschooling movement foremost among them. In a home school, the teachers and the students largely choose their course of study, making judgments that it is better for Joey to read Dickens than it is for him to read Stephen King, and so judging in the light of values deriving from their sense of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Or maybe, if they are foolish, they make the reverse judgment; but at least they are human in their error, and not some indiscriminate portion in a vast mass, and they will suffer the consequences of their misjudgment and perhaps learn from them, exactly as if they had neglected to provide for raingutters in a house they built for themselves. Yet many developments would but confirm Weaver's vision. He would, as the old-fashioned liberal Lasch did, see the feminist "revolution" as but one form of capitulating to the freedom-destroying reduction of families to wards of the state, and of genuine individualism to narcissism, with one's value determined not by tradition, or honor, or noble obedience to moral directives that transcend the age, but rather by celebrity, a plaque on a desk, and brightly ribboned toys. Every philosophy that scorns the past, writing it off as one long night of stupidity, or, worse, as "socially constructed" and therefore irrelevant to us now, condemns man to live a prey to current social managers and mass education and entertainment. You cannot be a lover of wisdom without a strong memory, Plato says.
I live and work in the midst of the ruins: just the other day I saved from the dumpster several learned expositions, written for the Intelligent General Reader, of the Summa Theologiae of Aquinas. When I opened one of the volumes, a passel of newspaper clippings fell out, along with some prayer cards, and memorials for deceased Dominicans. On the inside of one cover was written "R. J. Fortin, 1951" -- and if I am right, that means that the book was owned by an excellent Shakespearean scholar, an alumnus of my college, and the founder of our Western Civilization program. Somehow no one in my library saw fit to save the books. As no one in a local Narragansett Bay library saw fit to save four volumes of the renowned history of the Indians, by Francis Parkman. Mass man, watching "news" en masse, "educated" to believe that the latest ephemera, a Romney or a Mrs. Clinton, have ever entertained a single idea to distinguish them from the masses to which they agree that we should be reduced. We will know that we have a chance of rising from the sludge when the following conversation becomes conceivable once more:
Puling Person of the Populace: "Our schools are failing, Mr. Presidential Candidate. What do you plan on doing about it?"
Mr. Candidate: "Nothing at all. If your students can't read, might I suggest that you see to it yourselves? Might I also suggest that you fire those currently in charge of your schools? See to it yourselves. You are not children."
Puling Person of the Populace: "But Mr. Presidential Candidate --"
Mr. Candidate: "No more. Do not embarrass yourself any further."
Anyway, I wish you all a blessed Feast of the Circumcision -- though I know it happened a long time ago.