What screwed up the world?—Centennial seminar asks

A dozen scholars and commentators convened as guests of the Centennial Institute on May 17 for a luncheon seminar on Benjamin Wiker’s survey of modern intellectual history, Ten Books That Screwed Up the World.

After Wiker, formerly a professor of philosophy and ethics at several Catholic colleges, lectured about his book at CCU on April 15, Centennial director John Andrews suggested there should be a followup discussion to probe the validity of his thesis.

Two CCU faculty members, political scientist Greg Schaller and historian William Watson, reflected afterward about some of the differing perspectives that emerged at the luncheon. Their comments included the following:


SCHALLER:

Some at the table seemed to desire the absence of state interference in soul-craft. In my opinion, this is not the same good they seem to think it is. While I certainly agree that the absence of brutal states is superior to the cruel dictator, I disagree that it is an either/or proposal. The state can and should play a role in the forming of social mores that are essential to self-government success.

It is indeed a great thing that we have the liberty to debate and discuss these ideas, free from state persecution and I wouldn’t want to live under a different regime. The problem with the absence of guidance is that the liberty that was won, based on the principles of natural right, has been corrupted into license. And this is a terribly dangerous development, that does indeed connect back to Wiker’s argument.

There is no denying the fact that Hobbes does indeed refer back to Machiavelli, and Rousseau to Hobbes, and Marx to Rousseau, and Nietzsche to Marx. To ignore how this lineage has built on itself, and the negative impact it has had, is wrong.


WATSON:

I was surprised there weren’t more voices supporting Wiker’s understanding of historical causation, that ideas have consequences. Have we dispensed with Intellectual History? Is there no historical development of ideas? Didn’t Rousseau influence Robespeirre and Marx, or Darwin and Nietzsche influence Hitler? Isn’t there an assumption in teaching Western Civilization, in the way CCU is now doing, that Western ideas developed gradually over the centuries by the influence of Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and Christians?

Didn’t positive developments like the Magna Charta, Martin Luther, John Locke, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and the founding fathers culminate in the production of the rights, freedoms and democratic institutions we enjoy? Couldn’t there also have been negative influences leading us astray of these values, influences like the authors mentioned by Wiker: Rousseau, Marx, Darwin, Hitler, Freud?

I differ on a few particulars of Wiker’s positions, but his general thesis of a drift away from the worldview that produced human dignity, rule of law, free markets, limited government and individual freedom cannot be written off. We should defend (and train our students to defend) the ideas that have produced our liberty.

It seems to me impossible to deny the historical development of ideas which had consequences—specifically, the catastrophes of the 20th century. If someone claims, for example, that there was little or no difference between Genghis Khan and Adolph Hitler, I would say there is a great difference for the worse on Hitler’s side, not only quantitative in terms of the death toll, but also qualitative in terms of the evil ideology

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