Renewing the Ethical Dimension of Europe
It is an honour to speak today in this historical setting and in the company of fellow Christians from the eastern and western churches.
I come to you as a philosopher from the medieval University of St Andrews in Scotland, which takes its name, as does the town in which it is located, from the great apostle who is the patron of Greece and of Russia, as of my own country (Scotland). So I already feel a link to an idea and a history of Christendom that spans and unites East and West.
Over the centuries our cultures have divided but increasingly we find ourselves together, in part in search of that unity to which Christ commanded his followers, but also in face of indifference and hostility to the Christian message. In contemplating the changes and challenges of contemporary society it is easy to forget how relatively recent and superficial many of these are.
My own university educates for the future but it does so in the light of the past. As some of you will know, a very recent student of ours was Prince William, son of Prince Charles and of the late Princess Diana, who now stands second in line to the throne of Britain. He is a prominent example of the inheritance and continuity of culture from the past, through the present and into the future, but each and every student is a living inheritor of deep rooted traditions, and that is a point of hope when we consider the task of renewing the ethical dimension of Europe. We do not have to create values only reawaken them in souls in which they already exist.
The oldest existing college in St Andrews bears the name of the Holy Saviour, ‘St Salvator’s’. It was founded in 1450 by a Bishop (Kennedy) who wished to bind together faith and learning as they were then represented by the ecclesiastical and the academic orders. Five and half centuries later the College chapel may not have changed that much, but the wider world has undergone a series of transformations that would simply have been unintelligible to its founder. The changes have not just been scientific and technological, immense though those are, but also cultural and intellectual. Even as Kennedy laid the foundation stones the high tide of religious culture was ebbing away. The middle-ages represented the most complete harmonisation of Graeco-Roman philosophy and Judaeo-Christian belief (GRJC), but they were soon followed by centuries in which science came to prominence as the preferred mode of understanding the world and of predicting the course of its future.
Pure reason sought to reassert itself in the eighteenth century enlightenment; but the dominant cultural forces were technological and economic and these led in the following century to the establishment of industrialisation and market capitalism in the West, and state socialism in the east, which in turn have produced - after much social readjustment - the global economy within which we all now live.
It has often been said that European culture is essentially Christian. Usually this is noted in opposition to challenges of secularism and multiculturalism. The claim is that our ethical and social values: respect for persons, justice, democracy, welfare provision and so on, derive historically, and continue to take their meaning from a broadly Judaeo-Christian understanding of human beings and of their place in the world. In Britain, this was long given as the rationale for according a role to Christianity in the institutions of the state and for favouring it in religious education. It will not be a surprise you to know that this case is now less often made and the Christian Churches have become very defensive and fearful.
Some have gone further, however, and claimed that Western Europe is a cultural artefact of Roman Catholicism. They do not mean by this that the West is a living example of Catholic values, but rather have in mind the following two claims. First, that the morality, politics and culture of Europe have been shaped by the influence of Western Catholic Christianity operating through the Holy Roman Empire, the medieval Latin church, and the subsequent Catholic empires and nation-states lying west of the Urals and north of the Caucuses. Second, that while this influence has waned it still makes best sense of common European values.
Certainly, Europe is less a geographical fact than a moral idea. But its ethical foundations and ideals are not so easily characterised. Its oldest mythological origins lie in the classical tale in which Europa, daughter of the King of Tyre, is taken off by Jupiter to Crete, and their divinely sired offspring become the ‘Europeans’. In contrast to this stands the medieval legend according to which, following the Great Flood, the world was divided between the sons of Noah with Japeth and his descendants populating Europe. God’s chosen people going forth to fill the earth.
These contrasting myths represent two humanistic ideals of Europe, and by extension wider civilisation: one rationalistic and secular, taking its inspiration from the worlds of antiquity and the renaissance; the other revelatory and religious, being a product of medieval Christianity. They also remind us that there is nothing eternally given about any particular notion of Europe. Rather, human beings have fashioned different understandings in different periods and may choose to revive or change these. Christians cannot presume upon historical loyalties but have to win the case for their beliefs, including their social theology.
The decline of secular humanism as a utopian ideology and rethinking of the traditional assumptions of left and right in European politics have certainly produced a situation in which there is want of moral, spiritual and social guidance. Yet there is need for greater attention to the intellectual and spiritual work of re-evangelisation, and for imagination and cultural sensitivity in carrying it out.
The social sciences place cultures and their histories and enable us to understand the ways in which physical and economic environment shapes, by enabling and constraining its development, the patterns of growth of human society. But it is one thing to know about a culture or cultures, their historical development and their interrelationship with material forces; it is quite another to be able to evaluate them: to judge their worth both individually and comparatively. To judge them not in terms of effectiveness and efficiency only, but in terms of their abilities to develop and to sustain an understanding of the nature and meaning of human life. That is to say, to arrive at a serious account of the possibilities for goodness in life through intellectual and artistic achievement, through craft and industry, through self-development and social participation, and so on.
But also to arrive at an understanding of the threats to happiness and well-being posed by our material vulnerability, mortal animals inhabiting and sharing with other life-forms a world not of our making, and of the threats posed also by the attitudes and actions of other human beings. In short: to understand both good and evil. Such understanding, and its application to individual conduct and social practice has long been the business of religion and philosophy. And one of the main dangers that we now face and which if it is not confronted and defeated will undermine such values as we have retained let alone those we might hope to recover is relativism.
A common reason given for thinking that traditional moral ideas are no longer relevant is that we have come to appreciate the differences between cultures and the fact of these differences challenges the notion of universal truths and values. To assess this reasoning we need to distinguish three kinds of challenge posed by encountering cultural differences:
First, psychological challenges. Undoubtedly these are very real. Discovering that one’s own ways of living are not the only ones, trying to understand those of others, and trying to co-operate or negotiate with them can all be unsettling, difficult, exhausting and irksome. Nothing follows from this, however, about the credibility of one’s beliefs or the status of one’s values.
Second, socio-cultural challenges. When cultures meet issues arise as to how members should interact with one another, and as to how competing claims may be resolved. Often these challenges are purely practical but they can also pose a particular problem for those who value toleration. A seemingly deep but in truth quite superficial, and account of the value of toleration holds that a culture deserves respect because it is valued by its members and because it is for them a meaning-providing structure.
To see what is wrong with this otherwise noble-sounding principle consider the possibility of a culture that is corrupt, or abusive, intolerant or otherwise of little worth. Nonetheless, it is valued by its members for whom it is a meaning-providing structure. According to the principle I described we should accord this culture respect. Evidently, however, we cannot really do this as it would require us to tolerate the intolerable. What are we conclude?
We might argue that persons of the same or different cultures should respect one another, not one another’s cultures, because whatever culture they belong to they are all persons and persons deserve respect because of the dignity of the human person as such. On this account respecting persons need not involve respecting their cultures, though the fact that people do value their own cultures and take meaning from them should encourage us to value culture per se, as an aspect of the human good, and to work to establish virtuous cultures.
Finally, philosophical challenges, in particular that of relativism. To the extent that we can make sense of radically different beliefs, values and practices that may seem to undermine confidence in our own. After all, if people who inhabit the same world can hold such different views how can we say who is right and who is wrong? Perhaps indeed there is no right and wrong just differences. Perhaps it’s all relative.
The solution is to look beneath the surface differences for underlying commonalities. Where people seem to hold different and incompatible values the deeper truth is usually otherwise; similarly when they abide by different practices. Before we can assess the beliefs, values and practices of others we must first understand them and that means interpreting behaviour in the light of … . What exactly? Common human nature and the deep facts pertaining to it. Relativists like to think they are deep, seeing beneath our agreements a mere foundation in convention. In fact they are superficial failing to see beneath different conventions a deeper common reality.
In a globalised world there is a good case for extending the range of cultural knowledge beyond the traditions of Christendom. It does not follow, however, that an education rooted in Greco-Roman, Judaeo-Christian (GRJC) ideas and ideals is irrelevant to contemporary life. That would only be so if those ideas and ideals were false, in doubt, outmoded or of only local relevance. I do not believe that any of these is the case and have indicated how the challenges posed by cultural engagement do not subvert the idea that there is a common human nature and common human good, but rather tend to confirm it.
Educators, commentators and others engaged in communication would do well to acquaint themselves with the core ideas and ideals of the GRJC tradition: objective truth and goodness, the veracity of focussed observation, the fixity of principles of reason, the dignity of the human person, and so on. And in doing so they should go further and seek to revive what was once called the science of man and might now be described, not quite so elegantly as interpretative, universalist, philosophical anthropology.
As in the past human beings still seek unifying and ennobling visions. We live in an age that is supposed to be post-ideological, yet all around one can see attempts to re-construct old narratives or to fashion new ones. Although these are often pessimistic they are also struggling to try and answer the questions of who we are, of what we have become, and of where we ought to be heading. The issue is whether such efforts are in vain.
Such questions are legitimate and they have call forth at least three responses to the purported loss of ideology. The first involves going as in the past, but in a romantic spirit, doubting that one can really ground practice in a defensible philosophy. The second response is one of self-conscious irony. Whereas romantic affirmation involves entering into the spirit of an older order, even though one cannot believe its ideological presuppositions the way of irony imposes no demands upon the intellect or the imagination. It is simply a form of play. Without believing in its philosophical foundations, or even aspiring to believe in them, one keeps quoting the forms of past culture. This attitude is prominent in contemporary art and literature. However, the practice of cultural quotation is subject to diminishing returns: the resources are diminished and the meaning of the original inspiration is lost.
The final response is one of reform and renewal. Standing firm in the face of criticism one questions whether the things that have been held to be problematic really are so, asking what precisely the problem is about transcendentalism, why universal humanism is untenable, and so on. And having been bold enough to challenge the various postmodern orthodoxies one may then consider the possibility of re-establishing confidence in some of the central philosophical and moral ideas of our common culture.
Certainly one cannot operate as if ‘modernity’ had not been, and nor should one simply ignore the points made by postmodern critics. Reform and renewal are recurrent necessities in any living tradition: naive premodernism is not an option; and the idea of a Golden Age untroubled by scepticism is a fantasy of the ignorant. But before we try to finesse older ways of thinking we need first to show that they are not bankrupt.
There are I think two ways in which one might do this. One proceeds by example. If compelling instances can be produced of things having value then nihilism is refuted. Any complete refutation of this sort would have to proceed value by value. That is not something I can do here but let me say something, all too brief, about the second way of proceeding. This is to show that our best understanding of human affairs is one in which questions of value and meaning arise both for individuals and for communities.
Biographers and historians are interested in the ideals that motivated people; and periodically there are surveys of social attitudes designed to keep track of changes in morality. These are empirical questions to be investigated and answered by sophisticated social science methods. But however successful these means may be, all they can tell us about are people’s attitudes and behaviour. They cannot settle the many particular questions that people ask about what is good and bad, right and wrong; and nor can they settle the more abstract question of what it is for something to be good or bad, meaningful or meaningless. It is part of the human form of life to deliberate and act in accord with reasons - to find meaning. We have engaged in philosophy throughout the last two millennia and there is no serious reason to think that we will not continue to do so in this one. Nihilism poses no threat - unless we adopt it.
Vienna, May 3-5, 2006