Readers of The Pearcey Report may be interested know that I will be speaking at the Southwest Conference on Christianity and Literature on the campus of Houston Baptist University on Friday at 2:15. My talk draws on themes from Saving Leonardo and is titled, "Recovering Our Virtue: Does Dickens Succeed in Overcoming the Fact/Value Split in Hard Times?"
In the novel Hard Times Dickens is doing battle with philosophies like empiricism and utilitarianism, which had come to dominate the public sphere of politics and economics. Writing at the height of the industrial revolution, Dickens realized that the impact of these philosophies was reductionistic and dehumanizing, and he raises the question: In an age where Truth has been identified solely with empirical fact, what is the truth status of Goodness and Beauty?
Dickens knew that the outstanding philosopher of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, had undergone a personal crisis (related in Saving Leonardo). He recasts Mill's story as the plot line in the novel.
Here is a brief preview of my remarks:
When John Stuart Mill was born, his father was close friends with Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism. They decided to turn the boy into a kind of experiment: They would educate him from a young age to become a prophet for their utilitarian creed.
And it worked. As a young man, Mill was brilliant. He was writing for professional journals, he had founded several intellectual societies, and he was heralded as the crown prince of an influential utilitarian movement in politics.
But at the age of twenty, Mill suffered a mental crisis. As he wrote in his Autobiography, it came crashing down on him that he had been turned into little more than a "reasoning machine." He felt he had been robbed of entire dimensions of life.
So intense was Mill's depression that he compared himself with someone on the threshold of a religious conversion. Yet he did not find a resolution to his crisis in religion. Instead, he found it in poetry. His depression lifted when he discovered the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the other Romantics.
Now, however, he was faced with a dilemma. The discovery of poetry and beauty had saved his life. But his philosophy did not allow for any form of truth except the empirical and the quanitfiable.
How would Mill resolve the conflict?
And how would Dickens resolve the conflict in his fictional treatment of the same issues? Most importantly, how can we stand against the inhumane reductionism and scientism of our own age and assert once again that Goodness and Beauty are rooted in Truth?
According to the conference website, online registration "is $85 per professional ($95 at the door) or $55 per graduate student ($65 at the door) and includes the Friday dinner meal. In addition, all registrants must be current members of Conference on Christianity and Literature. The membership rates are $35 per year or $60 for two years."
On the topic of conferences, Rick and I are excited to announce that we are developing plans for conferences where together we address the critical challenges of our day, in light of the liberating and reality-oriented principles set forth in the Judeo-Christian worldview. Stayed tuned for updates on this initiative.