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The Plague of Thoughtlessness

Sometimes modern perplexities call for ancient wisdom. Today, St. Thomas Aquinas’ warning about the vice of “thoughtlessness” may shine a light on contemporary discourse—if trite prattle even qualifies as discourse. More to the point, we tend to think of the concept of “thoughtlessness,” if we think of it at all, as a kind of mistake; but, for Aquinas, it is an ongoing “vice,” even a “sin.” In both cases it is a serious moral failing, leaving wreckage in its path. Thoughtlessness, according to Aquinas is the habitual failure to take the care, time, and interest necessary for responsible and meaningful speech and behavior.

Here in Georgia, we’ve been the victim of more than our share of simple-minded criticism, whether it concerns baseball, voting, or golf. The empty-headed attacks on Georgia have come from both the right and the left so anyone who thinks bipartisanship is dead, hasn’t been in the Peach State lately.

The stunning success of the Atlanta Braves in the 2021 World Series has  provided an opportunity for some to allege that Georgia is a racist state because of the fans’ “tomahawk chop.”

On another front, Delta CEO Ed Bastian joined other woke or awakening executives in attacking Georgia’s voting reforms, although none of them seem to be able to say just why, except that the changes did not reflect their company’s “values.” Bastian issued his condemnation on Wednesday, March 21, 2021, but the previous Friday he had applauded the voting changes. All this virtue signaling is confusing, to be sure.

Now a few have turned their attention to the Masters Golf Tournament held every spring on the Augusta National Golf Course. Among other complaints, Tiger Woods is the “sole black person” to have won the tournament. That much is true. He was the “sole black person” in 1997 when he set the course record, and he was the “sole black person” to win in 2001, 2002, 2005, and 2019. The Masters may have been slower to integrate than some tournaments, but integrate it has, though not by diktat, but by Woods’ brilliance on the fairway.

Former MSNBC talking head Keith Olberman has suggested that the name of the tournament was an intentional allusion to slave-owning “masters” in the South. Course designer Bobby Jones might be turning in his grave were that not such a fatuous comment. Others have insisted, with staggering ignorance, that the tournament be moved out of Augusta, which would be tantamount to moving the pyramids out of Egypt.

Such comments as those that have been aimed at Georgia are not just differences of opinion; Indeed, they are hardly opinions at all. In their utter disregard for arguments rooted in reality, such irresponsible comments violate the moral obligation to take proper care before speaking or acting.

Why do people say such witless things? Every day brings more of this mindless mischief, despite platoons of so-called “fact-checkers.” There seem to be several reasons but they all, in their way, are enabled by thoughtlessness. For one, it is fashionable. Doltish remarks, proceeding from an approved prejudice, attract attention on social media and may lead to invitations to late-night talk shows or college campuses. Secondly, some empty-headed garble is a matter of ill will. At times, the human impulse for malice seems to know no bounds. Other simple-minded comments, of course, aim to further particular political agendas.

Thoughtlessness, though, may be the most worrisome explanation of all. The thoughtless person doesn’t take the care or effort to form an opinion before speaking or acting. Aquinas explains that some people have “a contempt” for such deliberation. This helps explain why we seem to be having trouble with the truth, so much so that some warn of a “post-truth society.” For the thoughtless person, any facts—or no facts at all—will do, especially when the moral failing of thoughtlessness is combined with a related vice, impetuosity.

For Aquinas, since prudence is the preeminent virtue, anything leading to imprudence—in this case, thoughtlessness—is especially devilish, so that to be incautious or precipitant is a particularly serious moral transgression. Though it may seem relatively benign, of all the explanations for the current plague of mindless comments, thoughtlessness is of the most concern because it is the most entrenched, and because it creates a safe space for a shallow life of insipid chatter. Virtues and vices are habits—not habits like getting a latte every Monday but habits in the sense of deep patterns of behavior, not easily altered. By contrast, slander may be chic today but less trendy tomorrow. Ill will may burn out: after all, malice consumes more energy than benevolence; and, a political agenda might lose its support. But vices, in the Thomistic sense, have real staying power.

In a thoughtless culture, individuals too often squander their leisure time in ways that crowd out the cultivation of habits of reflection that lead to moral and intellectual improvement.

For Aquinas, and Aristotle before him, virtues and vices are acquired in several ways. Some are congenital; for example, some people seem to be naturally generous or naturally stingy. Others, though, are cultivated by moral and intellectual education. One pedagogical fad, however, “critical thinking,” is not at all what its name suggests. As often as not, it is little more than transmitting a teacher’s prejudice. The curriculum has become the pursuit of a political cause, sacrificing reflective opportunities along its trajectory. Serious literature in high schools is replaced by assorted insipid “workbooks.” You just can’t expect students to read The Brothers Karamazov, or even Crime and Punishment, notwithstanding that they once did.

Contemporary critical thinking, moreover, is often conceived of and taught as a skill. Even the most prestigious prep schools boast, “We don’t teach students what to think, we teach them how to think.” But if the ability to think well is treated as a skill rather than a dimension of character, it might as well be taught in a vocational track with other skills like carpentry or welding.

For Aristotle and Aquinas, the virtue of prudence, characterized as it is by careful deliberation and cautious behavior, presupposes that an individual understands the principles upon which practical wisdom is exercised, and those principles are only learned and experienced organically over time as the individual is immersed in a rich curriculum and a challenging environment, wherever that might best be found. Otherwise, critical thinking is little more than “cleverness,” if it is even that. In respect to moral choice, Aristotle warns, “The clever person will do anything.” For that reason, for the ancients, genuine critical thinking—a composite of intellectual virtues—cannot exist apart from a moral life.

But it gets worse: Practical wisdom requires a cautious, thorough approach to life, behavior that should bring a measure of peace—the comfort of a sincere conscience. It stands to reason then, that thoughtlessness generates restlessness, an uncomfortable state that needs to be assuaged, if not medicated, and that palliation is most easily found in amusement. It is our right to be amused, something we might call an “amusement imperative.”

In his brilliant book, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper explains that the health of a culture is diagnosed by the way in which people use their free time—their “leisure” as Aristotle called it. In a thoughtless culture, though, individuals too often squander their leisure time in ways that crowd out the cultivation of habits of reflection that lead to moral and intellectual improvement. It is tempting to blame digital devices for all of this, and no doubt they contribute, but a smartphone is an aid to an informed, reflective life for many. It all has to do with the character that underlies such usage.

An education worthy of the name is an opportunity to reflect and the chance to develop a habit of deliberation so that thoughtfulness becomes a fixed dimension of one’s character. A dynamic canon of literature, music, art, philosophy, math, and science is praiseworthy because it trains the student’s sensibilities to distinguish the beautiful from the vulgar; it is worthwhile because it deals with timeless questions and explores the ways in which those questions might be resolved. All of this, however, depends on the cultivation of a lifelong habit of thoughtfulness. French statesman and philosopher Benjamin Constant observed, “In all moral things, reflection is the source of life.”

For some time now, many have come of age lacking the capacity for meaningful and due deliberation. The difficulty now is that even if education were reformed tomorrow, there still remains a generation or more who are habitually thoughtless. For that reason, we are riding out a storm whose end is not yet in sight. As the maxim goes, “bad habits die hard.” There is no vaccine for a pandemic of thoughtlessness.

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