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Volume 44, Number 3 (Summer 2006)

Letter from Italy

Debate on Relativism

Flavio Felice

Many consider ethical relativism a pathology of the modern world, from which especially Europe and the West seriously suffer. Others see in relativism the very physiology of the West, and define it as a particular epistemological outlook which refuses the human presumption to create “earthly absolutes.”

Among those who have identified the logical and moral reasons for an epistemological approach of a relativist kind was the Italian philosopher Dario Antiseri, whose recent book, Relativismo, nichilismo, individualismo. Fisiologia o patologia dell’Europa? (Relativism, nihilism, individualism. Physiology or pathology of Europe?), was published in Italy by Rubbettino last year. Antiseri upheld the negation of the typically rationalist and positivist “fatal presumption” of perfect knowledge. There can be no doubt, Antiseri holds, that if by individualism we mean the most boorish instinct towards robbery, fraud and egoism, then relativism and nihilism would be the “cancer” of the West. If, instead, by individualism we mean a force opposed to collectivism, then we must acknowledge that such an individualism is preferable to its opposite, which has corrupted individual liberty, dignity and responsibility over the last century and a half.

A similar discourse would also hold for the term relativism. As Antiseri writes: “If by relativism is meant the empiric ascertainment of a pluralism of ethical conceptions which, lacking a final and definitive rational foundation, challenge our liberty and our responsibility, is this relativism the physiology or the pathology of the West?” And if by “nihilism” should be meant awareness of the rational inconsistency of the “supposed ‘earthly absolutes’ [ . . . ] created by human hands [ . . . ], is it really true that it represents a danger for an open society or even for the Christian faith?” Antiseri invites us to understand, first of all, the sense and the way of being of Europe, and how the destiny of this province of the world is linked with its dramatic history. To put the question as the historian Fernard Braudel did, what is Europe’s unitary destiny? And what is this Europe of ours? Europe is its history.

In a nutshell, this European history is the story of highs and lows involving a particular area of the world and the many ideas to which it has given birth, which have throughout its history sometimes embraced and fought one another. If we were to assert that our civilization is superior to others, says Antiseri, we could do so only in the sense that it has shown a capacity for self correction. At this point, however, if critical reason, pluralism, respect for diversity and tolerance are the features that characterise European identity, and which have enabled Europe to rise from the abyss of the lagers and the gulags, we should ask ourselves what we Europeans would be without Christianity.

Christianity represents an ideal which, throughout history—committing like others errors and horrors—has yet been able to exercise continuous pressure on the coercive forces of the establishment. Antiseri further notes how the statement of Jesus: “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s,” represents a decisive turning point which boosted the democratising process, acting as the corner stone of modern democracies. With this statement was introduced, almost uniquely among the great world civilizations, the principle that “Káisar” is not “Kyrios”—the definitive de-consecration of political power, its subjection to the inviolable realm of conscience and respect for the transcendental dignity of the human being. Therefore, asserting that “Káisar” is not “Kyrios” means above all keeping in check political power and its all devouring claims, and recognising the political consequences of this religious principle. It is, for example, the basis of the principle of aid among and between citizens, which enables the carrying out of even secular projects.

Among those who have seen in relativism a pathological element of Europe and the West, is to be noted the work written together by don Gianni Baget Bozzo and Raffaele Iannuzzi. These political scientists, in their book Tra nichilismo e Islam. L’Europa come colpa (Between nihilism and Islam. Europe as something to be criticised), published by Mondadori earlier this year, hold that the historic situation of our time is dominated by the confrontation between western nihilism and fundamentalist Islam. These two authors invite us to reflect on the causes of our self-consciousness as Europeans and Westerners.

In the first place, the challenge now facing the West seemed impossible up to just recently, at least in its present proportions and potential consequences. This challenge, therefore, is without recent precedent and oddly enough finds objective complicity in the West’s revolutionary tradition, in its post-Marxist form, i.e. in a communism without Marx and deprived of its revolutionary project. But this is not all—after the end of the second world war, the Christian churches themselves began considering the worldwide spread of Christianity as something to be criticised, thus losing awareness of their history as an identity and of the importance of Christianity to that identity. What we call “nihilism” is the conscience of the European revolting against his own history and, in particular, against the Hebrew, Greek and Roman tradition, blended by Christianity into a synthesis which has created one of the great civilizations in the history of man. What is involved, therefore, is the overall civilised form of the West, with all the cultural, ethical and political consequences which this weighty process entails. In this crucial context, the main force on which the Islamic offensive against Christianity may rely is that very same European nihilism, considered as a revolt of the European conscience against its own identity and history.

Within this framework of devastating crisis, a new element is emerging that certainly does not do away with the dramatic nature of the present situation, but which does however provide, on its part, an important indication towards finding a way of escape. This element is represented by the new function of the Papacy, by the role of fully-fledged political leader characterized today by Benedict XVI. The emphasis on culture and the transformative power of Christianity expressed by Benedict XVI, following his predecessor John Paul II, might, according to the two authors, contribute to the creation of a new language and also of a new political syntax, so as to rediscover—notwithstanding the fact that this may at first glance seem paradoxical—Christianity through the policy of a Papacy that speaks to, and through, history.

Flavio Felice is Professor of Economic and Political Doctrine at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome and Vicar President of the Instituto Acton of Rome.

Posted: March 20, 2007 in Essays.

A “conservative character [is] suspicious of doctrinaire alteration, respectful toward history, preferring variety over uniformity, acknowledging a moral order composed of human persons, not of mere political and economic atoms subservient to the state.”

Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 1954

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