I have drawn considerable inspiration from John Carroll’s book The Wreck of Western Culture. Readers of this blog will recognize his name by this time. He is an Australian sociologist who writes with clarity and insight. After finishing his latest book I decided to take a look at an earlier attempt, this time Ego and Soul, in which Carroll clarifies his notion of what culture is and why he is concerned about its demise. I discovered that he not only embraces the notion of truth (gasp!) but also the notion of soul (double gasp!!) which he carefully distinguishes from ego and which he is convinced is not only very real but also immortal. In a word, the man is out of the intellectual mainstream and has the courage to defend ideas that most “thinking persons” would reject with a snicker. That’s what makes him interesting and thought-provoking. Accordingly, I thought I would share some of his remarks about the “three levels of truth.” The first level is ordinary truths which we call “facts,” such as “The president tweeted again today.” The second level of truth has to do with “a body of cardinal laws” about which has this to say:
“The backbone of the ethical order is a body of cardinal laws. They are universal; that is, they are found in every human society. They include ‘thou shalt not kill’; ‘thou shalt not strike or damage another human being without due cause’; thou shalt protect the innocent’; thou shalt not betray trust’; and ‘thou shall not lie about important things.” These laws constrain all humans, except those whom we classify as ‘psychopaths’ — people who transgress major interdicts without conscience. [Who might that be??] . . .
“In the West, the recognition that all humans are equal in terms of the cardinal moral laws and some of their derivatives, has come to be called ‘universal human rights.’ These apply irrespective of tribe, ethnicity, age, sex, status, wealth, or power.
“This is an exceptional historical development. Humans have generally been tribal. The tribal view constrains me to treat members of my own tribe, nation, or culture justly, but those outside may be dealt with by looser standards. Outsiders — distinguished disparagingly as barbarians, gentiles, heathens, infidels, or savages — are legitimate prey to my self-interest.
“It is only since the mid-twentieth century that a belief in universal human rights has become predominant in the West. This is one of Western Civilization’s great achievements. It has its sources in the teachings of Jesus and in classical Greek philosophy, consolidated in the European Enlightenment and, since then, developed into a staple of liberal-democratic political form.”
The third, or highest form of truth is Culture. These are truths that come to us in “stories and myths, images, rhythms, and conversations that voice the eternal and difficult truths on which deep knowing and therefore wellbeing, is dependent.” And these are the truths that seem to have died out with the death of religion and humanism, as Carroll examines that topic in his latest book. In his earlier book he hints at what the problem might be and he lays the blame clearly at the feet of the colleges and universities whose role has been, from the Middle Ages, to protect and conserve culture and pass it on to subsequent generations. About this, Carroll has this to say:
“The great weakness in the West over the last century has been in the domain of Culture. The mainstream of literature, art, music, and philosophy has largely abandoned its mission to retell the timeless stories in new ways, and to interpret them. It has betrayed its responsibility to help people make sense of their lives and times. In its relativisms, surrealisms, deconstructionisms, and postmodernisms it has denied that there are fundamental truths. It has sometimes even denied that there are universal moral truths.”
Indeed, since Carroll wrote this book in 2008 one could say without fear of contradiction that the failure of the colleges and universities has become even greater and that the denial of truth has escaped from the citadels of “higher learning” and now have found firm ground in the “real world,” especially in the world of business and politics. But that’s another story. For now it suffices to say that when John Carroll, sociologist and student of human collective behavior, worries that our culture is floundering, if not dying, we need to take heed. At the very least, we must embrace the fact that there are truths, even truths about what is right and what is wrong. We prefer to think truth is all subjective — perhaps because that makes us feel good about ourselves — but it is not.
Moreover, we need to think beyond our narrow selves, our egos which drive us to succeed, and embrace others and the world as a whole. Because it is only when humans balance ego with soul — that which makes us part of the entire human community and, indeed, a part of the whole of existence — that we can become happy and at peace with ourselves and the world. As Carroll would have it:
“It is the business of each culture, at home in its own backyard, to cultivate its singular understandings of mortal life. It is the business of all humans, wherever they dwell, to defend cardinal moral laws and universal human rights.”