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Thomas International Center
October 2006


Ralph McInerny


Acedia In Academe



People weary of doing this or that and acquire a distaste for what previously pleased them.  All that is human enough, (natura humana mutabilis est), but nonetheless it is tragic to see those who have had the enormous privilege of devoting themselves to things intrinsically good, like the pursuit of truth, grow jaded and surly. Plato warned against misology, a hatred of the Ideas that can come after long familiarity with them. The theological word for it is acedia, a distaste for spiritual things. It is one of the capital sins.

John Carey's What Good is Art? is causing the stir he doubtless hoped it would. In it, after a distinguished career as Professor of Literature at Oxford, he turns on his erstwhile love and suggests that there is really nothing to choose between Shakespeare and comic books. And what, after all, is a work of art? Carey professes no longer to know. That isn't quite right. He embraces a radical subjectivism according to which the world, including the art world, consists of our projections - yours or mine, that is, not ours. One could of course mention similar efforts by all too many contemporary philosophers. They make a sad spectacle.

Why would one argue that arguments are futile? Such efforts are self-destructive. All the blithe assertions in such screeds, when the theory is applied to them, disintegrate into babble. Relativists have a way of being absolutists, their pronunciamentos apparently spared from the scorched earth policy they allegedly recommend.

We have reached a point in our intellectual history where the most elementary principles require defense. And the defense against their denial remains to show that such denials either exempt themselves from the target area or go up in smoke with everything else. If the latter is true, it is pointless to write such books. If the former, we are confronted, as Plato suggested, with a profound moral fault. Let us read them as cautionary tales, twisted reminders of the need for those mores intellectuales without which the life of the mind can become worse than bestiality.  Lilies that fester smell worse than weeds.


Ralph McInerny