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When Man is the Measure of All Things

via Crisis Magazine

by Dr. Stephen Krason

stephen krason

The distinguished political philosopher Leo Strauss was supposed to have said that the only two things in life really worth talking about are God and politics. That’s because at a most fundamental level they are inextricably intertwined. A skewed notion of the very nature of God and whether man acknowledges him—or tries to substitute himself for God—is at the crux of the turmoil, fanaticism, and destructiveness of the politics of our day and of much of the last hundred years.

This is seen well in two books of the last decade. Robert R. Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind (2010) finds the roots of what it calls “the modern Islamist crisis” that has turned the Middle East upside down and spawned the international terrorist threat in crucial developments in Islamic thought and theology of a thousand years ago. Within Sunni Islam, the earlier influences of Aristotelian—or any—philosophy were dispelled and a notion of God as pure and absolute will became permanently entrenched. This meant that no act by its nature is good or evil. Something is good or evil only because God—Allah—decreed it to be so, and He could easily decree just the opposite. This means that there is no genuine morality, no freedom of conscience, no role for reason, and no free will for men. At bottom, this is pure moral relativism. Nothing is intrinsically right or wrong; God can go either way. As Reilly puts it, this makes God a Nietzschean, a “legal positivist,” and a Thrasymachean (“might makes right’). The ruling morality comes forth only from revelation, as explicated by Islam’s legal schools and clerical figures—backed up by supportive political powers. Moral and theological positions cannot be sustained by reason—that isn’t possible—but only, in the end, by force. To be sure, Reilly says this perspective is not intrinsic to Islam, but controls Sunni thought.

It’s not hard to see what this perspective leads to: the unquestioned following of brutal charismatic fanatics like Osama bin Laden, the kidnapping and enslaving of schoolgirls and chaining of pregnant women to prison floors for presumed “apostasy,” terrorist movements that have no compunction about killing innocent people, and totalist states. Representative government, in fact, has been a rarity in the Islamic world (Reilly tells us that it’s seen as a challenge to Allah’s sovereignty). After all, the proper relationship between God and Caesar cannot prevail when man has the wrong conception of God. While everything is done in the name of God, men—especially those who get enough power—effectively “become” God.

My colleague Prof. Benjamin Wiker, in his 2008 book 10 Books that Screwed Up the World (And 5 Others That Didn’t Help), shows the widespread deleterious influence of the writings of leading modern Western thinkers, most of whom are categorized as political philosophers. What he identifies as the common theme running through the likes of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, J.S. Mill, Lenin, and Hitler (in Mein Kampf) is that there is no morality above man, because there is no God ruling over men. When God is abandoned, it is inevitable that morality is abandoned. So often, we encounter someone who will say that men can be moral and not be believers. Some will even make the claim that the great Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle illustrate this—ignoring the facts that Socrates said he was directed by God, Plato’s “Good” animating all of existence was stumbling in the direction of God, Aristotle’s proving of the existence of God by natural reasoning, and that piety was a great virtue for these and other great ancient philosophers. In fact, relatively few men can be moral without religious belief, and the ones that are tend to have glaring gaps. The more traditional the religion, the sounder its moral code.

The implication for politics of putting man in place of God, Wiker tells us, was the rise of modern ideologies (like communism, fascism, and Nazism)—which were, in essence, substitute human-fashioned religions—and the aggressive, brutal, and totalist states that came with them. The results, then, were the same as with Islamism. The only difference is that here men outright rejected God. Man becomes God in all but name.

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