|Winged Victory of Samothrace.|
Monty Python's final movie was titled “The Meaning of Life.” The gist of it was that nobody knows what it is; we're all wandering around clueless. Douglas Adams implied the same by declaring randomly that the meaning of life was 42.
This is actually quite a new problem. Everyone used to know. It popped up more or less postwar, with dadaism, then postwar again with existentialism. Their blank black banner is now carried by postmodernism.
Until perhaps the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, everyone knew what life was about. And we really still all do in our hearts; for it is graven there. We were not made without instructions. As the ancient philosophers noted often enough, life is the quest for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. These are the things with intrinsic value, and which bestow value and meaning on all else.
Note this does not even require a belief in God; this much is self-evident to polytheists as much as Christians. Plato and Aristotle knew it; it's in the Bhagavad Gita.
Postmodernists and their tribe insist, counter to this, that there is no Truth, no Good, and no Beauty. This is just not a philosophically tenable position.
Truth: Two plus two equals four; it does not equal seven. There's truth. Today is Monday, and not Friday. There's truth. The distinction is not difficult to see; no sane person can miss it. A commitment to Truth requires you to go where reason and the available evidence lead; rather than just believing what you want to believe, what others tell you to believe, whatever first comes to mind, or what seems in your self-interest to believe.
It is a blood-red herring to object, as postmodernists will, that you cannot be certain that you have the absolute truth. So what? No glass is ever entirely full either. There is still a critical difference between full and empty. I don't have all the money in the world. That does not mean I have no money.
And, of course, the simple statement “there is no truth” self-contradicts. It cannot, by its own terms, be true.
The Good: That morality is not relative is demonstrated planly enough by the fact that evey major religion and moral system bases itself explicitly on the same maxim: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It can be and is formulated in different ways as well, but it appears almost word for word in this same way everywhere. There is no disagreement or ambiguity here; nothing relative. Kant too found this the one irrefutable imperative of human existence: do unto others. Treat others as an end, not a means. If how this is worked out in detail can vary, so can how we build a bridge; but our calculations are all still based on the same law of gravity. Accordingly, we can plainly say there are better and worse ways to build a bridge. We can judge moral codes as more or less strict; not as randomly different.
The Beautiful: No, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. For example, show pictures of women of various races to men of various races; contrary to what is sometimes claimed, their evaluation of who is beautiful is consistent across all cultural lines. There is, objectively, such a thing as good taste and bad taste. It makes no differencce that some people have consistently bad taste; some people also do poorly at math. Statues like the Winged Victory of Samothrace can still be easily recognized as sublimely beautiful, two thousand five hundred years later and several thousands of miles away.
The question here is why so many people so often deny what is about as self-evident as anything in existence.
The Gospel of John tells why:
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.
Once you turn away from the Good, generally in favour of self-interest and for animal pleasures, you will soon deny that any true good exists. Because it stands in condemnation of you. And, as philosophers have pointed out, each of the three transcendentals implies the other: without Good, there can be no Truth, without Truth, no Beauty, and without Beauty, no Good.
Therefore, once you turn decisively from the Good, you develop a vested interest in denying Good, Truth, and Beauty, all three, altogether. If you stumble on a truth or a good deed or some beautiful thing, you will want to deny it, conceal it from others, or, ideally, destroy it.
This naturally divides mankind into two opposing tribes; which Jesus called the sheep and the goats. The sheep keep building; the goats keep trying to tear down. Sheep may stray, through temptation or through folly, but their resolve is to keep on the path to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Goats do not acknowledge this call. They begin by merely doing as they please in the moment. But over time they come to try also to distract the sheep away from the goal. They will actually seek and promote the false, the bad, and the ugly for their own sake, and to crush the good. Evil is an addiction.
It serves a certain inevitable justice then if, as Jesus says, the sheep at worst, if lost, suffer a time in purgatory, while the goats descend to hell forever. It has been their choice: they rejected that road, knowing where it led. If you refuse the path to Truth and Good and Beauty, you will not arrive at Truth and Good and Beauty, will you?
Understanding this, one can see, by the popularity of postmodernist views, that our Western culture is currently in great peril. It is urging us on to perdition. It obliges us, for example, to expressly claim to believe things that are untrue; such as that people can simply decide for themselves what sex they are. It often now promotes art that is deliberately ugly. It requires us not only to tolerate abortion, but to pay for it through our taxes or health premiums. It attacks any established moral system, such as Catholicism or Confucianism. These are definite attempts to prevent others from pursuing the Good, the True, or the Beautiful.
This was claimed as well of cultures in the Old Testament: the Canaanite, the cities of the plain, the Philistine. It did not end well; for the sake of all concerned, such cultures had to be wiped out. As Carthage or Nazi Germany had to be wiped out.
This begins to sound very gloomy. Is Western civilization doomed?
I trust not. I see no obvious better alternative. If the West has gone barking mad, I have lived in China, in South Korea, and in the Arabian Gulf, and found those cultures, quite different one from the other, to be even madder, even further estranged from the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
Perhaps the Trump phenomenon, for all its wartiness, is the first glimmer of a new Great Awakening in the US, that can reverse this downward spiral. Perhaps too the countries of the old European East Bloc carry the flame of truth. Living in the Philippines, I find the average Filipino strikingly sane in contrast to the typical Canadian: perhaps the newer Christian and Westernizing cultures of Africa and Asia will lead a revival.