Realism in an Age of Relativism

Anyone who has ever seen a painting by J. M. W. Turner knows very well how a stirring spectrum of colors, and the magnificent interplay of light and shade, was employed by that artist to imitate the heartbreaking beauty of the natural world. At times, Turner’s fascination with elaborate skyscapes earned him the rebuke of critics, to the point that the famous Victorian essayist John Ruskin—moved by the need to defend one of his heroes—wittily retorted: “The first and principal thing to be submitted is, that the clouds are there.” In these few simple words, Ruskin encapsulated a moral and intellectual posture—an argument that appeals to reason and all common sense—which would have been honored in nearly every quarter of the Christian world for twenty successive centuries, until our own. What I mean, of course, is Ruskin’s uncompromising acceptance of something that corresponds to an objective reality—his acceptance of that which is real.

Now, I am by no means a professional art critic, and this article does not purport to examine the merits of Realism in painting, or literature, any other particular discipline of the arts. I am concerned more broadly with the first and essential disposition of the human mind, according to the use of which a man will permit himself the foundations for freedom, or else imprison his faculties in the morbidities of skepticism and despair. Since there are, in fact, so many peculiar definitions of Realism floating abroad in the world, let me make my own position perfectly clear.

When I speak of Realism, I mean, principally, that the things we see, and hear, and can understand through the logical exercise of memory, imagination, and the rational powers of the mind are, as Ruskin says, really there. In other words, I accept, in the sense of Aquinas, that the faculties with which we have been endowed by our Creator provide us with the necessary equipment to know true things about the world we inhabit. It is not only a question of sensory perception, but also of the ability of a healthy individual to accurately identify certain abstract truths.

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To most people, I would assume, this is a matter of stating the obvious. The practical experience of running into a sturdy wall, or of running too quickly through the balance of a monthly budget, is generally enough to convince an individual of the firm reality of things he once doubted. But the obvious has often been missed by the experts; and so it is not out of place to admit that there have been, and continue to be, certain souls who would argue for peculiar doctrines. There are some who profess that men cannot accurately know anything. There are others who say that men can know, but only by strictly entombing themselves in the haunted chambers of their own minds. There are especially those who refuse to admit that the expression of one discrete fact precludes the simultaneous avowal of its own contradiction. Thankfully, there are very few, except for philosophers and cranks, who take any notice of such theories in the absolute sense. However, there are many disparate ways such nonsense writhes its way into the life of the world, and it has done so with such success in the modern age as to fashion a slowly churning mire of corrosive complexities and confusions.

Let us consider a few simple examples. In the professional study of history, we find deepening claims that academics and authors exist not only to investigate and record history, but actually to create it. History, it is said, is in the eye of the beholder; and he who is strong enough must reinvent or reinterpret it to fit the supposed consciousness of the times. This is the accepted meaning of partisans and deconstructionists from Karl Marx to Michel Foucault. But such an approach to the study of history is patently absurd. These things really happened once; these people really existed; they are real. History, properly speaking, cannot be duplicated, and it cannot be remade. Historians may not be able to reconstruct events perfectly from the extant evidence, but their central goal should be to try. That they lack the facts necessary to complete the puzzle set before them does not make the puzzle an illusion, nor does it provide justification for anyone to imagine a hundred possible solutions to the puzzle and subsequently treat them all as true. For if a historian can convince himself—and the unsuspecting reader—that he can remake history to suit any purpose, he will find that he has granted himself an enormous, and tyrannous, power.

The Catholic mind naturally abhors such a usurpation and denial of truth; but it shall sadly find that the same self-serving technique has wormed its way into numerous popular notions of the human good. Indeed, this feature of modern discourse is so common as to make it almost unnecessary to mention. In matters of ethics or morals, how often have we encountered that meaningless rebuke: “That might be true for you, but not for me…”? It is taken by many as a presupposition unworthy of argument, and a principle invincible to any dissent, that there is no best way to live a life—that there is nothing we can definitively pronounce healthful, or wise, or decent for all human beings, and conducive to their final beatitude. Yet, the only sane answer to this kind of equivocation is the one given by C. S. Lewis in his apocalyptic novel That Hideous Strength: “There are a dozen views about everything until you know the answer. Then there’s never more than one.”

Pathological doubt and cynicism, which is the ugly foundation of all forms of relativism, will lead to no good end. “A man who attempted to carry out in his life the thought truth is impossible for me would inevitably lose his reason,” observed Jacques Maritain. Accordingly, “Nietzsche, who was a great poet, but regarded belief in truth as the ultimate bondage from which the world should be delivered, made the experiment as his cost.”

In this sense, historical subjectivism, political pragmatism, ethical relativism, intellectual nominalism and skepticism, and a host of other raw spiritual infirmities are the fruit of the same poisonous tree. I do not mean to blur important distinctions about the origin and influence of very different trends; but I cannot help express my overriding belief that these errors are absolutely and necessarily connected—they are all, in their way, negations. Each of these philosophical whirlpools are rooted in a willful rejection of something that every human being has encountered under some aspect: a denial of being, a denial of intelligibility in things; a denial of conscience; a denial of abiding virtue and objective morals; and, ultimately, a denial of God.

I do not, of course, imply that all individuals who have adopted, or intermittently expressed, parts of these worldviews are hopeless reprobates. On the contrary, we have all indulged in sentimental tomfoolery and relativistic banter on variable occasions; and by no means ought we exclude the many legitimate opportunities for opinion and taste built into the nature of the world. In the communion of saints, whose splendor and intercession we have celebrated this month, we find the epitome of individuality and multitudinous beauty. But it is the beauty of the fullness of being; it is the beauty of diverse expressions of that Faith, Hope, and Charity that find their perfect union in the Trinity. The glory of difference between saints—I implore you to understand—is not akin to the diversity of being and nothingness; it is not like the diversity of knowledge and nihilism; it is not a mingling and admixture of that final and irreducible chasm between Heaven and Hell. The saints are plainly on the side of Reality, and the void lies distant and beneath.

Therefore, we need not always stand in gloomy fear of our apprehensions and judgments. We look for wisdom; we look for truth; we guard ourselves from errant distortions and self-deceptions. Yet, we are not afraid, when the occasion calls for such testimony, to affirm that “the clouds are there.”

Editor’s note: The above image entitled “Raby Castle, the Seat of the Earl of Darlington” was painted by Joseph Mallord William Turner in 1817.


  • James P. Bernens

    James P. Bernens graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 2008. He also holds a J.D. from the William & Mary School of Law, and is completing an M.A. in philosophy at Boston College.

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