Beyond the Pillars of Hercules

by Paul Cantrell

From high school bullies terrorizing “nerds” to George W. Bush telling all of the “C students” at a university commencement that “you too can be president,” it’s no government secret that anti-intellectualism has had a long history in the United States. I first became aware of it on the national level during Bush 43’s first term, but the truth is that it goes much further back than that. At the heart of it lies a deep distrust, and at times resentment, of those who claim to possess knowledge or, even worse, expertise. Let’s talk about that.

Let’s begin with the harrowing testimonials I have heard from college professors about getting heckled mid-lecture by students reading from a Wikipedia page on a laptop. These professors are individuals who have devoted their lives to becoming experts on a specific subject only to find themselves harassed and harangued by a bunch of high school seniors with nothing but a wifi connection and a summer under their belts. Tom Nichols, in his 2017 book The Death of Expertise, likens the current climate to “a hockey game with no referees and a standing invitation for spectators to rush onto the ice.” Add to this open access to the Zamboni machine, and that’s about where we’re at.

Way back in 1912, when Woodrow Wilson was still governor of New Jersey, he said: “What I fear is a government of experts. God forbid that, in a democratic country, we should resign the task and give the government over to experts. What are we for if we are to be scientifically taken care of by a small number of gentlemen who are the only men who understand the job?” (Yes, that quotation was a Wikipedia pull, and yes, I am all too aware of the irony here.)

Speaking of irony, and in case the context isn’t clear, Wilson’s words are dripping with sarcasm. I mention this because nowadays it’s not so easy to tell, and that ambiguity presents a problem in itself. Flash forward a century or so, and it’s no secret that these anti-intellectual currents have morphed into a much more aggressively anti-science stance that is as detrimental as it is assured of itself.

Let us be absolutely crystal clear on this point. This is not “healthy skepticism.” We do not get to cherry-pick which scientific facts we should “believe in” any more than we could pick actual cherries without relying on the science of the ladder whereby we reach them, the biology whereby they grow, or the gravity whereby they fall. That is because facts do not require belief but rather acceptance.

Funny story. Skeptic comes from the Greek skeptikos, meaning “thoughtful” or “inquiring,” though it can also mean someone who believes it’s impossible to know anything for sure. Doubting Thomas was a skeptic, though in the milder sense, as we recently discussed. For a more extreme example, consider this anecdotal exchange from 1763, recorded by Samuel Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it THUS!”

Now, we don’t all need to go around kicking rocks to prove that the universe exists. (I was going to say “but it doesn’t hurt,” but the truth and whole point of that story is that it does hurt. You might even say it… smarts? OK, moving on.)

Fun fact: the word science means “knowledge.” Like its French cognate, science (but, you know, pronounced with reversed inflection and a little of the ol’ gusto), the word comes from the Latin scientia, which in turn comes from the verb scire, meaning “to know.” A scientist is literally a person who knows things. Why would we not listen to a person who knows things?

Another fun fact: there is not, strictly speaking, any such things as fun facts. Sure, I can have fun with a fact. A fact can be fun for me. Nevertheless, a fact, in and of itself, cannot be fun, nor can facts have fun, no matter how much like Cyndi Lauper’s girls they “just wanna.”

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is inconvenient for us humans and for the planet as a whole, but the truth itself is removed from this framework. The truth simply is. Facts simply are.

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis recounts a schoolbook’s telling of the “well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall. You remember that there were two tourists present: that one called it ’sublime’ and the other ‘pretty.’” “When the man said That is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall… Actually… he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings,” goes the commentary. “This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.” This is an important distinction, as in the above example of Al Gore’s truth which is inconvenient for us.

“1. The world is everything that is the case.” Ludwig Wittenstein wrote that to kick off his not-at-all-nerdily-named Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. And then: “2. What is the case—a fact—is the existence of states of affairs.” A fact then is a kind of atomic building block for everything. Put another way, here’s David Byrne from the Talking Heads’ “Cross-Eyed and Painless”:

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to . . .

Put another way, facts do not care about how I feel about them, and my refusal to “believe in” them or accept them does not make them any less true. Data is literally Latin for “things given.” It is a gift. 

Science is everywhere. Moreover, science is everything. That’s it. (I’m not disputing the undeniable magic of, say, a romantic moonlit stroll. That’s not what’s at issue here.) Molecules, atoms: literally everything around us and in us is comprised of science. The myriad biological functions being performed inside your body at this very instant, from your heartbeat to the electricity of your mind to your eyeballs moving to translate these symbols into sounds and sense as you read this sentence—that’s all science too.

What’s more, we trust science. We trust science to wake us up and make our coffee in the morning, to coordinate the traffic lights and subway patterns so we get to work in one piece, to keep us healthy with doctor visits when we can. There is an undeniable irony in someone who claims not to believe in science and then takes to a Twitter account on a computer full of microchips to talk about it on the internet. Even the people who don’t trust science trust science.

We trust science for all these things and more. So why would we stop short when the world’s leading scientists give the planet a failing health score with regard to climate change or, say, warn us of a deadly viral pandemic whose only goal is to infect and spread like wildfire?

Why then, when everything is on the line, why is that suddenly a bridge too far? Remember when Michael Corleone demotes Tom Hagan because he’s “not a wartime consigliere? That’s exactly when we need science the most. We can’t afford to trust science right up to the point where there is actual devastation on the line. Then suddenly, what? We shun science? Laugh at it? Taunt it like Cassandra warning the Trojans against the Wooden Horse? We give science a wedgie, call it “Poindexter,” and shove it into a gym locker. This cannot be what we do when everything is on the line.

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” That’s Aldous Huxley, renowned dystopian novelist, vaunted psychonaut, and author of Brave New World, among others. Aldous Huxley, who died “the most serene, the most beautiful death,” having LSD pumped intravenously while his wife read to him from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. (That does not retroactively disqualify him from facing reality. Just another fact.)

Let me put it another way. When Joe Friday was solving crimes on Dragnet, did he say, “Just the opinions, ma’am?” No, he said, “The facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”

And when Blair, Tootie, Natalie, Jo and the gang needed to learn some hard truths and life lessons, and they turned to their trusted den mother Mrs. Garrett, what did Mrs. Garrett bestow upon these burgeoning young ladies? Did she bestow upon them the Sugarcoated-What-You-Hope-For of Life? The Here’s-What-I-Think-You-Want-to-Hear of Life? No. She bestowed upon them The Facts of Life. And everyone was the better for it.

And upon having these Facts bestowed, what did these young ladies do? Did they ignore Mrs. Garrett? Did they go, “Nah, that doesn’t really jibe with what I’m doing, so I’m all set here. I’m good.” No, they listened gratefully and acted accordingly. They were not “good.” Nor are we, in our current situation, “good.”

Another charge against intellectuals is one of elitism. The familiar version of this is to disparagingly call someone “college boy,” which is like calling someone a “goody two shoes” when all that really does is call into question how many shoes you’re wearing.

Listen, I don’t want to get into a whole thing about “Hollywood elites” or “elite NFL quartbacks.” I only want to point out the modest fact that elite actually means “elect.” Our elected officials are in fact supposed to be elite. That’s what they are, literally, by definition, because they’re elected. They are supposed to be better, qualified and, yes, experienced.

That’s right: experienced. The scientists, the advisors, the doctors, nurses, and other medical experts, these are people who have been elected in their own way—tested, vetted, and promoted within their own field of expertise, forged in the smithy of decades of experience. The word expert comes from “experience,” again literally.

Put another way, consider the following scene from Master of None:

DEV: You know what I was thinking about the other day? If I played pool all the time for, like, three months, I think I could be a pool shark. Like, how good do you got to be to get to shark status? And the whole pretending to be bad? Oh, I mean, that I can do really well.
ARNOLD: Dude, same with bowling. If I bowled every night for a month, I would be on that non-stop strike status.
DEV: Yeah, pro bowlers are just people that practice bowling all the time.
ARNOLD: I guess what we’re saying if if you do something long enough, you’re gonna be good at it.
DEV: Mmm, yeah, this conversation isn’t that insightful.

All those nights these experts spent studying while the rest of us were off who-knows-where doing who-knows-what—maybe we should consider the fact that they know what they’re talking about.

I’d like to close with a story about everyone’s favorite strongman: Hercules. The Labors of Hercules ranged from the dramatic (slaying the Five-Headed Hydra and capturing the Three-Headed Hellhound Cerberus) to the admittedly more mundane (Stealing Apples and Literally Just Cleaning the Horse Stables That One Time). At the westernmost point of his travels and travails, while Seriously Just Moving Cattle From One Place to Another (more like the Lame-bors of Hercules, right?), he split a mountain in two, thus creating the Pillars of Hercules, with the Strait of Gibraltar running in between. (A man, a plan, a canal. Hercules.)

Popular tradition though the Renaissance had a big ol’ warning sign over the Pillars: Nec plus ultra—that is, “no further,” instructing sailors not to sail beyond. In the 14th century, Dante’s Inferno shows his version of Ulysses, rather than going home to Ithaca and Penelope, instead rousing his men to one last inspired, albeit ultimately doomed voyage. Where does he take them? You guessed it. Beyond the Pillars of Hercules. It was the very emblem of transgression.

But then something rather interesting happened. It was nothing short of a total paradigm shift, and it all started on the cover of a book. In this case, that book was Francis Bacon’s 1620 Novum Organum. As Hans Blumenberg tells it:

The self-consciousness of the modern age found in the image of the Pillars of Hercules and their order, Nec plus ultra [No further], which Dante’s Ulysses still understood (and disregarded) as meaning “Man may not venture further here,” the symbol of its new beginning and of its claim directed against what had been valid until then. On the title page of Bacon’s Instauratio magna [Great Renewal] of 1620, Odysseus’s [Ulysses’s] ship was to appear behind the Pillars of Hercules, interpreted by the self-confident motto: Multi pertransibunt et augebitur scientia [Many will pass through through and knowledge will be increased].

That’s right: scientia. Knowledge. Science.

Suddenly everything has changed, as the man says. Admonition becomes invitation, caveat turns to caviar, scold becomes bold. The fateful warning of the gods against the kind of hubris held by Icarus with his waxen wings, by Phaethon piloting Apollo’s chariot of the sun, by Prometheus, benefactor of humankind, he who stole fire from the gods for us all—this new spirit of adventure transformed these mere cautionary tales into feats of intrepid heroism. And what was all of this in the name of? Say it with me like in the classic Thomas Dolby smash hit song: Science!

Renowned Scientist Magnus Pike

Suddenly the classic Promethean overreacher, far from embodying a tragic, fatal flaw, became a model to strive toward, the very embodiment of the reach which should always exceed one’s grasp. Think of the motto of the Royal Air Force and, coincidentally, my old high school: per ardua ad astra: “through hardship, to the stars.”

This brings another motto to mind, the one of our own NASA: “For the Benefit of All.” Benefit, which literally means “good-doing.” Like Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods on Olympus to benefit all humankind, today’s scientists, experts, and medical professionals have sacrificed greatly to learn what they know and to do what they do. At the very least, we should listen to them. We owe them, and ourselves, that much.

That’s all for me for now. I am happily indebted to Dr. David Adams, whose inspired reading of the Pillars of Hercules you may find in his brilliant book, Colonial Odysseys.

And because one great David deserves another, now here’s the full live version of “Cross-Eyed and Painless,” a song which, by about a minute in, somehow captures the current mood surprisingly well. It’s from the end of Stop Making Sense. Here’s hoping some things can start making sense, and soon. Take care, stay safe, and be well.

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