The Catholic Thing
The Relativist's World Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Most people most of the time in human history have judged the world to manifest some definite order. Nature, including human nature, manifests purpose and intelligence which shines through the many accidents that also occur. Most things have beginnings and ends. The task of human life is to understand this order, especially that part of it that refers to man himself and his destiny. He manifests his own internal order, which he found but did not make. He occupies a special place in the order of things. He cannot be indifferent to what he is, even if, though this is rare, he regrets being what he is. Things already are what they are. They can be distinguished one from another and compared. Man finds the distinctions; he does not make them

The import of this sense of order in things is that we already are what we are. Our purpose is to live according to what it is to be a human being, not something else. Human dignity is thus a given, not a blank page. Man’s perfection is to be more himself, not something else, some other sort of being. In this same understanding, we can fail to be what we ought to be. This failure has serious consequences to ourselves and others. Civilization, in fact, is the record of our failures and successes in becoming what we ought to be.

Suppose, however, that we find this given world restrictive. We do not want to be bound by any order, especially human order. We are “rebels.” No way can be found according to which we “ought” to live. Nothing can be found to challenge whatever we want. No “know thyself” exists as if there were something there to know. No nature indicates what is best for us. Nietzsche was right. None of the existing philosophies explains anything. We are on our own. We are our own projects with no models that come from elsewhere to guide us.

Modern philosophical relativism is a perfect alternative to a world of meaning. It now usually goes under the name of post-modernity. It is presented under the idea of freedom. This freedom in turn is based on the idea that no stable nature can be found. No question of a cause of nature’s order thus arises. Human beings are not intended to be human beings, as if that were an intelligible idea. Indeed, the human condition is that there is no human condition. Since human beings are not any particular kind of being, they are free to make themselves into any sort of being they wish themselves to be, provided, I suppose, that it is not the kind of being described by Aristotle or Scripture.

Indeed, in modern relativism, to which the present pope often refers, we find a hatred for or adamant rejection of the idea that man “ought” by nature to be a certain kind of being. The only kind of being he is not free to become is the one that used to be called the virtuous or complete human being. Everyone is free to make himself over into whatever kind of being he chooses. This making-over includes both his body insofar as science can reconstruct it and his soul insofar as he guides himself as he wills. The public order is really a freeway interchange to facilitate these constantly changing selves. No one can really criticize anyone else for being what he decides to be. Equality means that no standard of what is human exists. The only threat to this idyllic world of being what we want to be is any hint that we have a nature and that we ought to be what this nature indicates. But this latter view has little public standing.

The virtue that supports this world of nature-less freedom to be whatever we choose is generally defined as tolerance. This tolerance is really a skepticism. It is not based on freedom to do something, but on the lack of any knowledge of what ought to be done. Generally, we are also assured us that we are free to do what we want provided that we do not “harm” others. The logic of this restriction escapes me. Why cannot I be free to harm others if that is what I choose?

In the relativist’s world, we can no longer justify criticism of anything. Everyone has his self-defined place. We accommodate everything. We have no criteria by which we can agree on anything. Hence our freedom is not a common recognition of a truth open to all, but rather a refusal to give validity to anything but what we want. In such a world, if it’s even right to call it a world, no meeting of soul with soul, no participation in a common good, can happen.

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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Comments (4)Add Comment
Selective Relativism
written by Ars Artium, July 15, 2010
Many "relativists" are not relative about everything. By selecting certain politically correct notions that are not relative, they do achieve a sense of solidarity, of working toward a common good. Environmentalism - excluding the well-being of unborn children - is one of the non-relative goods; another is defense of any and all sexual behaviors.
written by Brian Vozzella, July 15, 2010
Another great article by Schall. Though I would have thought the shortest sentence would have been "Sartre was right" rather than "Nietzsche was right".
written by Joe, July 15, 2010
Yes. It's not so much a worldview as an iView. "I" am the world. What a profound loss of perspective! It is silly on the face of it just like any offer of something for nothing (and indeed from nothing). And yet it seems to be a lesson many of us never learn. It's astounding really.
written by Billy Bean, July 15, 2010
This is one of those wonderful occasions in which the spirit of the age is so thoroughly exposed that even its adherents seem to be struck dumb. Certainly there must be some champion of relativism who can come forth to fight this giant, Schall! Wherein has he erred? Oops -- I mean: What is it that you don't happen to find agreeable about what he says?

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