A term paper on Aristotle ended with the following sentence, not in quotation marks: “After all, a good man can only be truly good in the company of other good men.” The sentence struck me. Was it a citation from some place? I checked Google. The references it gave were no help. Many passages used the phrase “a few good men.” Selectivity was not the point of this passage, which was rather that a good man cannot be truly good by himself alone. To know and practice many of the highest virtues, if not all of them, we “need” others; or better, we rejoice in the company of others who are also good.
On the student’s paper I wrote that both Socrates and Christ were good men in the company of bad men. Both men also had relatively good men immediately around them. We hesitate to say that unless we have good men around us, we cannot be good. Such a position would justify too many bad deeds. It would make our actions depend on our friends. Still, at the end, even the apostles fled Christ, and the potential philosophers, after doubting his reasonableness, merely wept when Socrates drank the hemlock by himself.
The cited passage does refer, however, to Aristotle’s insight that we can be good more easily if we do have about us friends who are good. We not only need to be good but we need to see examples of goodness in the lives of others. Abstract ideas are usually not enough. We need stories and concrete examples of what it is really about. We are not alone in the highest things.
But what if everything is relative? What, as often happens today, if your definition of good and mine are the exact opposite? Are you “good” in your way and I in my way? Can we not just agree to let the obvious differences go, since the truth of what is objectively good does not matter, cannot even be established? I respect your opinion; you respect mine. That is the modern way. Do not allow the word “truth” even to be spoken. Declare its pronunciation a crime. Not only can we not come to any agreement about what is or is not good, but we do not think an agreement is even possible. It has no theoretically objective basis.
The Holy Father recently received the new Korean ambassador to the Holy See. In his remarks to Ambassador Kim, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Regrettably, in our contemporary pluralistic world some people question or even deny the importance of truth. Yet objective truth remains the only sure basis for social cohesion. Truth is not dependent upon consensus but precedes it and makes it possible, generating authentic human solidarity.” He adds: “The Church . . . proclaims the truth about the human person as known by natural reason and fully manifested through divine revelation.” One may be able to ignore the divine revelation part, but not the claim to a truth proclaimed by “human reason.” It is the Church that takes the lead in proclaiming reason.
What does one mean by “social cohesion” depending on “objective truth”? Many maintain that objective truth makes social cohesion impossible. To grant this latter view, of course, means to deny implicitly that mind is mind. Any agreement not based on truth or reason can only be fragile. Prevalent opinion, in fact, holds contradictory views. We cannot simply pretend that these opposite views make no difference. If one person thinks it is a human being and another does not, we cannot really say, “Well, let’s just agree to disagree.” Actions follow from both views, actions that necessarily must require a decision about which view is correct.
We hear much of “consensus.” Benedict is very careful: 1) Truth does not arise from consensus. 2) Truth precedes consensus. 3) Truth makes consensus possible. That is, what we really want is a basis for agreement that is not simply subjective. We want to be responsible for our actions because they are based on truth, not just on our sentiment or feelings. But we cannot escape via the tolerance route from the questions of what are we doing. What is the object of our actions? Actions do have consequences. We need to know what we intend to do, what we actually do, and what happens when done.
What would a “company of good men” who agree that there is no objective truth be about? Could they really be friends? What would they talk about? They would evidently have to go along with whatever was proposed, whatever it was. There would be no real restriction. The usual caveat, “so long as it does not harm another,” really does not hold. Where does that principle come from? What makes it binding if there is no truth? It actually makes everyone cooperative in each other’s evils, which remain beyond consensus.
If truth is not dependent on consensus, it exists even when the consensus is that it does not exist. Actions carry their own consequences, because they contain their own order or disorder. The company of good men depends on truth, or it cannot really be a company.
Without an agreement on truth, no “social cohesion” is possible.
Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., teaches political science at Georgetown University. His latest book, The Order of Things, is recently published by Ignatius Press.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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