In his Ethics, Dietrich von Hildebrand made distinctions which will help us to shed light on this topic. I shall use them to prove how disastrous this war on hierarchy is and alas how fast it is spreading more and more in our society.
He distinguishes between two very different types of value: ontological values and qualitative values. Whereas one possesses the former or does not possess them, that is, one is either a human being, or one is not, qualitative values, such as moral goodness, degree of intelligence, variety of talents, degrees of beauty and of ugliness are possessed in very different measures. One can be more or less just, more or less intelligent, more or less sensitive to art and beauty. But as I just hinted above, there is a tendency in our society to aim at egalitarianism – claiming that any sort of hierarchy is a sin against democracy: we are all equal. At times, I wish my students learned as much in my classes as I learned by breathing for years the "fresh" democratic air that has penetrated into places of higher learning.
Let me repeat emphatically: one cannot be more or less of an angel; either one has an angelic nature or one has not. We cannot be more or less of human person: but there is a huge hierarchy between us as far as moral, intellectual, artistic talents are concerned. St. Teresa of Avila wrote that in heaven not two human beings will have exactly the same degree of glory. No one will ever challenge the place they are given in heaven knowing that God, being the very incarnation of Justice, will give us exactly the place we deserve.
It is of crucial importance today to make people realize that this war (maybe resentment) against any hierarchy can have disastrous consequences for democracy itself. It is also important to mention that there is also a great hierarchy not only among qualitative values-moral values are superior to intellectual values, the latter being superior to artistic talent-but moreover, that there is a hierarchy within one the same family of values: e.g. humility is a greater virtue than honesty. On his death bed, one is bound to realize that one's kindness and generosity are more important that brilliance and wit, and that one's loving pursuit of truth is more important than to create buildings of remarkable beauty. In heaven we shall not be asked whether we made the headlines by our productivity and "genius" but whether we have loved God and our neighbor. It is more important for a person to know the truth about God and the meaning of human life, than to be a great astronomer, or to have a deep appreciation of artistic values, important as these are, because in some subtle way, they also point "upwards." The most important ones, those that we should most eagerly strive to acquire, are moral values and they are moreover the only values that we are responsible for. Apart from the fact that we cannot will genius, we are responsible for our moral health: a liar is freely staining himself by lying. No one is born a liar; one becomes ones by calculating that it is advantageous to give truth a slap in the face. We are not responsible for our degree of intelligence, but we are responsible for putting it at the service of truth. He who is given ten talents will be requested to give ten more. The one who has but one talent will not be required to give two back.
Am I wrong in claiming that in our society efficiency is alas, more highly valued than holiness? A man of modest accomplishments will easily be looked down upon even though he is kind, generous, forgiving. Whereas a "self-made man," that is someone who through his talents and hard work "succeeded," is likely to be praised and acclaimed. Not wishing to deny the value of hard work and courage in overcoming great obstacles to success, in the light of eternity, humility and charity rank higher. By the way, I do not deny that a very successful man can also possess these key moral values, I know several of them-but he knows full well that his generosity had infinitely more value than the virtues he needed to succeed.
The aristocratic place that should be given to moral values over other values is being more and more challenged in our society. This has been illumined in von Hildebrand's books so that I only need refer the reader to them. This dethronement of truth will inevitably give birth to a "new hierarchy" where efficiency is more valued than holiness. (See his article in the New Tower of Babel, Kennedy l954) To be hard working, to achieve (which inevitably implies certain moral values such as discipline, perseverance and courage), tend to be more valued than humility, kindness selflessness, love of neighbor.
This strongly marked tendency is worrisome. And is to be explained by the wrong philosophy prevalent in schools and universities: namely relativism. When a top notch professor in a well known university declared that the purpose of education is to guarantee that its graduates will earn a good living, we are forced to realize that our society is gravely morally decadent. Tell me the type of "education" children receive, and I will tell you how this society is to be rated. I am not sure we are doing well.
From grammar school on, children are repeatedly told that "certainty" can only be achieved in sciences based on experimentation. All other domains are matter of opinion and it is arrogant to claim that one's opinion is better than the ones defended by others. Moreover, they are warned that the claim that certain ideas are untrue, and therefore dangerous, is arrogant and, in fact, is a subtle attack on democracy. This was expressed by a student of mine who entering my classroom told me, 'Why should your ideas be better than mine?" When to his amazement I replied: "There is no reason whatever, except if my ideas are true, and therefore should also be endorsed by you because truth is offered to all men, and should be accepted by them all." He looked at me with amazement: "Who is to tell?" I cannot be eloquent enough on this: relativism when carried to its consequences, is in fact a subtle denial of the equality of human beings. If this is only the opinion of some people, others deny it emphatically and no one has a right to impose his ideas on another person. How is one to convince a Hindu that a Dalit is just as much of a human person as he is? This is "his" point of view, and should be respected.
That this poison has now penetrated into Catholic colleges was proven by the fact when Mother Betty McCormack who graduated with me from Manhattanville college, declared upon accept this honor: "From now on all ideas are accepted in this college." In other words, they should not be rated as true or untrue … it is all depends upon one's perspective. Narrowness is an intellectual sin that should be uprooted at all cost. Not long afterwards she left the Order of the Mothers of the Sacred Heart, worked for the Rockefeller Foundation, and married a Jewish man.
The obvious conclusion is that the equality of all men is a view prevalent in our society, we have no right to impose it on others: they too have a right to their own opinion, for it is all a matter of opinion. They too have a right to pick up and choose what they happen to like and consider to be is valid for U.S. citizens and for some European nations, but has no validity for oriental people: it is "the American way of life."
But this expression is rich in ambiguities. It would be ridiculous to make a law commanding all people to eat goulash because it is the favorite menu of Hungarians, as it would be to tell other nations that they should elect their president in a "democratic" fashion: that is let the majority to decide. But more than one wise man has questioned whether the majority is by the fact that a particular view is endorsed by more people is guaranteed to be the right and wise one. I do not recall who said that the majority is always wrong, implying that most people are not well informed and then feed themselves on the junk food offered by most newspapers. Kierkegaard formulated this strikingly in his devastating criticism of newspapers-the only intellectual food of most people.
(Column continues below)
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In many countries the tradition was that political power was "inherited": the king left it to his older son. In the USA, the president is chosen by the majority-assuming erroneously that all of us are equally well equipped to judge what is actually best for the country. In fact, the number of people who, fairly ignorant of politics, will give their vote to the candidate who dominates the news media is very high. And having the gift of gab, succeed by whatever means to convince the people that they will be a marvelous leader, correcting the mistakes made by their predecessor, and guaranteeing that the U.S. will remain the richest and most powerful country in the world. Looking at all the men who became presidents of the United States since Washington, one is entitled to raise the question: how many of them deserve to be called "great?" Looking at the long list of monarchs who have ruled Europe for centuries, one cannot say that the percentage of weak, insignificant, or bad ones, is greater. Few indeed are those who deserve the title, "Great" and this is true in all domains. At any rate, one is tempted to endorse the view of Samuel Johnson that the ugliness of competition is such that it is wise to avoid it. Few are those among us who can long stand watching the ugly and nasty punches that one candidate gives others: elementary courtesy seems to be forgotten in the months preceding a presidential election. At times, one blushes at the thought that these people will possibly have the greatest political power in the world.
The point that I truly wish to emphasize is that the philosophy of relativism is a poison which, carried to its consequences, will in the long run be the death of democracy taken in the authentic meaning of the word: a recognition of the metaphysical equality of all men, while not denying that they are very different in their degree of possessing qualitative values. If empirical proofs alone give us certainty, then we cannot possibly claim that all men are metaphysically equal. That might be the "American way of life", but they have no right whatever, to claim that it is universally valid, and in fact, justifies the caste system which happens to be what the Hindus favor. Relativism also has to endorse the claim of the famous Yoga master Suzuki, that two plus two is four is one possible view, but that open mindedness requires us to acknowledge that it is only one point of view and that others, such as two plus two is three or five, should also be respected. (Father H van Straelen. Le Zen Demystifie, p 94) Once elementary logic is put on trial, any discussion becomes totally meaningless.
That Logic is the arch enemy of this type of philosophy should be luminous and is therefore the arch enemy of yogism. There are plenty of domains open to opinions-politics being one of them, or the rating of great writers and great artists. But there are domains in which to speak of opinions defies common sense: whether there is a God or whether atheism is the valid attitude that intelligent people should endorse, is not a matter of opinion. It is a clear either or – the same applies whether God is or is not a Trinity, whether or not Christ is God and Man, or only a superior human being, whether our soul is immortal or perishes with our body, etc. A pantheist or a theist cannot both be right; Muslims and Christians clash on their view of God. The crucial question is who is right or who is wrong. Either or is crucial in many intellectuals discussions and to say that both positions are to be endorsed in the name of broad mindedness is nonsense. It is worth mentioning that in domains opened to various views where mathematical certainty cannot be obtained, people often argue with an obstinacy made fun of by the gifted French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel. He remarks that in such domains someone is likely to say: "I do not claim to have any competence in this domain, but you want to know my opinion…." and then defend it with tooth and nail as if he alone had the key to this complex question. It is also worth remarking that these are domains where very many of us discuss endlessly without ever coming closer to an agreement. Let me repeat: it is crucial to distinguish between domain where certainty can be obtained – relating to question of either or – and domains in which we do have this possibility.
This leads me to view our concern from a slightly different point of view. Once again, one of the taboos in universities which are severely condemned is "narrow mindedness." In fact what does it mean, and why does evoke in many of us a feeling of intellectual "choking?" I tend to believe that its attraction is its very vagueness. The word "narrow" usually has a negative note: a narrow road can be dangerous. Broad on the other hand has a good reputation. But when applied to our problem, things become a bit more complex. There is only one health and innumerable sicknesses. Yet, to reject all sicknesses is not a sign of narrowness but a sign of sanity. There are good many ways of misspelling a word, but only one correct one. Is one narrow minded by aiming at using the right one? There are innumerable errors that can be made in mathematics but only one true answer. Is one "narrow minded" by aiming at the blessed narrowness of truth? I suspect that I read this in Chesterton. Reading the history of philosophy one will be struck by the fact that it has been rich in false and erroneous philosophies, but only one true one. This is why it is so easy to become famous: all one needs to do is to become the protagonist of an error that has yet not been formulated, whereas if one formulates a truth – which by its very essence is one – he might give to some weak headed persons, a feeling of "restriction" and narrowness."
To make things clearer: it would be fully justified if someone declared that Bach and Bach alone deserves to be declared a great musician, (some might say today, Rock and Roll) or Shakespeare the only literary giant, thereby denying any value to great French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian writers. But we are then entering a totally different domain where the question of truth versus error is not applicable. It is nonsensical to say: "Bach is true; Mozart is false." A decadent society might be dubbed one in which nonsense has become popular and endorsed as finally bringing some variety.
The conclusion I wish to draw is that it is high time that we realize that relativism is a poison that has deeply infected our so called culture, and that if carried to its logical consequence would inevitably lead to war on democracy: the recognition of the equality of all human beings viewed as just "an American way of life" that we have no right to impose on other nations.