Sunday, March 01, 2009

The roots of modern Relativism

David Wootton is Professor of History at the University of York.

In The Times Literary Supplement he has publishd a review of Keith Thomas,THE ENDS OF LIFE: Roads to fulfilment in early modern England 393pp. Oxford University Press. £20 (US $34.95).

Thomas was President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford from 1986 to 2000, knighted in 1988, President of the British Academy (1993–7), and for many years a key figure in the supervision of Oxford University Press.

In the book, Thomas discusses the birth of modern Relativism in England between 1530 and 1780

David Wootton writes:

"What makes life worth living? “Charity”, St Paul says, in the King James version – “love” in more modern translations. Happiness, most say. “Without love no happiness”, said Milton, turning the two answers into one.

A friend of mine, close to death, made a long journey to see the Rothko exhibition at the Tate. He had no doubt there could be no better way to spend what might have been his last day.

At such times our choices say a great deal about who we are; much of the rest of the time our answers are not to be trusted. Keith Thomas’s book looks at the answers to this question between 1530 and 1780.

He excludes, as far as he can, getting to heaven (in which he has little interest) and the life of learning (which he has discussed elsewhere). He also omits wine, women and song, along with hawks, hounds and horses. That leaves military prowess, work, wealth, reputation, friendship and fame – which is certainly plenty to be getting on with.

Thomas starts by defending himself against the charge of anachronism. “Self-fulfilment” is a nineteenth-century word, with no early modern equivalent. When Roger North became Attorney General, in the late seventeenth century, his brother said “his condition of life was like that of a plant set in a proper soil, growing up from small beginning into expanded employment”. Here, says Thomas, “we can see something approaching the modern concept of self-realization”. Except, of course, for the fact that plants are not self-reflexive.

But Thomas is certainly right to think that early modern men and women did think that life should have a purpose – Aristotle had told them so. Where, increasingly, they differed from Aristotle was in thinking that any purpose would do. All classical and medieval philosophers thought there was a hierarchy of goods that one might choose to pursue, and that there was only one summum bonum. Even the Epicureans, who thought that the purpose of life was eudaimonia (felicity), thought that there was a right and a wrong way to go about obtaining it. Self-restraint, not self-indulgence, was the key. This great tradition was broken in the mid-seventeenth century, and a small linguistic change marks the break point: people stopped talking about felicity, and began to talk about happiness.

Thomas Hobbes was sure that every sensible person must want personal security. But after that, one could equally well choose tennis, poetry, or wealth. As Bentham later put it, push-pin was of equal value with music. There is, Hobbes said, no “summum bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers”. Nor, in Hobbes’s scheme of things, much prospect of happiness, for desire was constantly succeeded by desire. There was only one real end, and that was death. At the heart of Thomas’s account is this revolutionary moment, the first triumph of relativism.

But Thomas leaves us with a chicken-and-egg story. Did Hobbes reach the view that “there is no such thing in the world” as “an utmost end” because he was an Englishman, caught up in a world where the old aristocratic values of valour and honour were increasingly under attack? Or did the English (or at least the godless English) become relativists because they read too much Hobbes, Locke and Bentham, and too little Aristotle and Epicurus?

There is another curious feature to the book. Its recurrent theme is the replacement of aristocratic values by bourgeois values, and one might expect Thomas to seek to give both viewpoints fair treatment. But he can scarcely hide his impatience with aristocratic culture. The idea that “the supreme end of life” might be “the performance of deeds of military prowess” seems simply incomprehensible to him. He quotes Barnaby Barnes holding forth on the delights of slaughtering the enemy, only to conclude “What fun indeed!”. As for the aristocracy’s idea of honour, “their claim to sole occupancy of the moral high ground rested upon a gross misrepresentation of the outlook of their inferiors” – surely true, although one might equally claim that plenty of scholarly and pacific humanists made a good living out of misrepresenting the aristocracy.

Thomas’s book ends with John Dryden’s “bleak but defiant” translation of Horace:

Not Heav’n’ itself upon the past has pow’r;
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour

(italics and emphasis added)

With the destruction of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle class, are we now living in an era where Hobbes, Locke and Bentham reign supreme ?

Perhaps at this stage it is also worth reminding ourselves of the words of the then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger in his homily prior to the conclave which would elect him as Pope in April 2005:

"How many winds of doctrine we have known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves ¬ thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so forth.

Every day new sects are created and what Saint Paul says about human trickery comes true, with cunning which tries to draw those into error (cf Eph 4, 14).

Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and "swept along by every wind of teaching", looks like the only attitude acceptable to today's standards.

We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires.

However, we have a different goal: the Son of God, true man. He is the measure of true humanism. Being an "Adult" means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today's fashions or the latest novelties. A faith which is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ is adult and mature. It is this friendship which opens us up to all that is good and gives us the knowledge to judge true from false, and deceit from truth. "