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Wednesday, June 28, 2023

The True, the Good and the Obvious: Reflections about False ‘Simplicity’

By:   Nicholas Rao
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The True, the Good and the Obvious: Reflections about False ‘Simplicity’

He’s “a Professional Common Man”.

This realization comes, suddenly, to Doremus Jessup, after his first experience of a speech by the political demagogue “Buzz” Windrip, the arch–villain of Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel It Can’t Happen Here. Lewis’ description of Senator Windrip is brilliantly comical.

He believed in the desirability and therefore the sanctity of thick buckwheat cakes with adulterated maple syrup, in rubber trays for the ice cubes in his electric refrigerator, in the especial nobility of dogs, all dogs, in the oracles of S. Parkes Cadman, in being chummy with all waitresses at all junction lunch rooms, and in Henry Ford … , and the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars.[1]

However, Windrip’s telltale trait, what defines him as a Professional Common Man, is his rhetorical capacity to convince everybody that everything is simple. Truth, goodness and beauty are simple. Life is simple. Windrip’s ‘simple’ does not mean ‘unified’ or ‘proceeding from a single cause’. It is not the theological simplicity of God. Rather, Windrip’s ‘simple’ means ‘easily, effortlessly understood; obvious’. Windrip’s demagogic rhetoric appeals to the human desire for rational certainty; the desire to believe that knowledge of the world is an easy affair.

Through the mass farces and deceptions of COVID, BLM, and the Anti–Sexual Revolution, it has become fashionable in conservative circles to hear lamentations about the death of “sanity”. Why can’t people think for themselves anymore?

Over the past couple years, through the mass farces and deceptions of COVID, BLM, and the Anti–Sexual Revolution, it has become fashionable in conservative circles to hear lamentations about the death of “sanity”. Why can’t people think for themselves anymore? This attitude is risky because it carries a peculiar impatience, a frustration with arguments, as though it had not taken the Catholic tradition over three hundred years to produce St. Augustine, and another nine hundred to define the Real Presence. The truth is, indeed, obvious—but only from God’s perspective. From our human perspective, Adam’s curse of “labour and toil” (Gen. 3:17) applies equally to man’s intellectual work. The harvest of truth is hard-won. Algernon, in The Importance of Being Earnest, had a point when he quipped, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”[2]

The ‘insanity’ of modernity began, many centuries ago, with figures who, much like Buzz Windrip, were impatient for a simple universe. Francis Bacon complains, in the Preface of his Novum Organum, that philosophy, until his time, had “not adopted a fixed rule” but relied “upon intense meditation, and a continual exercise and perpetual agitation of the mind”. Bacon purports to offer, instead, a new “method”, “a new and certain course for the mind” that will produce “certainty”.[3] Renée Descartes, in his Discourse on Method, claims, similarly, to have discovered a new “practical philosophy”. By this new method, he dreams, humanity will uncover “the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us,” so that men will become “the lords and possessors of nature”.[4]

Like Windrip, Bacon and Descartes both couch their hubris in a falsely humble rhetoric. “I have never made much account of what has proceeded from my own mind,” writes Descartes.[5] He, too, is a Professional Common Man.

Frustration can become a survival technique, when many things that appear obvious have been called into question. Like most orthodox Catholics, I’m a realist. As a realist, I am instinctively uninterested in philosophical demonstrations that I exist, or that I am male and currently sitting at a table, here, in 21st century America. The kind of skepticism that questions everything all at once, including the general possibility of knowledge, is question–begging. There is no sense in the active pursuit of knowledge about whether knowledge can be pursued. One is tempted, when surrounded by skeptics, to reject argumentation altogether, on the assumption that, if you’re dumb enough to ask, you won’t understand the answer. We become justly indignant when people complicate or obfuscate experience—like the Tennessee professor, in Walsh’s “What is a woman?”, who responds even to the word “truth” with as much discomfort as the Wicked Witch of the West viewing a bucket of water. When a Professional Common Man assures us that, indeed, the truth is simple and obvious, we believe he is squarely on our side against the Elitist. Is he?

There is an interesting quotation from St. Hilary of Poitiers in St. Thomas’ Summa contra gentiles.

Enter these truths by believing, press forward, persevere. And though I may know that you will not arrive at an end, yet I will congratulate you in your progress. … But do not intrude yourself into the divine secret, do not, presuming to comprehend the sum total of intelligence, plunge yourself into the mystery of the unending nativity; rather, understand that these things are incomprehensible.[6]

This favorable citation by St. Thomas is interesting because it belies his frequent depiction as a Catholic ‘rationalist’ with a philosophy of high rational optimism. St. Thomas, of course, is hardly a skeptic. He believes in rational progress. Nevertheless, he clearly denies the possibility of perfect or complete human knowledge. Unlike Bacon and Descartes, Aquinas is strongly pragmatic, because he does not recognize any simple method or ‘key’ that could substitute for experience and patient reflection.

Should it require a lifetime to recognize what a woman is, or realize that a fœtus is a living human person, or understand that human nature is received and not chosen? No, it should not.

Like Aristotle, St. Thomas understands rationality as a special kind of intelligence. God and angels are intelligent, but they are not rational. Rationality means we are incapable of processing ideas, or forming a broad picture of reality, without the mediation of sensory input. Thus, human beings learn gradually, experientially. Indeed, the process of acquiring knowledge is what Bacon lamented: “a continual exercise and perpetual agitation of the mind”.

Should it require a lifetime to recognize what a woman is, or realize that a fœtus is a living human person, or understand that human nature is received and not chosen? No, it should not. Nevertheless, when their perception becomes distorted, people must be re-acclimated, carefully and perhaps slowly, to reality. We cannot risk pitting nature against reflection, or the clarity of the Gospel against the labor of evangelization.

In our sinful state, living natural, ordered lives involves a perpetual struggle against disordered inclinations. Moral simplicity is deceptive, much like aesthetic simplicity. There is nothing ‘simpler’, in its beauty, than Mozarts’s 29th Symphony, or a landscape by John Constable that (as my sister put it nicely) seems to have “painted itself”. Still, few of us lack the expertise to produce anything comparable. There is nothing simpler than the image of a good Catholic household, but how prayerful, alert and industrious we must be to produce them! Simplicity is rarely simple.

It is most natural to see under sunlight, but the prisoner released from Plato’s cave must squint and habituate himself, only gradually, to the day. Naturally, we eat solid food. However, St. Paul tells us we are like spiritual infants who must be weaned off milk.[7] Through sin, we have forfeited easy access to what is most natural for us.

Finally, as Catholics, we have benefitted from centuries of Christian civilization. We have countless saints and teachers for models of good lives. We have the traditional liturgy, we have sacred art and venerable customs, to educate us about our Faith. If truth, goodness and beauty are at all obvious, it is thanks to these and the graces they mediate. Nothing is so fragile or requires as much cultivation as common sense.

There are, then, two kinds of ‘simplicity’. One is the authentic, natural simplicity of the world as God’s creation. This is the simplicity from which even the ancient pagans deduced an idea of God. Through the incredible variety of our world shines a uniformity and consistency, an order, that is only explained with reference to something beyond it. The other kind of simplicity is the false ‘simpleness’ of Buzz Windrip, the Professional Common Man, who assures us that the straight and narrow path is always the easy path.

We should be confident and, above all, grateful, in our ability to recognize what is natural, but we should not be frustrated and overly scandalized that this is not obvious to all. Neither should we ignore the reality of intellectual errors: the fact that sin can mislead our minds as well as our physical appetites. Dante himself, in the Inferno, designates separate areas of Hell for those who committed grave sins of the body and those who committed grave sins of the mind. God has blessed us with faculties tailored especially for healing disordered minds. Catholic education, scholarship and ordinary rational discourse are as necessary now as ever, and we cannot afford to lose them in our frustration. We must not fall prey to the siren song of false ‘simplicity’.

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[1] Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, (New York, 1935; Project Gutenberg Australia, 2017), ch. 9,

[2] Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, (New York, NY: Samuel French, Inc.; Internet Archive), 12.

[3] Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, (New York: P. F. Collier, 1620; Online Library of Liberty), Preface,

[4] Renée Descartes, A Discourse on Method: Meditations and Principles, trans. John Veitch, intr. by A. D. Lindsay, (London: Dent, Everyman’s Library, 1969; Internet Archive), 49.

[5] ibid. 48.

[6] St. Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles: On the Truth of the Catholic Faith, ed. by Joseph Kenny, O.P., Book One trans. by Anton C. Pegis, “St. Isidore e–book library,” accessed June 20th, 2023,, I.8.

[7] 1 Cor. 3:2

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Last modified on Wednesday, June 28, 2023