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It is not just among Tory backbenchers where the ego is king

… but man is not the measure of all things

By on Friday, 21 December 2012

First day of new Parliament

A couple of days ago I wrote about the idolisation of the will, and how we have allowed personal desire, or “choice”, with no reference to what is good and true, to be the lodestar of morality. 

Lo and behold, here is someone who agrees with me. Peter Smith, who attended some of the debates at the Battle of Ideas at the Barbican back in October, has the following report from the front line:

John Haldane, a softly-spoken Scots academic from St Andrews … and fellow-traveler Catholic, put forward the proposition that the fundamental cultural debate is between one collection of ideas, called ‘the anti-realists’, and another, those of ‘the realists’, and that this cultural tension is manifest in political and social policy. Real ideas … contained at their core the notion that the universe is natural, objectively ‘out there’, knowable but distinct, and informing views on sexuality, sex, marriage, death, etc. Anti-realist ideas, by contrast, consider everything as human constructs, plastic and malleable, which can be bended and altered but which inherently are unknowable. Realism and anti-realism contain fundamentally different understandings about what is knowable and what is not, what can be change and what cannot, and mankind’s place in creation.

That strikes me as a fair summary of the underlying disagreements that surface in the comment section of virtually every internet posting today. It is, of course, a disagreement that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Was there not a Sophist  who claimed that “Man is the measure of all things”, implying that here was no objective pre-existing moral order? We really have not moved on much in the last few thousand years.

But does this matter? Indeed it does. Peter Oborne, ever the perceptive commentator, had this to say recently in the Daily Telegraph: 

For almost all of the 20th century, Conservatives were guided by the essential Christian insight that their personal needs, ambitions and egos were the things which mattered least of all. Their lives only had meaning and purpose within the context of the great institutions of church and state. Today’s generation believes that its own feelings and instincts are all that matter. Louise Mensch, Nadine Dorries and the Commons Speaker John Bercow are the most extreme examples of this tendency, but in varying degrees of intensity it is to be found among a large number of MPs.

Mr Oborne is speaking of a particular group of people, but the phenomenon of solipsistic selfishness is widespread. It is not just to be found on the Tory backbenches. Because of this, the idea of sevice has been eroded, as has the idea of sacrifice, and the idea of dedication to an ideal.

Which brings me to Christmas, now fast approaching. When we look at Our Lord, dedicated to others from the moment of His birth, and throughout His earthly life; when we look at Our Lady, who lived for God and that Child; and when we look at St Joseph, who lived for God, Our Lady and that Child… well, perhaps you get my point. It’s not really about us. We are not the measure of all things. We need to escape from our tiny worlds, and discover the great world of dedication to others, to an ideal, and to God.

  • JFJ

    Well, I’m sure you will get many comments on this one, but let me say, well done.  A timely reminder of what is real…no pun intended. John Haldane is a treasure and was on Bragg’s In Out Time recently, I believe on the question of the ontological argument.  Its still on the archives of Radio 4 and worth a listen.  If we only are our universe, how small it is, how insignificant. 

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith



    Excellent article – we really still are in the grip of the perennial debate between the realists and the idealists, with the English-speaking world badly affected by the disastrous road taken by Berkley and Hume in their lurch towards radical solipsism, a position which still predominates. Irony of irony, of course, is that for the man in the street the word ‘idealist’ would immediately be pinned to all things religious, and ‘realist’ to all things political. Which only goes to show how upside down things have become. We Catholics are firm supporters of Natural Law and Human Nature as objective realities, a scientific, empirical view handed down from the great figures in the Graeco-Roman world. And the politicians, and most of today’s elites? Fanatically wedded to the notion of man’s amorphous, unformed lack of any nature, be it male, female, or even human. In this regard Steven Pinker’s ‘The Blank Slate’ is an excellent read, debunking, from a scientific sociobiological point of view (and therefore loathed by all postmodernists), those who deny Objective Reality and Nature, including, above all, our human nature, which we are born with – whether we like it or not. And of course Cameron’s sudden conversion to gay marriage is yet another, and potentially devastating, example of the modern solipsistic elite’s utter contempt for object reality and the inherent nature of man and woman, and their complementarity. A moment of hubristic political madness if ever there was one. 

  • Just Sayin’

    Does that include your “personal desire, or “choice” ” to self-stupefy on drugs?

  • Cestius

    Fortunately the Catholic Church is still standing out against the disease of modern sophistry and solipsism. The Church of England has already fallen victim, as is demonstrated in the battle for women bishops with people stamping their feet and saying it’s not fair because they didn’t get their way, others demanding the right to carry out homosexual weddings etc. Of course there are egotists in the Catholic Church, no doubt some in high office, but ultimately they will never prevail.  We have Jesus’s word on that.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    If people choose to take drungs that is very sad and in no way to be approved of. Everything should be done to dissuade them; but criminalising such activity has a long track record of being counter-productive. meanwhile, look at Portugal…. Thanks for bringing the subject up, btw. It gives me another opportunity to say Legalise- regulate-tax.

  • GratefulCatholic

    Here’s the essence: your current article has you at your best – service indeed, your active support of illegal drugs your worst. A classic display of the Broken nature of man.

  • Rizzo The Bear

    The Roman Catholic Church has always been realist.

    That’s why we are not popular with liberals, atheists and others who live in their own bubbles.

  • Parasum

    “Real ideas … contained at their core the notion that the universe is natural, objectively ‘out there’, knowable but distinct, and informing views on sexuality, sex, marriage, death, etc.

    ## That raises a few questions for a start – the phrase “objectively ‘out there’” is a mess. “Distinct” ? “Distinct” from what ? If the language is mugged in this way it becomes unable to communicate meaning.  “Natural” in what sense ?

    “Anti-realist ideas, by contrast, consider everything as human constructs, plastic and
    malleable, which can be bended and altered but which inherently are unknowable.”

    ## To say that man is *not* the measure of all things (something that should be obvious to Christians) does not imply that one can logically and consistently have only those ideas labelled “realist” in the quotation.  And “anti-realist” is not the happiest name for those ideas considered (on what grounds ? Clarity would be welcome on this point) not to be “realist”. IMO, neither body of ideas (as described, anyway) is satisfactory: the opposition of them, in this way, is like opposing motion to changelessness, and requiring people to choose one or other. Apart from any other consideration, it is far from clear that there is any necessary logical connection between all the ideas in each group.

    At least in creation, *both* motion & changelessness are realities, not one *or* the other: St. Thomas could accomodate both – why should we not be able to do likewise ? Likewise, objectivism is, surely, incomplete without subjectivism, and the converse is also true. Not only is reality is “plastic and malleable” – at the sub-atomic level (which is after all part of the created order), “real” things – like tables, computers, mugs, the coffee in them – are almost (as to their matter) non-existent. Just like the human body. This is very instructive as a reminder of our nothingness before God (a fact clear from both Testaments, but seldom emphasised today). Any view of the universe which is realist, and only realist, is true as far as it goes – but it does not go far enough.

    The universe is not what matters anyway – our philosophy should be Christ, Who is made our Righteousness & our Wisdom: all reality is in Him, not in ideas, not even in realism & whatever one is to call other views. All things are relative compared to Him – not absolute. There is no gain in  discarding a philosophy as intellectually and morally insufficient, if what replaces it, leads us into the much worse error of making a god of our ideas. Both POVs (as described in the quotation) are beggarly, but in different ways; and both are thought-provoking & useful.

    “Was there not a Sophist  who claimed that “Man is the measure of all things”, implying that here was no objective pre-existing moral order?”

    ## But is that what *Protagoras* meant by his saying ?

  • Just Sayin’

    That must be why dopeheads like George Michael had to drive into a corner shop before the police would lift a finger to stop him publicly self-stupefying for decades.  You literally have to be in danger of murdering someone before anything happens you these days — otherwise self-stupefying is de facto legal in the UK and has been for years.  So where is this “criminalising” to which you refer?  Next thing we know, you’ll be waffling on about a fictitious “war on drugs” that doesn’t exist either!

    By the way, I see that you are also a censor and have deleted my original post.  Most pro-druggies are quite fascist, so that’s hardly a surprise.  I expect you’ll censor this free expression of opinion too.

  • sandygrounder

    This article is excellent. It seems to me that once something is labelled “socially constructed” it is an invitation to do what we please in that area of human affairs. This is allied to the notions that there are no such things as truth or right and wrong a.  

  • Alan

    Yes, there is objective reality, but (at the risk of sounding Kantian) we see it through our subjective eyes.  A good analogy is a glass half-filled with water: one man sees it as half-full, another as half-empty.  We should aim to see ever more objectively, but I don’t think we can necessarily assume that we have arrived, at least in this life.  That is why we should always be open to drawing on the experience of others, which is why I think inter-church and inter-faith dialogue are good things.

  • Stephen Smythe-Jones

    Absolutely correct. When humanity turns it’s collective back on the I AM, it must replace the Other with something and it does. The native English speaking world in particular, outside of Africa, is determined from the UK to Ireland to Canada to the US to Australia and New Zealand to substitute the Self for the Other. We have become a culture and society of narcissists. And the disasters are only beginning to unfold.

  • Fr Ashley Beck

    What Oborne writes is rubbish – Conservatives in British society (and the capital letter is deliberately chosen) have always been dedicated to the cult of the self, to the pursuit of greed, and the glorification of war. What Cameron and co. are doing now in relation to marriage is entirely consistent with the history of their party. Why can’t you realise that?
    Fr Ashley Beck

  • L.England

                                 The  old  traps;  1) localisation,  2)  self – abasement  and  3)  Africa  as  a  moral  Nirvana.

                                  To  your  credit,  you  did  not  slip  in  the  equally  old,  equally  debased  one  about  the  Afroid being  innately  superior  to  the  Caucasoid  (but  not  the  Indian  Caucasoid  as  he  is,  like  Mediterranean  folk,  of  dark  hair  and  complexion  and  therefore  must  be  venerated). 

                                   Your  type  finds  that  there  is  no  comfortable  leftist – approved  way  of  relating  to  the  Mongoloid.

  • Stephen Smythe-Jones

    And your type makes absolutely no sense at all.

  • Charles Martel

     Oh gawd, here he goes again. No, Father. No, no, no.

  • Tridentinus

     If you are a really a Catholic priest then were it not for Christ’s promise, I would despair absolutely for the future of the Church.

  • Tridentinus

     So true but why is it the Chief Rabbi of France the only national, religious leader to see this?  I despair.

  • Andrew

    Doesn’t Haldane advocate women’s ordination?

  • Adfads

    I couldn’t agree more.

  • Scyptical Chymist

     Some years ago, I knew a priest with similar half-baked and rather un-Christian views to Fr Beck. (He spouted vigorously on the impossibility of being a Catholic and voting Conservative in a tone verging on the venomous). I suspect he is of the same generation who swallowed the post Vatican 2 excesses then practised by some clergy  and many have still not lost their prejudices.

  • Scyptical Chymist

    Thank you, sandygrounder, for drawing to one’s attention this extremely insightful analysis by Rabbi Gilles Berheim. It gets right to the nub of the matter of what in the current jargon is called “lifestyle choice” which is promulgated as everyone’s right. The general public have been largely brainwashed to accept this as it panders to our base human instincts and legitimises almost any behaviour while our political rulers seem to be in thrall to their metrosexual friends (or maybe they are willing cooperators). Truly times are almost impossibly hard for Christians (or people still holding some Christian values) who are mocked, derided and viciously misrepresented  in he left wing press (for example see the extremely nasty cartoon in The Observer on 30th December 212). Unfortunately the young appear to endorse much of this as “cool” and narcissism is very evident among them. As Christians we may indeed be facing marginalisation and possibly increasing persecution if we do not submit to the pressure of state backed hedonism. How long this will last before we seeChristian values restored? Only God knows. We can only pray and make known our views even in face of more ridicule and possible victimisation and persecution. Perhaps we should start saying again the prayer to St Michael (perhaps after every Mass)? How “uncool” this would be and how many of the post Vatican 2 clergy would openly subscribe to any belief in the devil in this day and age? Their carefully cultivated left wing friends would desert them! I am sure there are some many among the parish clergy and even the hierarchy who could give a lead in this matter if only they can overcome the bureaucratic structures so beloved today.  

  • Tridentinus

     Yes, I have sat through sermon after sermon since the Council which could have hardly differed from Party Political Broadcasts on behalf of the Labour Party or worse.
    In an interview for the Daily Telegraph prior to the1997 election Tony Blair, in his “I’m just an ordinary guy” mode, declared that he couldn’t understand how one could be a Conservative and a Christian at the same time. This same Tony Blair went on to head three of the most anti-Catholic governments since the Glorious Revolution. The three governments were not only anti-Catholic/Christian but anti-life and his cabinet was known as ‘the gay mafia’ as it contained so many homosexuals.
    His wife always described in the press as ‘a devout Catholic’ seems to be well into New Age sorcery and a publicly vociferous opponent of the Church’s teaching set out in Humanae Vitae.
    In spite of this, this man, a public figure, was accepted with open arms into the bosom of the Church without at least a public disavowal of his previous, virulent, anti-Catholic crusade. It speaks volumes about the English hierarchy.