I’ve been eagerly awaiting the latest edition of Imprimis – the newsletter of Hillsdale College. I had caught wind from other blogs that it included a lengthy, original interview with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. It came in the mail yesterday, and the interview did not disappoint.
In the course of the interview, Justice Thomas was asked about the notion that morality is relative. Here is his response:
Have you ever read Modern Times by Paul Johnson? I read it back in the ’80s. It’s long, but it’s really worth the effort. One point it makes clearly is the connection between relativism, nihilism, and Naziism. The common idea that if you can do whatever you want to do, because truth and morality are relative, leads to the idea that if you are powerful enough you can kill people because of their race or faith. So ask your relativist friends sometime: What is to keep me from getting a gang of people together and beating the hell out of you because I think you deserve to be beaten? Too many people think that life and liberty are about their frivolous pleasures. There is more to life. And again, largely what relativism reflects is simply a lack of learning.
Modern Times is the final text I use in the four-year high school history sequence that I teach at the Schaeffer Study Center. Its a challenge for my seniors, but richly rewarding. I have been re-reading and teaching it every year for the past five years now. Each time, I see new things, make new connections, as I am reading. One of the promises I made to myself is that I would NOT slip into the habit of teaching from my notes, but that each time I taught a course I would do the reading I had assigned to my students the same week they were doing the reading. Its important. It keeps me interacting with the text, and it keeps my teaching fresh.
But back to Modern Times. The corrosive effect of relativism is a major theme of the book. Paul Johnson sees a direct connection between the rise of moral relativism and the fact that the 20th century was the bloodiest century in human history.
Here are the final few sentences from the first chapter of Modern Times (the chapter is titled, “A Relativistic World”):
Among the advanced races, the decline and ultimately the collapse of the religious impulse would leave a huge vacuum. The history of modern times is in great part the history of how that vacuum had been filled. Nietzsche rightly perceived that the most likely candidate would be what he called the “Will to Power,” which offered a far more comprehensive and in the end more plausible explanation of human behaviour than either Marx or Freud. In place of religious belief, there would be secular ideology. Those who had once filled the ranks of the totalitarian clergy would become totalitarian politicians. And, above all, the “Will to Power” would produce a new kind of messiah, uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever, and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind. The end of the old order, with an unguided world adrift in a relativistic universe, was a summons to such gangster-statesmen to emerge. They were not slow to make their appearance.
The first gangster-statesmen were Lenin and Mussolini. Hitler learned from both.
It is a mystery to me how anyone can examine the record of the 20th century and stil believe in Progress. All change is not for the better. And there is nothing inevitable about Progress. And there is ample evidence that human nature has made ZERO progress in the 3000 years of recorded human history.
The record of the 20th century suggests that we have gone backwards a considerable distance in the last 100 years. What we need is not more Progress (a rejection and sneering dismissal of the past as “primitive”). What we need is a Renaissance – a recovery of the past. What we need is to recognize that perhaps there was wisdom in prior ages which we have forgotten, abandoned, and turned our back on — but that we need to recover.