Paul Johnson

And Another Thing | 28 February 2009

What the temptations on the high mountain mean today

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What are the salient evils of our time? They are two-fold. One is social engineering, the idea that human beings can be changed, improved and moved about as though they are quantities of cement or concrete. Today, virtually all regimes, whether democratic, dodgy or outright totalitarian, practise social engineering. Not least Gordon Brown’s crumbling New Labour set-up, where virtually all the innumerable quangos it has created are designed to engineer the population in a direction designated by government. However, this, in turn, is made possible by the second and far more serious evil, moral relativism — the belief that there are no absolute standards of right and wrong, good for all human beings everywhere and in all ages, and that there is no such thing as unconditional truth.

I made the triumph of moral relativism the central theme of my history of the 20th century, Modern Times, first published in 1983. Relativism took many different forms but all put the real or imagined needs of ‘society’ (in practice the group in power) before the claims of an absolute code of right and wrong, such as the Ten Commandments. Hitler and the Nazis called the criterion of morality ‘the Higher Law of the Party’, and followed it to launch world war and kill nearly six million Jews. Lenin and Stalin called it ‘the Revolutionary Conscience’, and its dictates led to the murder or death in the Gulag of 20 million ‘enemies of the people’. In China, Mao’s revolutionary conscience as the sole measure of right and wrong produced 70 million victims. Pre-war Japan followed the European lead and conducted its wars of aggression, first against China, then the West, without the smallest regard for morality in any form, except the relativism of ‘National Survival’. In this competitive corruption, the West succumbed, at least in part. Churchill used the spirit of moral relativism to authorise ‘aerial bombing’ of Germany: ‘The one thing that will bring [Hitler] down… is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.’ The Americans used the same argument for dropping nuclear weapons on Japan.

In the post-war world, relative morality appeared in innumerable forms. One was the policy followed by Dag Hammarskjöld that killing among Africans was not the UN’s business. This was taken by Idi Amin in Uganda as authority for mass murder. As Julius Nyerere admitted: ‘Since Amin usurped power he has murdered more people than Smith in Rhodesia and Vorster in South Africa. But there is this tendency in Africa that it does not matter if an African kills other Africans...Being black is now becoming a certificate to kill fellow Africans.’ Such certificates are now brandished almost everywhere in what has again become the Dark Continent — notably wretched Zimbabwe. Moral relativism is the motive power behind every form of terrorism, both national and international, from the IRA to al-Qa’eda. It has also penetrated deep into Western societies, especially its judicial and educational systems, its religious groups, and such concepts as the European Union.

For all these reasons it is welcome that the present Pope, while he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, made an implacable hostility to moral relativism his principal object in life. On the eve of the conclave which followed the death of John Paul II, he preached a sermon to the assembled cardinals denouncing what he termed ‘the dictatorship of relativism’, and the fact that a majority of them named him Pope suggests they agreed with him. As he said in his discourse, relativism ‘excludes the concept of the good (and even more so that of truth) from politics as a threat to freedom. ‘Natural Law’ is rejected as suspiciously metaphysical, in order to apply relativism consistently. There is ultimately no other political principle apart from the decision of the majority, which takes the place of truth in the political realm.’

There is a special issue, on the Dictatorship of Relativism, of the New York monthly New Criterion, for January 2009. I have also been reading the Pope’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth, the first part of a projected life of Christ, which has been published by Bloomsbury in an excellent translation by Adrian J. Walker. This book is worth reading for many reasons, but particularly for its presentation of Jesus as the upholder of absolute morality in the face of all temptations to compromise, to take the easy way out and to bow to current fashions and social orthodoxies. What particularly interested me is the Pope’s treatment of Jesus’s confrontation with Satan just before he began his ministry, above all the last of the ‘Temptations’. Since there were no eye-witnesses, Jesus himself must have told his disciples what occurred, and their account later appeared in the Gospels. According to Matthew (iv 8-10), Satan took Jesus up on to a ‘high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto him, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”’ Here, as the Pope points out, is the fundamental conflict between the world and the spirit. Is Jesus’s mission, as the moral relativists would claim, simply to show goodwill, end world hunger and racism, save the planet and make people be nice to each other — or is it something fundamentally different, the way to God and the Kingdom of Heaven?

As I see it, the Satan who confronted Jesus during this encounter is the personification of moral relativism, and the materialism which creates it. What we are shown is not merely ‘all the kingdoms of the world’ but the entire universe, in all its colossal extent, reaching backwards and forwards into infinity and beyond the powers of the human mind to grasp except in mathematical equations. We are told: this came into existence, not by an act of creation, but as a result of the laws of physics, which have no moral purpose whatever — or indeed any purpose. There is no conceivable room for God in this process, and mankind is an infinitely minute spectator of this futile process about which he can do nothing, being of no more significance than a speck of dust or a fragment of rock. If you will accept this view of our fate, then there is just a chance that by applying the laws of science to the exclusion of any other considerations, and by dismissing the notion of God, or the spirit, or goodness, or any other absolute notion of truth and right and wrong, we shall be able marginally to improve the human condition during the minute portion of time our race occupies our doomed planet.

That is the temptation we are now offered. Science in all its totalitarian dogmatism, or nothing. An exclusively materialist approach to life and living. Not merely an extrusion of the spiritual but a formal denial of the existence of God, and of anything which contradicts or simply just adds to what the current scientific establishment tells us. The temptation to bow before scientism is given an extra edge by the current deification of Darwin, who finds himself, poor fellow, in the role of the anti-Christ, with his natural selection as an alternative to Christianity. Some people might argue that the survival of the fittest is a sound principle. Indeed that was the principle underpinning Hitler’s race-theory and other manifestations of social Darwinism. I believe it will lead rapidly and inevitably to the self-destruction of the human race. The crisis in the world economy, and the great war it seems likely to promote, make all these issues highly topical.