In school I always wondered why some ideas sounded stupid and others really clicked. The stupid ideas usually did more to sickly me o’er with the pale cast of thought than to inspire me. But another thing I wondered at was that some of the stupid ideas were actually more interesting than the ones that made sense. The stupid-interesting ideas, I’ve come to see, were naked emperors—just waiting for a child to point and laugh at them. The ideas that “clicked,” on the other hand, were ideas that children would never laugh at. These ideas themselves seemed to laugh at every argument you brought against them.
In The Common Mind, Andre Gushurst-Moore introduces us to twelve men, each of whom pointed and laughed at the naked emperors of his own time. From Thomas More to Russell Kirk, these men asserted “common sense” in face of those who thought themselves above the common man.
In Utopia, Thomas More’s hilarious satirical story which pokes fun at all that was sanctimonious in his day, he argues that there is a place for philosophers among kings. “But not for that academic philosophy which fits everything neatly into place … There is another, more sophisticated philosophy which accommodates itself to the scene at hand and acts its part with polish and finesse. It is this philosophy you should use.”
More was a master of irony, and so it’s no surprise that his “sophisticated philosophy” is at once the truest and the only kind of thought which we can all most easily understand. It “clicks.”
Jonathan Swift, another story-teller, was also able to side-step his ideas out of reach when stuffy ones tried to put them “neatly into place.” He writes quite simply that “God hath given the bulk of mankind a capacity to understand reason when it is freely offered, and by reason they would easily be governed, if it were left to their choice.” He means this in reference to mankind as a whole, not just to the Department of Education.
John Henry Newman, a man better-educated (and holier) than the average pope, was no snob. He stuck up for the “common mind” against stuck-up academics, insisting that the principles of liberal education are attainable “by the mere experience of life.” A cleric himself, he nevertheless praised St. Paul, the “greatest of the Apostles” for being such a regular guy. “Having the nature of man so strong within him, he is able to enter into human nature and to sympathize with it, with a gift peculiarly his own.” Newman had such confidence in never-changing human nature that he didn’t even overemphasize God’s grace. He never made morality into mysticism or kept religion out of reach. He encouraged Christians to “use what we have been given by nature to the utmost, at the same time that we look out for what is beyond nature in the confidence of faith and hope.”
Orestes Brownson also staked a lot on human nature, which is not created or developed by the specialist, but common to us all. “No government that has real authority to govern, can originate in convention … alone,” he writes, “for the convention itself needs to be authorized by a law or an authority superior to itself…” This superior authority is something written in our nature. There’s no real authority in the stuff they come up with on the sly in Washington, unless it’s something that makes sense—something that “clicks.”
But now it’s harder than ever to point and laugh. Absurdity used to be funnier. We used to laugh at Bill and Hillary’s absurdly unromantic public image, and joke with friends about the shrill neurotic notions which the manifestly out-of-touch attempted to instill in little Presbyterians and Catholics at public schools. We sighed and wiped our teary eyes, still chuckling a little, when Obama was elected in 2008, and snickered once or twice again at his unsubtle wooings of the younger and more marginal demographics. But now the laughter’s dying down.
The caricatures we painted yesterday were optimistic, even pretty in comparison to today’s grotesque reality. Today, Christian institutions are forced to choose between solvency and faith, submitting to the state religion of child-sacrifice or lying down to die themselves. Upright citizens refusing to allow the government to dictate what arms they may and may not bear are threatened with force. And in some small but influential gatherings in California, the rights of those whose sexual preference is for children are beginning to be asserted. Soon, we fear, the “common mind” will finally be banished from the public altogether, and even the child who wants to point and laugh will be hushed.
So what are we to do? Andre Gushurst-Moore may surprise you with the brilliance of his answer. “The challenge to Christians in any age,” he writes, “is to reinterpret the common mind in new circumstances, and to apply the model of an integrated vision (as seen, for example, in the medieval world) in times that always seem ‘unpropitious.’ A first step would be to find a way towards a politics of conscience, instead of ideology.” And have no fear; the author isn’t advocating any nerdy reapplication of outdated social structures, like the “academic philosophy which fits everything neatly into place.” Rather, as he puts it, “the discarded model of the middle ages … is not so much a template, but a source of inspiration…” In fact, “…none of us knows what a future Christian culture will look like; in many respects it will be very different from our own culture; and there will be aspects to it that we do not much like.” This isn’t to say that Gushurst-Moore has no ideas as to how to put the “common mind” to work in our society. He does, and I would recommend you read the book to find out what they are. I promise you they “click.”