There is an interesting school of thought in which it is hypothesized that the accommodating stance of European democracy has become the seed of its own destruction! The Christian roots of Europe are undeniable, a culture where its Christian values were considered absolute and righteous – to the extent that the Crusader wars were fought to defend them; that was in the 11th to the 13th century. What happened to those values? The 17th century perhaps provides some form of clarity; in that century came what I would laconically describe as the ‘apostasy of man’ – the abandonment of his religious (and some might say, his moral) values – this was the century which saw the birth of the Age of Reason, the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. It was, to my mind, the beginning of man’s descent into what can only be described as ‘self-adulation or idolatry’, the induction of a way of life in which anything goes so long as it suits man’s own over-inflated ego! The dawn of relativism! Don’t get me wrong, I do not think it is wrong to think, to reason, to endeavour to fathom what the meaning of life might be – that is, after all, the purpose of my writing! But what iswrong is the abdication of moral responsibility by filing it away as irrelevant under the guise of relativism!
This rather insidious turn of events originated in the middle 17th to early 18th century in a period that was known as the ‘Enlightenment’, an appropriate colophon to the ‘Age of Reason’. Born out of the need to ‘promote intellectual interchange and opposition to intolerance and abuses in Church and state’, which of itself is admirable but left unchecked and without moral grounding, has led to the destitution of moral values! Polemic, perhaps, but where the thinkers and philosophers of our world determine that moral values are relative and are only of consequence within the context they find themselves, at thatpoint a vast distinction is created between the exercise of moral values and an immoral and self-absorbed society whose judgement is based on mere whim!
Demosthenes once said: “Nothing is so easy as to deceive oneself; for what we wish, we readily believe”.[i]
At this point one might ask “That is Europe, not the rest of the world!” Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your standpoint, European culture is the basis of many societies throughout the world mainly through colonisation but also through European migration to the new worlds. As such her culture, her ways of life have been disseminated to most of the world at large! So when talking of Europe, we are also referring to other societies to a greater or lesser degree.
Society’s gadarene rush toward destruction has become frighteningly real; one can see this reported in the media. Riots, anarchy, looting – in countries hitherto thought of as the bastions of law and order, those pillars of Westerndemocracy – Britain and America! But I would like to posit that these and other actions, as repulsive and alarming as they themselves are, they are nonetheless, conceivably, only the beginnings of a physical manifestation of something more sinister and more frightening! Something that could and, in fact, already has started to significantly weaken the global community!
This brings me back to the main thrust of this short essay, a discussion on the loss or forsaking of external moral oversight for internal moral opportunism; more particularly I would like to talk about ‘greed’, the true ‘root of all evil’! ‘One man’s greed is another’s profit’ or so a cynical turn on a well know idiom would have it! Although greed has always been with us, it has never been as prominent or as blatant as it is today. It used to be that society had a universal moral grounding, a baseline against which decision and oversight was judged – but no more! Since the advent of man’s ‘emancipation’ from the strictures of the church and to a lesser degree the state, the determination of enlightenment theory and relativistic thought states that there can be no such thing as a ‘universal moral grounding’, an absolute against which society in general can evaluate their behaviour and determine a correct moral standpoint. Is this not exactly the dilemma behind the current market woes prevalent in the world today?
A letter to an online news website, headed ‘Eroding personal freedoms’ bemoans the fact the writer is by law forced to adhere to certain rules. That he is required to wear a helmet on a motor bike or seatbelts in a car or that suicide is deemed illegal (read: immoral!)[ii]. The whole thrust of his argument, as far as I am concerned, surrounds the fact the he alone determines what is right or what is wrong analogous to his own circumstance. This is the essence of a relativistic attitude and a prime example of what we have been discussing – ‘woe is me’ to quote the Bard from Hamlet!
The fictional character Gordon Gekko from the 1987 film ‘Wall Street’, a representation of unrestrained greed, phrased it well when he said “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good”! This epitomises an attitude which is bereft of external moral oversight and sadly, it seems, is common in the business world of today; attitudes where morals, if any, are determined by the profit which might be gained!
“The most grievous kind of destitution is to want money in the midst of wealth” – so said Seneca.[iii]
Is making a profit intrinsically evil, inherently immoral? No, else we would all be living in penury! Profit in and of itself is not greed and is not immoral but when it becomes perverted by individual or corporate avarice, when it is knowingly twisted to become the prime reason for existence, when moral judgement is willingly clouded to the truth then it becomes greed, an idol to self-indulgence! Persons who are motivated by ever increasing levels of profit, driven by the need to meet targets or to make more profit no matter the cost to humanity, directly or indirectly, are guilty of more than one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
The mythic Greek hero, Philoctetes once said “The love of money is the parent of all wickedness”.[iv]
Although each individual trade (bar those extra-ordinary ones) may not seem to affect any one person or group of persons in particular and although you personally may recoil at the sight of this affirmation of greed, it does not affect you personally and so, most often, you let it pass you by. But it is the cumulative effect of these small individual actions which can aggregate into another animal entirely, that colossal and ugly monster called avarice; this is where external moral oversight has such an important role to play. This monster is the consequence of man rejecting the notion of universal moral values in favour of anything which suits him!
However, let us not forget that this attitude is one engendered, to a large extent, by the doctrine and dogmatic of relativism. When an individual is faced with a large potential windfall, moral conviction and universal moral values are probably furthest from his mind. This makes appeals to relativistic moral determination the easy option, assuaging that nagging moral doubt! Relativism is the key ingredient in the on going moral turpitude prevalent within society today! Some contemporary examples of this avaricious behaviour can be found in the Credit Crunch and the US Debt Crisis.
So what’s to be done? Do we throw up our arms in resignation and despair? Do we acknowledge that this is the only way of life, that there is nought to be done but to accept it? For what it’s worth, I believe that every small bit counts, it starts with us and our own moral behaviour. In just the same way as small acts of greed aggregate into an avaricious monster, so small acts of humility and humble moderation, of moral rectitude will aggregate into a re-generation of moral normalcy.
1. John Hunt Publishing Limited. The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations.Hardcover. Edited by Mark Water. Hampshire: John Hunt Publishing Ltd, 2000.
2. Joseph Ratzinger & Mercello Pera. Without Roots – The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam.Paperback. Translated by Michael F. Moore. New York: Basic Books, A member of the Perseus Book Group, 2007.
3. Ratzinger, Joseph. Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. Hardcover. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006.
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