Books in Review

In Plato's Cave

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 104 (June/July 2000): 59-62.

The Darkness in Plato’s Cave

In Plato’s Cave. By Alvin Kernan. Yale University Press. 309 pp. $30.

Reviewed by Phillip E. Johnson

After growing up in poverty in rural Wyoming, Alvin Kernan joined the prewar Navy in 1941 to get a start in life. He began as an enlisted man serving on one of the aircraft carriers that were so fortuitously away at sea when the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor. He survived the sinking of the carrier Hornet in 1942, and the following year won the Navy Cross for flying as a gunner in the very first night carrier air skirmish. (Lt. Commander Edward "Butch" O’Hare, the celebrated air ace for whom Chicago’s airport is named, died in this action.) The eminent military historian John Keegan praised Crossing the Line, Kernan’s 1994 memoir of those long–ago adventures, as "an extraordinary book, most of all for the sense it conveys of the isolation of the individual in an enormous, impersonal organization into which, nevertheless, danger might at any instant intrude with an acutely personal immediacy." The modest war hero probably could have published a best–seller in 1945, but he chose to tell his story only much later, when it seemed right to make his children aware of their heritage.

Kernan’s best Navy friend was an aspiring actor named Richard Boone, later the star of television’s Have Gun, Will Travel. After the war Kernan briefly enjoyed the bohemian life in New York with Boone, but his own inclination was to take advantage of the GI Bill so he could pursue the life of reason. During his Navy years Kernan had discarded the Catholicism of his early upbringing because "war had pushed me over a threshold of belief into a hard materialism, and I could never go back." This seems unreflective for such an intelligent man, considering that the cruelty of war is no modern discovery and many others have actually found God in similar circumstances. Kernan wryly describes himself as a naive rationalist:

I was one of those who feel that the most satisfactory end in life is knowledge; not money or power or prestige, but an understanding of people and the world they inhabit. . . . I had in my innocence developed a view of knowledge that will seem laughable in our skeptical days. Read the right books and listen to the right people, think in the most intense and logical fashion . . . and all the darkness of Plato’s cave of illusions would burn away in the bright sun of understanding. I did not think that truth remained to be discovered; I believed that in the main it already had been found and that I just had not yet been informed of the results.

In pursuit of that faith Kernan obtained his undergraduate education at Williams College and his Ph.D. in literature at Yale. He went on to become a tenured professor at Yale, Provost of Yale University, and Dean of the Graduate School at Princeton. He was for many years an outstanding teacher, widely respected as a scholar and academic statesman. In retirement, he dispenses largesse for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. His academic career was successful far beyond anything he could have imagined as a schoolboy or seaman.

Even so, In Plato’s Cave is a catalog of disappointments, of promising things gone horribly wrong. Kernan climbed almost to the top of the greasy academic pole, and found there not the bright sun of understanding but a greater darkness. The students who ought to have sought wisdom and learning turned instead to hedonism and politicized irrationality. Eventually the faculty replaced the noble principles that had attracted Kernan with ignoble but profitable fads and power ideologies. What went wrong?

Kernan was a graduate student in 1951 when William F. Buckley, Jr.’s God and Man at Yale created a sensation by (in Kernan’s words) arguing "provocatively and brilliantly that the administration and faculty of Yale, despite Yale’s having been founded on religion and being still supported by free enterprise, were systematically teaching atheism and socialism in the classroom." Kernan saw Buckley’s attack merely as an incident in the anti–Communist politics of the time, and implicitly certified its accuracy while dismissing it from serious consideration. Classroom ridicule of religion was merely harmless joking, Kernan thought, and it was absurd to imagine that liberals could ever violate the academic freedom of conservatives.

We children of the Depression, raised in the Age of Roosevelt, were so indoctrinated with liberal views that we took them as simply given and obvious truth. They were the truths that academic freedom made it possible to teach. It never occurred to us to doubt that Hiss was innocent, that McCarthy was a total liar, that the state was the best means for remedying all evils; and so we joined with everyone else in reviling and laughing at Buckley.

Later, the reviling laughter was at the expense of Kernan and his friends. It was one thing for war veterans with their feet on the ground to mock God and tradition, but the pampered youth of the next generation made rebellion into a way of life. If the state was capable of remedying all evils, why not demand that it complete the job without delay?

Utopian nihilism fathered such bizarre upheavals as the Bobby Seale episode at Yale in 1970. Seale was a leader of the Black Panther Party, a politico/gangster operation typical of the times. New Haven prosecutors indicted Seale for the torture and murder of a party member suspected of being a police informant, and the Panther supporters responded with agitprop that directed attention toward general accusations of racism and oppression and hence away from the mundane question of whether Seale had committed the murder. Many of Yale’s best and brightest students endorsed the Panther cause with enthusiasm. Most of the faculty either jumped on the bandwagon or ran for cover. As mobs converged on the city and the campus, Kernan learned to appreciate how vulnerable the university was to violence, and how eager many of the brightest students and faculty were to attack university leaders if they did anything "provocative" such as characterizing the protesters’ demands as unreasonable.

Provost Kernan was no more able to prevent the debacle at Yale than he had been to prevent the sinking of the Hornet. In both cases he did his duty, but forces far beyond his control made disaster inevitable. As second–in–command at Yale, Kernan sat next to President Kingman Brewster at the faculty meeting in which Brewster impulsively tried to placate the rebels by saying that he was "skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States." Of course the radicals who despised Yale’s liberal intellectualism saw that sop to their ideology as encouragement to step up the pressure, and conservatives wrote off Brewster as an appeaser not worth defending.

The atmosphere of the period was symbolized by an incident in which Latino art students imported some toughs to frighten administrators into giving them special treatment. A scholarly administrator named Charles Taylor tried to explain to the delegation that universities work by reason, not force. Kernan recounts that "the imports from the Bronx found this talk ludicrous and made their feelings clear with many profanities. Charlie stiffened, and the scene turned ugly, with very real threats to hold him out the window and drop him into the courtyard below (no campus police had been brought to the meeting ‘lest their presence be provocative’). A student photographer made a film of the incident, and Yale audiences cheered the bullies when it was shown at local theaters." Kernan explains that he tells this painful story only to suggest "how little at this time the university could count on some of its own to share in the defense of its traditional values." Perhaps the students would have been more willing to defend Yale’s traditional values if the faculty had not made it a practice to mock those values in the classroom.

Kernan was also the Yale administrator who appointed the deconstructionist Paul de Man as professor of literature. This decision was reasonable at the time, de Man being a brilliant and charismatic teacher, but in hindsight it seems like another betrayal of Yale’s values. De Man’s ideology was inherently friendly to totalitarianism, because it denied the existence of objective truth and made meaning the province of readers, including demagogues wielding power ideologies. That literary theory took on a sinister aspect just after de Man’s death, when historical researchers discovered that he was writing Nazi journalism in Belgium during the years when the young Alvin Kernan was defending democracy in the Pacific.

De Man’s Nazism didn’t shock the real nihilists, who know that totalitarians of the left and right share a loathing for "bourgeois values" (a.k.a. truth, beauty, and goodness). But critics of deconstructionism wondered if de Man’s literary theory might have been a subtle defense of his Nazism. If words inherently don’t mean anything, then it could be argued that de Man’s Nazi words didn’t mean anything incriminating. Kernan slam–dunks his response to such rationalization: "If there is one basic axiom of deconstruction, it surely is Il n’y a rien hors du texte—‘everything is a text,’ everything, that is, is made up and unreal—but far from there being nothing outside of the de Man text, everything was out there, waiting to be called back into reality by the awesome power of words to retain and control meaning."

Kernan hoped to find calmer waters when he went to Princeton in 1973 as Dean of the Graduate School, but he soon wearied of the constant legal hassles that preoccupied university administrators. He was not much happier after 1978 as a member of Princeton’s English Department, because the spirit of the times was alien to him. The way to get ahead in literature was to gain attention by pursuing some fad to the limits of its logic and beyond. Kernan realized that his time was past when he happened to see a Ph.D. dissertation that was being rushed surreptitiously through the department, the theme of which was to read a bizarre astrological code into Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. To him it was as if the physics department had approved a dissertation promoting witchcraft. Kernan protested all the way up and down the line, but the other literature professors no longer cared about his quaint standards. That wacky dissertation symbolized a culture of academic malpractice that could never be acceptable to a man who had once believed that the university was where all the darkness of Plato’s cave of illusions would burn away in the bright sun of understanding.

When Kernan recognized that he was beaten, he retreated to the sanctuary of the library stacks, there to labor over scholarly books likely to appeal only to a few other literary specialists. His two splendid books of memoirs show him to be a brave and decent citizen of his country and his universities, as well as a good–natured raconteur of folly who doesn’t mind turning his wit against himself. In retirement he reflected that "the gyroscope at the center of any educational system . . . is its dominant conception of knowledge," and in literature the ruling definition of knowledge implied that "there are no facts, only interpretations."

The reduction of knowledge to interpretation, and ultimately to economics and power politics, was partly the unintended consequence of the philosophy that the young Alvin Kernan brought back from the war. It is too bad that the professors of Kernan’s generation, admirable as they were in so many respects, chose to build their literary castle on a foundation of sand, so that it could not hope to stand against the ideological storms.

Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley.