We are all Pontius Pilates now

When Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?”, the question was rhetorical.

Pilate didn’t expect an answer and neither did he believe a universal answer was possible. He was a Hellenic Roman, and truth to him was strictly relative. What’s true for the goose might not be true for the gander, and vice versa.

Thus the good Procurator held it as true that Jesus wasn’t guilty of the charges brought up by the Sanhedrin. However, he acknowledged that Annas and Caiaphas perceived truth differently, and they were entitled to enforce their own version.

Pilate’s truth was relative; Jesus’s was absolute. That gives us two possible starting points for any ratiocination, and the choice of one or the other will eventually get us to very different intellectual destinations.

Western civilisation, which term I use interchangeably with Christendom, based its thought on one metaphysical premise; the civilisations that both preceded and followed it, on another.

The Christian metaphysical premise was based on the certainty that there is such a thing as absolute truth. Not everyone knew it, but everyone knew it was knowable.

That certainty started in the church, but it didn’t end there. Belief in ultimate truth gave Western thought in general a discipline unique to it. It channelled the intellect into a teleological conduit, one not only with a beginning but also with an end.

Christendom gave Greek philosophy a new, probably longer, life, by streamlining it into a shape that fit the new conduit. It was in that sense that “Aquinas baptised Aristotle”.

The art of rhetoric is an essential adjunct to philosophy, or thought in general. Rhetoric turns knowledge into argument – it’s the cutting edge of thought, lopping off everything extraneous to the truth or detrimental to it.

The realisation that there exists such a thing as the ultimate and universal truth affected rhetoric as well. It acquired a new reservoir of energy, more clout to its punch.

All this is seldom talked about. People acknowledge effortlessly that Christianity created a new way of life. Yet they sometimes fail to realise that it also created a new way of thought – and it continued to provide that service long after the original inspiration was no longer acknowledged.

Natural sciences, for example, owe so much to Christian thought as to owe it practically everything. Even scientists who don’t believe in the existence of a universal, rational law-giver still have to believe in the existence of universal, rational laws, for otherwise their work would be impossible.

That’s why scientific progress is a uniquely Western phenomenon, or as near as damn. Like the light of a faraway star reaching the Earth millions of years after the star died, Christian thought continued to sustain the Western intellect for a long time after Christianity lost its commanding influence.

Yet for a long time doesn’t mean indefinitely. As the Western intellect moved further and further away from its source, the gravitational pull of that source weakened. Weakening in parallel with it was the intellect itself – not to cut too fine a point, Westerners were becoming dumber.

Ignoring Thomas à Kempis’s entreaty to imitate Christ, modern people choose to imitate Pilate instead. They too are perfectly capable of asking Pilate’s sneering question. They too have allowed the absolute truth first to be smashed into the fragments of little relativities, and then to be buried underneath them.

Not everyone can diagnose the resulting intellectual malaise, nor understand its aetiology. But everyone can observe its symptoms: most people happily spout rubbish on every subject under the sun.

The phrase “I’m entitled to my own opinion” has gained the currency it never used to have. Such entitlement used to be contingent on knowledge and wisdom. It wasn’t a natural right held by everyone equally.

That phrase can be transformed, without changing its meaning, into another: “There is no such thing as truth; there’s only individual perception of it.” You have your perception, I have mine, they have theirs, and those are all equally valid because each of us has an equal right to his own opinion. Let’s agree to disagree.

I’ve seen studies showing a steady decline of median IQ scores over the past few generations. I’d be surprised if this weren’t the case, but it’s not IQ scores that matter. For IQ measures the potential, not the actual ability, to think – and certainly not the knack for basing judgement on sound ratiocination.

Without that ability the cutting edge of thought, rhetoric, becomes hopelessly dull. Listening to most people argue these days, one realises that they don’t differentiate feeling from opinion, opinion from judgement and judgement from argument.

Yet these are all unskippable stepping stones on the path to truth. Anyone trying to jump over them will splash down into an intellectual mire every time. And anyone will launch himself into such a daring leap who doesn’t believe truth exists – ultimate, universal and unvarnished.

If you insist that I illustrate such sweeping observations with specific examples, all I can suggest is that you pick at random any of my posts over the past 10 years. They all focus on examples of idiocy in public life and in public media.

Having closely followed the Western press for half a century, I’m struck by a steady decline in its intellectual content – this irrespective of the publication’s politics. Rhetorical fallacies, specious arguments, illogical conclusions, slipshod argumentation abound, the way they didn’t 50 years ago.

And the process has an accelerator built in. Western thought is like a snowball rolling down the mountain slope and getting bigger and bigger until it goes over the edge and disintegrates down below.

My new year’s wish is for more people to stop imitating Pontius Pilate, even if they aren’t ready to imitate Christ. And to my readers specifically I wish a Happy New Year marked by looking for and finding the truth.

6 thoughts on “We are all Pontius Pilates now”

  1. Your closing sentiment is welcome and, for myself, wholeheartedly accepted, even if the argument that leads you to it is largely rejected. I wish you and yours a happy new year and good health.

  2. But most people these days do believe in a universal, absolute truth; materialism. Indeed, perhaps it would have been for the best if the relativism of the Hellenic world had remained unchallenged. Perhaps it would have saved us from the absolutist horrors of communism.

    1. Only stupid people do. Clever ones notice that materialist truth changes all the time. Just look at science — today’s truths become tomorrow’s antiquities. They may still remain materialists, but surely they must see the relativism of it all. Even communism wasn’t absolutist — its founders preached that workers have one truth, and capitalists another. A lie may be sold as an absolute truth, but in the eating that pudding always turns out rancid.

  3. Philosophy is not and has not been taught in American public schools for 50 years. If it were, then students would learn in their first semester that Plato showed relativism has no basis in logic or ethics. They would then be forced to look elsewhere.

    As to your closing wishes, the second I accept and return to you with heartfelt thanks. As to the first, I shall occasionally try and always fail, but try again for the sake of my family and my soul.

    1. I’m not so sure of the social utility of philosophy. It is my understanding that that subject has been compulsory for French pupils since the 19th century. A measure which does not seem to have immunised France from today’s malaise. But then I suppose France has produced Michel Houellebecq; a writer who for over two decades has vividly illustrated the mutation of his nation. The trouble is he has no solution for the problem.

  4. Great writing Alexander! Christian thought about Truth has lost out heavily in the arts, and especially in regard to the visual arts where Post-Modernism has redefined aesthetics. Here in Queensland, for example, the year 12 Visual Arts Educational Board set exams only has images of work to appreciate and analyse done in the last two decades. The past is gone, the Renaissance does not exist even Chagall is gone; only the present mess remains. Generation Z and Alpha know there is no absolute truth, and they are certain about that!

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