A reflection on the fragments of Xenophanes of Colophon
In even this earliest period of my education, I can already see a division of thought between those who deny absolute meaning and those who demand it. The grand corpus of human thought is an interplay between those who ascribe meaning and those who deny meaning can truly exist. With such a collision of irreconcilable thought, the question now stands: if meaning cannot transcend the context of its culture, time and place, can any value be universal? To understand these questions, I will begin by re-examining the key concepts of value and relativity before coming to some conclusions as to what either of these positions infers.
The first question in understanding universality is its definition. I would argue that universality is synonymous with belief in universal values. This is the concept that conscious action – activity in the physical world caused by individual will (see on Consciousness) – can be measured against an unchanging metric. If the action aligns the physical world closer with this eternal metric, then it could be considered good. If the action deviates from the path towards the singularity then it could be considered bad.
In opposition to universality stands its nemesis – relativity. Relativity, I would posit, could similarly be boiled down to the belief in relative value. In this system, value is not defined against an unchanging metric but is instead relative to the individual observer. Something that is good for me may very well be bad for your – thus there is no possible ‘universality’ between all (see Against Absolute Relativism). Having now laid out these two differing opponents it comes time to ask – what kind of implications do these two worldviews hold?
In the universal cosmos, there still exists many ephemeral changes in the physical world: new climates, cultures, languages and traditions. However, these individual social and physical phenomena can be tested against the unchanging metrics to determine whether they are good or bad. The difficulty in the world of the universalist is understanding and interpreting the universals so that they can be effectively implemented in the real world. This sees the human struggle for Truth (with a capital T) as being the noble exploration of the intelligible world – so-called true reality – to understand the murkier realm of the sensible universe in which we live.
In the relative world, the many changes that exist cannot be measured as truly good or bad, but merely as changes – the label of good or bad being moralisation attached from a particular viewpoint. The relativist would argue that we should reject such labels and instead enjoy the ‘free play’ of ideas and culture that mix and flow through the world – neither chastising nor praising. To me, this argument fails to deal with two issues– firstly, if the relativist discards all viewpoints as being only relative to the observer, they must also discard their viewpoint as only being correct with regards to their position. Secondly, if all knowledge and action is only relatively good or bad, then why should we show any form of altruism – the ideology wraps itself tight into a ball of selfishness, failing to provide any guide for human action. If we follow the relativist position to its logical conclusion, it doesn’t even leave us the conciliation of philosophy – for the knowledge we gain is only relative to ourselves.
Having examined both viewpoints, I must say that universality of value remains attractive to me for two reasons. Firstly, it provides a point on which we can anchor our thought – without which there is no way in which we can build language, discussion or learning. Secondly, it provides a possibility for individual progress – something implicitly denied if you accept the idea of complete relativity. My greatest disagreement is that relativity explicitly denies the possibility of conversation between individuals – for if our language is a unique outgrowth of our viewpoint, how can two persons have a meaningful conversation?
Bernardo Strozzi, Eratosthenes teaching in Alexandria, 1635