Why our ideas matter less than we think.

Back in 1937, George Orwell claimed this about the divisions within British society:

The real secret of class distinctions in the West can be summed up in four frightful words: The lower classes smell (~Road to Wigan Pier).

The statement sounds offensive and reductionistic. Perhaps it is.

Yet Orwell’s goal was actually to challenge his fellow highbrow socialists on whether their ideas about dismantling the class structure were actually strong enough to work in the field—where people live, and sniff.

In the words of James K. A. Smith (citing Wigan Pier):

Orwell’s point is that the root of class distinctions in England is not intellectual but olfactory.  The habits and rhythms of the system are not so much cerebral as visceral; they are rooted in a bodily orientation to the world that eludes theoretical articulation, which is why theoretical tirades also fail to displace it. … “For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling.”

In other words, you cannot solve a gut-level problem with a philosophy.

The visceral trumps the voluntary; fundamental dispositions are more caught than taught; and the “nose” (now speaking metaphorically) is mightier than the brain.

Now the kicker:

Almost every other kind of discrimination could be countered theoretically, with the weapons of facts, ideas, and information, “But physical repulsion cannot.”

What does this have to do with us?

Just this:

In America, we seem to have entered a cultural-political climate in which both sides are “physically repulsed” by one another. Sickened, even.

And sometimes for good reason.

Yet if this is so, then one should strongly question our ability to bridge the gap with education, rational discourse, or (gasp) blog posts. Orwell’s point is this: revulsion trumps reason every time—try as we might to overcome it.

In short, our “ideas” are not nearly as important for the way we engage the world as we would like to think.

As Smith argues, we are not primarily “thinking things” as Descartes posited. Nor even “believing things” as much of Christian culture claims. Even demons believe (Jms. 2.19).

For Smith, both of these mistaken anthropologies place too much emphasis upon the cognitive realm (“ideas”), whereas the Bible focuses more upon reforming the heart, the gut, or even “the bowels.”  (Even the biblical references to renewal of the “mind” are not given in a Cartesian sense.)

We are primarily loving-desiring beings.

And as such, much of our behavior is the product of pre-cognitive, affective, gut-level, and visceral reactions.

“The lower classes smell.”

But how does one disciple the olfactory senses?

How do “the bowels” get redeemed?

Next time.


See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (here). For a less academic version of Smith’s argument, see You are what you love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (here).