Slavery to Error

Liberal education proposes ultimately union with Christ the Truth who will set us free. But it proposes that we achieve this freedom in the order of grace through achieving, insofar as we are able, freedom in the order of nature. Gratia supponit naturam!

As we have said before, freedom is a two fold proposition. There is a freedom from certain things (e.g. freedom from four kinds of intellectual slavery that we have already spoken about ). There is also a freedom for certain things (e.g. the freedom for engaging in the pursuit of the things to which man is ordered by nature). These are the things that St Paul has in mind when he says in his letter to the Philippians:

For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things.

But before discussing the way that liberal education frees us for these things we still have one more kind of intellectual slavery from which liberal education frees us- namely the slavery to error.

Unfortunately, slavery to error has many causes, and it so happens that the first three types of slavery (i.e. slavery to passion, fashion, and custom) can be the causes of this final type of slavery. As if that was not enough, there are also three other causes of slavery to error (pride, false imagination and bad logic) making six in all.

The Six Causes of Slavery to Error

  1. Errors in thinking, then, can be caused first by following one’s passions. For example, our passions might induce us to think that happiness is living a life of pleasure and power. Those who habitually follow the direction of their passions will naturally (or unnaturally) begin to adopt intellectual views which rationalize their habitual behavior. It is not surprising to hear people argue the merits of an intellectual position which unsurprisingly mirrors the kind of life they lead. In these cases we might suspect that the root cause of the intellectual mistake they make is nothing more than the fact that they are lead by their passions.
  2. Similarly, errors in thinking likewise might be caused by following fashion If we are given to always acting according to what is in vogue or currently fashionable, we will necessarily involve our minds with the errors that stem from the fluidity of group thinking. We will begin to act and think according to however the majority happens to act and think at any given time. We will find ourselves defending an ever changing world of opinion. Our thought about right and wrong will be determined by consensus, and specifically by the most recent consensus
  3. Those who think erroneously that every idea is equally valid might think this because they are slaves to a political custom. As Alexis De Toqueville points out, in democracies everything tends towards equality.  It is one thing to defend the glories of Democracy as a political order that recognizes the fundamental dignity of every human life, but it is quite another to maintain that animals and even plants are equal to man in dignity! I suspect that those who maintain that the life of the spotted owl is equivalent to the life of a human being are fundamentally slaves to political custom.
  4. That slavery to error is caused by intellectual pride is easy to see insofar as pride encourages one to stick doggedly to his opinions. Who really wants to see his own arguments and opinions go down under the withering fire of someone else’s superior logic? The fear of seeing one’s thoughts or pet ideas suffer a severe scrutiny under the unbiased gaze of an unsympathetic antagonist can sometimes prevent us from seeing the logic in his critique. Ideas are a lot like children. No affectionate parent can comfortably watch as his own child is rigorously dealt a thorough beating or some other humiliation. For the intellectually proud, it is more humiliating to be beaten in an intellectual argument than in a fist fight. To the extent that intellectual pride causes us to cling to our false ideas, we are indeed slaves to these ideas. If coming to know the truth involves sitting humbly at the feet of a teacher, or reverently reading the works of great authors, then indeed pride is an obstacle to this enterprise.
  5. Slavery to error, may also be caused by false imagination. Our thoughts are so bound up with the imagination that errors in the way that we imagine things often lead to errors in the way that we think about things. For example, we imagine God as an old man with a beard. Now there may be many good things about imagining God in this way, but there are all sorts of things that we can not understand about God if we imagine Him in this way. God is not old, nor is He a man, and He most certainly does not have a beard. We imagine that the soul is a sort of shadowy ghost, a wispy tendrilous ether, entrapped in our bodies, and that if we were to lose a limb, our souls would quickly recede into the rest of the body. We imagine that men are descended from something worse than men. I think everyone has seen a picture of the evolution of man; from orangutan to orator. First there is a drawing of a monkey crouched over as monkeys are wont to do, then a monkey with less hair crouched over, and so on until by incremental imaginative degrees we have a well and fully formed man! It still surprises me that the mere force of the imagination is able to convince so many of something which is contrary to sound reason and science in so many respects.The imagination should be at the service of reason and not reason at the service of the imagination.
  6. The sixth and last cause of slavery to error is perhaps the first that would have suggested itself, namely an inability to think well. Without a doubt, illogical thinking is a cause of error; what could be more clear? It is common to hear teachers brag that they encourage their students to think for themselves. This of course is a laudable goal, provided that students are first taught how to think. No one ought to encourage another to think for himself if such a one has been given no tools for the enterprise. It would be like encouraging someone to jump in a river who has not been taught to swim. Among students there is a common assumption that every one knows how to think well; after all what else does one do most of the time but think? This view goes a long way in explaining why many students do not see the significance of coming to school. Teachers are always trying to convince them that they need to learn to do something that they have been doing for years, or so they think. It is difficult for them to see that just as swimming has its own techniques and principles that must be adhered to if we are to keep out of harm’s way, so too thinking is governed by its own technique and principles that must be mastered if we are not to risk drowning in a veritable ocean of false conclusions. Aristotle compares ‘thinking well’ to archery. There are many ways of missing the mark, but only one way to hit the bull’s-eye.


About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www., former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
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2 Responses to Slavery to Error

  1. Ron says:

    Other than the silly jibe against evolution, a good article. But how does one go about learning to think properly? Doesn’t everyone know instinctively and naturally how to do it, but most simply refuse to out of some one of the other five causes of error you note?

    • Mark Langley says:

      Thank you and my apologies for the “orangutan to orator” comment.

      I agree with you that it would seem natural and instinctive to “think properly.” This is why it can be a little tough for logic professors to sell their trade. It might appear to be like having a class in ‘walking properly.’

      Nonetheless, I am becoming increasingly convinced that thinking properly is not a very common phenomenon especially when it comes to anything that is non-practical. (i.e. thinking about things where a wrong conclusion does not immediately show up in some kind of malfunction) For example Socrates apparently spent his life trying to convince people that they really did not know what they thought they knew. Even though thinking is natural for man- he never seemed to have a difficulty in drawing his interlocutors into many contradictions.

      These days we also have the opposite problem – a problem where many people do not think they know things which they do know! So for example many people will think out problems proceeding from the less known to the more known.

      Or another example of the need for logic is in trying to understand the difference between things which are self evident (and the order between self evident things) and things which require demonstration.

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