Pope Benedict’s Legacy: The Revival of Reason

by Robert Maynard

The news that Pope Benedict XVI is going to step down from the Papacy for health reasons has created a lot of speculation about what his legacy will be. One of those who has been contributing to the speculation is Acton Institute scholar Samuel Gregg in a National Review article entitled “Benedict XVI: Reason’s Revolutionary.”  Gregg listed several areas, which are typical endeavors that one would expect the head to thw world’s largest religious body to be involved in.  Surprisingly, he concluded that Pope Benedict’s most unique legacy would come in the intellectual arena where he has been a tireless defender of the role of reason in shaping Western Civilization:

But we need to remember that Benedict XVI is arguably the most intellectual pope to sit in Peter’s Chair for centuries—even more so than his saintly predecessor, who was certainly no slouch in the world of ideas. And if there is one single thing that stands out in Benedict’s papacy, it’s this: his laser-like focus on the root-cause of the intellectual crisis that explains not only Western culture’s present wallowing in facile relativism that’s on full display in the content-free rhetoric of your average EU politician, but also the trauma that explains the violence and rage that continues to shake the Islamic world and which Islam seems incapable of resolving on its own terms.

And that problem is one of reason. As Benedict spelt out in four key addresses that repay careful re-reading—the famous 2006 Regensburg lecture, his 2008 address to the French intellectual world, his speech to the Bundestag in 2011, and his remarks to the world of British politics in 2010 in Westminster Hall (the site, not coincidentally, of St Thomas More’s show-trial in 1535)—man, especially Western man, has lost confidence in reason’s power to know more-than-empirical truth.

And what’s the result? It means very basic discussions in the realms of politics and universities are no longer conducted along the lines identified long ago by figures such as Aristotle and Aquinas. Instead it’s all about power, who is stronger, and who can evoke the highest degree of sentimental humanitarianism from people looking for guidance in increasingly incoherent societies.

For non-Catholics, such as myself, this is a very noteworthy legacy.  Pope Benedict initially caught my attention with his speech about the “Dictatorship of Relativism.”

As an avid student of American Civilization I have long been aware of the fact that our whole experiment in ordered liberty rests on the assertion that there are “self-evident truths.” Many people make the mistake of assuming that self-evident means obvious. I have come to the conclusion by reading much of the writing of the time that it means something more in line with what we call axiomatic in mathematics. An axiom is a fundamental truth that you start with as a given in a mathematical or logical proof. You do not proove axioms, rather are the initial givens that you start with as the basis of a proof. Our founders were heirs of the Natural Law tradition, which asserted that there are axiomatic truths rooted in human nature that extend beyond mathematics and the hard physical sciences.

With the rise of a philosophy known as “Logical Positivism”, the notion that there are truths beyond what can be accounted for by mathematics and the hard physical sciences is an idea that academia no longer accepts. In fact, with the rise of “Post Modernism”, the notion of truth is being discarded altogether. This is more than an academic exercise. The notion of justice that developed in Western Civilization, and is the basis of our insistence on human rights, is rooted in the assertion that there are absolute truths stemming from human nature. This is a very old concept that has two separate roots in our civilization. One is the Genesis account of human beings being created in the image of God. The other is the philosophical victory of Socrates over the ancient Greek Sophists. The Sophists were traveling intellectuals at the time of Socrates who taught the art of rhetoric. They believed that all morality was relative and depended on one’s own opinion and cultural perspective. They thought that the notion of absolute truth stemmed from narrow mindedness. The most famous of the Sophist was a guy named Thrasymachus, who appeared in Plato’s Republic. In that dialogue he is characterized as engaging in a dialogue with Socrates over the nature of justice. For Thrasymachus, the question was a simple one. Since truth is relative, there can be no standard of justice beyond any one man’s opinion. In fact, another Sophist named Protagoras was noted for his assertion that “man is the measure of all things.” The conclusion that Thrasymachus derived from this thinking was that “justice is the advantage of the stronger.” In other words, “might makes right”, or “the law of the jungle.”

Socrates countered this argument with the assertion that justice is “rendering what is due.” To understand this one has to realize that he was basing this assertion of a certain view of human nature that was rooted in what he believed was timeless immutable truth. This refutation of the moral relativism of the Sophists is at the heart of Socratic thought and plays an important role, along with the Hebrew notion that we are created in God’s image, is the western understanding of justice and human rights. When the insistence on the existence of absolute truth withered in Western Civilization, so did the confidence that human reason was at least partially capable of discovering that truth. This really is a problem when the basis of our claim on rights is the assertion of “self-evident” truths. The world could use a few more courageous defenders of truth like Pope Benedict.