December 3, 2009


The Grounds of Civilization (James V. Schall, S J., 12/02/09, Catholic Thing)

The grounds of civilization are found in the Apology of Socrates: “It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen of the jury; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death” (39a). The principled foundation of worthy human living is asserted here. Lest wickedness rule, death is to be preferred. This terse statement was addressed particularly to politicians and judges. They had, if they willed, the power to enforce the wickedness to which, as Aristotle also said, human nature is prone.

Earlier in the Apology, Socrates had counseled: “Concentrate your attention on whether what I say is just or not, for the excellence of a judge lies in this, as that of a speaker lies in telling the truth” (18a). If these Socratic dicta, reaffirmed by the Hebrew and Christian tradition, are the foundations of civilization as such, the experiment of civilization based on truth, we may fear, is ending. Its grounds are rejected in those very traditions and lands that once accepted them. We need not be surprised at this. Wickedness does “run faster than death.” Civilizations die in minds before they die in polities.

“The noble type of man,” Nietzsche wrote headily in Beyond Good and Evil, “feels himself to be the determiner of values, he does not need to be approved of, he judges ‘what harms me is harmful in itself,’ he knows himself to be that which in general first accords honour to things, he creates values.” Viewed from this position, no wickedness is possible. Anything can be justified. [...]

Civilization depends on there being a truth to which those who suffer under unjust power can turn even in the face of established and enforced wickedness. It is this latter ground that relativism denies us. The central issue behind every public controversy and every threat against our national existence lies here. Yet this is the one threat to civilization that we choose not to recognize. We have “created” our own “values” in order to deny the truth in our being.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 3, 2009 6:48 AM
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