The Grounds of Civilization

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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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