Today at Spectator USA I write about Joe Biden’s forgotten status as a fount of youthful genius in “Joe Biden: victim of the cult of youth.” Biden won his first Senate election at the 29, the same age as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and spent the next two decades being extolled for his age and sophistication – before spending the last decade ridiculed for his age and mediocrity.
Biden’s fate is a cautionary tale about a culture that exalts youth and passion over received wisdom. I write:
America’s Founding Fathers, as the flower of Western civilization, believed one’s mind had to mature into its full powers before someone could demand others follow it. Celebrating youth qua youth ignores the purpose of young adulthood. Passing through the channel of youth should shape our future life, but this is impossible if not a single one of our courses gets diverted by the banks and boundaries of inherited wisdom. Rather than being educated, today’s generation spent its childhood being affirmed and its adulthood demanding to be celebrated.
To learn where the road of unearned praise leads, they may turn their eyes upon 76-year-old Joe Biden.
This cultural moment demonizes the elderly but exalts young spokespeople like Greta Thunberg, a living embodiment of the notion that adults need to listen to the wisdom of children rather than vice-versa. This moment springs from differing ideas of human nature.
Since at least the 1960s, America has adopted the views of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that the human race is good by nature but corrupted by social institutions like formal education. “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man,” he wrote in Emile. “A child’s tutor should be young … Were it possible, he should become a child himself.” Wealth, too, deceives. “It is riches that corrupt men,” he added. The noble savage, left untouched by Western education and social institutions, creates an earthly Utopia, yet the closest our society can produce is the untouched brilliance of youth.
The more ancient tradition follows Aristotle, who wrote in The Nicomachean Ethics that a wise life, dedicated to reason and virtue, requires “trained faculties.” Children’s “acts of any kind produce habits or characters of the same kind. Hence we ought to make sure that our acts are of a certain kind; for the resulting character varies as they vary. It makes no small difference, therefore, whether a man be trained in his youth up in this way or that, but a great difference, or rather all the difference.” (One can nearly hear the echo of Proverbs 22:6 here.) This requires children receiving the wisdom that the West has handed down, and society being willing to tell children that, despite their best intentions, they do not yet have all the answers.
A society unwilling to do this will produce young people who embrace discredited ideas like socialism and economic collectivism, no wiser than those who enacted them in the first place.
This article has been republished with permission from the Acton Institute.
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