Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | The Centre Cannot Hold

The following is the third of a series of reflections on modern society's rejection of absolute truth. For the first, click here. For the second, click here.

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." -W.B. Yeats

The year is 1945. Victory parties are in full-swing, the war is over, and Americans are coming home. The price for peace has been dearly bought – two atomic bombs, dozens of bombed out cities, and tens of millions of people killed. The brutal genocide of the Nazis had been exposed and the world would never be the same. Within two years, the western powers begin to realize that they have made a Faustian bargain with the Soviet Union and an iron curtain begins to fall. The philosophical spirit of the age has been captured by Albert Camus, who declared “there is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether or not life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” With two world wars behind it, and a long Cold War imminent, the world slowly begins to come to the realization that it is standing atop a graveyard.

Post-Modernism and the Flight from the Center

The assault of David Hume's radical empiricism, coupled with Wittgenstein's dictum that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” had caused the academy to rule out the possibility of transcendent, objective morality. The optimistic pragmatism of the early 20th century shattered under the weight of two world wars. It was time for philosophers to find an alternate solution to the pesky problem of morality.

Enter post-modernism. Post-modernism is probably best defined as a loose band of generally incoherent rag-tag philosophers (mostly French) who were more unified on what they were opposed to than what they supported. And they definitely opposed any concept of absolute truth.

In 1967, Derrida launched his critique upon what he called the “logocentrism” of all previous Western philosophy. The gist? Western philosophy has always tried to discover a certain rational principle which governs reality (the logos). The problem is that, according to Derrida, there is no central governing principle, but merely everyone’s own personal perspective on reality. Reality is a collection of everyone’s perceptions and there is no reason that any one perception is better than another. Instead of actually getting in touch with reality, like they think they have, philosophers for the past several thousand years have simply been manipulating words to make them conform to their own picture of reality.

In 1979, another post-modern, Richard Rorty, continued the assault. Since there is no logos, Rorty argued, there is no truth. There is nothing but opinions. Truth is relative. What's good for you is good for you, and what's good for me is good for me. Appeals to language and human reason might be useful for helping people function, but there's no reason to believe that they actually get us towards truth.

Finally, in 1984, a third post-modern named Jean-Francois Lyotard argued that philosophers' desire to craft a coherent, overarching picture of human nature constrained the individual. Rather than submitting to some sort of philosophical portrait of the perfect human life, individuals should be free to tell their own story. As individuals come together to form societies, they should be free to craft their own customs, traditions and standard of morality. Truth is not absolute, but rather constructed by society. Who are we to condemn a cannibalistic tribe in Australia or the genocidal Molech worshipers in ancient North Africa? They told their own story, and it worked for them.

With the destruction of the logos, Western society began a flight away from a moral center. Morality was reduced to a quick poll of everyone’s personal opinions, to be implemented democratically by the modern liberal state. By rejecting the logos, that governing principle which bound reality together, Western society was also rejecting the Logos, the Word that was in the beginning with God, through which all things were made (John 1:1-2), in whom we live move and have our being (Acts 17:28), and which upholds all things (Hebrews 1:3).

The result? Any criticism of someone’s actions is considered an affront to their humanity. The concept of “sin” has lost all potency. Any attempt to make a dogmatic moral claim that “no, this is WRONG, by golly” is met with a sweetly patronizing response of “well, that’s your opinion.”

Or, as T.S. Eliot would put it,
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

T.S. Eliot- Ash Wednesday
Posted by Nick Barden
Picture: Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole by post-modern artist Lawrence Weiner, 1991.

(feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or thoughts).


  1. Thank you for this seiries. I have been pondering this topic for months, it is so critical to understand the concept of absoulte true, especially for Christians.