Truth and culture

Sandy R. writes:

My dad [Steve R.] is a regular reader and sometimes contributor to VFR, and we often have discussions about traditionalism and related topics. A question came up in a discussion we had that I thought you might be able to answer. Here it is:

On one hand, traditionalism believes that the differences between cultures are very real, and most likely genetically based. This being the case, we shouldn’t go to other cultures and expect that they should conduct themselves in the way that we do, and we certainly shouldn’t go out and attempt to impose our values and ideals on them.

On the other hand, traditionalism believes that there is transcendent truth, and morality is an integral part of this truth. Morality is essentially a set of “shoulds”: humans should do X, shouldn’t do Y, etc.

Culture provides a set of “shoulds,” and so does the truth. So what happens when these conflict? Assuming that our culture/civilization has the truth, or is closer to the truth than others, how can we say that they should live their way and we should live our way when there is only one truth?

Thanks so much for helping to clarify

LA replies:

This is a very good question that I think I’ve addressed before, but I don’t find an entry on the same topic, so here goes.

On one level, you’re asking a practical question rather than a philosophical one: how can we allow other people to have their truth, if there is only one truth, or a best version of the truth, and we have it and they don’t?

The most immediate answer is very simple: we don’t have any choice in the matter. We have no power to determine the moral ethos of Thais, or Japanese, or Burundians. Their ways are different from ours; these differences exist, and we don’t have the practical ability to impose our ways on others. We must co-exist in the world with others who are different from us. It is only the hyper-Wilsonians known as neoconservatives, and before them, the Communists, who believe the world should be under one moral code and one political/economic system. Christianity may have once had that hope, but hasn’t had it, probably, since the rise of Islam.

On another level, you’re asking a fundamental philosophical question: how do we reconcile the idea of an objective, universal truth or order of existence, or the idea of God, with the actual differences between human societies and their respective notions of what is good?

Let’s start with the insight that humanity is not a single community. Humanity is a collection of societies, each of which has its own order. Each society is a little cosmos, which sees truth through its own particular structure and makeup, just as individuals in the same society, and even individuals in the same family, perceive the truth differently, according to their nature and make-up. The fact that different societies see truth differently does not take away from the idea of one truth.

Truth is universal, but, on the human level on which we live, can only be expressed and known through particular forms. Rather than there being a contradiction between oneness and diversity, there is a co-existence between them—and a constant tension between them—that is built into reality.

And that by the way is how I define traditionalism: the belief in transcendent truth, and in our own particular tradition as an expression of that truth. (See Note below.)

Despite the different ways different cultures perceive truth, they all believe that there is truth, and they all seek to orient themselves toward truth. That is what all societies have in common. Within its own little cosmos, where it has influence over itself, no society is relativistic; each believes truth is absolute.

Also, there are basic moral truths that do seem to be shared among all cultures, as C.S. Lewis discusses and gives many examples of in his indispensable short book, The Abolition of Man. Stealing and murder are universally prohibited, at least among members of the same society. Agreement on these fundamentals does form some kind of basis for a common humanity, based on universal truth. But beyond those universal basics, when it comes to the actual inner life of each society, there are different orientations toward reality among different societies that make those societies incompatible with each other. An example is the relative importance of the collective and the individual. Western society (not just modern, liberal Western society, but traditional Christian Western society) makes the individual central. Non-Western societies make the collective central. These differences render Western culture and non-Western cultures incompatible with each other in a day to day sense. That’s why we need to live in different countries, each governing itself, and separated from the others by borders.

The need to adjust in practical terms to the existence of other cultures is not an argument for relativism and the non-existence of truth, though liberals constantly insist it is. We really believe that polygamy is objectively wrong, and that female genital mutilation is objectively wrong. Yet we don’t have the ability to change other cultures. We do have authority over our own culture, and thus we should exclude from our society people from cultures that practice polygamy or FGM. If our culture is strong enough to influence others, if, say, we have sufficient Christian energy to Christianize other cultures, then polygamy will be lessened in those other cultures too, and our better version of truth will spread. But that influence can never become total. Look at how Christian Africans still keep distinctively African customs, including notions of sexual behavior very different from ours.

So, a truly consistent moral system is only possible within a given society, not over the whole earth and all humanity, even while there are certain basics that all humanity can agree on.

Perhaps there is some spiritual realm beyond all diversity and particularity, where all beings perceive exactly the same truth in exactly the same way. But that would mean the end of their existence as individual beings. In any case, such a state of existence is beyond our knowing. As humans, we live in the world where the tension between universal truth and its particular manifestations is ever-present.

* * *

Another point. You write:

Culture provides a set of “shoulds,” and so does the truth. So what happens when these conflict? Assuming that our culture/civilization has the truth, or is closer to the truth than others, how can we say that they should live their way and we should live our way when there is only one truth?

First, the conflict you describe exists not just between our culture (which in your model presumably embodies truth) and other cultures; it exists between our actual culture and the truth that is above it. There is always a tension between our ideals and what we are. We use the ideals to criticize and judge and guide what we are. Without that tension, we would have no standards to go by. But the tension must be maintained, not allowed to be broken. Liberals (including many liberals who are called conservatives) break the tension by using the ideal to delegitimize what we are. Many paleoconservatives break the tension by rejecting any universal truth and reducing society to tribalism and genes.

Second, returning to our relations with other cultures, I don’t think we should say that “they should live their way.” It is not our place to do that. We are responsible for our way. We should not be in the business of affirming or validating their way. That’s their business. Rather, we accept, as a pragmatic matter, that they have their way, and we make whatever adjustments are needed for ordinary relations. In the multicivilizational mankind that we actually live in, we can only be responsible for our civilization, while affirming that limited set of universals that are common to all.

I don’t know if I have satisfactorily answered your questions. I am not satisfied myself. Feel free to reply.


Note: Some people are suspicious of my speaking of “transcendent truth” rather than God. There are two reasons I do this. First, there is a need for generic language that defines traditionalism as a general concept, not just our tradition. Second, even our own tradition is not defined exclusively by Christianity. So I use a term, “transcendent truth,” that includes the God of Judaism and Christianity but also may include other transcendent, though not necessarily biblical, aspects of our tradition such as philosophy and Romanticism.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 27, 2009 04:32 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):