A discourse on wisdom, intelligence, and expertise

A few weeks ago, writing in The Conservative Woman, I complained about the wooliness of Britain’s official and ‘expert’ thinking about coronavirus[*]. In this, I feel increasingly vindicated. British government ministers have repeatedly said that the government’s response to the coronavirus would be ‘led by the science’. But the result has been self-contradictory, absurd, and, at times, comical—as when one senior scientist, the architect of our current lockdown, exempted himself from the lockdown in order to meet his married mistress.[†]

Today, I want to ask how this could have happened. I want to ask how my country, and so much of the Western world, came to accept narrow, largely mediocre experts as the leaders of our public discourse; how policy became excessively ‘evidence-based’ and naïve. I won’t be rejecting the value of elite, highly capable experts, some of them highly specialized; but I’ll be asking how we gave our minds over to a spurious scientism, and consequently lost our instincts for freedom and self-reliance.

So then: how did we accept this cult of expertise? To answer this, we first need to consider what carried authority in the West before the cult took hold. Prominent among these old authorities were, firstly, wisdom; and secondly, intelligence. Both concepts used to play a role in our nations’ debates that has now been ceded to expertise. I’ll consider wisdom first.

First, what is wisdom? This has always been a hard question, but nowadays most people would struggle even to see the point of it. Today ‘wisdom’ sounds a quaint notion; a concept from a past age. Young people probably encounter the word ‘wisdom’ more often in mediaeval-themed computer games, as a graded attribute of characters, than they do in the real world. And if one sought to understand ‘wisdom’ through film and television, one might suppose that it were the exclusive property of Buddhist monks and far Easterners!

Nevertheless, most people can still agree on some features of wisdom. Principally, wisdom is characteristic of the elderly. This is because it grows from experience, calmly reflected upon. Wise people are those who have accepted life’s sufferings, people who have ‘seen a lot’. Secondly, wisdom is broadly untheoretical: the wise man generally doesn’t have a grand theory of everything; nor need he be a genius. Third: because it’s untheoretical, found alike in pauper, king and scholar, wisdom is also culturally specific; a person becomes wise by calmly absorbing experience in an ordinary, tradition-bound way. Many pieces of wisdom transcend cultures, of course; but even so, the wise Buddhist is very different from the wise Christian.

This account of wisdom gives us a clue about why it lost its social role. Wisdom, as I say, is culturally specific. It’s therefore hard for it to function in a society with many different fundamental philosophies of life, many different traditions and faiths. A monocultural society can look to the wise to settle its differences, but a diverse society can’t. A diverse society therefore tends to look for some other source of authority on political and social questions—one that purports to be more culturally neutral and objective. A debased notion of ‘science’ and ‘expertise’ usually gets the job.

This need for a supposedly culturally neutral means of settling our differences explains why society has been placing an ever-greater faith in experts and expertise. Ironically, though, the same need has also weakened the best sites of expertise of the Western world. These sites, especially universities, used to owe no-one an account of their admissions decisions. Academics used their wise judgement, and admitted whomever they wanted to admit. They judged not just by candidates’ examination results, but also by their broader intelligence.

This kind of free exercise of wise judgement, however, is unsustainable wherever wisdom is ceding ground to an overweening expertise. For ultimately such judgement can’t be theorized or explained: but a philosophically diverse society tends to demand theories and explanations for everything. Even where such a society inherits the traditions of a more monocultural one, it cannot accept those traditions as authoritative. Hence wise ‘gatekeepers’—be they admissions dons or Colonels interviewing prospective officers—are soon forced to judge their candidates more and more by their candidates’ qualifications, and less and less by their own experience. Soon one needs a qualification for everything.

This leads me to intelligence. I suspect that the meaning of ‘intelligence’ has shifted a little, so that it now refers to mere speed of brain, or perhaps measured I.Q. But intelligence is really something more than that: it is the capacity to understand the world, to interact with it successfully. It is something incisive, and broad-based. It implies a good sense, an ability to bear in mind the relation of theory to reality, and not to get lost in woolly abstraction. It implies imagination, too: the intelligent person is able to see the big picture, and to get inside the minds of other thinkers, entering into that imaginative sympathy from which true understanding flows. Exceptionally intelligent people are capable of quickly grasping almost any problem put to them, and of asking the searching questions that solve said problem efficiently. In the more specialized disciplines, they criticise and adapt theory, rather than simply deferring to it. Furthermore, intelligent people use language precisely, concisely, and effectively. In societies that respect them, they set standards of writing and speech that encourage accuracy and careful analysis.

This level of intelligence is rare. In my own country, until a very few years ago, all top judges had it. Until 30 years ago so did all senior civil servants. Until about 50 years ago, so did many cabinet ministers. In Britain, perhaps a few thousand living people have it at any one time. 

A few more people have minds which manifest these features to a slightly lower degree. For example, I would guess that about one in twenty people have the right kind of brains for university education. (For others, it is simply not worthwhile. One cannot learn and successfully employ highly theoretical knowledge just by effort and rote learning; one needs some sympathetic imagination, and some good scholarly judgement).

Unfortunately, though, there is a fatal problem with this truth about intelligence. It is inegalitarian. It jars with the idea that one can be whoever one wants to be. Hence egalitarian societies tend to ignore it as much as possible. Indeed, the same is true of wisdom: wisdom is unevenly distributed, and differs from one culture to another; therefore it is not something that egalitarian societies can acknowledge, because it is a site of difference between people and peoples.

Now, when a society is both egalitarian and philosophically diverse, as ours are, this side-lining of wisdom and intelligence tends to work out very badly indeed. As we have seen, philosophically diverse societies need expertise to fill the space in their discourses that wisdom will inevitably vacate. They also to tend to develop qualifications for everything, in order to eliminate the kind ofwise judgement that can’t be justified on a government monitoring form. (And there will be government monitoring forms, because, as we have seen, philosophically diverse societies take no traditions for granted).

But when egalitarianism is added to philosophical diversity, these processes gain speed. This is because egalitarians assume that differences in apparent mental capacity and insightfulness are largely due to differences in education and privilege. The don’t believe that anyone is really wiser or more intelligent than anyone else. They reject the idea that most people cannot become learned experts, and they resent the fact that—until they came along to spoil things—a few, highly intelligent, people used to have a very disproportionate influence on policy-making. They deride the fact that ministers and civil servants—and even some parliamentarians—used to debate policy by reference, firstly, to timeless ideas such as those of Aristotle; and, secondly, by reference to tradition-bound wisdom and instinct.

For egalitarians have an alternative to tradition-bound wisdom, and to the kind of learning obtainable only by the most intelligent. They believe that, everyone being equally talented, the best way of making decisions is to ensure that everyone becomes an expert in something. They believe in objective sciences of everything, and they believe that academic talent is so widely spread that all these objective sciences can be fully staffed. In other words, egalitarians don’t want policy to be decided through ferocious, good-natured debates quoting Cicero, Aristotle and national tradition; they want policy to be decided through endless worthy, drab conferences quoting endless turgid, un-incisive specialists on every possible question, always from a viewpoint that misses any moral or spiritual features of reality that aren’t immediately visible. For they think that elitist, classical education, and tradition, are mere bluster and superstition. Egalitarians want to put modern men (and women) in power—people with long words and short memories.

And so egalitarians found more and more, narrower and narrower research departments at more and more universities, until almost everyone becomes an expert. Soon no-one is entitled to take a synoptic view, because that would be to intrude into other experts’ territory. The big landscape in the ministry gets thrown out of the window, to be replaced by lots of little conceptual artworks—fatuous, puerile, brutally expressed, and missing the point.

This, then, is the counter-intuitive truth: the cult of expertise, deferential though it has become, is actually a product of egalitarianism. For we can only have an expert for everything if we accept a quality of ‘expert’ that elitist societies would find risible. On the other hand, if we accept that very few people are intelligent enough to be experts, then we are likely to respect the opinions of highly intelligent people, even on matters about which they don’t have as much detailed knowledge as some specialists now do. We will then enjoy the big, bold, stimulating thesis without feeling guilty that we should be listening to the narrow, worthy, bland research paper instead. And we will accept two points: first, that there simply can’t be an expert on every question; second, that the really valuable experts that we do have are only valuable insofar as they have the kind of intelligence described above. We will realise that research can get society nowhere unless the researchers have sharp logic, and incisive critical instincts. And because we will understand that good research ultimately relies on ordinary sharp reason, and on imagination, rather than on mere training and qualifications, we will demand clear explanations from experts, and we will know not to trust them if they can’t give them.

None of this is to decry deep learning, of course. On the contrary, my point is that deep learning in the things that really stretch and form the mind—philosophy, difficult languages, hard sciences, and the like—is something that only a few will ever achieve. And once we accept that a man who knows his Aristotle and his Augustine is more likely to say something interesting about the art and culture of, say, Stoke-on-Trent than is the man who’s spent his life studying the history of Stoke-on-Trent, rather than harder texts, then we have a concept of useful expertise that isn’t divorced from intelligence. We’ll also be much more able to tie expertise and intelligence together with the good judgement that is wisdom. We as a society will then be employing much better concepts than we do now!

Now, there is a chance that we are just starting to move in this direction. The coronavirus has shown us that purely expertise-led policy, unguided by wise and intelligent generalists, quickly becomes absurd and ineffective in equal measure. But there is another side to these matters that I want briefly to mention. For I fear that we will never fully shake off egalitarianism, and its disastrous effects, until we return to the Faith. The reason for this is simple. Egalitarianism is erroneous; it is a bad characterization of reality. But what are the alternatives? If we acknowledge that people’s abilities differ quite markedly, then what reason do we have to value them? Some sort of fascism would seem to be the only alternative to egalitarianism: for if people are really very different, then why not make those differences the basis of our politics?

This logic makes perfect sense, if one has no faith. Indeed, all atheist societies really do tend towards either fascism or communism—or, often, a precarious mix of both. One either acknowledges difference, and makes it the basis of one’s politics; or one pretends that difference doesn’t exist.

But faith—especially the Faith—offers an alternative. The Christian can rejoice in the great diversity of gifts and qualities spread amongst humanity as part of God’s wondrous providence. He can believe that people are complementary, and yet that, since God loves them all equally, so should he. Nor is this an abstract, ‘spiritual’ belief. For the Christian, every man—be he never so humble—exists for a reason. And even if that reason is that, through a devout and humble life, he should contribute in one moment, in some tiny way, to the safety of a single soul, then his existence is of infinite value.

In our civilization, it’s that kind of thinking—the ability to acknowledge difference, and yet love all—that built everything that is rational, everything that is effective, everything that is good—and everything that is true.


[*] https://conservativewoman.co.uk/three-videos-that-make-me-wonder-about-our-virus-control/

[†] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8289921/Scientist-advice-led-lockdown-QUITS-breaking-restrictions-meet-married-lover.html

A new national religion?

WHEN the Prime Minister addressed the nation on Easter Day, he perhaps didn’t realise just how religious his words would sound. Mr Johnson, newly recovered from coronavirus, was understandably emotional in his ‘Lazarus speech’ on the great feast of Christ’s Resurrection: ‘We will win because the NHS is the beating heart of this country. It is the best of this country. It is unconquerable. It is powered by love’[1].

But intentionally or not, Mr Johnson’s words had a clear cultic significance. For even by Easter, ‘our’ NHS (is the ‘our’ really necessary? who else has one?) was quickly becoming an object of worship. And as Thursday’s weekly ‘Clap for our Carers’ sessions—now officially dedicated to all key workers, but still largely perceived to be for the NHS—have swept the country, this NHS cult has become even bolder. Suddenly the busybody on your street is the local Muezzin, calling everyone to prayer at 8pm, sharp, with his virtue-signalling cycling shorts and his overbearing tambourine. Duly summoned, the men of the street then compete to be the loudest, highest-handed clapper, while the women ensure that the children are holding up their NHS rainbows suitably conspicuously. Additionally, many people bring bashable din-making kitchenware. Truly, Britain is now a tinpot dictatorship.

In successive weeks in April, ‘Clap for Our Carers’ fell on Maundy Thursday (just after the Eucharist of the Last Supper), on Easter Thursday, and on St George’s Day. It thus stole primacy of honour and cult from, successively, Christ’s agony, Christ’s resurrection, and our national saint. In what bolder way could a new national religion stake its claims? Indeed, the founder of ‘Clap for Our Carers’ has stated that she wants the weekly clapping to continue even after the Coronavirus problem has ended[2]. An ongoing Thursday Obligation to Clap sounds uncomfortably like Catholics’ (now suspended) Sunday Obligation: the kind of duty properly owed to God alone.

But am I being merely melodramatic? Could one not argue that ‘Clap for Our Carers’ is an entirely natural and healthy reaction to current circumstances, comparable to the spontaneous nightly clapping that arose in Italy during the worst of the crisis there?

To answer this, one must understand the agenda behind our recent NHS adulation. In recent years a section of the country’s political, public-sector and media leaders, and celebrities, have coalesced around a shared instinctive sense, which for a few has become a conscious theory. This instinctive sense, where articulated, runs roughly as follows: Our nation is deeply divided on the most profound and eternal questions of life. But the NHS offers something we call all agree on; an altar around which we can gather; a possible source of social, doctrinal, and cultic unity. For people who believe this, the Coronavirus offers the perfect opportunity to build up this altar; and ‘Clap for Our Carers’, and one-minute silences, offer the perfect means of doing so.

Yet this attempt to make the NHS into a national altar is very dangerous. One offers worship to the thing that one sees as the source of highest values in life: theists worship God, regarded as the source of eternal truth, justice, and the like; hippie idealists worship the rock stars, as the source of hippie idealism; materialists worship the shopping centre, as a source of things to buy. If the NHS is the source of any value, it is the value of the preservation of mortal life. Worship of the NHS therefore implies that the preservation of mortal life is our highest value.

But, as highest values go, this is deeply inadequate. For sure, the preservation of mortal life is a very important end; life is intrinsically valuable. But what makes human life so valuable in the first place, is the fact that we humans can interact with a world of eternal values: we can freely choose to pursue good or evil, justice or injustice. Hence the paradox of human life: we can best affirm the value of our lives by being willing to put them at risk for truth, or justice, or love. Civilization depends on this paradox: we need policemen to risk their lives for the rule of law, we need soldiers to risk their lives for just causes; we need journalists to risk their lives to expose corruption; indeed, we need ordinary citizens to risk going out of the house in the mornings, motivated by a sense that they ought to be useful. If the mere continuation of mortal life is one’s highest aim and value, then life in fact has no value.

Many NHS doctors and nurses understand this perfectly well. Many are motivated by a sense of justice and love, and they know that the NHS, for its all bulk, is not the source of these eternal values. Therefore, they don’t worship the NHS; indeed, many of the them belong to other, older faiths. The problem does not lie with these laudable, self-sacrificing people; it lies with those who would make the NHS into a religion.

Now, it must be said that, as religions go, the new NHS religion that I have characterized above sounds seductively inoffensive. In substituting a transient value—the preservation of people’s lifes—for eternal ones like justice and truth, it seems to avoid debate about fundamentals, and all the intransigence and inhumanity that such debates can provoke. But I say again: if there is no value in life except the value of going on living, then going on living is itself worthless. This is why medical organizations like the NHS are not complete in themselves. The NHS is supposed to save life; but, in a society that increasingly looks to no moral authority except the NHS itself, the NHS now kills a great many people through abortion. Already, mothers of Downs babies often feel great moral pressure to kill their children; they face the insinuation that their babies will be a burden on the NHS. One woman recently explained to the Sun that, at a sonogram for her Down’s-Syndrome child, who was 38-weeks old, a sonographer reminded her that an abortion was possible, since her child was disabled. The NHS’ attitude, claimed the mother, was that Down’s children ‘were of no value’[3]. Indeed the actress Sally Philips, who has a son with Down’s Syndrome, has recently accused the NHS of adopting ‘eugenic thinking’.[4] Today, the old and sick are enjoined to stay at home to ‘protect our NHS’; tomorrow, will they be enjoined to pop into the euthanasia pod, also to ‘protect our NHS’? Maybe: for without values higher than the NHS, everything is on the table. Contrary to politicians’ naïve dream, there is no such thing as a comfortable, viable, consensual, life-affirming NHS Religion that we can all settle into, escaping the need for those invidious debates about eternals. Life is a spiritual fight; there are no mere spectators.

BUT we do have an Established Church. What have the Church of England’s bishops been doing to resist this looming spiritual and sentimental calamity?

The answer would seem to be—nothing. Until very recently, the Church of England had not only closed its churches to its congregations (that might have been reasonable), but it had even banned its own clergy from celebrating services within them—even clergy who lived on-site, or in an attached building. One bishop praised this extreme measure as ‘setting an example and model of what the Government is requesting in a desperate bid… to protect our NHS’.[5] But by that logic, I ought not to have gone into my garage, since that’s also a few steps from my front door. (Maybe ‘the science’ would have told me that it was a risk? Or would the NHS gods have punished me?)

            But there’s more. As the Times reported on Maundy Thursday, the Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, and the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, have banned volunteer clergy without experience of hospital chaplaincy from ministering face-to-face in NHS hospitals, citing safety concerns. Thirteen clergy had volunteered to perform this essential Christian ministry within the Barts NHS Health Trust—the trust that runs London’s new Nightingale Hospital, plus five permanent hospitals. But in accordance with the bishops’ ruling, the only face-to-face Anglican chaplaincy services in the trust’s six hospitals will be provided by the two pre-existing professional hospital chaplains.

            This, moreover, is despite the fact that NHS hospitals themselves are eager to train volunteer chaplains. As the Rev’d Tascha Critchlow, head of chaplaincy at St Bart’s Hospital—and an Anglican herself—said to the Times,‘The hospital would welcome qualified professional volunteers [i.e. professional clergy, not necessarily professional chaplains] who can give end-of-life care and provide solace. We would train them and give them personal protective equipment’[6].

The bishops seemed oblivious to this need. In fact, the Bishop of Chelmsford (the Archbishop-designate of York) suggested that the non-professional volunteer priests whom he’d barred from face-to-face service could make themselves useful in other ways—including by helping NHS workers with their shopping.[7] Meanwhile, the Bishop of London, having on Maundy Thursday confirmed her ban on volunteer chaplains’ serving face-to-face[8], then offered an Easter Sunday reflection on the importance of touch. Dame Sarah—herself a former Chief Nursing Officer of England, who took theology classes, and was ordained, in-post—reflected ‘I was encouraged to hear last week both the government’s Chief Nursing Officer and the head of the Royal College of Nursing telling us that nurses won’t let patients die alone…Touch is central to Jesus’ relationships…Touch brings reconciliation, reconciliation to a community and to God, it brings restoration of relationships and healing’[9].

In sum, then, the Church of England has now bequeathed the sacred duty of the visitation of the sick to health-workers; and meanwhile, it’s converted its priests into health-workers’ personal shoppers. The problem here isn’t the brave health-workers; it’s the church.

            Nevertheless, Dame Sarah—to return to her—is right about the importance of touch. Indeed, her words are borne out by the experience of Fr James Mackay, volunteer Catholic chaplain at the NHS Nightingale London, who has organized a rota of 9 Catholic priests, who provide a permanent presence in the hospital during working hours, and a 24-hour on-call service at other times. As he recently explained to the Catholic Universe[10]:

A priest called me at 10am – it wasn’t his day on – and said he got a call for a patient at 4am. It meant so much to the family member that a priest was there giving the last rites and was able to be there in that patient’s final moments. […]

I was walking down the concourse at the Nightingale last time I was in and I was stopped five times. Four out of those five times they started with: ‘I’m not religious, but…’ I think that engagement in conversation with someone who is a symbol of perhaps the transcendent, something outside of this pressurised environment, is proving so important for people spiritually and psychologically. I can’t move now without a conversation starting up. It is so important for us to be present in this way.

            Of course, many Anglican priests have offered to perform these services too. Some would express their desire to minister in biblical, Evangelical terms; others would share high, catholic ideals of priesthood. From the writer’s own, Catholic, point of view, such attitudes are but two sides of the same coin, and are highly laudable. But the Church of England’s bishops—who are, after all, appointed by the state—seem to have nothing to say to the NHS Religion except ‘we’re right behind you’.

            One is tempted to imagine a dystopic future, in which the ancient bishoprics and archbishoprics of England have become ex-officio appointments for senior NHS clinical directors, and in which the media follow King William and Queen Kate as they lead us in national worship on the 5th July, the foundation day of the NHS, at a blue-and-white-bedecked Canterbury Cathedral. More likely—if we continue on our current path—state ceremonies will continue to be nominally Christian, but our national spirituality will become more and more inward-looking, focused on the mere preservation of people’s mortal lives, especially our own. Truth, justice, and the sanctity of things—even of very young and very old lives—: these will mean little to us, when we have the religion of the NHS.

The question is: which moral leaders will have the foresight to denounce this idolatry, and to set us on a better path?  


[1] Boris Johnson on Twitter, 12th April 2020, available at https://twitter.com/BorisJohnson/status/1249336590482243585

[2] ‘’Clap for carers’: UK pays tribute to workers on frontline of coronavirus’, Sky News, available at https://news.sky.com/story/live-health-secretary-gives-daily-coronavirus-briefing-11977730 at 20:14

[3] ‘Mum’s FURY Doctors tried to get me to abort my baby at full-term because he had Down’s Syndrome’, The Sun, 14th December 2019, available at: https://www.thesun.co.uk/fabulous/10530353/abortion-pressure-nipt-downs-syndrome/

[4] ‘Miranda actress Sally Phillips accuses NHS of endorsing eugenics by ‘pressurising’ women to abort babies who – like her 14-year-old son – have Down’s syndrome’, Mail Online,19th June 2019, available at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7160281/Miranda-star-Sally-Phillips-accuses-NHS-pressurising-women-abort-babies-Downs-syndrome.html

[5] ‘Churches now closed to clergy as well’ Church Times, 24th March 2020, available at https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/27-march/news/uk/churches-now-closed-to-clergy-as-well

[6] ‘Church of England bishop bans hospital chaplains from the bedsides of sick and dying coronavirus patients amid fears they will spread infection’, Mail Online, 9th April 2020, available at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8203567/Church-England-bishop-bans-hospital-chaplains-bedsides-sick-patients.html

[7] ‘Church of England bishop bans hospital chaplains from the bedsides of sick and dying coronavirus patients amid fears they will spread infection’, Virtue Online, 9th April 2020, available at  https://virtueonline.org/church-england-bishop-bans-hospital-chaplains-bedsides-sick-and-dying-coronavirus-patients-amid

[8] ‘A letter regarding hospital chaplaincy’, Diocese of London, 9th April 2020, available at https://www.london.anglican.org/articles/a-letter-regarding-hospital-chaplaincy/

[9] ‘God has touched the world and we are not alone’, Dame Sarah Mullally, 18th April 2020, on her blog Contemplation in the shadow of a carpark, available at: https://sarahmullally.wordpress.com/2020/04/12/god-has-touched-the-world-and-we-are-not-alone/

[10] ‘Catholic priest who created 24/7 chaplaincy at Nightingale describes experiences on wards’, The Catholic Universe, 23rd April 2020, https://www.thecatholicuniverse.com/catholic-priest-who-created-24-7-chaplaincy-at-nightingale-describes-experiences-on-wards-52245

Whither can we flee? For even the walls are denied us! (Trinity Oxford and #womenonwalls)

Returning recently to my old Oxford college, Trinity, I was dismayed to see that the august portraits which once adorned the hall had been replaced by photographs of recent alumnae (women); who, overall, were of rather less academic distinction than the men they had displaced, most not even being academics. Trinity, I have since learned, claims that the new portraits ‘celebrate the outstanding achievements and wide variety of careers enjoyed by female Trinity graduates and Fellows’. They constitute an exhibition, ‘Feminae Trinitatis’, which will continue ‘until further notice’ (having already lasted over a year). Trinity says that the exhibition ‘highlights Trinity’s commitment to promoting equal opportunities for all’—which is to say that it tries to foster an environment in which all feel equally valued, encouraged and inspired. Evidently, Trinity’s fellows thought that these photographs would inspire women more than the old portraits had been doing; and that people make more of their degrees if they are well inspired.

But this argument is either facile, or reprehensible, or both. If one believes that women are more inspired by women, surely one must also believe that men are more inspired by men? and hence that, if inspiration is valuable, the removal of the old portraits will impair today’s men’s degree performance? Of course, one could argue that men have enough to inspire them as it is; but, since the sources of male inspiration have never before been so systematically removed as they are being today, such an argument would be reckless and unproved. Trinity’s above-quoted statement adduces the concept of ‘equality’, which could possibly justify an equal balance of male and female portraits; but the logic of what has actually been done can only be that ‘two wrongs make a right’.

Indeed, the presence of portraits of old men was explicable by the college’s history: it was never a deliberate snub to women. The removal of them, on the other hand, tells today’s male students that their faces are now being deliberately, thoroughgoingly excluded. For men, it seems, no corner is let alone, no ‘safe space’ conceded.

One possible explanation of this act of cultural vandalism, then, is that a few—no doubt not all—of the feminist fellows who effected it just don’t care about men’s success as much as they do about women’s. They argue in terms of ‘equality’: but ‘equality’ of different groups has always been an unintelligible notion; a front-word for a brutal power grab which will never end.

But let’s take a step back. What if one drops the apparent first premise, and accepts that any human can be well inspired by another? (We do need to drop it: otherwise, it’s hard to see what would be objectionable if a predominately-white athletics club refused to put up pictures of black athletes). In that case, the only salient point in the choice of portraits is that the original ones in Trinity’s hall, which show off the cream of 424 years, are far more academically inspiring, because far more academically distinguished, than the present rather curious assortment of 49 years’ worth of ladies. True, the ladies are mostly not academics. They better represent the range of careers that Trinity students will pursue—hence Trinity’s talk of highlighting the ‘wide variety of careers’ enjoyed by female graduates. But if the portraits have any value, it is surely to suggest that those women’s academic studies, their academic inspirations, helped them to be the middle-to-high-ranking professionals that they are today. If in fact Trinitarians could do just as well in life by spending their undergraduate years thinking about businesswomen rather than scholars, then what’s the point of an academic education at all?

The entire, unwarranted experiment is absurd. Kudos, I say, to the man—or woman—who proposes reversing it.

The Church, politics, and the Cure of Souls.

Those arguing for or against the excommunication of Governor Cuomo seem largely to be missing the point. A bishop’s duty is to safeguard the souls of his flock; he must always judge any proposed ecclesiastic discipline by this question: Will the penalty make the punished more likely to make it to heaven, or less? Wider political considerations, the ‘message’ an action ‘will send’ to others, are scarcely relevant, therefore, to the grave question of whether a bishop should excommunicate someone.

Now, it is entirely clear that Cardinal Dolan is a good man who is entirely orthodox. Therefore, he surely thinks that a) abortion and the abetting thereof are gravely sinful b) hell exists c) those persisting in grave sin are at risk of going there.

           Therefore, I would humbly suggest that his Eminence’s decision as to how to proceed in the Cuomo case should be determined by just two questions. First, might penalties lesser than excommunication make Cuomo desist in his error? and, if not, might excommunication? Given the governor’s hitherto blatant contempt for the Magisterium, it seems likely that he will continue to hold it in contempt unless given the one punishment—excommunication—that gives one cause seriously to doubt the safety of one’s soul. Moreover, only excommunication would show him that the Church really means what it says about abortion; other options would be unconvincing precisely because so many American prelates have been so slow to rebuke Catholic politicians’ public declarations of heterodox views the matter. Now, it is probably true, as many say, that even excommunication is unlikely to correct Cuomo; my point is just that it surely has a greater chance of correcting him than any other.

            Second: is excommunication a canonically legitimate sanction in this case? His Eminence seems to think not; canon lawyers, he says, claim it isn’t, since it is only the having or procuring of an abortion that is canonically an excommunication offence. Now, the Cardinal has grave responsibilities, and it is not for me to criticise his decisions, which he doubtless makes on the basis of careful and prayerful thought. But, if I may offer my own feeling, I do think that the Archbishop seems here to manifest the very worst, and by no means ubiquitous, facet of the (largely admirable) American national character: that of deferring slavishly to those with qualifications in the subject at hand—who themselves can’t see the wood for the trees—to the extent of forfeiting all common sense and independent thought. Cuomo hasn’t had an abortion, but he is clearly promoting serious heresy, for which excommunication is an entirely valid sanction.

            The case for excommunication then, seems clear. Not to mention the life of St Ambrose, I would urge Cardinal Dolan to recall a letter recounted in Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua. As an Anglican, Newman had once complained to a Catholic friend that the Catholic Church had undermined Anglican-Catholic conferences by converting Anglican delegates thereto. But as he later seemed to realise, this only showed that the Church placed the salvation of each soul above all political considerations.

            Therefore, I would say to the archbishop: forget such considerations. Forget how it will look. Live up to that grave name ‘Bishop’. One of your sheep has stayed. Act to save him.

Priests, scientists, and thinking for oneself

James Delingpole of the Spectator often compares scientists with the priests of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. We defer to today’s scientists, he says, in the same way in that mediaeval people deferred to the Catholic clergy. Both kinds of deference undermine our capacity for independent thinking and critical thought.

       James may well be right about today’s scientists, but he’s wrong about yesterday’s priests. The Church teaches that we are made in the image of a rational, loving God, whom we are called to love, serve, and better understand. Hence, for the Church, a person’s knowledge of God, which cannot grow without his broader intellectual development, is central to his salvation. For this reason, the Church has always fostered the intellectual development of individuals. For sure, this fostering happens within a supporting framework of established truth, which is imparted to Catholics through catechesis, or indoctrination into the Faith. But the framework itself is not enough: every individual, as a rational creature of infinite value to God, needs to grow his mind for himself. This growth is what education is about—as opposed to mere indoctrination or training. It is, then, no coincidence that the mediaeval Church was by far the biggest provider of education in Europe. Priests had the intellectual seat of honour in society; and this was the result.

       As James rightly says, it is now scientists—specifically social and human scientists—that take that place of honour. And such scientists, who are largely atheists, have little reason to encourage ordinary people to develop their minds. For on a scientistic-atheist world-view, it is hard to sustain the idea that there is value in ordinary people’s thinking for themselves: on this view, if someone is incapable of contributing to science, the natural inference is that he is best off simply learning to accept established Truth as unquestioningly as possible. On such a view, some professional people will still need intellectual toolkits, to do their jobs; but nothing more than that. So whenever this view dominates, education descends into mere training—into mere indoctrination in the received methods of thought.

And this is, in fact, precisely what is happening to education today. Even Critical Thinking is now taught as a method, or set of rules: that is, as a doctrine. Indeed, nowadays academia is all about toolkits: today’s most thoughtful arts students, even of English or Classics, often suspect that their tutors give them great texts to read more because they want them to learn the techniques of critiquing those texts, than because they want their students to glean wisdom from them. This is where secularism has brought us: to a culture in which no one can remember why there are two separate words, ‘education’, and ‘training’; to a state of things in which grown men will describe themselves as—I shudder to write the phrase—‘trained philosophers’.

       All this points to a simple conclusion, which I would put to James Delingpole: if we want our society’s intellectual life to thrive, James, we need to start listening to our priests again!

The cult of ‘Games’

This Commonwealth games, the BBC is once again encouraging us to worship our sporting ‘heroes’, with its presenters setting an uncomfortable (and notably inegalitarian) tone of deference. No doubt, there will be M.B.E.’s aplenty for the very best, in addition to all the T.V. adulation. The state’s message is clear: our most physically impressive citizens are to be our new national heroes.

       But isn’t this all rather pagan? Today’s games stem from those developed by the Ancient Greeks, who thought that the physically impressive were closer to the Gods than the rest of us—and who therefore wanted to sift out, and reverence, the most impressive men of all. In modern times, it was their Greek descendants—poor, humiliated, long oppressed—who first seriously reprised these ancient celebrations of raw power. (Having said that: one might also mention Revolutionary France’s short-lived Olympiade de la République, which even included a rather pagan peace-and-fertility pageant). Carried away with a rush of Byronic enthusiasm, the Greeks modelled their new games on the most prestigious ones of antiquity—those held at Olympia.

       Famously, Nazi Germany was perhaps the first powerful modern nation to make its sporting performance a matter of national prestige; later, the Soviets were crass enough to toss human material on to the Olympic altar-pyre, in an effort to make the rest of the world forget that most of its people were starving.

       Have you noticed a pattern here? Since Christ, it has always been the insecure nations, the nations with a point to prove, that have hung their hats on their Olympic performances. After all, what does it really matter, morally speaking, if one country’s men can throw further than others’, or one country’s women swim faster? What does it really tell us about what a nation can achieve, or whether it is in strong health? Nations only fixate on ‘Games’ when they have nothing else to be proud of.

       Or, perhaps more accurately, nothing that they want to be proud of. For it was undoubtedly a contempt for Britain’s past that led the Labour Government to bid for London 2012, the games at which Britain’s own sporting hero-cult really began. Labour ministers saw in it the chance of a year-zero moment: the chance to purge the nation of its regressive, redundant ‘Two World Wars and One Word Cup mentality’—for such was the mindset that they would always snobbishly impute to ordinary British patriots—and to exchange it for a new, enlightened world-view. In other words: for a ‘One World Cup’ sort of attitude. One might have thought that we, whose country has enriched the world, abolished slavery, spread the rule of law and saved Europe from several tyrannies, would have no reason to feel threatened if, say, the Kenyans could run faster than us. Not according to the Labour and Coalition Governments: suddenly, it really mattered if we weren’t putting on a good show.

       And that’s all it’s really about, isn’t it, a show? Such superficiality drains a nation morally; but it also has more immediate effects. In this case, the billions squandered on ‘elite’ sport mean that we have little to spare for things like playing field provision in state schools. (In what other sphere, by the way, would we still use the term ‘elite’ without circumspection? Especially when the ‘eliteness’ concerned can get one a knighthood?) This, ironically, gives a specious vindication to the claim that the ‘elite sports’ budget, and the televised performances of the athletes inspired by it, inspire children to become sporty: for it’s true that, nowadays, inner city comprehensive pupils are unlikely to first see a playing field, if not on a screen. But the problem with this logic—as everyone who isn’t a civil servant in the Department of Culture Media, and Sport knows—is that children will quite happily play games if they simply have some safe green space, and a ball. ‘But what’s that, Christopher Robin? You say you haven’t got a ball, or a field? Oh dear: regrettably, you see, some big men took all the money!’.

       This whole cult of Games, then, is a post-Christian neo-pagan reversion to a vicious, divisive, inherently socially unjust kind of elitism. Can we please stop it?