Relativism Reloaded

(No, this post is not about the Matrix.)

Recently, Joshua Gibbs of The Cedar Room wrote this thoughtful piece, “Skip the Introduction: It Does Not Matter Where the Author Is Coming From.” You should read it for yourself, of course, but in the interest of time, I’ll summarize it this way.

At some point in the comparatively recent past, those who publish classic books decided that readers were too ignorant to be able to simply read the books and understand them well enough to profit from them, so moving forward most editions of the classics would now feature very long, very intricate Introductions (sometimes 50 pages or more) written by Academically Recognized Scholars In the Field of The Particular Old Author. What has come of this interjection of introductory material, Gibbs says, is this:

Nine times out of ten, knowing “where the author is coming from” is simply leverage for dismissing all the stickiest, most confrontational claims the author makes. “Where the author is coming from” means that none of his claims about truth is objective or transcendent but materially connected with his experience. All of his assertions and claims invariably arise from demographics. The introduction offers information on the author’s race, income, upbringing, religion, thus readers can tie whatever they don’t like in the book to something external to it.

This paragraph struck me hard in light of much personal experience of my own as a teacher of classical books. Perhaps it’s only because every version of a classical book I have been handed to teach has contained one of those Necessary Introductions.

Perhaps it’s because I tend to be more of a Big Picture thinker myself and tend to find all the connections and cross-connections and historical minutiae of author’s lives and circumstances terribly interesting.

Perhaps, shamefully, I may have always been worried that without a lot of introduction first, I might run out of things to say when faced with a room full of young minds that too often are disinterested in the book or else pretty literally have no idea what to say or ask about it.

Whatever the case, I myself have tended as a classical teacher to rely a great deal on prefacing the reading and discussion of books. It’s always made me uneasy, especially given that too many times I’ve engaged in such pedantry, most students have rapidly done the very thing I did not want them to – lose interest, check out, and so, miss out.

It’s made me uneasy for another reason, though, and I didn’t put my finger on it until I read Gibbs’ essay and had a sudden flash of insight connecting his words with a particularly noxious sort of criticism I’ve frequently received from other classical educators: the criticism that, “Come on, man, you can’t really think this Book from a Very Long Time Ago and Another Very Different Culture is actually saying something objectively true that requires us to take action? I mean, can you?”

I think the first inkling I got of this sort of criticism was my first year teaching in a classical school, when I was happily chattering away about how dangerous classical books can be to young minds because, well, they teach those minds how to ask different questions than they might otherwise ask, and the admin staff to whom I was chatting seemed to just nod perfunctorily and dismiss the whole topic.

I got another dose of it a few years later when substitute teaching for a high school class reading Augustine’s City of God. I was attempting to walk the students through Augustine’s very sophisticated understanding of the relationship of faith and politics when a culture is openly Christian. My intention was to use Augustine’s principles to talk about our own culture, which is, of course, not openly Christian, yet containing many Christians who either believe that it is or else want to work hard to make it so. What could be better than letting Augustine help us talk about our own problems, I thought.

Alas, I suddenly realized that the sons of the Board President, all staunch Christianity=Republican Politics types, were staring at me as if I’d grown a third eye in the middle of my head. What could Mr. Enloe possibly be suggesting here?, was the look they were giving me, That we should subject our family’s precious political beliefs to criteria found in a 1,500 year old book that wasn’t even written in English, let alone by Conservative Protestants who live in constant mortal fear that the Libs are going to take over and make us all Socialists?

(Of course, as high school students they didn’t say any of that, and likely couldn’t have articulated it that way, anyway. But the whole cultural environment of that school was such that I am virtually certain some such horror as I’ve described was in their minds, however inchoately. No! Augustine is just a book we’re reading around this Harkness table so we can check off the Unit in our textbook, get our grades for quizzes and an essay, and move on to the next book. Certainly we’re not supposed to actually take this book seriously as maybe offering correctives to our own views!

Flash forward a few more years. (Yes, I’m being anecdotal, and most people, it seems, figure that just saying “That’s anecdotal” deprives a statement of any meaning outside the person’s own head. Ah well. Relativism wears all kinds of strange disguises these days, even disguises that appeal to the hallowed category of “logical fallacy.”) I was in one of those usually ultimately fruitless internet debates over some political topic, trying to bring to bear on the issues various concepts drawn from ancient authors such as Aristotle, Plato, and Plutarch. Somewhat naively, as it turns out, I figured that all this would advance the discussion, especially since several involved were also classical educators. For what else ought one to do when speaking with classical educators about some contemporary topic than say, “Hey, let’s find out what the classical tradition thinks about this.”?

The sharpest criticism I received – again, from a classical educator – was most instructive. It amounted to this (not a direct quote): “Wait – you do understand, right, that historical literature is essentially just a witness to what conditions were like at certain times in the past? You’re not really saying, right, that something Aristotle or Plutarch said could be true for everyone, everywhere, at all times? You know, don’t you, that we Moderns have managed to correct the errors of the past, which is why we ought to just trust ourselves rather than let the ancients cross-examine us.”

I could probably dredge up more such instances, but the point should be clear. Gibbs, though highlighting the specific phenomenon of supposedly necessary introductory work prior to reading a Great Book, is right: all of this is just a convenient, painless way to dismiss the book and so deprive ourselves of the philosophical, though painful, benefit of being forced to justify, rather than simply assume, what seems obvious to ourselves.

Once you see the “contextualizing” interpretive tactic this way, it’s almost impossible not to see it as just another mode of relativism. You know, that bogeyman we were all warned about in the 80s and 90s by hordes of Christian apologists and popular authors who all wanted to make sure that we Evangelicals never fell into the modern quandaries of having No Place for Truth1 and so having nothing to say to the world but “True for You, but Not For Me” (I refer here to a 2009 book of that title by Paul Copan.))

We should stop and take a long moment to think. What is going on if we, as classical educators find it uncomfortable to treat the material of our tradition – which, by the way, we teach to young people, running the risk, as all teachers of any metaphysical or moral topic do, of endangering their souls – as conveying significant truth?

No doubt we don’t wish to impersonate the Sophists, those yapping relativistic hounds who chased Socrates around, by in effect teaching kids only how to make their own ideas sound better than those of someone else – to win a battle rather than find the truth.

For anyone who hasn’t had enough time with the Sophists to really get what they were about, understand that they posited a sharp distinction between Nature and Convention, a distinction within which the former was objective and concerned only with effectual power relationships while the latter was purely subjective and concerned only with ineffectual moral posturing.

The Sophists were the ones who took their own personal views for granted as being superior, more enlightened, more rational, than those of others. The Sophists were the ones who started from the true and obvious empirical point that the laws of different cities differed (so the laws of one city could not and did not apply within another) and expanded that point into the metaphysical-epistemological dogma that no standard not originating from one’s own conformity to Nature’s power-seeking impulse could ever make any action tied to a particular city’s situation true. “Oh, that’s just how they do it in Sparta – doesn’t mean anything for us.”

Does this sound familiar yet? For what is this so-called classical education business of forewarning the students about what a book really means before we’ve even read it with them? “Everyone should understand that every claim this book makes is relative to its own time and place, and so by the time we’re done we should all still be precisely where we were intellectually and spiritually when we picked it up.”

Isn’t this just another, newer face of Sophistry?

There is, of course, a proper rejoinder to how I said that, and it consists of engaging – really engaging! – the Nature / Convention distinction, not just as the Sophists presented it, but as the Philosophers (=the not-Sophists) did. For there is something true about the distinction, namely, that as Cicero would put it centuries later, although there are different Conventions, culturally-bound laws, for different cities at different times, there is above all the cultures an objective Natural Law that judges them all and ensures the cause of justice won’t be lost in the competing cross-chatter.

On this basis, it would be possibly fine to pick up an old book, and, after reading it very carefully and slowly2 make substantial arguments that this or that part of it (1) is wrong, or else (2) doesn’t apply to us, or else (3) doesn’t apply to us in precisely the same way as it applied to them.

These are all respectable dialogical options when critically engaging an old text we’ve read. Why, then, would anyone ever choose to simply dismiss the text by claiming, in however a sophisticated Introductory way, that “That was then; this is now.”?

Why not, as Gibbs cheerily recommends, just read the book and see what it does to us?

The answer is, of course, painfully obvious once we’ve thought through the issues: we can’t afford to do that with classical books because, as I was saying in my very first year of teaching in classical schools, it’s dangerous to treat them that way.

We might find out that some notion we privilege as obviously true is just the same sort of culturally relative hooey that all those 50-page Learned Introductions try to convince us of before we even read and engage with the book itself.

  1. I refer here to an important 1993 book of that title by David Wells on the collapse of theology as a truth-seeking discipline. []
  2. Maybe more than once – anathema, alas, to bureaucratic scope-and-sequence documents and the impatient American idea of “progress” []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *