On the Strange Function of Absolutes

Most people today “absolutely” maintain that they do not hold or live by “absolutes.” They live by their desires and choices, which are readily changeable. No one is much bothered by the “logic” of his own views. The proposition that “No absolutes exist” is itself an absolute. If it is true, an absolute exists. If it is false to maintain that “no absolutes exist,” lo, an absolute crops up anyhow. The mind is not easily by-passed. No one is willing to claim that his view of reality, however outlandish, has no basic foundation on which it stands. But if what it stands on is constantly changing, we hesitate to give our trust to someone whose standards are never the same two days in a row.

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal (January 8) was, with no little irony, entitled “A Jesuit School (Marquette) Gets Dogmatic.” The issues about which it was “dogmatic” or “jesuitical” were these: 1) whether a student could state in class what in effect the Church teaches on “same-sex marriage,” and 2) whether a professor could strive to protect the student’s freedom so to speak or write on the subject at hand. It turns out that the student was not free to state his views, while the supporting professor was fired. Out of this morass, naturally, comes a series of suits in court, the last of which we have not yet seen.

The lack of freedom of speech on college campuses in recent years is well-known and sometimes even lamented. Reason itself has come to be declared unreasonable. What is it, we sometimes wonder, that makes “absolutes” such a dicey topic? The country once affirmed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” That position was an affirmation of absolutes. It is probably not surprising that, if no absolutes exist, life and liberty will soon cease to be absolutes. We will be able to “experiment” with them, suppress them, if we desire to do so. They no longer have their prohibitive force.

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The Marquette incident provides one way of seeing what is at stake. A professor in class states that an issue is not “open to debate.” Everyone recognizes that all issues cannot be reasonably debated at all times. That too is but another form of academic chaos. What is called “critical thinking” is often based on a philosophical premise that no truth can be found, only endless queries, never anything definitive. Not all speech is reasonable, though, with some effort, all speech is understandable. “Rules of order” in parliaments and debates were not invented for nothing. They exist in order that reason may prevail.

What is curious about absolutes is that they are most needed when they are most denied. Many a disordered soul has testified over the ages that they hoped that at least the Church would not change its teachings on basic issues of human nature. The reason for upholding the absolute, even if few observed it, is this: If the organization that professes to stand for what cannot he otherwise in human nature itself changes, the last hope of getting out of one’s present disordered life would disappear. We would find ourselves trapped in our own relativisms. Why is it that we never hear it said, that the way to get rid of thievery is to affirm the principle that it is always right to steal what we need? But then I forget Proudhon’s “property is theft”—another absolute.

Samuel Johnson once dined with a gentleman who insisted at table that all property ownership was, in principle, wrong. Johnson did not debate this absolute position. Rather he suggested to the hostess, that, when the meal was over, she should count her silverware. That is, if the man were logical in his beliefs, there was no reason why, along with the dining, he should not take off with the silverware as it did not in theory belong to the household but was common to everyone.

Absolutes have a “strange” function. The existence of absolutes never implied that everyone, or anyone, would, without question, observe them. “Thou shalt not steal” was not written by someone unaware of the fact that some form of theft has occurred in all societies of men. Absolutes are statements of reason that defy us to contradict or break them with no consequences to ourselves or others. They stand for a better way while we are trying sundry devious ways.

Absolutes will not leave us alone. While it is true, beginning with Plato, that perfect systems can be insufferable, it is likewise true that kingdoms without absolutes likewise tend to insufferability. The human condition in every land and era bears the mark of fallen-ness, of a disorder of soul that needs a guide, a reminder of what it is to be rightly ordered. When a professor in a class at Marquette or anywhere else maintains “that a student could not express his disagreement with same-sex marriage in her ethics class because it was ‘homophobic’ and on that issue there could be no debate,” we know that we have not met a relativist but a new form of absolutism.

The strange function of absolutes again turns out to be to decide which absolute is in fact reasonable, true. This endeavor was once conceived to be the function of a university. Both absolutes could not be true. The absolute that was true would not always or even usually win the debate or the heart. But it did prod the mind that came to see what chaos was introduced into human living when there was no absolute that was in fact true, that was in fact an absolute.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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