Universalism, True and False

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The Roman Empire, in its philosophic roots, incorporated everyone under one law, with one brotherhood and one language. Similarly, the natural law is said to be universal. It binds all men. It makes no distinctions between borders and human divisions. The command to the Apostles to “go forth and teach all nations,” likewise, was a trans-frontier admonition. No culture was completer by its own definition. Though they need not be, these traditions can be read as a rejection of localism, particularism, and federalism.

Aristotle opposed the similar imperial sentiments of Alexander the Great. Aristotle thought it would take a divine mind and total power to unify all men under global jurisdiction. The only thing such an organization could bring about was massive tyranny, something reflected in the Book of Revelation.

On the same basis, Leo Strauss urged that we learn a certain “moderation” in expectations of such universal ambitions. Chesterton’s “flag of the world” and Wendell Berry’s localism were in part reactions to subsuming all men under one roof in this world.

Nietzsche wrote, in Beyond Good and Evil (1887), speaking of his good European friends:  “As I have discovered, you no longer like to believe in God and gods now” (#295). This wide-spread, practical disbelief was probably the major cause of Nietzsche’s own contempt for Europe, its faith, and a modern philosophy that ended in intellectual incoherence but would not admit it. Nietzsche was ready to believe if believers believed, but he found that they did not.

When we rid ourselves of God, we eliminate the possible cause of a willed rational order both in the universe and in our own being. Looking back, we see history, Nietzsche said, is a “gruesome dominion of chance and nonsense” (#203). We must replace God with something if anything is to make sense. For Nietzsche it was will – obliged to nothing but itself.

For many others today, however, it is universalism or globalism, though with the same “willed” basis. We no longer believe in God, but we do “believe” in man and his “rights,” in making the world a “better place,” provided we do not define “better.”

Socrates stayed in Athens rather than taking exile to Thebes or Thessaly. We have a world today full of immigration often powered by lack of births in countries that need labor to take care of aging or unproductive populations. Some quasi-mystical notion of the poor, of the huddled masses, has taken the place of God.

Friedrich Nietzsche by Edvard Munch, 1906

Thus, if people have a “right” to immigrate, all nations have an obligation to receive them. Our ideal is to mix everyone with everyone else. No one is to notice who is next door. Distinctions of religion, race, culture, wealth, sex, or age make no difference. All absolutes are to be dumbed-down, to be made insignificant. Unity is achieved when diversity completely disappears as a factor deciding anything.

But many nations do not want immigrants or only a certain kind. Yet if immigrants get into a country legally or illegally, they have a “right” to stay there. They are to be treated exactly as citizens. National boundaries are really obsolete. We have an implicit “world” citizenship. Globalization backs us up. Environment backs us up. Communications back us up. We cannot have the luxury of national states. We need world government and organization to correspond to this “reality” in which any citizen of one nation is a citizen of another.

Everyone has a “right” to everything anyone else has – health, food, work, clothing, housing, schooling – wherever he is, no matter what he does or contributes. Wars have ceased to matter. We will not need them or have them. Religion is fine so long as it does not mean anything other than quaint customs.

We no longer have a tradition, a morality, a common national heritage. We are citizens of the world first, not last. We “will” this new arrangement into existence. Everyone is friend to everyone. Citizenship and friendship are universal. Particularism, even of families, is outmoded. Children belong to everyone. Charity is not a divine gift. It is a work of man. It is a right.

God is replaced by the world and its goals. The human species is what counts, not its individual members. Evil is caused by those who do not accept such a vision. Everything can be tolerated except doubts about this universalism. Those who do so will be “forced to be free,” to recall a famous phrase.

In such a world, we can find no need for revelation. What could it contribute that we do not already have? The claim that something is beyond this world, that something limits our claims, only undermines our self-confidence in our inner-worldly mission. What could revelation possibly tell us that we do not already know? For the universal common good, as it’s now commonly defined, it is best not to know.

James V. Schall, S.J., 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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