Fall of the Roman EmpireWriting today at The American Culture, Mike D’Virgilio makes some good observations about the inherent contradictions in what is commonly called relativism today. Particularly interesting is this passage:

Such do-it-yourself-morality is the logical conclusion of moral relativism, and it means that literally anything goes. Of course, many relativists betray these principles through their actions. It is common for people who profess relativism to live quite conventional lives. In addition, many people steeped in relativism profess absolute, objective moral values, such as that racism is bad, smoking is evil, religion is dangerous, and the like. Note how colleges and their students treat commencement speakers whose political beliefs don’t accord with theirs. Although they are loath to admit that these opinions are no more valid than any others (a fundamental tenet of relativism), they appear to have no doubts at all about the rightness of their positions.

D’Virgilio is on to something here, but he does not pursue it further, content to assume that relativists actually believe what they profess.

I am convinced that they do not, though they may sincerely think that they do. The huge disparity between the claims of relativism and the actions of those who make such claims suggests that such individuals are not actually relativists after all.

What they really manifest is not a thought system that treats all ideas equally, but instead a worldview based on a strong, direct denial of the Christian God and of Western standards of reason developed most extensively in ancient Israel and Greece. What remains when these constraints on the human will are removed, as Friedrich Nietzsche noted, is the Will to Power. Lacking an objective moral standard to which to appeal, individuals may actively work to devaluate all values. As they do so, each individual acts in assertion of the only remaining moral force: his or her will to power. And of course, people asserting their own power cannot tolerate dissent.

Such an understanding of the process of postmodern thought helps us understand how people who profess to believe that all values are equal end up becoming notoriously intolerant.

In the Western tradition, by contrast, one’s views might be be right, or they might be wrong, but the goal was always to find the thoughts and concepts that best match reality. The search was for the truth, and the truth was outside oneself. This mentality was, at the very least, a useful survival mechanism: those who best understood the world outside them could deal with it most effectively and would live longest and have the most, and most successful, descendants.

Having solved the problems of economic scarcity, however, our postmodern society appears  in great part to have lost its sense of a need to comport one’s thoughts with the reality outside oneself. This is what people seem to be mistaking for relativism.

This worldview, however, has truly ominous historical precedents, for it appears to be part of the process by which civilizations fall: great wealth among a large percentage of the population, combined with suppression of competition by the less-privileged, reduces the need (for the wealthy) and the value (for the rest) of comporting one’s ideas with reality. What remains is one’s will, just as Nietzsche said.

The can quickly become a self-perpetuating and ever-expanding process. The reduction of the need to comport one’s thoughts with reality in order to survive and thrive enables people to act on fancies and whims instead of time- and reality-tested principles, with a great reduction of the natural consequences for such actions. And as each individual pursues his or her will without personal restraint, conflict increases exponentially.

As history shows, the process continues until the society can no longer cohere and sustain itself. It then falls to outside forces: conquest, epidemics, famines, or just slow decay into barbarism. In short, the freedom from reality is always only temporary, and the consequences are catastrophic.

Are not in fact seeing this process playing out in the United States today?