If young people do not have a conscious philosophy, the philosophy of relativism is the default. And if relativism is a noxious gas and our young people are the canaries, then it is only a matter of time until our whole society succumbs to the effects of those fumes.
Walker Percy once wrote that novelists in society are like canaries in a mine shaft, and they are starting to drop off. He saw novelists as more perceptive and sensitive members of society than most others, as canaries are more sensitive to toxic fumes than the miners. I don’t doubt that Percy’s observations are true, but I think there is another large class of people who are sensitive to poisonous fumes in society: young people. Our youths are the ones who are most acclimated to the atmosphere of the times and have been breathing in the air of our worldviews for the largest proportion of their lives. They have more of today in them than anyone else.
And what do we see when we look at the current generation of young people? Statistically, we see a higher rate of teen depression and anxiety than ever before, and it is not an increase that can be accounted for only by better detection. Social media interactions turn to bullying and ostracizing all too easily. The cell-phone addicted teenager has already become a cliché. The evidence of social and emotional health seems to clearly indicate that the canaries are starting to lose consciousness.
As to causes, I am sure there are many. But in a recent interview with Ronda Chervin on WCAT radio, the philosopher Alice von Hildebrand said, “Relativism is a poison that basically leads a country to its destruction.” If relativism is a poison, then young people have more of it running through their blood than anyone else. None of them is immune. Even those who have been taught otherwise are still members of society and consume the same media as the rest of us.
Relativism is the idea that there is no truth. What is true for me is true for me, and what is true for you is true for you. There are no standards of truth or of behavior. Everything besides science is a matter of so-called opinion (exemplified by the current trend that pits fact against opinion, which is a false dichotomy), which really means personal preference.
Sound philosophical reflection easily reveals the self-refuting nature of the statement that there is no truth: if there is no truth, then that statement is not true either. But there are two important abilities that are required to recognize the logical fallacy. First, we have to be aware of the idea in the first place. So many of the ideas communicated to us are in the form of rhetoric, unexamined slogans, and entertainment. The idea is rarely, if ever, communicated directly. If it is, it is couched in an emotionally charged context so that the receiver would feel like a villain to reject it. The second ability is that of logical analysis. It takes a trained reason to be able to think through the implications of relativism and recognize its irrational nature. Without some philosophical training, our youth are sitting ducks (or canaries in the cage) for relativism.
Whether or not they have the wisdom to consciously recognize the fallacy, they instinctively and implicitly recognize a further implication, even if they could never articulate it. Somehow, deep down inside, there is a fracture in the foundation of the person when this idea is inhaled over and over again and incorporated into the way he sees the world. That disconnect is this: If there is no truth, then there is also no true goodness or beauty, and life has no intrinsic meaning at all. We don’t really matter. Everything, in the end, is meaningless in itself.
In my experience of teaching science to high school students and engaging in philosophical conversations with them on a regular basis, I have come to find that students are amazed to find that there are rational and intelligent ways of thinking about things like the nature of the human person, the soul, God, good and evil, right and wrong, the meaning of life, and what it means to know, let alone that there might be truth regarding these fundamental issues. It is taken for granted that there is no one right answer on these matters.
“Make your own meaning.” “You decide what is important to you.” Even these statements betray the idea that there is no real, intrinsic value in anything. If we make up a meaning for ourselves, then we are living in an illusion of our own making, and no matter how much it means to us or how real we want to make it, we cannot change the nature of reality itself. A made up meaning is purely subjective. The most beautiful music ever heard, the purest love ever held between two people, the most noble deed ever performed, and the life of each and every individual are nothing more than accidents produced by the cataract of molecular interactions and are intrinsically worthless.
Again, it takes philosophical training to present this implication of relativism to the consciousness, but as beings who by nature look for and desire worth, meaning, truth, goodness, and beauty, the void is inescapable. The inability of the youth to articulate the problem only makes the matter worse. If they could clearly think through the idea, they could decisively kick it out and confront it each time it shows up at the door. Instead, there is just some vague, unknown thing that is wrong. We avoid it with constant entertainment and pleasure, and we try to bandage it with therapy and drugs (both of which are valuable in a way for a time), but none of those things clear the lungs of the toxins of relativism.
There is only one solution: Truth. Only by breathing in the fresh air of a worldview where there is goodness, beauty, and meaning can the bad air be expelled. The classical model of strength and wholeness (virtue) of the human person gives a vibrant purpose and direction to our lives. Instead of a curriculum in self-esteem, we should substitute a curriculum of what it means to be a self. The God Who Is as the foundation and giver of all reality, imbued with meaning, serves as the reference for all events in the world. Only a training in Classical and Medieval Christian philosophy can fill this void.
James Schall wrote that it is with our philosophy, not our eyes, that we see the world. If our philosophy is one of relativism, then we see a world that is devoid of meaning, and we experience it as a meaningless self, some thing, we know not what, just sort of wandering through a thing called a universe. And if we do not have a conscious philosophy, the philosophy of relativism is the default. Truth, goodness, beauty, and meaning are like oxygen to our souls, and relativism denies the reality of those things. If relativism is a noxious gas and our young people are the canaries, then it is only a matter of time until our whole society succumbs to the effects of those fumes.
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Editor’s Note: Matt D’Antuono’s essay, ” ‘Fact or Opinion?’: A False Dichotomy,” can be read to provide more context for his philosophy concerning current academic trends. The featured image is “Girl With a Dead Canary” (1765) by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.