Westerners live in the smoldering ruins of a once great society. Its towers and ramparts have been torn down, destroyed by the barbarism of greed, materialism, and fear, but still there stands something to remind passers-by that here once stood the Western Civilization of old – built on divine fear and dedication to principles that transcend this world. This civilization once continually appealed to the will, the grace, and the law of a divine Creator. Over time, this society drifted away from a preference for monarchy to one that placed supreme value on individualism. The old beliefs, however, still existed, and thus at the heart of our now democratic society is an idea highly undemocratic, namely that there exists outside the individual an authority still higher and thus more authoritative than the individual will. This tension we see played out every hour of every day.
The old democracy is dead, long live democracy. Peter Augustine Lawler in his most recent book American Heresies and Higher Education, makes the argument that the reason modern higher education does not reach for higher ideas, and in fact seems to actively work against them, is because higher education has submitted to democratic ideals. There can be no real authority in higher education if all value is placed on the individual, which in the case of education is, of course, the students. The truth taught by the professor is one opinion of many, as is mine, and nary the twain shall overrule. A higher education that does not appeal – indeed, in our case it cannot appeal – to a higher authority loses its higher qualities. Instead, it takes on the characteristics of the culture that surrounds it. Either it resumes its undemocratic purpose for the benefit of the human soul, or it functions democratically and thus serves no higher purpose than to impart the transitory skills necessary to “succeed” in our fleeting marketplace.
However, I write not about higher education, but about human nature in a democracy. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously told the 1978 graduation class at Harvard that “the truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter,” but that he spoke “not as an enemy, but as a friend.” In a similar way, I wish only to write the truth and by so doing, urge that we find a better way. The truth is that in democracy as in democratic higher education, there is an inherent relativism, and this relativism informs us all that individual choice is supreme, that there is no higher good than to be happy and comfortable, that all other good must conform to supreme individualism, and thus to live a life of complete inward focus is to live a good life.
I offer to the contrary that this is false. This is a smoke screen to keep man from truly considering what is good, because once he begins to consider such ideas in earnest, he quickly learns that what is good almost universally involves dying to one’s self for the benefit of others. Furthermore, these others to whom we offer our love and fidelity are often not of our own tribe, so to speak. They are not merely our spouses, our children, our friends, and our parents. They are very often total strangers and, to go further, strangers with whom we have little in common. They are the sick, the homeless, the hungry, the widow, the orphan, and the refugee. Our Lord Christ tells us that even criminals love their own; it takes no great magnanimous soul to love one’s own. Much more difficult, and thus perhaps more valuable, is to love those and to serve those radically different from ourselves. Again, Christ tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. How much more different can one be from another than to be considered an enemy? To be an enemy implies a fundamental, profound, and seemingly unbridgeable difference, and yet we are called to love these people and to pray for them?
This, then, is why individuality is so particularly enshrined in our time, not because it is truly the supreme good, but because it is so much easier than that which is supremely good. If I take care of myself, and you take care of yourself, and if this principle is expanded to the ends of the earth, then we will have peace, correct? No, and in truth this is profoundly incorrect. If man serves no will but his own, than man will forever be in conflict with his neighbor. There cannot exist in the same place both peace and conflict, but the fact of the matter is that no two people will agree on everything, and if we are all to serve our own will above all, then sooner or later conflict will arise.
Individuality is not the highest good, but in a democracy it is. Once again, democracy on a wide scale, i.e., the rule of the people, is inherently relativistic, because “the people” possess such an expansive spectrum of values and beliefs. There can be no unified higher authority. The author of the Book of Judges concludes by writing that, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Lacking a higher authority, in this case a king, every man governed himself. It would not be long, of course, before this same Israel demanded of Samuel a king to govern them. Why? Because in their self-governance the Israelites discovered that they were incapable of good self-governance.
We need a King. In truth, we need a King of Kings, and we have one to whom we may appeal at any time – a King of peace and comfort, of counsel and justice. To borrow once more from Solzhenitsyn, man has forgotten God, and that is why this – all of this that we presently lament in this world – has happened. Reading Scripture, we see that this is the ultimate way of things. Christ tells us that He will return not when peak happiness and global peace have been achieved, but when things are so bad and seemingly unredeemable that the only solution is His just rule. Israel demanded a king and they got one. We, too, have a King, albeit one in exile, but He will return and will set right all that is wrong.
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