Sunday, December 2, 2007


Pope Benedict XVI has released his latest encyclical. The old beast of Communism may be defeated, but the Pope sees its successor in what he calls "relativism."

Defeated, Marxism is no longer the incarnation of evil in our midst, but rather the perfect (vanquished) foil in Benedict's ongoing intellectually driven sermon that Christian faith is history's only true answer. But the Pope is not ready to declare victory. The Church's current foe, as he sees it, is still in the heart of Europe and still atheist in nature: a sort of post-Socialist, anything-goes brand of Utopia that Benedict calls "relativism" — and disparages as the root of everything from loose sexual mores to a breakdown of the traditional family to runaway capitalism.

I think Jeffrey B. Russell, professor of history at U of C, Santa Barbara, would agree. He wrote about his experience with relativism amongst his students.

I first encountered radical relativism in a classroom in the early 70s, when I was showing pictures and photographs of violence. Among the pictures was one of a soldier kicking a little boy to death. One of the young women in the class argued strongly that we had no right to make a value judgment about the soldier's act. After much time in discussion, she finally allowed that the soldier's act might have been wrong--but NOT because the boy was suffering. Rather, her reason was that the soldier "might have enjoyed the boy's company if he had got to know him." She allowed that from the boy's point of view things probably looked different. But the only judgment she would make on the soldier was on the basis of the pleasure he might have deprived himself of. There is no GOOD; there is only feeling good. The pleasure principle. Good and evil depend on how you happen to feel. Note the phrase "Happen to feel."

A few years later, at UCSB, while teaching philosophy of history, I encountered another variety of radical relativism. I tried in vain to get the class to admit that the Sistine Chapel was better than a stick figure I scrawled on the board, that a Bach cantata was better than my toneless humming, that King Lear was better than Roses are Red, Violets are blue. No way. Some people, they replied, might prefer the stick figure or the greeting card sentiments. One young woman in the class was particularly bright and later went on to a successful career as a lawyer. She was an oboe player in the Santa Barbara Symphony. She had been practicing oboe for seven or eight years. I had never done more than look at one. I challenged her to bring her oboe, and we'd see whether it was possible to determine whose playing was better. "Some people might prefer the way you played," she responded. Then why practice at all, let alone seven years? At the end of the term, the young woman turned in the best paper in the class. I gave her an A, of course, and she was delighted. But what if I had taken her at her word? What if I had told her, "You are getting a C along with everyone else, because there is no basis on which to judge one paper better than another?"

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