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Fragments of Nature’s Lore
An Assessment of our Time According to First Principles
The corruption or absence of controlling first principles leads to chaos.
If the first principles of our solar system—namely, gravity, inertia, and relativity—were suspended, then it would take a very short order to inaugurate cosmic annihilation. What person, in desiring so-called freedom and independence from first principles, would move the moon only several degrees? Or if he were able, growing weary of the perceived tyranny of first principles, tilt the Earth an additional 5° to port or starboard, forward or aft? Any such undertaking would prove the insanity of rebellion against the “tyrant” (and if one insists that true freedom is impossible while there are first principles, let us at least admit that a first principle, like gravity, is a most benevolent“tyrant”). Too late, the discontented cosmic traveler would realize that first principles are not dictators but guardians. Freedom is only possible because of the immovable nature of those stalwart headers. Mercifully, that most extraordinary but dangerous creature called Man has no power over the first principles of the universe. He might stomp and scream like a spoiled child who demands that he be allowed to play jump rope on a freeway, but the nanny quietly refuses. As juvenile as such insistence may be, it does demonstrate how God has endowed humanity with a degree of freedom and self-determination without in any way diminishing His sovereignty. Therefore, while Man cannot disturb the first principles of the cosmos, he can choose to suspend them or ignore them in his own life. The stars will fall, and the orbiting celestial bodies will spin out of control to scale, but he can inaugurate such a suicidal course of action. Collectively, others can join our philosophical rebel and form a coalition of deniers (or, to borrow from the title of John Kennedy Toole’s novel, a “Confederacy of Dunces.” Such a foolish move, at any scale of human existence, is unthinkable. And yet self-destruction is a state that humans have almost perfected, perfected in the way that a Jackson Pollock devotee becomes more adept at slinging primary colors of house paint against a canvas and calling such random chaos “art.” We are, of course, no more righteous nor malevolent than Adam and Eve and are, therefore, prone to the same consequences. Conversely, we are free moral agents — even if our wills, the controlling navigator of thought and action, are in bondage —and can choose the wiser path. This is, of course, our predicament and our possibility.
A. G. Sertillanges, O. P., wrote in The Intellectual Life:
Order among objects or disciplines of any kind is only established when principles, arranged in hierarchical importance up to the first principal, play their part as principles, as heads —as in an army, a well-ordered house, or a nation. Nowadays we have repudiated first principles, and knowledge is in a rout. We have mere fragments of nature’s lore, shining tinsel ornaments and no garments, splendid chapters, and no finished book, no Bible” (The Intellectual Life, Sertillanges, 1928, 109).
“Fragments of nature’s lore” refers to the scattered remnants of first principles that are present to either judge or offer renewal.
The first of the first principles of knowledge is the knowledge of God. From such a necessary theological source flows philosophy (i.e., “critical thinking,” if you prefer), in which we deploy intellect and activate our native senses in the service of ideals to observe, classify, and arrange phenomena. Philosophy begets action. So, we initiate a considered strategy: that is, we plan, we build, and we manage. In doing so, we review the fruit of our labors. We observe our creative processes, and we inspect their art, making corrections, adjustments, and refinements to improve. Then, we either repeat the well-ordered process to amend our work or, if satisfied that the product is sufficiently representative of the first principle, move on to another phenomenological concern. We pass along the first principles to the next generation so that, across time, in aggregate, we build civilization. Remove and replace the first principles (you cannot choose to live without first principles; you may replace them with “first things” that are untrue, but you cannot alter the equation of “source, philosophy, action”) with alternative governing ideas. You will change the rest of the process. Since God is the single greatest idea of all—for one cannot necessarily conceive of a power greater than the Eternal, the First Mover, and the Great First Cause of all that is seen and unseen—removal of that first principle renders the process either too weak or too wicked to run the factory of invention. Thus, not only do you cease to build an ordered civilization, but you produce mutations that diminish it. This is where we are. No one has stated the case of first principles more concisely or accurately than the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Christians in Rome:
Romans 1:19–23 (ESV): For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So, they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Thus, our assessment is that the true first principles of a functioning civilization are a vital source of its philosophy and its output and, by process, of human flourishing. In our next installment, we shall examine the principles that replaced the source idea of Western Civilization and how those alternative first principles, namely, the new theology, affect philosophy and productiveness. This will lead us to diagnosis and, ultimately, to treatment.