Social Justice and Copernicus

William H. Young

Columnist Daniel Henninger posits (“The Obamaian Universe,” The Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2013) that President Obama

is creating an alternative universe, the Obamaian Universe. (Obamaian is pronounced Oh-buh-mayan, as in the recently famous calendar.) The Obama administration is trying to pull us back into what astronomers would call the pre-Copernican world. Copernicus’ heliocentric system overthrew what was known as geocentrism—the belief that everything in the universe revolved around the earth….

Economic thinkers since at least the time of, well Copernicus, have understood that national well-being derived from private individuals going out into the private world to produce goods, an activity that for centuries has created wealth for many nations. No longer….In the Obamaian universe, the units of the private economy—companies large or small—are satellites orbiting the great fixed planet of public spending. All material and economic life in the Obamaian model radiates outward from a central source of public spending.

In the Obamaian universe, the life force is…the Keynesian Multiplier….Maybe the Keynesian Multiplier, like green ooze, doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter. As with geocentrism, the president’s pre-Copernican political economy is based on religious belief….Public spending is beyond ideology for Barack Obama. It’s the oxygen in his universe.

Such spending implements Keynesian economics, with its discredited “multiplier effect,” as I discussed in Social Justice and the Economy, Capitalism and Governance, and Growth and Governance.

I have a slightly different take on Henninger’s clever characterization of the Obamaian universe. In De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543), Nicolaus Copernicus presented his views of the solar system, rejecting Ptolemy’s geocentrism and arguing that the earth revolves around the sun. Ironically however, Copernicus’s heliocentric system also reflected his religious belief in Neoplatonism, which was revived during the Renaissance, was hostile to science, and made nature divine.

Copernicus applied the Pythagorean theory of mathematics through which quantitative measurement of the world revealed to him not a mechanistic universe, but a numinous order emanating from the “supreme intelligence” within Neoplatonism. The religious philosophy of Neoplatonism stemmed from Plato’s Divine Ideas and closely followed the Gnostic theory of emanations. From the One and the Nous emerged the transcendent manifestation of the divine intelligence or cosmic order existing beyond the reach of human reason. (Ordering America, 2010)

The modern world of science as well as astronomy began with Galileo Galilei, who turned to the physical rather than the metaphysical aspects of nature and reality. He devised controlled experiments in which postulated mathematical relationships could be measured and confirmed with precision. He constructed a telescope powerful enough to show that the motion of heavenly bodies fit with the Copernican theory of the universe. He created the idea that nature follows consistent and permanent natural and rational laws in an account of his astronomical ideas, the Sidereal Messenger (1610). Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton completed the scientific revolution continued by many others that followed. (Ordering America, 2010)

It is the concept of scientific reason and mathematical theory confirmed by scientific evidence that drives the modern economic world, not religious belief like that of Copernicus, the Obamaian universe, or many of today’s environmentalists. In light of the old Neoplatonism, let’s further examine president Obama’s universe, followed by the sustainability ideology currently ascendant in academia.

Like Copernicus, president Obama places his faith in a kind of Neoplatonist reality beyond reason. But at the center of this religious/cosmic order is “social justice,” to be achieved through postmodern progressivism, in which the realities of economics, mathematics, and evidence can be ignored or dismissed.

The postmodern progressive life force of the Obamaian universe reflects the social construction of reality by policy elites. Reason is replaced by the political will of the enlightened to achieve the cosmic order centered on social justice through government. Lack of evidence of the Keynesian magic multiplier’s efficacy is no deterrent to ever more enthusiastic Keynesian spending. Middle-class inequality from a failed public education system can magically be cured by government investment in sending everyone to college.

Sustainability is the future way to social justice of the Obamaian universe as well as to the salvation of nature. In The Death of Nature (1980), Carolyn Merchant, professor of environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, limned the theory that the scientific revolution, along with the technology and capitalism it enabled, led to the domination and exploitation of both women and nature.  As the West adopted the worldview of science as mechanism and a new ethic sanctioning the exploitation of nature, “the female earth and virgin earth spirit were subdued by the machine.”

Merchant comments that “the Neoplatonic female world soul, the internal source of activity in nature, was replaced by the contrived mechanism of particles in motion.” She notes favorably that feminist scholars have produced “an explosion of books on ancient goddesses that became the basis for a renewed earth-rooted spirituality,” and relates such spirituality to ancient Gnosticism as well as Neoplatonism. She foresees a transformation of our society through a new paradigm of “socialist eco-feminism,” a return to the premodern organic cosmology—or organicism—in which a living female earth, both a nurturing and uncontrollable mother, was the predominant worldview.

As with Copernicus, Neoplatonism is the basis for Merchant’s mystical vision of a divine nature, a view that also underlies the American academy’s concept of sustainability, as I addressed in The Reverse Metamorphosis of Sustainability: Nature. There, I cited Peter Wood’s  Enchanting Sustainability, where he reports on an effort by sustainability advocates within academia to include “enchantment” in the scientific paradigm of an objective relationship with the natural world to include “a more personal connection with the living earth.” This way of knowing would add “a sensory, affective engagement that includes dimensions of wonder and delight and embraces an identity that includes connections to other species and the earth’s living systems.” What have been called the “sustainatopians” would instill in students “an emotional way of knowing the world that is separate from the rational,” to “move beyond reason and science in favor of a combination of intuition and empathy.”

Sustainability conveniently casts aside any Baconian need for evidence to support the claims for its religion. In this final stage of the Obamaian universe, the private economy revolves about and is wholly directed by government in order to assure sustainable development and a zero-growth economy and to achieve social justice by setting wages for all on a global basis, as I explained in The Reverse Metamorphosis of Sustainability: Economy.

The American academy lives within the Obamaian universe and worships the cosmic order of social justice and sustainability through its supreme intelligence and postmodern progressive life force. Copernicus would be pleased with its embrace of Neoplatonism, though he would not recognize its postmodern embodiment perceived by present–day academic elites. But the Western knowledge accumulated from Galileo and the many others that followed, is still the surest path. As reflected in Adam Smith’s ideas, a capitalist economy based on individual creation of wealth rather than government redistribution of wealth, and founded on limited rather than omnipotent government, is still the real, rather than the magical, answer to our prosperity.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues related to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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