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The Universal and the Particular | What is Right for Everyone and What is Right for Us

The Universal and the Particular | What is Right for Everyone and What is Right for Us
Photo by Donald Giannatti / Unsplash

Anyone up to date on the culture or who reads relatively recent conservative writing, sees people defending Truth and Good against an onslaught of what they see as some sort of postmodernism, the death of meta-narratives and truth.

There is real Good, they say. Real Truth, and the “narratives” narrative, beyond being self-contradictory, is false and harmful. It leads to “multiculturalism,” meaning the breakdown of the societal glue that holds a people together. (Cf. The Home We Build Together by J. Sacks).

The Left, the progressives, the academy, the postmodernists imperil this Truth and Good and threaten to replace it with, well, “lived experience.” But this parsing of the situation is woefully incorrect.

We’re seeing the first glimmerings of this. The Right is defending “our way of life” not only because it is Good and True but because it is ours, while the left demands fealty to a small, shallow set of universal values.

There’s an important realization to be made here about universalism and particularity. We, those who believe in truth and good and especially those who know these are grounded in God, believe in universal truths. There exist demands binding on all because of our human nature.

All men are called to fashion themselves in God’s image. But there are many ways of doing so and particular any set of norms, values, institutions etc are deeply societally situated and particular.

There are some universals out there. Sexual pairing, for instance. Governance. The pursuit of power and the battle between self-interest and the common good. But these are general principles.

We will argue about what protecting life means, and whether a fetus at conception, at 6 weeks gestational age, at 40 days post-conception or whatever demands the same protection as a fully developed human. We will argue about this even if we agree about the principle.

This is something that gets lost in many debates - different traditions and ways of life have different ways of parsing those universal principles. Sometimes one may be "better" than another to the point where one is a distortion of the principle; sometimes one will be truer to the principle but unrealistic in a different societal milieu; but most of the time, one will be suited to one people with their particular history and another to another people. Sometimes they may just be different.

Particular rules are always dependent upon history and expectations. They are situated. Deeply situated.

There is a duality here that doesn't admit of a procedural principle that allows us to easily distinguish between the two planes. You (a devout Christian) may view any destruction of a fertilized egg as a destruction of human life and therefore murder, while I (an observant Jew) would distinguish between a human in-act and a human-in-potential, and the concomitant practical principles.

You may be convinced that I'm so wrong that my view could never be right for anyone, while I think that our principles are simply products of different cultural heritages, and both are compatible with the deeper universal.

So on the one hand we have an understanding of human nature that understands the need for some underlying demands. Virtue broadly construed, and the institutions able to make it possible, the goals of a good life.

This is called by some the “natural law” but really what it is is a recognition of God’s creation in man. Of man having a fundamental nature that admits of flourishing or wilting or even deep degeneracy. But it also admits that there can be widely differing ways of life.

So some things matter because they’re ours, and just because they’re ours. This is who we are and foreigners, strangers, usurpers are not us. The Torah demands we act with grace toward them. Be kind and loving, but not allow them to threaten our way of life.

We protect what is ours because it is Good but also because it is ours.

Two things can be Good and different. I, a Jew, think Catholicism is Good for many, but would fight to my dying breath to protect my way of life against it, if they came into conflict.

The Left, on the other hand, is a deeply modern project. A project of abstraction turned to absolute rules. There is one good way of life for a society: theirs. They don’t recognize this as a way of life. For them, their entire belief system is simply a complex of true statements.

That’s why you can have a leftist force himself upon you and your society while decrying religious compulsion if you try to protect that society. He’s just “protecting” people, he says. He’s defending their “rights” - all of which are self-evidently good and inviolable.

But he doesn’t grasp that this is a way of life. It’s what religions used to be, before they became trapped in the internal sphere of man’s soul and mind. The leftist doesn’t get that his ability to justify a position in a manner consistent with his prejudices doesn’t turn his position into base reality. He is simply blind to his prejudices and beliefs. To his Good and Truth.

But his good and truth are bad and lies. His reality is one of denial and falsehood. His God is none other than man’s desire. His is the culmination of an atheistic worship. The necessary culmination of it.

So we must defend both the universal - God, virtue, reality - and the particular - who we are, who our culture and people are - against the onslaught of self-blind liberals and modernists.

This dual nature of society and Good and Truth was well recognized by the ancients, but it’s a difficult truth for many. For most, what is ours must be Best to be justified and what is best must be ours.

But man, confident in God and his Good can look upon others and smile. He can see their Good and their beauty, admire it like a tourist in Florence, while accepting it as right for Florence and not for his city.

That allegory is itself helpful: there are principles that hold true in all well-built cities, but the ones that have life are deeply adapted to their people and place, and reflect them.

This is why we must protect what we have, while relativizing what is currently so prevalent. This is why we must recognize that our way of life has been conquered and rise up against our oppressors.