In his chapter on Blaise Pascal, Wilson begins describing the Outsider as “the obsessed man — obsessed with the problem of where he is going and who he is.” 1 Many geniuses begin as mediocre and banal individuals. Wilson offers the example of Gaugin: “Gaugin’s painting is great, not because Gaugin is a talented painter, but because he cared so much about painting that his comparative lack of talent (in the sense that Ingres had talent) is unimportant.” 2 The Outsider is wholly concerned with will power and obsession. One cannot be a true genius without these two things. “A man who is not obsessed cannot be great.” 3
He then initiates a discussion of the materialist and the atheist, applying the above criterion. It is a long passage, but extremely important and pertinent for our day.
What type of man is the materialist, generally? Sometimes, of course, a man who has been thrown into a frenzy of opposition to the religious viewpoint by some unfortunate experience with its representatives. . . More commonly, the materialist is a short-sighted sceptic who has never undergone any deep emotional or spiritual experience (they are practically the same thing). He is the type of person that Blake satirises in An Island in the Moon. He is a man whose formative years were intoxicated with the idea of science, which can make man master of the world and of himself (for of course, part of man’s slavery to himself is really slavery to his cowardice — his fear of the external world, which science can teach him to master). The rationalist, then, is driven to a will to power over the world; a power which he is convinced that unending reason and logic can give him. But his defeat is the same as that of Alexander the Great: when all the world is conquered, what then? The rationalist has failed to recognise the most important fact about man: that reason and logic may give men power over the outside world, but no power over himself. They can make him into a dictator, but not into a genius. 4
I am thinking of someone I know who is exactly as Wilson describes. This person had some bad experiences with religious people, and was very interested in science in their youth. Logic always seemed to be what was important to him as a child. As far as I know, this person never really had a moving spiritual or deep emotional experience. A fear of the external world was present, and, of course, the consensus is that science is the answer to mastering this fear.
I would imagine this description fits many adherents of scientism and materialism. It seems to be a reaction against what the rationalist/materialist thinks they know or have heard about religion, having never really had any appropriate training in what religion really means.
It has been very evident to me for decades, that
…every poet knows that a man’s real value is determined by the depth of his emotional experience. It is those deep insights into his own being that really give man mastery over himself and then over the world. . . The man whose mental life is restricted to meditating about logic and science is only a half-man, and will become mentally stunted. 5
This is powerful commentary, and he is absolutely right! With the trend in our day being the closing and budget-cutting of humanities departments in our universities, this is a crucial point. The graduates coming out of colleges nowadays know very little about the liberal arts. The once great traditions of literature, philosophy, history, and the Classics are little-known to the average college student of today. Instead, STEM is the buzzword and fashionable acronym: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These are taught to the exclusion of almost all else. It is a huge mistake, and we are currently reaping the rewards of it, from the state of our culture at this point in history. It is much worse now than when Colin Wilson penned the above words.
With the Outsider of today, one must, for the most part, be an autodidact if one expects to learn about the humanities. Colleges and universities are now money-machines. Education, especially of the humanities, has taken a backseat to sports teams and fund-raising. It is a disgrace. The denigration of an education in the humanities is one of my pet peeves, so please bear with me. It is my belief that Western civilization was made great by a classical education in the humanities.
Wilson says, “In the course of this long exploration of the Outsider, I have tried to show that man’s evolution lies, not in science, but in knowing more of himself.” 6 It is not that science is worthless. That is not the point at all. It is certainly not. We have achieved astounding things through science, but we must understand that science has a limit to what it can learn. Only phenomena that can be measured and quantified can be examined using the scientific method. This means that any deep emotional or spiritual experience cannot be examined scientifically. They will tell you they can do it, by using surveys to quantify mental states, but, of course, it can never lead to viable hypotheses based on hard data. They have all sorts of supposedly scientific theories about consciousness, but when it comes down to it, they have nothing quantifiable. Some scientists don’t even believe consciousness exists. In the realms of spirit and soul, all science has to offer are reductionist ideas. Now, if you want to travel to Mars, science is the way to go, unless, of course, you’re going via your imagination.
There is so much to think about in this chapter, which, amazingly, began with a biographical sketch of the life of Blaise Pascal. The most interesting material comes afterward. I will end this article here and continue in the next, due to the amount of things I’d like to cover.
Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957.
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