Category Archives: Relativism

Jealous of Our Ideas

Regardless of whether or not Plato took artistic liberties with the character of Socrates there can be little doubt that the father of modern philosophy was one of history’s world’s greatest teachers.  Great for the content of his teaching, but especially renowned for his manner of teaching.  Many people cannot tell you one thing he taught, but they can tell you how he taught—the so-called Socratic Method that involves leading a person to the truth through a series of leading questions.  The genius of his method was the homage he paid to the irrationality resulting from original sin (even if he probably would deny the existence of original sin itself, believing all vice was solely brought about as a result of ignorance) that causes us to be jealous of our own ideas.  His method of cooperative argument destroys the protective walls we erect around our ideas by giving the appearance that the new ideas are also our own.  I have written in the past on how this method can be very powerful as a tool for evangelization, but today I would like to focus on the effect this seemingly innate jealousy has on us individually and societally.

“My Ideas, Right or Wrong”

Our ideas are true or false based upon whether or not they conform to reality.  Truth is, in essence, a relationship between thought and what really is.  This relational understanding of the truth as both subjective (my idea) and objective (reality) is the key to safeguarding against the jealousy of which we are speaking.  For this jealousy of our own ideas causes each of us to zealously defend our ideas even to the point of blinding ourselves to reality.  When left unchecked it leads to a deeply rooted stubbornness (what St. Thomas calls pertanacia) that refuses to give up its ideas because it would be an admission that the other person is more intelligent than ourselves.  St. Thomas says that this eventually leads to a crass obstinacy that is the mother of all discord in which we are constantly arguing to find at least one other person who can agree with us.

Jealousy for our ideas is manifest in the tendency we have not only to demand agreement in conclusions, but in the manner of arriving at those conclusions.  How often do we find ourselves experiencing jealousy when someone else explains something differently than we would?  We may agree with the conclusions, but we pick apart their explanation and think about how much better we would explain it.  This jealousy blind us by turning our subjective understanding of the truth into the truth itself.  It objectifies the properly subjective.  Coming at the truth from different angles always benefits all of us if we have the humility to allow others to teach us what we already know.  If Our Lord could grow in wisdom and knowledge, coming to the truth he already knew in a new way, then we too can do the same thing.

We apprehend many things, but comprehend nothing.  Because we never know anything fully, we can always grow in knowledge of a thing by coming at it from a fresh angle.  Coming at the truth from different angles always benefits all of us if we have the intellectual humility to allow others to teach us what we think we already know.  If Our Lord could grow in wisdom and knowledge, coming to the truth he already knew in a new way, then we too can do the same thing.

We not only objectify the subjective, but we also “subjectify” the objective.  What I am thinking about here specifically is when reality becomes entirely subjective, what we call relativism.  The self-refuting quality of relativism as “the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth”, notwithstanding, many people accept this into the treasury of their ideas.  In fact, a whole generation has practically grown up with this as a fundamental tenet of their reality.  In response to one of his teachers telling him “you cannot force your beliefs on other people,” my 12-year old son told his teacher that during the next test he was going to cheat because “you cannot force your belief that cheating is wrong on me.”  The only response he got was “touché.”  He had challenged the deeply seeded relativism and lost by way of his opponent conceding.  Welcome to the new world order.

The point is that because of relativism, any attack upon one’s ideas is an attack upon the person.  There is no longer a distinction between an idea and reality because they are in essence the same thing.  The truth is entirely subjective.  In calling into question their ideas, you have threatened their world.  Now not only are they jealously guarding their ideas, they must zealously defend their world.  Wed the jealousy of our own ideas with relativism and their offspring is the “safe-space.”  We laugh at the iGens and Millenials who need “safe-spaces,” calling them soft, but we forget that we have created their environment in which an argument is scary because it is always personal attack.  How can they see it any other way given how they have been formed?

It is this combination of jealousy and relativism that also is the source of the “division in our country” that everyone is so fond of talking about.  Argument, the very thing that held the founders together, is impossible in that climate.  Everyone takes everything as a personal attack and therefore responds in kind.  This cocktail is literally poisoning our society and could, without any danger of hyperbole, lead to its ultimate demise.  Interiorly we all need to lighten up and avoid succumbing to jealousy.  Exteriorly we have to fight relativism and its two daughters, tolerance and indifference, wherever we find them especially as they are being taught to the young.  Perhaps we can learn from Socrates in this regard as well.

Socrates: ” So you believe that each man’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s.”

Protagoras: “That’s correct.”

Socrates: “How do you make a living?”

Protagoras: “I am a teacher”

Socrates: “I find this very puzzling. You admit you earn money teaching, but I cannot imagine what you could possibly teach anyone. After all, you admit that each person’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. This means that what your students believe is as good as anything you could possibly teach them. Once they learn that each person is the measure of all things, what possible reason would they have to pay you for any further lessons? How can you possibly teach them anything once they learn that their opinions are as true as yours?”



Beauty Will Save the World

The mark of a truly wise man is that he is able to gather the seeds of wisdom in his midst and fears not to adopt them as his own.  Sometimes the wisdom is even snatched from the lips of an idiot.  Case in point: one of the wisest men of the 20th Century, St. John Paul II, was unafraid to adopt as his own the thesis of Dostoevsky’s character Prince Myskin in his novel The Idiot that “Beauty will save the world.”   In his 1999 Letter to Artists, the Pope said

“People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm[sparked by wonder] if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world” (Letter to Artists, 16).

Fast–forward to our day, seventeen years after the Pope put ink to paper and we, the “people of tomorrow,” are collectively more boring and duller than the simplest peasant from the so-called Dark Ages.  Our minds, thanks to their reduction to nothing but firing synapses, have atrophied paralyzing our capacity to wonder.  There is nothing new under the sun.  While the circumstances may have changed, the prescription is perennial—“every time humanity loses its way” it is the encounter with beauty that will set us “out again on the right path.”  What makes our circumstances rather unique is that in order for “beauty to save the world” it must first be rescued from the poison of subjectivism.

Most of us are quick to denounce relativism in both its axiomatic and moral forms.  But when it comes to its aesthetical claims, we find ourselves all too ready to concede that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  If beauty is entirely subjective, that is a matter strictly of personal taste, then how can we join the Pope’s aesthetical revolution, a revolution that always “stirs that hidden nostalgia for God” (LA, 16)?

Is there Such Thing as Objective Beauty?

The linking of beauty with truth and goodness was deliberate.  The truth ignites the intellect, the good moves the will, but the beautiful strikes the heart.  Beauty’s grip on the heart gives it an indomitable power to move us.  It is found in many disparate types of things—there are beautiful beaches, beautiful people, beautiful art, and beautiful music—so that it transcends all categories.  In this way it is the third wheel of the other two transcendentals.  Unlike its transcendental counterparts, goodness and truth, it can only be known when it is experienced.  Someone may tell you something is beautiful, but you are merely repeating what they have said until you experience it for yourself.  Beauty, therefore, because it is completely practical, is always threatened by a subjective interpretation.

When asked to define Time, St. Augustine says he could define it if you didn’t ask him to.  Beauty is like that in that we know what it is, but it is difficult to define.  The most succinct definition is that beauty is the material expression of the inner most identity of a thing.  Beauty reveals what a thing is and leads to knowledge of that thing.  This is why St. Thomas defines beauty as “that which when seen, pleases” (more on this definition in a moment).

When we attach the adjective beautiful to each of the things mentioned above, we are saying that there is some quality in that particular object that sets it apart from other objects of its kind.  A moment’s reflection and we realize that the beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but in the object itself.  Before beauty can be in the eye of the beholder, it must first be in the object eyed.  Because beauty is objective, St. Thomas sought to articulate some principles by which the beauty in the object could be moved to the eye of the beholder.

In a paragraph on the Trinity (for what could be more beautiful than God Himself?) in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas assigns three conditions:

“For beauty includes three conditions: integrity or perfection, since those things which are impaired are by that very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony; and lastly, brightness or clarity, whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color” (ST I, q.39, art.8).

  • A beautiful object has integrity meaning it reflect the fullness of the object’s being.  It lacks nothing that it ought to have.  A male peacock may have beautiful feathers, but if it is missing a leg then it tends towards ugliness.
  • A beautiful object has due proportion in that there is an order and unity to it.  Everything is in the right place and in the right amount.
  • A beautiful object has clarity in that what the object is, its ontological reality, shines forth.  Clarity means that the appearance (or sound in the case of music) of the object makes it clear what it is.

 These three conditions can be thought of as the objective components of beauty and give us a basis upon which to talk about and evaluate beauty.  We may call a church building that looks like an auditorium ugly not because we don’t like it, but because it lacks clarity and does not reveal what it is.  We may call DaVinci’s Mona Lisa beautiful because it has integrity, due proportion (it is filled with examples of the divine ratio) and clarity, even if the subject is a rather plain woman.

Why It All Matters

Once we recognize the objectivity of beauty we can return to St. Thomas’ definition of beauty as “that which, when seen, pleases.”  When St. Thomas refers to the beautiful as that which when seen delights he is referring to an intuitive seeing (knowledge) and not merely seeing with the eyes.  He is speaking of a delight of the intellect and not just the senses.  More accurately, the beautiful creates a delight in the mind that spills over into the senses, that is it strikes the heart.  “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is not proof of subjectivity but proof that there is a need to cultivate taste.  Mozart’s Requiem is objectively beautiful, but the fact that I may not like it, is because I have deadened my taste buds from consuming so much ugliness.  The beautiful must be slowly reintroduced to my system before I can fully enjoy its richness.

Why this discussion needs to happen is because Christians have abdicated their role as peddlers of the beautiful.  There is little beautiful Christian art.  There is little beautiful Christian music.  Even Christian movies are mostly ugly.  Rather than attempting to make something beautiful, using Aquinas’ criteria, they have tried to adopt the ugly forms the world uses and smuggle Christianity into them.  What comes out is something ugly and uninspiring.

A friend of mine and I were teaching a class together.  Before going to teach, we went to Mass.  As we were climbing the steps to go to the classroom, he said to me “that was a beautiful Mass.”  I agreed with him, but admittedly it wasn’t the first thing I thought of when I came out of Mass.  Those words left a lasting impression on me however because they were the last words he ever spoke.  A couple of minutes later he was on the floor after suffering a massive heart attack.  This was a holy man who had cultivated the habit of capturing the beautiful and allowing it to move him.  So moved that day that the Mass was like a springboard launching him from the sign to the full reality.  Please God he is seeing the full Beauty right now.  Ultimately this shows that beauty matters because Heaven is Beautiful and each encounter we have with it, only increases our longing for its fullness.

In an age in which all truth and goodness are thought to be relative, the power of beauty to move even the most hardened of hearts cannot be overlooked.  This of course assumes that we can present and point out those things that really are true, good and beautiful.  It just might be that beauty really will save the world!

Which Will You Have, Barabbas or Jesus?

As part of the celebration around Jewish Passover each year, one prisoner was granted amnesty each year.  During the Roman trial of Our Lord, Pilate in recognition of that tradition, put forward two candidates for the Passover Amnesty—Barabbas and Jesus of Nazareth.  While Barabbas was a relatively obscure revolutionary in his day, there is perhaps no “minor” character in all the Gospels that plays a more pivotal role than he.  He is also significant because he incarnates some of the traps that Christians can fall into when it comes to Our Lord.

The Political Trap

The first trap is to view everything through a political filter.  Pontius Pilate was like many Americans in our own day, only able to see through a political lens.  Pope Benedict XVI points out in his book on Holy Week that Barabbas was an infamous rebel whom Pontius Pilate feared.  Once Pilate realized that Jesus was not only innocent, but was also politically harmless, he sought a political solution to the problem.  He thought the trial could be ended and he could still have favor with the Jews by offering Jesus as a candidate for the Passover amnesty.  He assumed that the people would choose the innocent Jesus rather than the dangerous Barabbas.  This is why we see him repeatedly lobbying for Jesus’ innocence.  The problem with this of course was once Our Lord was put forward as a candidate for amnesty, guilt was assumed and Our Lord already condemned.

Frank Sheed reported that Pilate already had three major conflicts with the Jews prior to the incident with Jesus.  Two of these had been settled within Judea itself, with Pilate winning one and having to yield to the Jews in the other.  The third conflict had been sent to the Emperor Tiberius himself.  Pilate sought to avoid an appeal to Caesar at all costs.  His patron in Rome, Sejanus, had recently been executed in Rome.  That is why he sought two loopholes in order to avoid making a decision; sending Jesus to Herod the Tetrarch and by making an appeal to the crowd.  When these both fail, he chooses the politically expedient solution without any regard to innocence and truth—“I am personally opposed, but…”

Freedom is first and foremost a theological reality, that is “an exceptional sign of the divine image in man” (Gaudium et Spes, 17) and not a political one.  Our Lord may have been in chains, but “no one takes My life, I lay it down of my own accord.”  He was the freest man who ever walked the face of the earth.  Barabbas may have shed his chains and Pilate may have thought himself master of all in Jerusalem but both were chained to the whim of the crowd.  They both remind us that we are only truly free in one sense—we are always free to do that which is good.  But each time we run with the herd, that capacity within us shrinks to the point where we forget we have it.  Eventually we wonder “what is Truth?” Sooner or later we eventually run out of room to compromise and must either unconditionally surrender our freedom or declare “non possumus.”

The Theological Trap

The second trap is theological in character.  The name Barabbas literally means “Son of the Father.”  Matthew in his Gospel calls him a “notorious prisoner” (Mt 27:16), which is probably an indication that he was a leader of a political uprising.  In this way, the people are presented with two very different messianic figures, both “Sons of the Father”, who are accused of the same offense—rebellion against Roman rule.  It is clear which one Pilate prefers.  He prefers the nonviolent one whose “kingdom is not of this world” rather than the violent Barabbas.  The crowd and the Jewish authorities however, want a different kind of Messiah.   They do not want one that works through love and truth but instead one who promises political power based upon violent revolt.  They do not want the one who picks up His cross, but the one who would crucify.

John refers to Barabbas as a “robber.”  This term (lēstēs in Greek) was often a term used to describe those who stirred up rebellion and is the same term that Jesus uses to contrast the behavior of the Good Shepherd.     It is clear that John has in mind a concrete example of the people choosing a false shepherd in choosing Barabbas.

That we should not set up for ourselves false shepherds seems obvious but there is a subtle way that we do this that is not always easy to catch.  I once went to a book signing where the author who writes historical fiction spoke about the Founding Fathers.  She talked about how she loved Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin growing up until she found out they owned slaves and grew to completely loathe them.  She then went on to say how she now thought Alexander Hamilton was the greatest of all the Founding Fathers because of his abolitionism.  I was struck how she was unwilling to overlook Jefferson and Franklin’s moral failings and see the good that they did, but overlooked Hamilton’s many moral failings.

The point is not that support of slavery is a minor or major moral failing, but that there is a tendency to demonize or canonize a person based on how their position gibes with our own (or usually the politically correct one).  Jefferson and Franklin had serious moral failings, support of slavery among them, but they also had good ones too, the fruit of which we are still drawing today. Hamilton’s character was such that he saw slavery as the evil that it is, but his other moral failings (including great pride leading directly to his death) should render us slow to praise him as the greatest of the American Founders. Similarly Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy combined to helpd the civil rights cause more than any two men in US history, but both were serial adulterers.  The point is that we already have a Messiah, and none of those men are Him.  The minute we try to set up fallen men as the Messiah, we feel we must defend them and justify any flaws. There will always be a gravity towards crowning the latest hero as the Messiah. However when Christ remains the Messiah, we can see how these men were instrumental (or not) in bringing other men into His Kingdom. Only there does true greatness lay.

The Peace Trap

Finally, Barabbas reminds us that peace only comes where there is justice.  Pilate knew very well that justice demanded that Jesus be released and that Barabbas remain imprisoned. But he feared an uprising, a loss of peace.  In the end, it was a band aid as Jerusalem would eventually be destroyed.  Barabbas reminds us that we cannot peace by making a lie into a system (Jeremiah 6:14).

Peace, St. Thomas says, is the tranquility of order.  This means peace can only come about when our lives and our society are properly ordered.  This is not about “social justice” of which there will be none until we have this proper ordering.  First and foremost it means giving God His due.  Any society that does not put God first is absolutely doomed to fail.  Do we really believe this?  Rather than trying to blame the secularists for this, why don’t we as Catholics take responsibility for this and stop trying to smuggle Catholicism into society. We are mostly cowards worrying about hurt feelings rather than burning souls (our own included—“woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel”).

Barabbas or Jesus, which will you choose?

A Religion of Peace?

In his dialogue with Euthyphro, Socrates poses a crucial question that has application even today.  He asks Euthyphro “is what is holy, holy because the gods approve it or do they approve it because it is holy?”  Put in other words, he is asking whether something is good because God commands it or whether God commands it because it is good?  A moment’s reflection reveals a philosophical catch-22.  The question is essentially trying to answer which of the two—goodness or approval of the gods—is the cause and which is the effect.  Euthyphro contends that a thing is good because God commands it.  But this makes God arbitrary and mankind subject to His every whim.  Socrates chooses the second; God commands a thing because it is good.  This too presents a problem, namely that there appears to be something above God, binding His omnipotence.

Which answer is correct?  Both.  Both Euthyphro and Socrates are right.  But because they do not know God in the manner He has revealed Himself to Christians, they are also wrong.  They assume a cause and effect relationship between commandments and God’s will.  Instead it is of God’s nature to act in accord with reason.  The Christian conception of God is one in which God is a God of reason.  We worship the Logos or the Word Made Flesh because we alone recognize God’s true nature.

This problem of somehow seeing laws as constraining God has plagued both the East and the West.  In the Christian West it has led to the rejection of Natural Law and reduced all law to the “will of the People.”  In the East it took the form of a religion called Islam.

euthyphro painting

It is this philosophical problem that plagues Islam and is ultimately the reason why Islam cannot be a religion of peace without being first a religion of force.  There are two ways in which a man can be compelled—by reason and by force.  A god who is pure will and not governed by reason is necessarily a god who will command violence.  A god not governed by reason can only make his law known by commanding it.

In his Regensburg Lecture, Pope Benedict XVI used a quotation of Manuel II to draw out this truth.  Manuel II said that “To convince a reasonable soul one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening the person with death.”  His point is that the truth has a compelling force of its own.  Certainly we are fallen creatures and have difficulty both arriving at and conforming ourselves to the truth, but never the less the truth is ultimately what sets us free.

If you remove truth (through moral relativism) or our ability to know the truth on our own (like in Islam where man can only know what God tells him directly) then the only compelling force to follow laws is through force.  If truth does not make right then “might makes right.”  If Allah is the mightiest then he will ultimately resort to violence to enforce his will.  This violence is not directed just towards non-Muslims, but all mankind.  The violence is done to man’s nature and freedom to come to know the truth and live in accord with it.  For non-Muslims the violence simply extends into man’s material being as well.

This is why any claims that Islam is a religion of peace are logically incoherent with their conception of God.  If we assume that God is a god of pure will then the commands in the Koran such as, “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loves not aggressors. And slay them wherever you find them and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter,” (Sura 2:190-193) naturally follow.  When reason or Logos does not govern action then it necessarily becomes a matter of “might makes right.”  What we label as terrorism is simply a logical consequence of a voluntarist Allah to whom the entire world must be submitted.

As an aside it is worth understanding the claim that the Sura quoted above only allows fighting for self-defense.  The problem with this explanation is the definition of what constitutes an act of aggression against Islam.  Some Islamic schools say non-belief in Islam is itself an act of aggression since it is the true and original religion.  It is assumed that the truth of Islam is so obvious that only an obstinate person would refuse to accept it.

It is said that the goal of Islam is peace.  This is why they greet fellow Muslims with “as-salamu alaykum” (“the peace of Allah be upon you “).  This same greeting is never extended to a non-Muslim because in Islam there exists no concept of peace between nonbeliever and devout Muslims.  The peace that is promoted is within Umma or the worldwide Muslim brotherhood and is the fruit of everyone submitting (the meaning of the word Islam) to the rule of Allah.

For Islam the whole world is wakf , which means it is territory belonging to Allah.  This territory has been promised to the Muslims and jihad is the means by which those lands that have been “illegally” held by infidels are brought back into Islamic possession.  In other words, Muslims can never be accused of occupation or oppression because they believe the land is theirs.  Before allowing any mass “migration” into a country this needs to be understood.  A Muslim who is faithful to the Koran does not see himself as an immigrant anywhere, but instead as coming into land that is by right his.

Everyone has a philosophy whether they recognize it or not.  As Cicero once said, the choice is not between having a philosophy and not having one, but between having a good one or a bad one.  By recognizing the underlying philosophy of Islam, we are able to cut through a lot of the false ideas and rhetoric surrounding it.  A belief in a capricious god always leads to violence as his followers enforce his arbitrary rulings.