I closed last week’s post with the remark that “anything can be argued, yes, but at some point the guns should fall silent.” At some point the argument should rest.
This is when people usually ask, “Who gets to say when the argument should rest?” The question is both rhetorical and sarcastic. What it means is that no one gets to say when the argument should rest, and that all intelligent modern people know this. We are expected to understand that although there may be such things as political authority and legal authority, there is no such thing as intellectual authority.
But is this true? I think it is quite wrong. Not only is there such a thing as intellectual authority, but there are several kinds of intellectual authority. Expert authority, for example. Suppose we are discussing how to solve differential equations. I can’t remember my calculus, but you are a calculus teacher. If I have any sense, I will defer to your authority.
At the moment, though, we are discussing a somewhat different kind of intellectual authority, which might be called presiding authority. The Catholic Church calls it Magisterium. This means the authority to say when the argument should rest -- at least for those who accept the authority.
Carefully delimited, cautiously exercised, voluntarily accepted presiding authority seems to be a prerequisite of intellectual progress. Without knowing more about the particular Magisterium in question and the grounds of its claims (the Catholic Church? The Westminster Assembly?), we cannot say whether progress will be deeper into truth or more profoundly into error. But at least one has a chance of progressing somewhere besides round and round in circles.
If one can only settle that God has disclosed Himself in Christ, then one can go on to ask about the meaning of this remarkable self-disclosure. If one can only settle that marriage is a permanent union of a man and woman with a view toward procreation, then we can go on to ask other interesting questions about marriage. But if nothing can be settled, nothing can be built on that foundation.
Someone who rejects the concept of intellectual authority may think that he has no intellectual authority and so he is free. But not having an intellectual authority would require him to work out everything to believe for himself, a task too massive even for a superintellect. Whatever beliefs we cannot work out for ourselves, we inevitably borrow from another source we consider reliable. This is why he who explicitly rejects intellectual submission ends up tacitly submitting himself to authorities whose dominion he does not recognize. He has not become more free, but less. Because he is unaware of his masters, their dominion over him is unlimited.
Alexis de Tocqueville argued that in a society with no inherited statuses, the unrecognized, despotic authority is usually the majority. This is close to the truth, but a bit too simple, because the process is chaotic, and the majority itself is divided. Everyone responds to the people in his own milieu, but his milieu keeps changing, just because each of the other people in his milieu is doing the same thing. I like to call this the Grackle Syndrome.
Grackles are a raucous and ill-mannered variety of blackbird common in Austin, Texas. When I first began teaching at the University, the campus was plagued by several hundred thousand of these feathered creatures. At a certain time every evening, they filled the skies. One evening I watched.
The heavens presented the appearance of a vast kaleidoscope of shrieking birds, swirling through the air in a long-protracted, writhing pandemonium. There were no flocks per se. One group of several hundred grackles might suddenly change course. Perhaps most of the birds would follow the new course, but others, disoriented, would split off to continue the old one. In a few more seconds, those which were following the old course might fuse with yet a third group, and those which were following the new course might be absorbed into yet a fourth. And so the drama was repeated all over the sky, as all those tens of thousands upon tens of thousands of noisy black fowl zigged, divided, recombined, redivided, swooped, zagged, and zigged again.
I am sure each grackle proudly told himself he was following no authority but his own, even though he was merely following his close companions. If he should ever have happened to spare a glance at more distant grackles, he thought “They are on the wrong side of history.” If five seconds later his little group was dispersed into fragments and he found himself in a new little group, he followed his new close companions. Since grackles have no historical memory, he now told himself that those other ones were on the wrong side of history, not remembering that but a few moments before he had been flying by their side. And so it goes with us.