One of the most astute “sign readers” of today is the reigning Pope. Here is one of Benedict XVI’s most startling yet accurate readings: “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goals one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” If I might put it into less philosophical terms, what the Holy Father is telling us is that Western culture is descending into barbarism.
We tend to associate barbarism with images of primitive savages looting and pillaging villages, razing the walls of cities, and enslaving women and children. However, the Holy Father is suggesting here an entirely new kind of barbarism, one with a distinctly spiritual character. Civility is the quality of soul and society by which we recognize not only that other people exist, but also that they have the right to our courtesy, dignity, and respect. Civilization, then, as the opposite of barbarism, is founded upon the recognition of the dignity and rights of the other. Thus, a culture in which “the highest goals [are] one’s ego and one’s own desires” is the very definition of barbaric.
The philosophical barbarian does not wish to have any external demands imposed upon him, for he desires all of reality to conform to his presuppositions, prejudices, and plans. He is unwilling to open his soul fully to the objects and entities around him, for he does not trust that any good will come to himself from such vulnerability. Instead of accepting the imposition of an objectively real world with infinite plenitude and profundity, he imposes upon it his paltry perspective, thereby rejecting a rich, resplendent reality for a scanty and superficial one. He reduces reality to the size of his shrunken soul. Since the less there is to know, the less there is to love, the end result of this barbaric state of soul, tantamount to staring at one’s spiritual navel, is perpetual, relentless boredom.