Monday, February 9, 2009

Plato on relativism and opinion vs. Truth

From Book 5 of Plato's The Republic:
[Socrates:] Thus then we seem to have discovered that the many ideas which the multitude entertain about the beautiful and about all other things are tossing about in some region which is halfway between pure being and pure not-being?

[Glaucon:] We have.

Yes; and we had before agreed that anything of this kind which we might find was to be described as matter of opinion, and not as matter of knowledge; being the intermediate flux which is caught and detained by the intermediate faculty.

Quite true.

Then those who see the many beautiful, and who yet neither see absolute beauty, nor can follow any guide who points the way thither; who see the many just, and not absolute justice, and the like, — such persons may be said to have opinion but not knowledge?

That is certain.

But those who see the absolute and eternal and immutable may be said to know, and not to have opinion only?

Neither can that be denied.

The one loves and embraces the subjects of knowledge, the other those of opinion? The latter are the same, as I dare say will remember, who listened to sweet sounds and gazed upon fair colours, but would not tolerate the existence of absolute beauty.

Yes, I remember.

Shall we then be guilty of any impropriety in calling them lovers of opinion rather than lovers of wisdom, and will they be very angry with us for thus describing them?

I shall tell them not to be angry; no man should be angry at what is true.

But those who love the truth in each thing are to be called lovers of wisdom and not lovers of opinion.

There was a thought that struck me as I did the research for my post on the First Ecumenical Council and another that I'm working on about the historicity of Christ. I think that there is a fundamental misunderstanding ingrained in the Western (and especially American) mindset, namely, that if all opinions are allowed then all opinions must naturally be equal. We have a very "do-it-yourself," anti-authority attitude; take, for instance, the popularity of "home remedies" accompanied with the general distrust of conventional medicine. Nobody is willing to "leave it to the experts" anymore. Sometimes we're not even willing to admit that they are experts! Relativism has invaded every aspect of Western culture, from religion to science to morality.

American schools propound relativism as if it itself were the absolute truth! Take, for instance, this popular high school sociology textbook: “We must recognize that judgments about good and bad, moral and immoral, depend very much on who is doing the judging; there is no universal standard to appeal to.” That's what my tax dollars are paying for our children to be taught?

The reason I bring up this topic is because of my surprise at how easy it was to find scholarly information online that very clearly rebutted nearly every sentence in Zeitgeist, the Movie. And yet, somehow, it is still immensely popular. How do the fans and the maker of Zeitgeist respond to this? By claiming that the scholars can't be trusted. But a "self-taught" "Egyptologist" with a penchant for the occult and a plagiarizing pseudo-mystic can [both cited multiple times as references by the movie's creator]?

While the ideals that we inherit from the Enlightenment may allow for all ideas and opinions to be equally expressed, this does not mean that we need to give them all equal air time or credence. It also does not mean that one can logically hold an opinion contrary to fact. I cannot be of the opinion that the sky is magenta when it is very clearly blue. Sometimes opinions are wrong and facts are right. Sometimes there really is an absolute truth and to hold an opinion contrary to it is not an exercise of freedom, it is an exercise in foolishness.

It is impossible for there to be multiple truths. There is no such thing as "my truth" and "your truth." If they contradict each other, then one is, by necessity, false, and what is false is not Truth. My hat cannot be simultaneously on the desk and not on the desk. Either it is or it is not. Similarly, either Jesus Christ is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (Gospel of John 14: 6 -- note the definite articles which are present in the original Greek as well) as he claimed or he is not. To quote C.S. Lewis' masterpiece Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic -- on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
(For more on the topic of relativism and its negative effects on modern thought, I highly recommend C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man)

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