If we look more closely, we will see that talk about ‘conscience’ in a [relativistic] world view is merely a way of saying that there is no genuine conscience in the sense of a con-scientia, a ‘knowing with’ truth. Each one decides on his own criteria. In this universal relativity, no one can help anyone else in this matter, still less lay down rules for another person to follow.
This shows us how radical the modern debate about ethics and about the center of ethics, the conscience, really is. I believe that the only parallel to this in the history of ideas is the dispute between Socrates/Plato and the Sophists, which explores the primal decision to be made between two basic attitudes, namely, the confidence that man is capable of perceiving truth and a world view in which it is only man himself who posits the criteria he will follow…
If we detach Socrates’ controversy from the contingent elements of its historical framework, we soon see that this is essentially the same controversy that rages today (with other arguments and other names). If we give up belief in the capacity of man to perceive truth, this leads initially to a purely formalistic use of words and concepts.
In turn, the elimination of substance from our words and concepts leads to a pure formalism of judgment, in the past as in the present. One no longer asks what a man actually thinks. The verdict on his thinking is readily available, if one succeeds in cataloguing it under an appropriate formal category—conservative, reactionary, fundamentalist, progressive, revolutionary. The assignment to a formal schema is enough to dispense one from actually looking at the contents of what is being said. The same tendency can be seen even more strongly in art. It is irrelevant what it depicts; it may be a glorification of God or of the devil. The only criterion is the formal skill employed by the artist.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 88-90
Reflection – Again, Ratzinger is taking us into deep philosophical waters here. But despair not – let me make it perfectly clear to you. What he is talking about is the triumph of style over substance, form over content. In other words, it’s not what you say but how you say it that counts.
The Sophists essentially held that language was a tool to use to get what you want. Socrates/Plato and the whole tradition following this, which was taken up in Christian philosophy and theology into the High Middle Ages, held that language was about truth.
The Sophists were like Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass, insisting that when he used a word, the word meant whatever he decided it meant. When
commented that it sounded a bit confusing, he retorted to the effect that ‘all that matters is who is master.’ Alice
Well, welcome to the Internet, Humpty! Where clever packaging, rhetorical flourish, and snazzy graphics are what really count. Rules of logic and rigorous accuracy regarding facts are old-fashioned, ignored or derided.
So we see in the current controversy over the HHS mandate in the States forcing religious groups to pay for procedures that are morally repellent to them, that the battle is being fought, not over the actual facts of the matter, not over the true meaning of religious freedom in a pluralistic democracy, not over the limits of government power, certainly not over basic facts of the price and availability of contraception in America today.
Instead, the battle is waged on how the discussion is to be framed. “The mean
is trying to deprive women of life-saving, absolutely-necessary-for-freedom-and-happiness birth control! Boo, hiss, to the Catholic Church!” Now, absolutely nothing the Catholic Church is doing or could do in this situation could possibly deny women access to birth control. But that fact does not matter. It’s all about ‘who is master’ – who will frame the discussion and control its flow. Humpty and the Sophists have won. old Catholic Church
Well, they might have won or even be winning in the political sphere, where sophistry always has had its best innings. But truth has a way of asserting itself in the end. Reality has a way of having the last word. But if we flout truth, and the justice and integrity that flow from living in the truth, reality’s last word has a way of being a pretty sharp one. When truth is not welcomed and acknowledged as the master, it remains master still—just not a very nice one.
And this is the abyss