A Romantic Age

We live in a romantic age.  We tend to live for experience, beauty, happiness, fulfillment and so on.  That appears to be the controlling motive of many people’s lives.  This philosophy yields itself well to a bit of skepticism, relativism, or pragmatism about truth.  If we can’t know truth or if it doesn’t exist, we can make truth into a wax-nose, bending it every which-way we desire.

The romantic thinkers of the past came to similar conclusions as many today.  The 18th century Romanticists developed a philosophy about individual experience, beauty, art, heroism and so on.  They were an extension of the skeptical philosophers like Kant and Hume who doubted that anything non-physical (moral norms, beauty, ethics, God and so on) could be known with any reasonable confidence.  Romantic philosophy focused more on human experience and the pursuit of human fulfillment.

Yet the old Romanticists had something we do not have today.  They believed in truth, though they were skeptical about how clearly one could know it.  They pursued truth which they believed they could experience in beauty.  Thus the poet Keats said “truth is beauty and beauty truth.”  Today, many are a bit double-minded about whether there is real truth or beauty.  In our best moments, we seem to believe truth and beauty are real.  But then we relegate them into our private lives.  It would seem to be intolerant to proclaim our truths in public.

But where does our obsession with pleasure and beauty to the exclusion of truth lead?  Our forebears were often concerned with the stability of society and the family, while we are more concerned with our own self-expression.  Life is like art to be painted and continually experienced.  History, on this view, is just the endless repetition of people seeking meaningful experience.  The sociologist Robert Bellah called this philosophy of life “expressive individualism.”  And one wonders where this obsession with self is going.  As Bellah himself asked, can a society continue to flourish if everybody’s end is ultimately himself?

 

Earth Mother Strikes Back

The other day I took six middle schoolers on a field trip to the Denver Art Museum.  One of the strangest and most wonderful pieces we saw there was the earth mother sculpture called “Mud Woman Rolls On.”  It features a very large, clay womanlike giant.  She is sitting with four children between her legs.  Each child has another child between his legs and so on.  It gives one the impression of a giant Russian Nesting Doll.

According to our tour guide, the artist wanted to convey a sense that we are all from the earth and are responsible to it and to one another.  We are all called to be earth mothers of a sort.  We must teach our children good ethics.  Each generation must continue this chain of teaching.  The artist herself writes, “To hurt one part of the chain of life is to disrupt the flow that nurtures the generations to come. I believe this story is certainly one that needs telling at this time.”

I find it fascinating that this lesson continues to resonate with all kinds of people.  Indeed, it is impossible for human beings to really abandon ethics altogether.  C.S. Lewis in his book the Abolition of Man discussed this topic.  Every culture has a traditional understanding of what is valuable.  The similarities between human cultures regarding value far outweigh the differences.  Things like “don’t lie, don’t steal, respect your parents, don’t commit adultery, love the good and beautiful” and so on are universal.  This is true even though they may be practiced in different particular ways in some cultures.  At the end of Lewis’s book, he points out a list of moral precepts from around the world that all agree.

Of course, today, we often recognize this, but then at the same time, some people want to say that morals are culturally relative, that they are completely subjective to different cultures.  Some even say traditional morals are oppressive.  They say this in a completely non-evaluative and non-oppressive way of course.  Others state that the differences between moral values in various cultures prove that morals are relative.  Yet, differences can’t really show that.  If I think cannibalism is right and you think it’s wrong (in the same time and sense), how does that lead to the conclusion that it is both right and wrong?  If I say the skyscraper is vast and you say it’s little, does that mean there is no skyscraper?  There could still be a right answer.

Rarely, in fact, does the moral relativist truly get rid of all her morals.  Sometimes she simply rejects some of them and accepts other ones based on enlightened self-interest or  a personal sense of what she wants to be right.  Yet the danger here is that moral relativism really means complete relativism, not partial relativism, not mostly relativism.  Hopefully, the relativist’s enlightened self-interest will lead her not to steal, murder, and cheat, otherwise there may be very odd natural consequences.

One thing is for sure, the Earth Mother is not a moral relativist.  Where does she get her values from I wonder?  That’s a question.  Obviously not directly from the earth.  The earth is very silent about values.  Believe me.  I’ve listened closely.  All I hear are worms wriggling and wind blowing over grassy knolls and so on.  Perhaps the earth mother’s morals come from a society or a religion.  Perhaps she herself is a kind of deity, doling out moral values to her progeny.  We all must meet the challenge of explaining where we get our sense of right and wrong and why we all have such a similar set of moral values and duties.   Perhaps they come from God.  Another possible source is the blind hand of chance in an unguided form of evolution.  And the latter option appears to lead to, well, relativism.