Page 10, 23rd June 2006

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Page 10, 23rd June 2006 — The deadly idea that will define the 21st century
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The deadly idea that will define the 21st century

Secularists are calling the very goodness of life into question, says the philosopher Remi Brague Wtiese do we stand today? To venture on a vast simplificaion, I would say that each century is dominated by its own particular problem. The 19th century was concerned with Justice, and the 20th with Truth. The 21st century will have to defend Life itself.

The leading issue of the 19th century was the social question. In the West, virtue was exemplified by justice towards the underprivileged, and evil by exploitation and misery. In the colonies, evil was also recognised in the inequality between governors and governed.

In the 20th century the question of Truth came to the fore, along with its shadow of Lies and Deceit. The principal concern was with those regimes driven by ideology, whether Leninist or Nazi, which claimed to be based on truths revealed by science, biology or sociology. Formerly lies had masked the truth; now ideological falsehood claimed to reveal it. The struggle was no longer between good and evil, but between truth and deception. The objection to "socialism" was not that it was bad, but rather that it did not exist. According to Solzhenitsyn, the worst suffering under an ideological regime, worse than misery or oppression, was to be obliged to lie, while the first condition for breaking free was to refuse to lie, The 21st century, as I say, will be dominated by Life itself. This does not mean, of course, that the search for justice, and the duty to tell the truth, have become superfluous; on the contrary, these imperatives will be with us as long as evil and lies exist. But while the social question has not been resolved, it has become less pressing; and while the lure of ideology has not disappeared, it is no longer supported by powerful states. On the other hand the present epoch has added another dimension to those two ancient problems of justice and truth — a dimension which, to adapt a building metaphor to a philosophical construct, may be compared, not to the appearance of another storey, but rather to works in the basement.

What are the fundamental problems of this century? I shall define the essential issue, then give examples of its relevance in various fields. The central problem is nothing less than that of the existence of man on earth;.the forms in which it appears may be discerned in the environment, nuclear weapons, demography and biology. Let as examine them in turn.

Throughout the industrial era, mankind has produced dangerous waste. It has destroyed nature's protective systems without replacing them, thus threatening the climate. It has consumed energy which cannot be replaced and which is now becoming exhausted.

Since the 1940s, with the atomic bomb, mankind has been able to destroy itself in a gigantic explosion, at any time.

Since the 1960s, with the Pill, it has also had the means of extinguishing itself discreetly and passively, perhaps without even being aware of what it is doing. .

For a long time the human race has dreamed of improving itself by eliminating "defective" individuals, and then by redefining itself according to some global plan. Since the 1980s, biology has been attempting to give it the means to achieve this end.

The basic issue facing us is no longer that of Good or Evil, nor that of Truth and Falsehood; it is that of Being and Nothingness. Nietzsche, at the end of the 19th century, had predicted that the principal problem of succeeding centuries would be what he called "nihilism". What lies at the heart of this danger? At the beginning of the 18th century Leibniz asked: "Why is there rather Something than Nothing?" — a strange question. The German philosopher went on to explain himself: "...for Nothingness is both simpler and easier than Something." Leibniz did not need to compare the two and to defend the rights or the advan

tages of "Something". For him it was selfevident that Being was worth more than Non-Being.

This obvious fact has an ancient provenance. It can be found among the Greeks and in the Bible, the two sources of European civilisation. The Greek philosophers proposed an equation — Being is good, indeed identical to the Good — or an inequation — Being is worth more than Nothingness. In the Bible the same affirmation is implied in the admiration of the Creator for his finished work: that which is already "good", taken piece by piece, is "very good" (Genesis 1:31) when seen in its totality.

• Now, though, the world goes on as though this way of looking at things had been completely lost. The question is no longer: "Why is there Something rather than Nothing?" It has become: "Is it really necessary that there should be Something rather than Nothing?"

In fact, existence is no longer considered as good in itself, but rather as morally neutral, indeed sometimes as bad. Nihilism follows the logic of this attitude, and seeks the destruction of what it considers unworthy of life. Of course it spares the present, simply because it is in the present that we live. Its principal aim is to destroy the future. Once sees this in respect of two issues: demography and ecology.

The future is now the object of an obstinate desire not to know. To put an end to all long-term speculation, it has become fashionable to quote Lord Keynes: "This long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead." This convenient escape route spares people the necessity of any reflection on what we could do now so that others might live well at a later date — or even, for this is already the issue, live at all.

We believe ourselves to be living in "enlightened" and "unbelieving" times. All "superstition" is not merely an error, but an offence against good taste. In reality, as our way of life shows, we "adults" entertain the same illusions as children. We believe in generous little goblins who, during the night, cleanse the natural world which our factories have poisoned during the day. And we believe in the stork who will bring us the babies which we have prevented from being born.

Christians can find in their faith precious antidotes against nihilism.

The ecological and demographic challenges we face are complex, and due to multiple causes — economic, political, psychological etc. The faith of Christians does not give them any special competence to speak on such subjects, still less to resolve them.

But Christians are perhaps the only people able, in a responsible fashion, to defend We. In order to do this, they must be ready, in the last analysis, to say that life is, in itself, a good. Not that it is fun — which I do not deny — but that it is good in the weightiest sense of the term, that is, not merely that it pleasant for me who am enjoying it, but that it deserves to be passed on to others.

Christians believe: (a) that the world has been created by a good and "generous" God; (b) that it is the object of a providence which does not interfere with liberty, but gives to every creature the means to desire freely what is good for itself, and (c) in particular that the liberty Liman, tarnished by sin, has been repurchased by a God of love. It follows that the Church is perhaps the only institution which can bestow, both theoretically and practically, that minimum of metaphysical ballast which Man needs in order to be able to survive nihilism.

Rend Brogue is a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne. His books include Eccentric Culture (St Augustine's Press) and The Wisdom of the World (University of Chicago Press). His latest work, The Law of God, will be published in English in March 2007.




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