The Grounds of Civilization

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The grounds of civilization are found in the Apology of Socrates: “It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen of the jury; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death” (39a). The principled foundation of worthy human living is asserted here. Lest wickedness rule, death is to be preferred. This terse statement was addressed particularly to politicians and judges. They had, if they willed, the power to enforce the wickedness to which, as Aristotle also said, human nature is prone.

Earlier in the Apology, Socrates had counseled: “Concentrate your attention on whether what I say is just or not, for the excellence of a judge lies in this, as that of a speaker lies in telling the truth” (18a). If these Socratic dicta, reaffirmed by the Hebrew and Christian tradition, are the foundations of civilization as such, the experiment of civilization based on truth, we may fear, is ending. Its grounds are rejected in those very traditions and lands that once accepted them. We need not be surprised at this. Wickedness does “run faster than death.” Civilizations die in minds before they die in polities.

“The noble type of man,” Nietzsche wrote headily in Beyond Good and Evil, “feels himself to be the determiner of values, he does not need to be approved of, he judges ‘what harms me is harmful in itself,’ he knows himself to be that which in general first accords honour to things, he creates values.” Viewed from this position, no wickedness is possible. Anything can be justified. Quod placuit principi legis habet vigorem, as the Roman Law held. If it pleases the law-enforcer, it is the law.

However eloquently Nietzsche expressed this position, he was not the first to affirm it. Greek philosophers knew of this view. The Sophist could tell you how to get whatever you wanted, whatever it was. The principle was, as we saw, in the Roman law. The Muslim and medieval voluntarists saw nothing behind things but a will that could always be otherwise. Machiavelli made it famous in politics. Modern relativists, of whom Benedict XVI speaks, think they invented this transformational idea that Nietzsche propounded in the nineteenth century. Indeed, Nietzsche is often the source of their thinking.

Yet Nietzsche is not simply a modern relativist. His “value” revolution, now codified in much civil law, was the result of his shock at finding that neither believers believed nor thinkers explained. Nietzsche was easily scandalized. His many readers were uncritical of the power of pure will in a world empty of gods and natures.

Civilization itself, however, is not built on the supposition that the “noble” man “creates” his own values. Liberty is not “creative” of truth. It is the impetus to find truth, to rejoice in it. Truth exists in things before we discover it, especially in our own being.

We are creatures who indeed have the practical power to “make” and to “act” in this world, the arena of deciding our own destinies. Ever since Bacon, we wonder if we cannot even “make” or “remake” ourselves, “cure” ourselves by “research.” We become the ultimate object of science. As we have no “truth” in our being, we are “free” to eliminate or refashion the being we are, as if we can indeed build a human being as we build a better mousetrap.

Once politics is free of anything higher than itself, it becomes the master science. No natural law, revelation, or tradition is left as a measure. The politician sees himself as the messiah, the “mortal god,” a phrase Allan Bloom used of Caesar. The Socratic foundation of civilization always left the principle of truth intact precisely when the polity killed the philosopher.

Joseph Pieper once wrote: “No calamity causes more despair in this world than the unjust exercise of power. And yet, any power that could never be abused is ultimately no power at all – a fearful thought.” Such are sage words. The “power” to create “values” exists. The alternative to the unjust use of power is not "no" power, but the just use of power, one that recognizes the measure.

The just use of power, however, rejects wickedness. We are to be defended against wickedness by first knowing that it exists and can be identified. It can likewise be chosen, even democratically, as a public policy.

Civilization depends on there being a truth to which those who suffer under unjust power can turn even in the face of established and enforced wickedness. It is this latter ground that relativism denies us. The central issue behind every public controversy and every threat against our national existence lies here. Yet this is the one threat to civilization that we choose not to recognize. We have “created” our own “values” in order to deny the truth in our being.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is
The Mind That Is Catholic.

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  • Jeff Hendrix

    Swirling Down to Paganism
    Superb, Father. Thank you.

  • Fr Tim

    Descent into the void!
    Absolutely spot on! Thank you Father for opening peoples eyes.

  • Ars Artium

    Prayer and Fasting
    It’s difficult to understand why every Mass isn’t followed by prayer that God will “revive us again”. On the feast of Christ the King our pastor provided a list of things that threaten us today – consumerism, terrorism. He said nothing about the deaths of countless millions of the unborn (not to mention the fact that their death is desired by their mothers and fathers). He also did not mention the weakening of marriage. Will the stones cry out?

  • Willie

    Is God Dead?
    Compelling article. It is hard to believe that our own polity seems to have adopted the mindset of Nietzsche, who spawned the thinking of the totalitarian states of the last century. To think that we have adopted the ways we fought to eliminate is hard to believe, but our attitude toward abortion as demonstrated by our courts would indicate that we determine our own truth. We have long ago jettisoned the Natural Law. If wickedness occurs before death, we are prey for other civilizations.

  • Michael Hebert

    The essential fact
    “Civilization depends on there being a truth to which those who suffer under unjust power can turn even in the face of established and enforced wickedness.”

    That’s the heart of it, isn’t it? It’s hard to understand why so many billions are blind to this truth, obvious as it is.

  • Thomas C. Coleman

    Not Just Nietzsche
    Willie, I would never deny the influence of Nietzsche on facism and national socialism, but please remember that those movements arose AFTER the establishment of the Soviet Union. So, as for the 20th century nightmares, Marx shares the blame not only with Nietzsche but with Darwin, whose ideas are used even now to persuade our young people to reject Faith in favor of materialism, which, just as in the past, will lead to mass murder.

  • Ray Hunkins

    Pass the Wisdom
    Fr has passed on to we readers much wisdom in a short space. Would that many more were exposed. My adult children have been. Forward this wisdom to those who care and those who may be inspired to care.

  • Leonard_K

    This is why I love Schall
    I am thinking right now of those climategate e-mails revealing that scientists abused our trust and I suppose they might answer saying they need to exaggerate and inflate uncertain claims of global warming to save humanity. Maybe Socrates would wonder at the use of deception by those claiming to save us and ask,’Save us for what?”