When Man is the Measure of All Things

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.

Then, we have today’s leftism. What stands behind it, also, are the political thinkers in Wiker’s book. In spite of the defeat of communism a generation ago, most of today’s left embraces consciously or not a vulgarized version of Marxism. Nevertheless, its inordinate regulation of the business community instead of outright government ownership, eagerness to use Corporate America to promote its cultural agenda, and readiness to tolerate such things as the shameless pressure tactics—a kind of interest-group thuggery—of what Bill Maher (hardly a conservative) called the “gay mafia” also shows a dimension of fascism. Its extreme individualism and nearly maniacal moral nihilism ring of Rousseau and Nietzsche. Its long-time obsession with overturning traditional culture bears the imprint of the other writers—who might be called cultural radicals—that Wiker profiles: Charles Darwin, Margaret Sanger, Sigmund Freud, Margaret Mead, Alfred Kinsey, and Betty Friedan. If they—and contemporary leftism—don’t provide the well-developed theoretical schemes that the architects of modern political ideologies did, the practical effects of their assault on culture have been as pronounced as the latter’s were on politics. As with modern political ideologies and the predominant strain of Islamic thought that Reilly discusses, man is the measure of all things.

As time has gone on, the opponents of traditional—that is, sound—culture have continually used the state, and even international political institutions, to further their agendas.

Even if today’s leftists are not all the thoroughgoing atheists that Communists and Nazis were and are—although contemporary leftists have become increasingly, and more openly and aggressively, secularistic—practically speaking, man has become God for them. Along with that, they too have become increasingly intolerant and repressive (consider, for example, the HHS mandate, the silencing of moral opposition to the homosexualist agenda, and the suppression of dissenting views on university campuses) and insistent on more and more centralized state power to put their objectives into practice. The outline of, once again, the totalist state comes more sharply into view.

The bottom line for the sad, chaotic, and ultimately disastrous political developments accompanying the rise of Islamism, modern political ideologies, and contemporary leftism, again, has been the fact that, one way or the other, man has tried to make himself God. To paraphrase Irving Babbitt and others, as the notion of God goes, so goes philosophy, and society and culture, and politics, and economics—the religious outlook is at the core of all other perspectives.

I recall a political philosophy professor in my undergraduate days mentioning a famous passage in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. When Prometheus thunders, “I hate all the gods,” Hermes responds, “Your words declare you stricken with no slight madness.” The professor used the passage to illustrate the problem caused by modern political thought: when man pushes aside the transcendent, his hubris takes over and calamity follows.

Editor’s note: Above is a monument composed of victims of the communist Khmer Rouge regime that terrorized Cambodia during the 1970s.

Stephen M. Krason


Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His latest book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    This article recalled for me a homily by Cardinal Ratzinger (as he then was) to Catholic members of the Bundestag in 1981:-

    “The state is not the whole of human existence and does not embrace the whole of human hope. Men and women and their hopes extend beyond the thing that is the state and beyond the sphere of political activity…This kind of politics that declares the kingdom of God to be the result of politics and distorts faith into universal primacy of the political is by its nature the politics of enslavement; it is mythological politics.

    To this, faith opposes the standard of Christian reason, which recognizes what man is really capable of creating as the order of freedom and can be content with this because it knows that man’s greater expectation lies hidden in God’s hands. Rejecting the hope of faith is at the same time rejecting the standard of political reason. To renounce the mythical hopes of a society free of domination is not resignation but honesty that maintains men and women in hope. The mythical hope of a do-it-yourself paradise can only drive people into fear from which there is no escape; fear of the collapse of their promises and of the greater void lurks behind it; fear of their own power and its cruelty.”

  • wannabeapoet

    And what is the measuring stick used by Ayn Rand? What measure is used by political conservatives who identify themselves as libertarians? And there is this: “an individual’s faith is not a requisite for good citizenship; that democratic flourishing does not require a religious citizenry; that natural rights do not require grounding in God” (George Will).

    • fredx2

      Then Will disagrees with the founders: John Adams “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

      George Washington: “And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric”

    • Dick Prudlo

      Rand, and her friends show little resemblance to conservative thought. Their undeniable and rampant individualism speaks for itself. Libertarians are to be avoided at all cocktail parties.

    • JP

      I like George Will. But Will’s secular political thought reflects the Logical Positivism of a century ago. And Max Weber had a few things to say on the subject:

      “Finally, a naive optimism may have celebrated science – that is, the technique of the mastery of life founded on science – as a path that would lead to happiness, I believe I can leave this entire question aside in light of the annihilating critique which Nietzsche has made of the “Last Man” who has discovered happiness. Who then still believes in this, with the exception of a few big babies in university chairs and editorial offices”.

      Science cannot found “values”, neither Good nor Evil. A democratic Christian society that strays from Christianity, will over time no longer be a Democracy. Our politics in the West are derived from our religious belief.

      • DE-173

        George Will is erudite and eloquent, a man whose literary gifts have allowed him to indulge many passions, but he is often wrong.

        If a person were to write incessantly on fire, speaking of the warmth and light it provides, confident in it’s ability to be deployed with precision and without peril, (especially after Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lantern and the “Windy City” was charred and smoldering), you might eventually decide that individual has a bit of pyromania. So it is with Will and government, he has a bit of statism in him.

        • ForChristAlone

          “So it is with Will and government, he has a bit of statism in him.” It’s how he’s managed to survive among the 4th estate.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Logical Positivism really received its death-blow from Quine’s 1951 paper, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”

    • DE-173

      Rand was not a libertarian (whatever that is, I’m not sure they know, given their existential squabbles that resemble a Linux users conference-Debian! Gentoo!Slackware! Mint! Ubuntu! KDE! Gnome! Mate! Cinnamon!), she explicitly despised libertarians “hippies of the right” and nobody that announces that they are going to fornicate with another woman’s husband and does it is a conservative.

      Her “Objectivism” is a mish-mash. Yes there is an objective order that exists independent of human apprehension. Entrepreneurial activity is often a heroic undertaking that upsets an ossified economic order and empowers and enriches humanity, but she made “Homo economicus” into a monstrous thing.

      However, making the human will an end in itself is anthropodolatry and rejecting the charitable impulse is an indication of a certain paucity of understanding about the human condition.

      If one finds her intellectual eccentricities and moral shortcomings appalling, understand that grew up in the workers paradise of the nascent USSR and was scandalized.

      When clerics start treating enterprise as a worthy, natural and life-sustaining activity, rather than a coarse exercise in predation, Atlas Shrugged will have no resonance among the worker bees.

      • Catholic and loving it

        You want us to sympathize with Ayn Rand’s ugly philosophy & ideas by understanding Ayn Rand’s upbringing (the scandalous USSR)? Ayn Rand was the Least “understanding” & person that ever existed; why should I have to extend understanding to her (who had one of the most Anti-Compassion ideologies)? I’ll be understanding of her out of Christian duty (love your enemies). But I’ll give you a story a man who was able to promote a radically compassionate, more challenging & fulfilling Philosophy in spite of having a worse “upbringing” (which included his immediate family dying in his early youth, Nazis killing his close friends & destroying his beloved country, plus the USSR invading & persecuting the people of his country) than Ayn Rand’s upbringing: St. John Paul II. Rand only wanted to worship herself (in her subjective “Objectivism”, she called selfishness the ultimate virtue) while John Paul was moved to love both God & others & was reflected in his philosophy. Rand’s philosophy is as ugly & destructive of the human person as Marxism.

        • DE-173

          Are you really that dense? Where did you find sympathy there?
          The point was that the USSR was the petri dish where one either became subsumed into godless communism or rebelled into a different godlessness.

  • Thomas Mellon

    The redefinition of marriage seems to me an attempt to redefine or recreate God in our own fallen image.
    Also, whilst economic Marxism may have been defeated cultural Marxism seems alive and well, but in the US and Europe, not Russia.

    • DE-173

      “Also, whilst economic Marxism may have been defeated.”

      Alas I suspect it will never be defeated. It offers a glossy false hope to the powerless and ignorant, and unlimited opportunity to the exploitative, covetous and calculating moral cretins most afflicted with Augustine’s “libido dominandi”.

  • jcbathtub

    And protestantism made it all possible

    • elarga

      For just how the Protestant rebellion poured oil on this fire, don’t miss Brad Gregory’s _Unintended Reformation_

  • JERD2

    I would add “scientism” to the list of contemporary “isms” that replace God with Man.

    We now presume that the scientific method can answer all questions because all reality is material, and the only truth is that which can be learned from dissecting the material world. We have concluded that there is no truth that transcends the limits of the scientific study of the material world.

    Ergo, there is nothing distinctive about our humanity. There is no love, hope or charity — only a will to power.

    • Catholic and loving it

      Amen. Science is good, Scientism is not. There’s way more to life than simply what lies underneath a microscope. Also, using logic, the scientific method (however useful) cannot prove itself- no matter how insistent Richard Dawkins & his followers are in opposing this. Science (the study of the limited) cannot prove itself; you cannot live on science alone, which is what Scientism proposes You need Metaphysics. Philosophy. Logic. The Infinite (as found in Mathematics & yes Religion).

  • pedroerik

    Well, I will buy the 10 Books…

    Many thanks.

  • hombre111

    Next, for Mr. Krason, and essay about how money has become the god in our modern capitalist system.

  • ForChristAlone

    “Editor’s note: Above is a monument composed of victims of the communist Khmer Rouge regime that terrorized Cambodia during the 1970s.”

    Funny, I looked at it and saw the body politic of current day America.

  • montanajack1948

    I’m confused. If the Good is not identical with God’s will, why is it not something that humans can discover for themselves, without revelation? Susan Neiman, in her book Moral Clarity, speaks to this issue and insists that our knowledge of Good and Evil is not dependent on God or on religion (including the Catholic Church), but that human reason is sufficient to the task. Is this Mr. Krason’s position, and if not, why not?