“The master heresy is subjectivism. It is the parent of all the others, for only after the objective truth is denied are we “free” to recreate new “truths” in the image of our own desires. Only when we fall asleep to the real world are we “free” to dream nightmare worlds into being.”
-Peter Kreeft, C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium
“There is some ultimate identification of goodness and truth, so that he who ignores or loses faith in the former can by no possible means save the latter.”
-Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences
“It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.”
There have been lots of explanations for the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century, but one of the best explanations has gone largely unexamined: “subjectivism”. According to the late philosopher, Ronald Nash, subjectivism is “a theory that human beliefs about truth and morality are true when we like them or have positive feelings about them.” In contrast, Nash says, “a claim or moral principle is objective if its truth is independent of human preference and desire.” (Life’s Ultimate Questions, pg. 392). Totalitarianism, on the other hand, is defined by Google as, “a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.”
So what does this “subjectivism” thing have to do with totalitarianism? In 1943, C.S. Lewis, in his essay “The Poison of Subjectivism”, sought to explain and warn us of the ominous relationship between the two. Lewis explains that while the greed and pride of men have always been a harmful factor in our societies, at various points in history the addition of a false philosophy has eroded the normal barriers to such vices. He notes that while good philosophy or “correct thinking” wont change a person’s heart, “a purely theoretical error may remove ordinary checks to evil and deprive good intentions of their natural support.” Lewis argues that the poison of subjectivism “goes deeper and spreads wider” than the power philosophies of the Totalitarian states but nonetheless gave these philosophies their golden opportunity.
Lewis makes the case that subjectivism concerning theoretical reason (logic) can only be flirted with since the subjectivists are forced to “assume the validity of [their] own logic (in the stout old fashion of Plato or Spinoza) even in order to prove that it is merely subjective”. Thus, subjectivism concerning theoretical reason eats itself and is reduced to an absurdity. When it comes to practical reason (i.e. value judgements), however, subjectivism has thrived in modern times. Lewis says that from this “apparently innocent idea comes the disease that will certainly end our species (and, in [his] view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose it’s ‘ideology’ as men choose their clothes.” He goes on to remind us that while we all experience righteous indignation when we hear that Hitler tried to redefine justice as “that which is to the interest of the Third Reich”, unless we believe in an objective moral standard outside ourselves, and above and beyond our societies, we have no ground to stand on when criticizing him.
Subjectivism, while apparently innocuous, actually provides fertile soil for Nietzsche’s Übermensch, his transvaluation of values, and the rise of totalitarianism. Another prophet of the 1940’s, George Orwell, warns us of the poison of subjectivism, whether self-consciously or otherwise, in his classic novel, 1984. Orwell’s famous dystopian novel, written 5 years after Lewis’s essay, and published in 1949, echoes the thrust of Lewis’s argument in a horrifying dialogue between the protagonist, Winston, and his tormentor and re-conditioner, O’Brien. Winston is captured by the state for thought crime and is tortured both physically and psychologically by O’Brien, a member of the inner party. Orwell makes no distinction between epistemological subjectivism and ethical subjectivism, he takes us right to the end product, the state controls all beliefs and conditions its citizens to affirm them.
At the climax of Winston’s psychological torture, O’Brien says, “When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.” (1984, pg. 125).
Orwell perfectly depicts the aftermath from drinking the poison of subjectivism. When objective truth and morality are jettisoned, Nietzsche’s supermen will inevitably rise as the conditioners of humanity, seeking to remake men in their own image. As Lewis notes, “Many a popular ‘planner’ on a democratic platform, many a mild-eyed scientist in a democratic laboratory means, in the last resort, just what the Fascist means. He believes that ‘good’ means whatever men are conditioned to approve. He believes that it is the function of him and his kind to condition men; to create consciences by eugenics, psychological manipulation of infants, state education and mass propaganda.”
While Lewis has shown that subjectivism concerning truth is a much harder pill to swallow than subjectivism concerning values, as Richard Weaver notes, “There is some ultimate identification of goodness and truth, so that he who ignores or loses faith in the former can by no possible means save the latter.” (Ideas Have Consequences, pg.133). As objective morality crumbles, objective truth crumbles shortly after.
Today lots of people are tossing around words like “fascist”, “totalitarian”, “dictator”, “Nazi” and the like. We are ever vigilant in impugning the motives of our political enemies, but if we’re really concerned to fight the resurgence of totalitarianism, maybe we should listen to the wisdom of men like Orwell and Lewis. Maybe it’s time to return to a belief in objective morality and truth.
(You can find Lewis’s essay in “The Poison of Subjectivism” in Christian Reflections. Grab your copy Here to support my blogs)