Charles Frankel: What We Suffer from Today

“What we suffer from today,” GK Chesterton once wrote, “is humility in the wrong place. … A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. … The old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”

Charles Frankel, in The Case for Modern Man, writes:

In a modern culture everything is relative and nothing is absolute. We have no first principles, no ultimate values, no unshakable commitments, no conviction that there is any final meaning to life. In the end, on any moral issue, we have no alternative but merely to shrug our shoulders and express a preference—for freedom or toleration if we happen to feel differently. As a result, our homes are without discipline, our schools without clear purposes, our foreign policy weak and spineless. There is a cynicism in our personal moralities, opportunism in our politics, and a general sense of aimlessness and drift in our daily lives. And worst of all, we have succumbed to this case of galloping skepticism as a matter of principles. For we live under the spell of a philosophy which has turned disrespect for authority into a virtue, and made us all fearful about believing in anything.

… It begins with the obvious point that any human society is a structure of “authority.” It contains, that is to say, a certain hierarchical structure. Some people command, others obey; or, if it is a completely egalitarian society, there are, at any rate, certain general rules to which everyone is expected to submit. However, submission to these rules, as Professor Maritain points out, can obviously take place for different reasons. It can be coerced or it can be something to which people consent. A society can be tyrannical or it can rest on the willing and voluntary agreement of its members. But if it is the latter, then those who submit have to believe that it is for some good purpose. And so they have to have values, and they have to believe in those values.

… If men have to believe in values … then they have to be convinced that is it not just their own individual interests, or the temporary fashions of their community, that are involved. They have to be convinced that the values which justify the exercise of social authority, and their own submission to it, rest on something outside themselves, something that is eternal and unchanging.