In Truth and Truthfulness, published just before his death a few years ago, the famed British philosopher, Bernard Williams, noted that we live in a time when the demand for truth has never been greater. But, he added, we have never been more doubtful about our ability to reach the truth or even whether there is truth to be had. The cultural, and particularly academic, despair over truth was a very bad sign; for, if we lose hold of the truth, we may lose everything. There is an instructive convergence here between Williams, a brilliant interlocutor and settled liberal atheist, and Pope John Paul II, whose analysis of the crisis of truth in our time went well beyond anything on offer in Williams.
Indeed, in his dramatic, scholarly, and pastoral writings, but even more in the witness of his life, John Paul embodied the splendor of truth, the very phrase that served as the title for his important encyclical on moral theology (Veritatis Splendor). The pope’s writings persistently link the human good, indeed the very survival of liberal democracy, to a truthful account of the human person. Because of his direct experience of totalitarian regimes, John Paul had an acute appreciation of the role of human rights in combating political oppression. He also understood the way such regimes are propped up by systematic intellectual dishonesty and deceptive speech, the “insincere speech” Orwell so trenchantly analyzed in his masterful essay, “Politics and the English Language.”
During his tenure as pope, John Paul has repeatedly turned his attention to contemporary confusion and insincerity, particularly regarding human rights, not in totalitarian regimes, but in the advanced, western, liberal democracies. He detects a “surprising contradiction” concerning rights. Instead of continuing a trajectory of expansion of rights and greater inclusion, there is a contraction of the scope and application of rights. Instead of curbing oppression, these new formulations introduce the possibility of new and more sinister forms of tyranny. In The Gospel of Life, he wrote,
The criterion of personal dignity-which demands respect, generosity and service-is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness: others are considered not for what they “are,” but for what they “have, do and produce.” This is the supremacy of the strong over the weak.
How did this come about–this strange reversal, this “surprising contradiction,” in which the modern proclamation of human dignity and the promise of expanded human rights give way to an indifference or even hostility to those most vulnerable among us?
John Paul detects both naiveté and a proclivity toward excess in the otherwise admirable modern celebration of human freedom. (The point here is not far from Tocqueville’s insight, which can be traced back to Aristotle’s study of regimes, that the exaggeration of the dominant principle of a regime can be its undoing.) There is a tendency, the pope writes, “to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values.”
To put it more precisely, the radicalization of the modern project (he does not directly address the question whether such radicalization was built into the modern project from its inception) severs the bond between freedom and truth. The result is a persistent flirtation with nihilism or what John Paul calls “the culture of death,” a temptation whose roots are masked by our continued use of the noble-sounding language of dignity and freedom. What appears to elevate and dignify actually trivializes. If there is no standard, except that bestowed upon it by the agent himself, in light of which we can appraise choices as better or worse, good or evil, then every choice is equally reasonable and good or, for that matter, equally meaningless.
In this Nietzschean context, where meaning and value are bestowed by the appraiser (Nietzsche’s penchant for the term “value” is always to be kept in mind), there is a consequent loss of any sense of a normative order of nature and supernature. Freedom is freed from nature and truth. The physical universe, even the human body itself, is “reduced to pure materiality,” raw material to be manipulated and disposed of according to the will of the human agent. This is what Walker Percy identified as the modern heresy of angelism, the denial that our bodies are shot through with moral and spiritual significance.
John Paul detects a parallel between, on the one hand, the contraction of the sphere of the properly human to those who are self-sufficient and fully autonomous and, on the other, the debasement of human sexuality and the horrifying mutation of love into sadomasochism, in which erotic relations are indistinguishable from power relations. John Paul puts it this way,
[The body] is reduced to pure materiality: it is simply a complex of organs, functions and energies to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency. Consequently, sexuality too is depersonalized and exploited: from being the sign, place and language of love, that is, of the gift of self and acceptance of another, in all the other’s richness as a person, it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts.
In a more theological key, John Paul II takes aim at a peculiarly modern dichotomy between human freedom and divine freedom. Crystallized in Kant, the assumption is that the dignity of human person consists in autonomy of self-legislation. The Pope does not go so far as Nietzsche who asserts that autonomy and morality are mutually exclusive, but he does insist that the “autonomy of reason cannot mean that reason itself creates values.” Kant’s technical way of framing the opposition is to contrast autonomy or self rule with heteronomy or rule by some authority or power outside of one’s rational freedom. Instead of an opposition between autonomy and heteronomy, the pope proposes what he calls theonomy, according to which human reason and will participate in God’s wisdom and providence.
It is an illusion, to which the human race has been prone since its beginning, to suppose that God’s will and human will could be located on the same plane and put in contest with one another. Instead, our very existence is a gift from God, a participation in his life and wisdom. As Augustine eloquently puts it, “God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.” As much as he was an enthusiastic advocate of the dialogue between reason and faith, to which topic he devoted an encyclical, Fides et Ratio, he also knew that the most persuasive argument, the most eloquent testimony, was holiness of life.
George Weigel’s magisterial biography of John Paul II is aptly titled Witness to Hope. One could add, witness to joy in truth and to the other virtues for which the human heart so desperately longs. Anyone who has seen him in person, even amid the crowds at St. Peter’s, cannot help but be struck by his rapport with youth. A friend of mine, Dr. Tim Thibodeau, a professor of medieval church history at Nazareth College, who is often interviewed about the pope and inevitably asked about his popularity among youth, likes to respond that for many young people, the pope is the rare public figure who actually acts like an adult.
John Paul presented to youth an attractive possibility, that maturity need not mean boredom, that fidelity and responsibility might be wedded to adventure and risk, and that heroic suffering need not quench joy or hope. Looking back over his remarkable life and the physical trials of his last months, one cannot help but think of the words he wrote toward the end of The Splendor of Truth,
The life of holiness, resplendent in so many of the People of God, humble and often unseen, constitutes the simplest and most attractive way to perceive the beauty of truth, the liberating force of God’s love, and the value of unconditional fidelity to all of the Lord’s law, even in the most difficult situations.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.