Student Essay:
En Garde

By Faith X.

The battlefield of ideas is not to be taken lightly.

We live in the midst of a war, a war of ideas. And every idea has consequences. This is the great war of charades. The truth is the truth, but it is often denounced as a lie; the lie is the lie, but it can be disguised as truth. What you think will come out in your actions. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an action and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” This is not a foam noodle sword fight. The war of ideas is the most important and the most dangerous battlefield any of us will ever face—always with temporal, sometimes with eternal, consequences. Therefore, we must know how to think.  

Dorthy Sayers once remarked, “Although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects’, we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think.” We live in an era of  over-communication. There are a million different voices squawking what is “truth.” We need to learn how to think so that we can unmask these charades, and lay hold of the truth, understand it, apply it, and defend it.

Thinking involves three steps: acquiring, processing, and dueling with ideas. Apart from these, thinking is a pointless expenditure of energy. Thinking is vital; we must know how to do it properly.

The first part of thinking is acquiring ideas. A common misconception here is that your brain is  like a butterfly net. Just wave it around in the air and hope to catch some truth on a sunny day. This is not the case. Searching for truth is more like a bug hunt: you know what kinds of bugs you are looking for, and you search places where you know they live. Finally, when you find one,  you trap it in the bug catcher. It is of utmost importance to close the bug catcher between putting bugs in (I speak from experience!). In short, we do need to open our minds, in order to then close them upon the truth.

Another consideration when acquiring ideas is that not everything is worth reading, listening to, or watching. What appetites are you cultivating? Are they for the true, the good, and the beautiful? Or, are they for the almost true, almost good, and almost  beautiful? What your mind consumes is what it will ruminate on, which is what will in turn fuel your actions. Everyone has a worldview that will come out in their writing and speaking. Sometimes, worldviews are a charade, and you need to tear back the veil in order to glimpse what the author or speaker is actually saying, exercising discernment in the war of charades.

There is nothing so absurd but if you repeat it often enough people will believe it.

William James

The second step is to analyze ideas. John Henry Newman astutely noted, “Nothing is more common than for men to think that because they are familiar with words they understand the ideas they stand for.” Processing ideas involves de-composing and re-composing them. What are the ideas behind this idea, the premises behind this conclusion? And what are the ideas “in front of” this idea, the conclusions that follow from it?

A helpful set of tools in this analysis is the Five Common Topics. These come from the discipline of rhetoric, and help us establish the value of any idea, both in the abstract and in its practical context.

1) Comparison: How does this idea compare to what I know is true? 
2) Definition: What does this idea mean? 
3) Circumstance: When, why, and how was this idea invented?
4) Relation: What are the consequences of this idea? 
5) Testimony: What do reliable witnesses say about this idea?

When processing ideas, we need to personally engage and understand them. We cannot just be robots with ideas going in our ears and directly out our mouths. It is imperative that we understand truth personally in this great war of charades.

Finally, we must duel with ideas. After we obtain it, we need to apply and defend the truth. Remember, what  you actually believe will come out in how you act. When you know the truth, you also have the responsibility of defending the truth. If something is true, its antithesis is a lie. Thrones do not come with two seats.  

This is not a one-and-done battle. Dueling with ideas necessitates standing up and speaking up for the truth, over and over again, especially in the present era. More people can read what you write now than in any other period of history, due to the various forms of social media. Lies have many voices proclaiming them, thanks to the exact same tools. Does truth? It is not enough to acquire and decipher ideas; we must fight for them. 

So: how are you engaging in this war? What do you  believe and why? What are you doing with those beliefs? How will you take the field?

__________________________________________________________________________________

Faith X. is a homeschooled high school sophomore. She is currently tending her large garden and running seed trials for different seed companies and a university. She is interested in studying K-12 education and agriculture. She hopes to spend a lot of time outside camping, hiking, and kayaking this summer.

Student contributions to the Journal are written by examinees who placed among the top twenty-five highest scores on their exam. Congratulations, Miss X.! See more from our high-achieving students here.

Published on 1st July, 2022. A previous version of this post erroneously omitted several sentences from Miss X.’s essay; this error has been corrected.

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