If we had to summarize the frailty of man in one word, many of us would probably use the term “sin.” Man is “fallen,” we might respond. But to sin is simply to miss the mark. In what way does man tend to miss it?

To put the question differently, would it be more appropriate to describe fallen man as wicked, or could we say instead that he is merely stupid? Obviously both assertions are true: We all miss the mark quite frequently, both in thought and in behavior. But does the greater preponderance of our “woundedness” lie in our tendency toward immoral action, or, instead, in our innate ignorance?

Also, I should say that do not mean to deal with these questions theologically, but rather sociologically: I don’t want to talk about Aquinas’s hierarchy of virtues; I want to talk about the way we perceive ourselves and those around us. And judging by the rhetoric I hear daily, it seems that most of us readily think of ourselves as morally frail, yet we become violently indignant when anyone suggests that we might, in addition, have vastly limited mental powers. This leads me to believe that somewhere along the line we chose the “wicked” answer and rejected almost completely the possibility that the greater problem was an epistemological one. We denied the possibility that, when Adam fell, he landed on his head.

It is the argument of this essay that the preponderance of our human limitation can indeed be found in the intellectual sphere. Further, it seems that the conscious acknowledgment of this truth was the historical reality in traditional societies. Men of those times saw and accepted it with a humble realism, and they designed their sociopolitical framework accordingly.

At what point, then, did man’s opinion about man begin to reverse itself?

Undeniably, it occurred with the rise of that philosophy we call liberalism, which Milton Friedman aptly defined as “the intellectual movement that…emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society.” (Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom)

Although Friedman argued primarily for economic liberalism, his definition holds true whether the liberalism in question is economic, political, or religious. With the victory of this movement, there came a massive shift in regard to how man views his own limited state, and I believe that this change represents one of the most profound upheavals in the history of the world.

I will begin with an observation from Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, which states the case well:

In contradiction to St. Thomas (and to Luther, after all) the Church often seemed to take the position that man is rather stupid than wicked. Protestantism, though rather pessimistic about the spiritual qualities of the ‘sin-cripple,’ nevertheless gave him the Bible without explanatory footnotes, trusting in his intelligence (or ‘inspiration’). Catholicism, on the other hand, frequently tended to adopt the view that a superficial half-education was much worse than no education at all, and thus in Catholic countries we saw (and sometimes still see) a large number of illiterates side by side with an intellectual elite of high standards. The Protestant goal of education is usually on of good averages—the optimum for democracy. In democracies there will always be resentment and contempt for the ‘highbrow’ and the illiterate, the intellectual and the ‘peasant.’” (Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Liberty or Equality)

I choose this example because Protestantism is one of the three fundamental liberal movements (the Enlightenment being the second, and Capitalism being the third). Through the Reformation this great shift in self-perception, by which man’s carnal weakness and mental strength both became exaggerated, can be viewed with great clarity. Only within the context of this new, individualistic, rationalized, subjective sort of religiosity could the focus of hamartiology become so obsessed with man’s “total depravity” while, at the very same time, laying on this same “totally depraved” soul the immense responsibility of interpreting scripture and discerning the truth of a thousand years of doctrine all by himself.

Yet we need to go further than just identifying historical transformations. We also need to examine the consequences, the most significant of which, in the case of liberalism, has been the unprecedented empowerment of ignorance as a social force.

When man viewed himself as generally ignorant of most things from the start, which is true of us all, then knowledge was able to maintain a position of authority and to direct the affairs of men. Once ignorance was forgotten—or denied altogether, particularly in regard to our social consciousness of the fact—the power and influence of knowledge began to evaporate. It began to wane, and has not stopped waning since, and it is reasonable to suggest that it may be ignorance, rather than knowledge, that gives direction to politics, economics, and the sciences of our world today.

At this point I should pause to explain what I mean by the term “ignorance.” I do not mean the lack of knowledge plain and simple. That is inevitable, universal, and need not, in itself, do violence to society. On the contrary, if this sort of honest ignorance is acknowledged, it becomes that “Socratic” type of ignorance which is really just the first step on the path toward wisdom.

No, what I’m concerned with is an unacknowledged or denied ignorance, which Augustine called “opinionativeness” and defined as “imagining oneself to know what one does not know.” So when I say that man’s ignorance is on the rise, I mean that the gap between what a man knows and what he imagines himself to know is widening, and is now threatening to displace the Grand Canyon as the widest chasm in America.

I pick on America only because it is the country I know, and, after all, the liberal revolution found its most successful and complete expression here. It shocked Tocqueville, for example, who remarked that the political conditions in America bestowed on its people “a very lofty, often very exaggerated, conception of human reason.” This, he believed, was the result of individualism fused with rationalism. If reason is a sufficient guide to truth, and every man is a self-sufficient island, then each man’s reason is self-sufficient. Thus, he says:

I discover that, in the majority of mental processes, each American has but recourse to the individual effort of his own reason…perceiving in not a single person in their midst any signs of undeniable greatness or superiority, [Americans] constantly return to their own rationality as to the most obvious and immediate source of truth…Each man thus retreats into himself from where he claims to judge the world.” (Democracy in America, 2.1.2)

Obviously a man has to entertain an incredible view of his intellectual competence in order to behave in this odd fashion, but Tocqueville saw that it was democracy itself which presses this grandiose idea of one’s own rationality onto the social psyche.

To understand this, consider the demands placed on the voting citizen. This “typical voter” requires two complex and very different areas of competence in order to assert himself honestly and effectively:

First, he must know the man for whom he is voting. If I do not know anything about you as a person, your strengths, weaknesses, experience, opinions, etc., then I am not competent to decide whether or not you can effectively govern, or do any other job for that matter. While I may conceivably achieve appropriate knowledge of this type about people who live down the street from me, it is nothing short of ludicrous to imagine that I can achieve that level of knowledge in regard to a presidential candidate whom I’ve never met and cannot meet, and about whom my only sources of information are a pair of warring tribes who either paint the candidate as a devil or a saint. The problems here are fairly obvious, but remember this is only the first area of competence I must achieve.

Second, after I attain knowledge of the candidate, I must attain knowledge of the job itself. If I do not know how the job works or what it is like, what strengths and aptitudes it requires, then I can’t select someone to do the job even if I know all of the candidates personally.

Now here again, I can conceivably fulfill this second requirement of competence if the candidate in question lives down the street and will decide whether or not the forest across town gets cleared for development. I know the man, I know the forest, and I know the town. However, the knowledge required to truly know what it takes to be a “good president” is astonishingly complex: here one needs not only knowledge of history, geography, rhetoric, military science, international law, and foreign languages, but he also needs experience. If I have neither knowledge nor experience, then I’m like a baker trying to judge the technique of a brain surgeon: the baker might have an opinion on the surgeon’s technique, but his opinion is not valid—it is but the expression of ignorance.

Because the attainment of the level of competence described above is obviously impossible for the average man who works and maybe even has a family, and because democracies like the United States are predicated on the notion that this same man can and should choose the president anyway, then democracy itself can be said to be predicated on the reinforcement of Augustinian ignorance. It not only suggests but demands that a man pick and choose between a thousand things he knows nothing about, and which he may have never even considered.

Needless to say, such an atmosphere is fertile ground for the enthronement of ignorance. Consider again our typical voting citizen:

He thinks he knows what’s going on with global warming, whether the science is valid or not. He thinks that he knows, at any given moment, what sort of effect a tax adjustment would have on the national economy. He thinks he knows how immunizations work. He thinks he knows what “organic” means. He thinks he understands the conflict in the Middle East.

This list could go on and on, from Benghazi to the Big Bang, but I’m sure the point is clear: He cannot possibly have valid opinions about these things. Considered individually, the number of people who fully understand any one of the above points is undeniably very, very small. Considered as a whole and all at once, no one could possibly have reached a level of understanding that could be termed “competent.”

Further, although this alone is enough to achieve institutionalized solipsism, there is an even greater danger: it teaches men that this is how truth is discovered—by polling a mass of Augustinian opinionation and going with the greatest number.

This sort of “democratization of truth” ends by defeating itself. We think we have free thought, but it has been observed that never before was man more a slave to the opinions of others. To refer again to Tocqueville:

When conditions are unequal and men have dissimilar outlooks, there are a few very enlightened, learned, powerfully intelligent individuals while the masses are very ignorant and extremely limited. People who live under this aristocratic rule are naturally inclined to take as a guide for their opinions the superior reason of one man or one class, whereas they are not persuaded to recognize the infallibility of the masses.

In times of equality, the opposite prevails.

Gradually, as citizens become more equal and similar, the inclination for each man to have a blind belief in one particular man or class lessens. The predisposition to believe in mass opinion increases and becomes progressively the opinion which commands the world.

Not only is commonly held opinion the only guide to the reason of the individual in democracies but this opinion has, in these nations, an infinitely greater power than in any other. In times of equality, men have no confidence in each other because of their similarities but this very similarity gives them an almost limitless trust in the judgment of the public as a whole. For it appears likely, in their view, that, since they all have similar ideas, truth will reside with the greatest number…

This very equality which makes him independent of each of his fellow men delivers him alone and defenseless into the hands of the majority.

In democratic nations, the general public possesses an unusual power which aristocracies could not imagine. It does not impose its beliefs by persuasion but inserts them in men’s souls by the immense pressure of corporate thinking upon the intelligence of each single man.

In the United States, the majority takes upon itself the task of supplying to the individual a mass of ready-made opinions, thus relieving him of the necessity to take the proper responsibility of arriving at his own.” (Democracy in America, 2.1.2)

This is why Thomas Jefferson himself lamented that “the inquisition of public opinion overwhelms, in practice, the freedom asserted by the law in theory.” Odd sentiments for the Whig who penned the Declaration of Independence.

Even religious truth seemed to Tocqueville to have taken on this democratized guise: “Looking very closely, it can be seen that religion itself dominates less a revealed doctrine than a commonly held opinion.” Religious truth ceases to be the result of authority (knowledge) and becomes instead a simple matter of consensus.

Yet the strangest aspect of this enthronement of ignorance, which would be ironic if it were not so sad, is that the philosophy of liberalism which is responsible for it receives, at one and the same time, universal devotion and burning hatred. The American party system, for example, is in reality nothing but a war between the right and left arms of the liberal leviathan. Both parties are liberal, but neither of them, due to ignorance of both history and logic, realize that the philosophy they hold is also the philosophy that they hate in the other tribe.

This was true even from the beginning. The great figures of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, though they may have at times hated each others’ ideas, were merely applying the same ideas in different ways and in different fields. When Luther led liberalism against the church on one front, Voltaire did the same thing and with the same philosophy from an opposite front. Tocqueville is again our teacher:

The philosophers of the eighteenth century…undertook to expose to the personal scrutiny of each man the substance of all his beliefs. Who cannot see that Luther, Descartes, and Voltaire used the same method and that they differed from each other only in the greater and lesser use they claimed to make of it?

Men apparently so opposed were, in actuality, fighting on behalf of their enemy’s philosophy. Liberalism, it seems, has a strange way of refusing to let those who hold it see it in its entirety. It reveals itself only in parts: one part to Luther, and another to Voltaire.

Things haven’t changed much. Today in America we have “Right liberals and Left liberals,” but everyone is a liberal. Our two parties are simply the Luthers (Republicans) fighting the Voltaires (Democrats), but they still have “differed from each other only in the greater and lesser use” they make of their philosophy.

Liberalism creates this chaos and this contradiction because they are its food and drink. It has a symbiotic relationship with strife. It takes one of its own adherents and gets that man to rant and rave against a “liberalism” which is nothing more than the other half of his own ideology. Thus, if liberalism were a religion, blasphemy would be one of its sacraments. In this way, liberalism always seems to be turning into its own opposite, promising Heaven and delivering shades of Hades.

Nor is liberalism truly liberating: Free speech is not free if what is said is not true. Thought is not free if it is not rational. Free opinion is a contradiction in terms if the opinion is an ignorant one. Thus liberalism, promising to deliver the individual from the arbitrary opinions of society, delivered him into total enslavement to the public. Public opinion now does not simply control man’s body—it also forms his very mind and directs his will.

There are quite a few others who have noticed the disappearance of truly intelligent public discourse, and who have lamented the shameless rise in assertive ignorance across the board. What no one seems to be able to explain, however, is the why.

That is the answer I’ve tried to provide, or at least approach, here. I’ve tried to illustrate that this endemic ignorance is not a new problem, or even a surprising one. It was seen from the beginning by perceptive observers. Tocqueville wrote hundreds of pages tracing it out.

This is not the spontaneous breakout of a disease that we can simply endure, and least of all is it something we can cure with “more education.” It is a system problem, and so long as the system persists it is unrealistic to expect people to behave in any other way.