December 14, 2004

Christianity Today review of Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons", concerning the book's premise that all human behavior is sociobiologically pre-determined:
What is really happening in the story is something that theists have always known: that we choose to think the things we think, and that what we think will largely determine what we do.

That is precisely what happens to Charlotte and to all the other characters in the book. After all, it is only when Charlotte finally changes her simple, down-home, Christian way of thinking about what a human being is, and what choice means, that she descends into the personal miasma that is the inevitable consequence of the bad choices she makes. These latter, in turn, are the direct result of the bad ideas she chooses to hold. If she had kept to her old assumptions, her behavior would have been completely different. Of that, there can no doubt whatever.

Despite Wolfe's extremely skillful and detailed efforts to show exactly how relentlessly events push Charlotte toward doing the things she does, he cannot conclusively establish that she could not have acted otherwise. Such a thing would be utterly impossible to prove, of course. One can only accept or reject it inductively. And that leaves freedom of choice as a possibility, and indeed the more likely explanation for her actions—the one that in fact best fits the facts of the story.

This leads to a very interesting and important sociological observation that one can draw from the book: that a society's leaders, and in particular its intellectual elite, its philosophers, bear a heavy responsibility for what goes on in it.
That last paragraph sounds very Fr. McCloskey-ish, who has said that society won't become healthily Christian until the elites do. Ideas matter, and their noxious nihilist philosophies are in the very air we breathe.

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