The Retreat from Reality

In his Way to Wisdom, the distinguished German philosopher Karl Jaspers expands upon his observation that the innate disposition to philosophize is evident in human beings at a very early age. This natural gift of reacting spontaneously to the spontaneity of life, however, is often lost as the years advance. Then, as Jaspers laments, “we seem to enter into a prison of conventions and opinions, concealments and unquestioned acceptance, and there we lose the candour of childhood.”

Yet, not everyone, to be sure, loses this “candour of childhood”. For whatever reason—a strong character, supportive friends, encouraging teachers, or an insuppressible gift for philosophy—some people remain faithful to that natural disposition all their lives. Nonetheless, the desire to conform, to be in step with the times, is powerful. The natural wisdom of the child often evaporates as a person enters the world to seek his fortune and gain respectability. The siren song of success can seduce a person into bartering his innate sense of philosophy for ideas that are not true, although disarmingly fashionable.

A child knows without having to be schooled that his parents express their love for him in the form of loving acts. The joy the child feels when he opens his Christmas presents is a simple enough example. His gratitude is formed by the happy conjunction of love and deed. There is a natural continuity between a loving conviction and a loving expression. Love is a dynamic impulse that seeks to express itself in appropriate ways. Love is not something that is bottled up in a person for fear that its expression might constitute a wrongful imposition. This is a simple enough point for a child to understand. But with regard to some adults, who see the emperor as regally attired, it is a different matter.

Philosophical errors die hard, if they die at all. 1973 is the infamous year of Roe v. Wade. In that same year, Canadian politicians were at work devising a rhetorical strategy designed to mystify opponents into accepting abortion. A clear and concise example of this strategy appears in a 1973 letter written by Justice Minister John Turner to a prominent attorney by the name of Ian Hunter. The letter begins as follows: “One must try to separate one’s own private moral convictions from one’s sense of duty as a legislator in a pluralistic society to advance the public good.” Hunter records his response for posterity several years later in a 1985 issue of The Idler: “Of all the vacuous, muddle-headed notions of contemporary politics, this is the most pernicious.” Turner had obviously under-rated Hunter’s intelligence. Not everyone would be mystified by this nonsense.

“The precise opposite is the truth,” as Hunter explained. It is fidelity to one’s moral convictions, not their abandonment, that is the sine qua non in advancing the public good. Does it make the slightest bit of sense for a legislator to say, “I am personally opposed to domestic violence, but I would not try to impose my view on others?” The underlying tacit message is, “Aren’t I wonderfully tolerant, broadminded and accepting?”  

When a politician is campaigning for office, it is essential, if he has any hope of being elected, to convince people that he plans to carry out his duties. Voters want to be confident they are electing a person who will put his convictions into practice. They do not want to elect anyone who cuts himself off from the public and keeps all his moral convictions locked up in himself. This is an attitude that should disqualify anyone from running for office. The politician or legislator who does not know the difference between ministering to people and imposing alien values is not fit for office. If he thinks he is an imposter, then he is really an imposter. If one is convinced that justice is a worthy value, then he must do what he can do to have it flower.

The reference to a “pluralistic society” is also specious. No matter how pluralistic a society is, it is nonetheless a society and must abide by such universal prohibitions such as murder, larceny, arson, fraud, rape, theft, and other objective disvalues that threaten the good of the people. Abortion is not a trivial issue and most certainly not private. The slaughter of tens of thousands of unborn babies each year in Canada, together with the adverse effects it has on women, marriage, and the family, is demonstrably public and not private.

Once a person “separates” his “private moral convictions” from his “duty as a legislator”, what is there left for him to do except to do nothing? He has morally eviscerated himself! He is truly good for nothing except pulling the wool over the eyes of his voters. We should expect more from our politicians. But we should also expect more from the people. We should expect neither to retreat from reality and find comfort in ignorance.

The errors of 1973 stream into the present and maintain their mystifying power over people.  Is it possible to resuscitate reason? At the same time, we witness the shameless attempts to impose the homosexual agenda on people. To minister is essentially different than to impose. A justice minister should not be fearful of ministering or confuse it with imposing. 

“Heaven lies about us in our infancy,” wrote William Wordsworth, but “Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy.” How do we avoid entering the “prison-house”? Reason alone is not enough to keep people reasonable. We also need courage and a caring community. “Genius is the re-discovery of childhood,” remarked Baudelaire. Perhaps, and more to the point, moral candour is the re-discovery of the innocence of childhood.

Photo by Valeri Terziyski on Unsplash


Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review and is the author of thirty-nine books. His latest book, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling is posted on  His fortieth book, Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, is in production. 

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