Seeking certainty, the great French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes (1596-1650) adopted an approach of “systematic doubt” until he reached something that he was unable to deny: “I think,” he famously said, “therefore, I am.” If he tried to doubt his own existence, he reasoned, he must exist. Otherwise, he couldn’t doubt it.
In his 2018 book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” the popular Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson recounts that, back in 1984, he too began to question everything. He was, he says, “plagued with doubt.” Having outgrown what he terms the “shallow Christianity” of his youth, religion seemed mere “wishful thinking.” Turning to socialism as an alternative, he quickly found it unsatisfying, as well.
The Cold War, he says, “obsessed” him. “It gave me nightmares. It drove me into the desert, into the long night of the human soul.” The evils and cruelties of the 20th century tormented him. “How was it that so many tens of millions had to die, sacrificed to the new dogmas and ideologies?”
“Like Descartes,” he writes, “I searched for one thing — anything — I could regard as indisputable. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. It was doubt that led me to it.”
Curiously and unexpectedly, he found his certainty in studying the crimes of Nazi Germany’s extermination camps and of the Soviet Gulag. Reading the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, it hit him that some acts are “intrinsically terrible,” and that the fact they are evil is “true essentially, cross-culturally — across time and place.” He could not doubt this.
And, he inferred, “if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good.” From this fundamental conclusion, he rebuilt his confidence. This was his rock.
Another question should immediately suggest itself to readers: How do “intrinsic” good and evil emerge from a purposeless cosmos, composed entirely, non-consciously and merely of energy and matter in motion? If that is really the kind of universe in which we live, can we really speak of “intrinsic” moral values? And if we believe them to exist, might they not suggest something really important about the universe? Where do they come from?
Peterson’s account echoes the earlier experience of the eminent Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973). When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, questions about morality that had once been merely interesting now became urgent.
"The novelty and shock of the Nazis," Auden later reflected, "was that they made no pretense of believing in justice and liberty for all, and attacked Christianity on the grounds that to love one's neighbor as oneself was a command fit only for effeminate weaklings." To his horror, this new moral doctrine “was arousing wild enthusiasm, not in some remote barbaric land outside the pale, but in one of the most highly educated countries in Europe.”
“It was impossible any longer,” remembered Auden, “to believe that the values of liberal humanism were self-evident. Unless one was prepared to take a relativist view that all values are a matter of personal taste, one could hardly avoid asking the question: ‘If, as I am convinced, the Nazis are wrong and we are right, what is it that validates our values and invalidates theirs?’”
And Communism was no more attractive to him. After all, while the Communists promised to create a future world filled with justice and love of neighbor, they also argued that, in order to do so, "one must hate and destroy some of one's neighbors now."10 comments on this story
For Auden, the decisive moment came in 1939, in a German-language cinema in Yorkville, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He was there to see a comedy. But the feature film was preceded by a newsreel, told from the Nazi point of view, about recent events on the continent. “Ordinary, supposedly harmless Germans in the audience,” Auden later recounted, “were shouting ‘Kill the Poles.’” He was horrified. But he was also puzzled. He had long since decided that morality was a human invention in a godless world, so “I wondered then why I reacted as I did against this denial of every humanistic value.”
Powerfully, it occurred to him that the Nazis depicted in that newsreel, and the reactions of some members of its audience, didn’t merely flout convention. They were genuinely, intrinsically, objectively evil. But how could that be? “The answer,” Auden said, “brought me back to the church.”