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The Tao Revisited.

"There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of," writes Allan Bloom in the "Introduction" to The Closing of the American Mind: "almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative." In the more than twenty years since these words were published, things have hardly changed for the better. Most of today's university students could not even articulate their relativism as a "belief"; it is rather an aggregate of assumptions derived by a process of unconscious mental osmosis from the post-modern cultural ambience. There is nothing surprising in the pervasiveness of relativism in contemporary culture: a people deprived of definite moral standards and a clear religious vision of the human condition will heedlessly adopt the viewpoint that favors the immediate interests and desires of particular individuals and groups. The belief that truth is relative is seductively persuasive, since my "truth" always will pre-empt yours. Relativism provides fallen men and women a virtuous-sounding pretext for indulging their selfishness by being "true" to "who they are," by seeking "empowerment," and by generally exploiting the self-aggrandizing cliches that are such a feature of a society driven by the mass media.

Conservatism has, therefore, no more pressing task than the discrediting of the relativistic presumption that has increasingly dominated modern culture for at least a century. This is, to be sure, a task that will never be done. The Sophists of Socrates' day were as beguiled by relativism as our contemporaries, doubtless for essentially the same reason. It must be refuted again and again from age to age with revised arguments designed to confront the new ploys adduced by each new generation of intellectual schemers--variations of more or less sophistication on the Serpent's original deception of Eve in the Garden of Eden. In The Book of Absolutes, William D, Gairdner provides a potent weapon for the struggle against today's sophistical rcductiomsm that threatens intellectual clarity and moral certainty. His work is a careful and comprehensive restatement of the position propounded in The Abolition of Man, which takes into account cultural and intellectual developments during the six decades since C. S. Lewis first defined the "Tao" in his brief classic. Gairdner adds a wealth of detailed evidence to Lewis's laconic exposition and offers an updated and expanded account of the fundamental absolutes of human nature and the realities of our creaturely existence.

The Book of Absolutes begins by defining its foe and placing it in context. The first three chapters are "A Brief History of Relativism," "The Main Types of Relativism," and "Objections to Relativism." Gairdner is aware that relativism is ancient, and he cites Protagoras's famous remark from the Theaetetus that "man is the measure of all things" (although he could as well have mentioned Callicles from the Gorgias or Thrasymachus from the Republic); but he is right to move quickly to the rise of relativism, as we know it now, in the early modern period. Like Richard Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences, Gairdner calls attention to the nominalism of William of Occam as the first crucial step in the gradual decay of the intellectual and moral vision of the Western world. Descartes' radical skepticism and Hobbes's reductive materialism mark further stages on the way. This very compact summary of how relativism has developed is followed by a taxonomy of the various kinds of relativism that have emerged in the modern world--relativism of "things," of "the mind and senses," "cognitive relativism," "ethical and/or moral relativism," and "cultural relativism." And this is followed by another summary chapter listing an even dozen "objections," beginning with "relativism is self-refuting" and concluding with "cultural relativism is itself a form of morality."

Having thus provided an overview of the problem, Gairdner devotes the remainder of the book to a comprehensive survey of relativism in all its many guises, drawing attention to its internal contradictions and manifest absurdities, which would drive off any adherents not bound by massive ideological investment. For indeed relativism is the master ideology of our time, understanding the term to denominate a set of propositions, perspectives, and attitudes that function not to organize reality or make it comprehensible, but to reshape it according to the aspirations and desires of the ideologue. As one example, Gairdner points out in his fourth chapter, "The Universals of Human Life and Culture," that for the better part of a century, it was anthropological dogma that there is no ''single universally valid truth concerning either human culture or human society." This assertion is simple nonsense: "One of the purposes of this chapter," he continues, "is to ask: Why, by the end of the twentieth century, did a young academic discipline devoted to 'the study of Man' have nothing very much it wanted to say about 'Man'?"

The answer turns out Co be the alarm of Franz Boas, a principal architect of the new science of anthropology, over the growth of racialism in America and Europe early in the twentieth century. Anthropological relativism was promoted as a refutation of the noxious notion that any racial, ethnic, or cultural group is inherently superior to another. In one of history's droller ironies, Margaret Sanger, "the 'Godmother' of Planned Parenthood and one of the most strident racialists and eugenicists of Boas's day, remains in our time a heroine to the leftwing relativists who are the intellectual heirs of Franz Boas."

The unique value of The Book of Absolutes emerges in the author's painstaking account of figures such as Boas. C. S. Lewis's diatribe against relativism in The Abolition of Man is matchless for its crisp clarity and finesse. Gairdner, however, fills in the gaps. Lewis rarely takes up a particular individual--the "elementary text-book" that provides the occasion for the Abolition is identified as "The Green Book" by "Gaius" and "Titius"--and moves randomly among instances of relativism in various fields. Gairdner carefully rebuts numerous errors by particular writers across a logically ordered spectrum of human study and endeavor. After demonstrating how serious anthropological study has moved away from the relativism of Boas and his school, The Book of Absolutes proceeds to lay out the scientific and scholarly evidence for the existence of universal principles and constants in the realms of physics, chemistry, and biology--including Innate differences between the sexes--and in morality, law, and language. An especially telling passage explains how Einstein's theory of relativity, which Einstein himself wished to call the theory of "invariant postulates," was illogically thought to imply relativism in the moral, social, and political phases of human life.

Gairdner is careful to trace the development and motivations of relativistic thinking and to spell out its implications, devoting particular attention to the most controversial areas of recent decades: human biological nature, culture, and language. He manifests an awareness of the dangers accompanying any effort simply to reject relativism m a reactionary fashion and applies solid common sense to his consideration of the "nature/nurture" conflict that is prominent today in arguments about human behavior. "It turns out that both these views," he writes, "when taken as the whole truth, have led to the darkest atrocities." The idea that nature is perpetually fixed has provided a pretext for the racialism that led to eugenics, Nazism, and other assorted horrors of the twentieth century. But Hitler himself was not devoid of the idea of "human plasticity" such that the state could manufacture a populace of any kind it wished, and a confidence in social construction is essential to revolutionary ideologies and "the conflagrations and massacres engineered by the 'nurturing totalitarian systems of the twentieth century."

Gairdner is adroit at making use of the valid insights and discoveries of various fields of study as well as individual researchers without yielding to their dubious theorizing about the significance of their own work. Darwin's account of natural selection, for example, is a problematic basis for the notion that human problems can all be ameliorated by adjustments to social institutions and practices. The evolutionary biologists and sociologists whose polemic over the existence of innate or "hardwired" human propensities and capacities continues to roil the academic waters are all Darwinian materialists, but both sides--the biologists no less than the social scientists--write as if human beings were capable of free, ratio-nal choice and individual self-determination. It is easy for Gairdner to demonstrate that their ideological disdain for any kind of spiritual reality or religious truth is at odds with their commitment to what they conceive as social justice; hence, both sides can be marshaled for the sake of Gairdner's own traditional view of human nature. Similarly, he makes good use of Stephen Pinker in the explication of evolutionary biology and of Noam Chomsky's concept of the inherent human capacity for language. It doesn't matter that neither Pinker nor Chomsky (nor evolutionary biologist Edward Q. Wilson) qualifies as a conservative or a traditionalist.

I introduced The Book of Absolutes with a comparison to C. S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man, and the comparison obtains in the way both books conclude. Lewis includes an appendix, "Illustrations of the Tao," which he then calls "illustrations of the Natural Law." Gairdner's volume likewise ends with an appendix, "Some Universals and Constants of Nature and Human Nature." The difference between the titles suggests what Gairdner adds to Lewis's argument. The more recent book treats not only the natural morality pervasive in humanity--St. Paul's "law written in their hearts"--but also provides a broader account of the constants undergirding the structure of natural universe that harmonize with rational human nature. The Abolition of Man will remain an indispensable prophetic work of the conservative vision of reality. The contribution of The Book of Absolutes is to bring Lewis's arguments up-to-date and to demonstrate that even natural science, which relativists persist in treating as an ally in their campaign against moral and intellectual certainty, provides yet further evidence for traditional wisdom.

The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defense of Universals by William D. Gairdner (Montreal, QC & Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008)

R. V. YOUNG is a professor of Renaissance literature and literary criticism at North Carolina State University and editor of Modern Age.
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Title Annotation:The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defense of Universals by William D. Gairdner
Author:Young, R.V.
Publication:Modern Age
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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