Debate on Relativism

Many consider ethical relativism a pathology of the modern
world, from which especially Europe and the West seriously
suffer. Others see in relativism the very physiology of the
West, and define it as a particular epistemological outlook
which refuses the human presumption to create “earthly

Among those who have identified the logical and moral reasons
for an epistemological approach of a relativist kind was
the Italian philosopher Dario Antiseri, whose recent book, Relativismo,
nichilismo, individualismo. Fisiologia o patologia dell’Europa?
nihilism, individualism. Physiology or pathology of Europe?),
was published in Italy by Rubbettino last year. Antiseri
upheld the negation of the typically rationalist and positivist “fatal
presumption” of perfect knowledge. There can be no
doubt, Antiseri holds, that if by individualism we mean the
most boorish instinct towards robbery, fraud and egoism,
then relativism and nihilism would be the “cancer” of
the West. If, instead, by individualism we mean a force opposed
to collectivism, then we must acknowledge that such an individualism
is preferable to its opposite, which has corrupted individual
liberty,dignity and responsibility over the last century
and a half.

A similar discourse would also hold for the term relativism.
As Antiseri writes: “If by relativism is meant the
empiric ascertainment of a pluralism of ethical conceptions
which, lacking a final and definitive rational foundation,
challenge our liberty and our responsibility, is this relativism
the physiology or the pathology of the West?” And if
by “nihilism” should be meant awareness of the
rational inconsistency of the “supposed ‘earthly
absolutes’ [ . . . ] created by human hands [ . . .
], is it really true that it represents a danger for an open
society or even for the Christian faith?” Antiseri
invites us to understand, first of all, the sense and the
way of being of Europe, and how the destiny of this province
of the world is linked with its dramatic history. To put
the question as the historian Fernard Braudel did, what is
Europe’s unitary destiny? And what is this
Europe of ours? Europe is its history.

In a nutshell, this European history is the story of highs
and lows involving a particular area of the world and the
many ideas to which it has given birth, which have throughout
its history sometimes embraced and fought one another. If
we were to assert that our civilization is superior to others,
says Antiseri, we could do so only in the sense that it has
shown a capacity for self correction. At this point, however,
if critical reason, pluralism, respect for diversity and
tolerance are the features that characterise European identity,
and which have enabled Europe to rise from the abyss of the
lagers and the gulags, we should ask ourselves what we Europeans
would be without Christianity.

Christianity represents an
ideal which, throughout history—committing like others
errors and horrors—has yet been able to exercise continuous
pressure on the coercive forces of the establishment. Antiseri
further notes how the statement of Jesus: “Give unto
Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which
is God’s,” represents a decisive turning point
which boosted the democratising process, acting as the corner
stone of modern democracies. With this statement was introduced,
almost uniquely among the great world civilizations, the
principle that “Káisar” is not “Kyrios”—the
definitive de-consecration of political power, its subjection
to the inviolable realm of conscience and respect for the
transcendental dignity of the human being. Therefore, asserting
that “Káisar” is not “Kyrios” means
above all keeping in check political power and its all devouring
claims, and recognising the political consequences of this
religious principle. It is, for example, the basis of the
principle of aid among and between citizens, which enables
the carrying out of even secular projects.

Among those who have seen in relativism a pathological element
of Europe and the West, is to be noted the work written together
by don Gianni Baget Bozzo and Raffaele Iannuzzi. These political
scientists, in their book Tra nichilismo e Islam. L’Europa
come colpa
(Between nihilism and Islam. Europe as something
to be criticised), published by Mondadori earlier this year,
hold that the historic situation of our time is dominated
by the confrontation between western nihilism and fundamentalist
Islam. These two authors invite us to reflect on the causes
of our self-consciousness as Europeans and Westerners.

In the first place, the challenge now facing the West seemed
impossible up to just recently, at least in its present proportions
and potential consequences. This challenge, therefore, is
without recent precedent and oddly enough finds objective
complicity in the West’s revolutionary tradition, in
its post-Marxist form, i.e. in a communism without Marx and
deprived of its revolutionary project. But this is not all—after
the end of the second world war, the Christian churches themselves
began considering the worldwide spread of Christianity as
something to be criticised, thus losing awareness of their
history as an identity and of the importance of Christianity
to that identity. What we call “nihilism” is
the conscience of the European revolting against his own
history and, in particular, against the Hebrew, Greek and
Roman tradition, blended by Christianity into a synthesis
which has created one of the great civilizations in the history
of man. What is involved, therefore, is the overall civilised
form of the West, with all the cultural, ethical and political
consequences which this weighty process entails. In this
crucial context, the main force on which the Islamic offensive
against Christianity may rely is that very same European
nihilism, considered as a revolt of the European conscience
against its own identity and history.

Within this framework of devastating crisis, a new element
is emerging that certainly does not do awaywith the dramatic
nature of the present situation, but which does however provide,
on its part, an important indication towards finding a way
of escape. This element is represented by the new function
of the Papacy, by the role of fully-fledged political leader
characterized today by Benedict XVI. The emphasis on culture
and the transformative power of Christianity expressed by
Benedict XVI, following his predecessor John Paul II, might,
according to the two authors, contribute to the creation
of a new language and also of a new political syntax, so
as to rediscover—notwithstanding the fact that this
may at first glance seem paradoxical—Christianity through
the policy of a Papacy that speaks to, and through, history.

is Professor of Economic and Political Doctrine
at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome and Vicar
President of the Instituto Acton of Rome.