In the previous century, the language wars were fought over adverbs; at issue was discipline of thought and speech. How many thousands of readers of The Elements of Style felt that mixture of shame and delight when they read what Strunk and White had to say about “hopefully”? “This once-useful adverb meaning ‘with hope’ has been distorted and is now widely used to mean ‘I hope.’ Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly.”
Oh, for the good old days.
To be sure, Orwell was there to remind us about the dangers of newspeak. But as the century ground to its weary end, the Communists were in worldwide retreat, and it seemed as though words were returning to their proper meanings.
How shocking these last few years have been. Suddenly, pronouns and possessive adjectives are on everyone’s minds. “To each their own” is ubiquitous. Today one takes a stand by using the constructions we found so cumbersome in the 1980s, “he or she” and “his or her.” Whence this strife over words? What are its deep roots? How is sanity to be defended amid these battles?
Michael D. Aeschliman’s The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case against Scientism, an updated edition of a work first published in 1983, has the answers.
There is a double surprise in store for Aeschliman’s readers. It is alarming to learn how the rise and growth of a scientific culture has been linked with the most blatant subjectivism. It is a joy to be introduced to the “great central tradition” of witnesses to the true meaning of words and defenders of human reason, a tradition culminating in a man here fittingly characterized as its “trustee,” the redoubtable “Jack” Lewis.
As to the first, in The Restoration of Man, Aeschliman ably chronicles how the culture associated with the new science of the 17th century began poorly and became worse. It was four long centuries ago, after all, that Francis Bacon declared, “There is nothing sound in the notions of logic and physics: neither substance, nor quality, nor action and passion, nor being itself are good notions; much less heavy, light, dense, rare, wet, dry, generation, corruption, attraction, repulsion, element, matter, form, and so on; all fanciful and ill defined.” And just three years later, Galileo followed up with “I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we place them is concerned, and that they reside only in the consciousness.” The new science began with an assault on the human race’s immemorial habit of expressing its experience of the world in ordinary language. On Bacon’s and Galileo’s principle, even a statement as simple as “The brown horse ate the red apple” would need to be called into question.
In the intervening centuries, the rejection of what we know to be the case through seeing and touching has become more and more troubling and perplexing. Darwin, for one, mused in his notebooks that thought might best be understood to be a “secretion of the brain,” without stopping to ask himself who then would be doing the understanding. Badly do we need witnesses such as Lewis and the philosopher Thomas Nagel to remind us that “scientific materialism is,” in Aeschliman’s words, “internally inconsistent and false.”
It hardly needs to be said that responsible investigators, experimentalists, and theorists through the centuries have carefully avoided making such sweeping denials of the truth of our everyday experiences and of our experience of ourselves as knowers. It is also abundantly clear that some of the most effective critics of what Aeschliman calls “the religion of science” have themselves been scientists.
Yet it is of vital importance that men and women be aware that real advances in our understanding of nature have progressed side by side with an ideology that not only threatens our well-being but that would empty those intellectual triumphs of their significance. As he teaches us that important lesson, Aeschliman’s target is the regrettable tendency of scientism — the ideology that exaggerates the role of empirical science in forming our view of the world — to “destroy the vision of man as imago Dei by picturing and perceiving him instead as a creature driven and primarily determined by laws of matter and force.”
And while he is criticizing that scientism, Aeschliman gives us a reading of C. S. Lewis — anchored in Lewis’s minor classic The Abolition of Man (1943) — that shows Lewis to be at once philosophically astute and rhetorically potent. On the point in question — the primacy of ordinary language — Lewis expressed himself with matter-of-fact eloquence: “Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test.”
Indeed, the vernacular is the test because it is in the vernacular that the battle lines have been drawn. This has been known by the wise for some time. It was over 20 years ago that Pope John Paul II identified the contemporary “crisis of truth” as a “crisis of concepts” and asked, “Do the words ‘love,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘sincere gift,’ and even ‘person’ and ‘rights of the person,’ really convey their essential meaning?” It should be plain that all of them are currently matters of debate, with the first of his list seemingly on everyone’s lips but only questionably in everyone’s heart.
From whom are we to learn how to speak again? From the “great central tradition” of classical and Christian civilization which is Aeschliman’s second great concern in The Restoration of Man. While he chronicles the spread of scientism since the Enlightenment, he also tells the tale of those who have opposed it every step of the way, from Pascal and Swift in the early years, to Newman and Dostoevsky in the 19th century, to Chesterton, Lewis, and Solzhenitsyn in more recent decades. These were the writers and witnesses who strove to “revive, nourish, and protect the common human reason against specialists and fanatics who would reduce it to sense perception only.” They were the prophets who insisted that science “depends upon philosophy for the validity of its terms and procedures and to guide the uses to which scientific knowledge will be put.” And they were the true philanthropists, who sought to nourish the souls of men and women with something more substantial than what engineers can produce. They wrote satires, poetry, novels, biographies, essays, and even plays, because they knew that “some more popular form than rational argument” would be “necessary to counteract scientific materialism’s more immediately tangible and visible appeals.”
By placing C. S. Lewis within this great tradition, Michael Aeschliman has reminded us that if we would regain our purchase on the true meaning of words, we must have recourse to the very fonts of wisdom, in the works of Augustine and Aristotle, Jane Austen and the Psalms, St. Paul and soon-to-be-saint John Henry Newman. The Restoration of Man is a book marked by tremendous learning worn lightly, deployed vigorously, and offered generously to a generation that has forgotten how to think because it has lost its grip on the meaning of words.
This article appears as “Recovering Our Reason” in the September 30, 2019, print edition of National Review.