Desire and the "Dictatorship of Relativism"

In his book Autumn Lightning, Dave Lowry describes his education in the arts of Japanese swordplay. It is mostly a book about philosophy, and history.

There was a rumble, very faint, that could have been thunder when Sensei spoke again. "The swordsmanship that we do, that is nothing. What is cutting with a sword? If I have an atomic bomb now, it will melt your katana and you...

"We keep the Yagyu Shinkage tradition alive for another reason than fighting. Because it is like -- " he paused, reaching for the right word, "it is like an antique that is living. Because we have the ryu [i.e., a school of though in one of the Japanese disciplines], we have something of the past. We can depend on it. All the bugeisha [warriors] in the old days, they are just like us. Same problems, they loved and hated, just like we do. Since they went before, they are an example for us. We must never forget that we are a part of them."

The old samurai fears losing touch with his ancestry; he fears that the "silent artillery of time" will wash away their memory, leaving him without a guide and his people without the values he loves. It is this same problem that the new Pope has set as the central challenge facing the Church today. It is a deeper problem than it appears to be. The solution is not easy, either to conceive or to bring about.

The first complication is this: you cannot, in fact, be "just like" the warriors of old by preserving their traditions. This is because the nature of war has no respect for tradition. War is about innovation. The warrior is first and foremost a man who is engaged with things as they are: he fights to win, which means fighting in the way that allows winning to be possible.

The ancient samurai were not at all concerned with preserving techniques. They were entirely focused on improving techniques, to find some new advantage that would lead them to victory. An art form that seeks to preserve their spirit, first and foremost, must throw out their techniques first of all. The very things that the ryu preserves in order to permit you to approach your ancestors turn out to be the greatest obstacles to really learning to think and live like those ancestors.

What must be preserved is not the mode of dress, nor the secrets of the katana, but the habits of mind. And those are just the opposite of the habits formed in the dojo. It is for this reason that I always refused to engage in martial arts competitions: the true thing is not about learning to win within the rules of a sport. It is not about learning the forms of the sport. It is about developing a fighting spirit, which means casting away old boundaries and forms, and finding the way to victory. The way to victory is ever new.

That is the first hurdle.

The second is harder. It is this: the rational mind cannot avail you in the struggle against relativism.

I am not and never have been a Catholic, but I do share a strong root with the Catholic Church. Catholic ethics follow, in form, on the structures set up by Aristotle. I am also an Aristotelian in my ethical thinking. The word is from Aristotle + telos, an ancient Greek word meaning "the ultimate goal of a process."

Aristotelian thinking is famously rational. Indeed, the American Heritage dictionary provides the definition as: "A person whose thinking and methods tend to be empirical, scientific, or commonsensical." And that is true -- as far as the methods go. The process is rational. The telos -- the goal of the process -- cannot be.

If the goal of ethics is virtue, rationality can help you figure out how to be virtuous. It can tell when you are seeing a particular virtue, but not what makes it a virtue. Reason can recognize bravery, but cannot prove beyond all doubt that bravery is better than cowardice. It certainly cannot make you want to be brave. The proof of the virtue of bravery arises from within your heart. It must come from inside yourself, from your upbringing, from what you are taught by your family and what you experience in the world.

To make this clear, return to the samurai. His methods are rational: he refines his swordsmanship through daily practice, trains with others he trusts, seeks and thinks and considers what he encounters. He applies his knowledge. He trains harder. He looks for holes in common techniques, and ways to exploit them.

That is all rational. But why does he do it? What is his goal? These things are means, but to what end?

"Victory!" is a ready answer, but it is not the real answer. Victory is itself only a means to another, deeper end. He wants to win the fight, but why is he fighting at all?

The same is true of any fight you undertake. There may be several rational reasons lying atop your thinking: "I need to capture this gasoline storage facility in order to make certain I have enough fuel for my tanks." But why are you fighting with tanks? Because they are useful at this moment in history, for winning the war we are fighting. And why are you fighting the war? For oil reserves; or for some political advantage. And why do you care about that?

If you go down far enough, you will hit base. The reason will be: because I love my country; or my fellow soldiers; or I am fighting out of love for my religion, or the kind of society it generates. The final reason is love, or it is hate, or it is fear; or it is some instinctive drive arising from biological impulses that are prior to, rather than subject to, thought; or it is something else, but it is never rational.

That is not to say it is wrong! Irrational doesn't mean, as people seem to believe, bad. I am definitely not saying that your reasons should be rational. I am saying that your final reason cannot be rational.

How could it be? What does reason have to tell you about what you should want? Once it knows what you do want, it can help you set a path to get there. Once it knows that you are hungry, it can tell you that you should find food; and based on previous experience, where you are likely to find it; and that you should go there, and gather whatever tools you might need to collect the food when you arrive. But being hungry is not rational. It comes from the biology. Loving your fellow man is not rational. It comes from the human spirit, not the Reason.

This is the problem for those who have set up to fight against relativism. They already know what they want. From here on out, Reason is their ally in getting what they want. So the first problem to which they apply their Reason is: how do I convince other people to want the same thing? And they find that Reason has no traction on that ground. It was not what brought them to their conviction, and it cannot bring others there.

Consider Professor Bainbridge:
So why is Sullivan so worked up? Here's his real gripe in his own words:
…the impermissibility of any sexual act that does not involve the depositing of semen in a fertile uterus ....
It's always about sex with Andrew, isn't it?
It does appear to be the case that Sullivan's Reason is totally in service to his desire for a certain kind of sex. But one cannot reason him out of it. The devout Catholic and Sullivan are on equal footing in this way: neither one is acting from Reason in holding the particular belief, Sullivan that gay sex should be celebrated, nor the Church that it should be banned.

In trying to persuade the rest of us to adopt one position or the other, arguments from Reason are effectively wasted. You know this is true because you have witnessed them. How many arguments from statistics and evidence have you read on the subject of gay marriage? And how much has any of them persuaded you? They are castles built on sand: however solid the reasoning, however strong the evidence, Reason can provide no foundation to support them. If you reject the foundation the whole structure collapses.

The side whose foundation you embrace, however, seems always to have ironclad arguments: because the Reason is solid, and for you the foundation is solid, the structure is immovable.

Relativism cannot, therefore, be defeated through argument. While it is possible to persuade people to want different things than they do, it must be done by addressing the underlying issues, not through argument. You must make them feel differently. If you want to change Andrew Sullivan, it is not enough to explain why gay sex is unhealthy or ugly or improper or maladaptive or whatever other rational argument against homosexuality you might have. You have change his heart so that he does not want it, or wants something else much more.

The Church, and our samurai, has a second fundamental difficulty arising from this problem. A Sullivan need convince no descendant of the rightness of his desires. An institution, however, has to do so constantly. It is not only at risk from the "relatively" different desires of those outside of the institution, but from the "relatively" different desires of those it is trying to inculcate. This is why the practitioner of the ryu insists on precision in replicating the old forms, and why the Church insists on doctrine.

But as noted at the beginning, that very insistence takes you away from being the kind of man you wanted to be. The ancient samurai cared nothing about dogma, and everything about adapting. We forget this because their writings speak a great deal about "correct" form for training students, but do not mention the underlying reality that they would discard this "correct" form the instant it was no longer useful. It was "correct" only today, not for all time. That mindest is like the ocean to the fish: so obvious and present that it is not noticed nor commented upon.

Similarly, there is a great deal in the early Christian writings about what the correct doctrines are or might be. What is not noticed is how radical were the changes the early Church would embrace, in order to convert. Consider St. Paul. How much of what the Church believes arises, not from what Jesus said, but from what St. Paul said? Thinking of Paul, people think of the man who enforced the rules; what is forgotten is that he was creating and interpreting the rules. He was not, as he appears to us, the agent of dogma; he was the agent of change. He was the one who found Christianity as a Jewish sect, and restructured it so that it could become a religion of mankind.

This is the problem against which Benedict XVI has set himself. The Church would be a refuge against the silent artillery of time, a place where what the Church sees as the true teachings of Christ are kept safe within the walls. This is a means to an end; and the end is the belief in a soul that needs saving, combined with love of those teachings and the kind of society they produce. The foundations of the Church's society will be its reading of the Bible; the structures built on that, which guide the society, will be built according to Aristotelian ethical thinking. With an ancient and well-understood foundation and superstructure, the society should in theory be well ordered -- though perhaps rather smaller than the Church of today.

That society, if in fact it can be produced and maintained, is the answer to the riddle. It is the same reason that people continue to seek out the martial arts: because they admire what they see in the masters, and come to want those traits for themselves. If the Church recreates the "city on a hill," and if it is as bright as it is meant to be, people may choose to flock to it.

But this is not an escape from "the dictatorship of Relativism." People are still making their basic choices because of their relative desires, beliefs, or drives. The dictatorship of Relativism cannot be escaped, but perhaps there can be a regime change.

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