More than a century ago, in 1911 to be precise, Holbrook Jackson published a book entitled Platitudes in the Making, a volume of aphorisms expressive of Jackson’s radical relativism. “Truth,” Jackson proclaimed platitudinously, “is one’s own conception of things.” “The Big Blunder,” Chesterton responded upon reading it. “All thought is an attempt to discover if one’s own conception is true or not.” In this brief exchange between the philosophical relativist and the philosophical realist we see encapsulated the axiomatic question at the heart of all questions and all answers. Is truth merely subjective, something that we make up as we go along in a manner that suits our own tastes and predilections, or is it objective, something that exists outside ourselves and exists whether we know it or not, or like it or not?
For the relativist, truth is in the eye of the beholder, and so is goodness and beauty. A thing is true, or good, or beautiful, insofar as I find it so. All truth, goodness, and beauty is dependent upon me. It is self-referential and therefore self-centred. Truth is self-centred; goodness is self-centred; beauty is self-centred. Goodness, truth, and beauty are ultimately about me, myself, and I.
For the realist, truth exists whether I behold it or not, and so does goodness and beauty. It does not depend on me; I depend on it, whether I know it or not. Realism, as I’m using it here, is the technical term that philosophers use for those who believe that the cosmos contains independent objects that are perceivable to the senses and that these objects include transcendental realities, such as love, goodness, truth, and beauty. Realism is, therefore, the antithesis of relativism, and the antidote to the poison that relativism spreads.
“All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made,” writes Chesterton. “My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I neither create nor expect: a strong plain daylight on stiff upstanding wood: it is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
At this juncture, the relativist and even a certain type of realist will roll their eyes and wonder why Chesterton has to bring God into everything.
“For God’s sake,” exclaims Charles Ryder to Bridey in Brideshead Revisited, “why bring God into everything?” “I’m sorry,” Bridey replies. “I forgot. But you know that’s an extremely funny question.” It’s a funny question, at least to Bridey, a believing Catholic, because one can’t realistically avoid bringing God into everything because God is already in everything, His omnipresence being inescapable and therefore unavoidable.
This inescapable and unavoidable Presence is at the heart of all reality, immanently and transcendentally. We forget it at our peril. This being so, it should not surprise us to discover that relativism is not merely a philosophical error, in any abstract or detached sense, but is the fruit of that deeper intellectual error which theologians and all civilized people call sin. Furthermore, it is the most poisonous fruit of all because it is motivated by the worst sin of all, that sin which theologians and all civilized people call pride.
Pride is making myself God. It is placing myself at the center of the cosmos. It is deciding that something is only true if it is my own conception of things. It is deciding that something is only beautiful if I find it so. It is deciding that I am the only one to judge whether something is good or bad.
These thoughts passed through my mind last week when I brushed shoulders with a middle-aged man at Dallas-Fort Worth airport. He sported a hat with the word “Pride” emblazoned upon it, beside which were two symbols of his creed, the yin and yang symbol and the symbol of the rainbow, together with a slogan, screaming like a battle-cry, that he would accept “no boundaries.”
As I surveyed this Stormtrooper of secularism, I was grateful that at least he had the honest audacity to wear his sin of Pride with pride. His battle-cry was also honest enough. In his hatred of all “boundaries” he has already trampled marriage under his jackboot and is marching forth to destroy, if he can, every last trace of the objective reality of goodness, truth, and beauty. We can expect the legalization of pedophilia before long as the Stormtroopers demand the demolition of all boundaries to the gratification of desire. Nothing and nobody is safe from this egocentric monster, least of all the weak and the innocent. What we are seeing is the dragon of pride unleashed to do its worst, narcissism turned to Nazissism.
The one symbol that the Nazissists use which is emphatically inappropriate is the rainbow, which has traditionally been seen as symbolic of the covenant between God and man, as shown to Noah, but is now employed by Nazissists as symbolizing their own creed of relativistic “diversity.” The irony is that the Nazissist does not see the beauty of the real rainbow, which shines forth the grandeur of God. He is blinded by his narcissism. He can only see himself and those that are pleasing to himself. Pride is prejudiced. It blinds itself to beauty as it blinds itself to truth. It cannot see the rainbow with the eyes of wonder because it does not have the humility without which wonder is impossible.
As I watched my Nazissist friend disappear into the restless crowd, I did not so much fear him as pity him. He is indeed my friend, even if he is also my enemy. He is a prisoner of his own ego, a victim of the totalitarianism of the Self, which St. Paul calls slavery to sin. He is an addict, a slave to his addiction. He is addicted to self-gratification, pandering to his passions and following his feelings in ever decreasing circles of pathos, destroying himself and his own true happiness, even as he destroys others and their own true happiness in his selfish abuse of them. He has been sacrificed on the altars that other Nazissists have erected to themselves, even as he sacrifices others on his own egocentric altar.
He and his comrades are stormtroopers of the culture of death, killing themselves even as they kill others. Make no mistake about it, the culture of death is suicidal. It is dying even as it thinks it is winning. It is doomed because its fantasies are unrealistic. It flies in the face of reality. Its triumph is Pyrrhic because it is self-defeating.
As for the rest of us, we will have to ride the storm that the Stormtroopers have raised. We will have to hold firm as we are buffeted, buttressed by the rock of Reality to which we cling. If we need encouragement as the doom-clouds of devildom gather, we should look to the skies, and the hills, the real skies and hills that God has made and which rise above all shadows of sin, and see that they are charged with the grandeur of a God whose Real Presence makes all manifestations of the stupidity of sin look ridiculous. We should rise above all shadows and see the cosmos as God sees it, which is to see that it is good. After the storm has blown itself out in the drunken frenzy of its own unsustainable and self-annihilating bacchanal, reality will reassert itself. In the interim, as much of the world accelerates towards its self-inflicted doom, we should simply keep reasserting reality until the time that reality reasserts itself.
Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.