Relativism and Republicanism

That was refeshing.

I'm just back from lunch where I caught bits of a conversation on everyone's favorite subject: American policy.

On a college campus you come to expect superficial radicalism. (And I say superficial because it's little more than name-dropping obscure or cred-setting bands at a party--Dennis Kucinich is worth a Ben Gibbard, Chomsky is Fugazi, but Foucault is little more than Iggy Pop these days.)

But here I had an American woman stringing together nonsensical statements like, "America was, like, the last country to declare its independence," and "Reagan's whole thing was bullshit." As a matter of fact, she had a lot of "things." There was, "Reagan's thing," and "Bush's thing," "the thing is," and "my big thing with the whole Iraq thing."

It seems that when you have little of substance to say, a little "thing" goes a long way.

She was saying this to a group comprised of two European women and one American man. It seemed plain that the Europeans had either had personal experience with communism or had at least the stories of their families to tell.

From the pieces of the conversation that slipped through the noise of the crowded cafe, I learned that life is eminiently better in this country, that capitalism improved life in their home countries, and that communism was brutal and meritless.

So now to the refreshing part. The American man piped up at one point to note the atrocities committed in furthering the goals of Communism. Addressing one of the European women he said, "I'm really glad you set me straight on that. How many people did Stalin kill?"

It seemed the American women had no idea that these things had ever happened, but easily enough returned to her "things" and started babbling about South America and how there was little violence under communism at the end of the Cold War anyway.

Her willingness to dismiss communism's brutal history got me thinking about relativism, which always leads me back to Carneades, the leader of the New Academy who had been sent to Rome among a troupe of leading philosophers to lobby for a reduction of the tribute.

As an undergradute I once took a survey course on the Roman Republic. In the end we were led to the conclusion that Carneades -- through his ability to effectively argue for and against the same issue, and his insistence that there are no universal values but only the values of the dominant group within a given culture -- was ultimately responsible for the fall of the Republic. Writers through Cicero's time felt compelled to answer him but failed.

He seemed like a second Socrates, taken to extremes. Socrates would say that he knew nothing, but Carneades wasn't even sure of that.

The fashion of Carneades' radical skepticism killed the Roman spirit. Patriotism gradually dwindled and disappeared, all sense of duty to Rome as a concept was gone, and the defense of the nation depended upon the frontiers. In time the guards of the city would be hired mercenaries from the north, and the rest is history.

She wept. My professor, that is. She wept often over Rome, and I wonder now whether she hadn't seen the parallels.

(Apologies for the lack of links, but this web browser has been acting up and erasing the entire entry everytime I try to add one.)

posted by Dennis on 06.23.04 at 02:42 PM


It's a Marxist thing; you wouldn't understand....


Eric Scheie   ·  June 23, 2004 3:34 PM

Well put.

Tucker   ·  June 23, 2004 9:16 PM

Carneades is very much with us today. Yes, I see the parallels all too clearly. It's a Spenglerean thing, a Marxist or neo-Marxist wouldn't understand....

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