Jus gentium

Rabbi Emil Fackenheim was once a power in this town. Well, no thinker is a power in this town, but there were days when dinosaurs walked the Earth, and when a few intellectual giants strode the campus of the University of Toronto — men of the stature of Gilson, Innis, Conacher, Frye, Havelock, McLuhan, Carpenter, Fackenheim. They met in coffee shops that are long gone; and my list is hardly complete, for now I think of the remarkable number and quality of immigrants we gathered from Europe: exiles from countries such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia and Poland, even England, whose talents were mostly invisible to the public at large. For Toronto was notoriously a provincial town. As Leopold Infeld put it: the finest city in which to die, especially of a Sunday afternoon, when the transition from life to death would be “continuous, painless, and scarcely noticeable.”

This was post-war Toronto, of the late ’forties and through the ’fifties — asleep in her inscrutable majesty; the Toronto into which I happened to be born; and not the self-advertised “world class city” of later real estate developments.

Fackenheim spent his Sunday mornings teaching confirmation classes in a liberal synagogue. As he remembered, he would ask each new class if anyone could present a Jewish belief to which he personally subscribed. After a long dreadful silence, someone might offer “one God,” or “the brotherhood of man.” Asked why he agreed with that, he would say, “That’s what I was taught.”

Next question. “Then how about people who believe differently?” To which the inevitable answer would be, “That’s what they were taught.”

“Then who is right?” would be question three.

Fackhenheim admitted that the response to this question — continuous dead silence — drove him close to despair. What about cannibalism? Or, Nazism? Does anyone have views that are absolutely wrong?

Most would blankly surrender at this, but some would stick up for relativism. Yes we believe this, and they believe that, but who is to make an impartial decision?

This did not happen yesterday, or last year. This was towards seventy years ago, among Jewish kids, within a decade of the Holocaust. These adolescents were more-or-less all under the impression that reason and truth were the exclusive property of Modern Science. Not one of them could explain why this should be, either.

I mention this as a reminder that the struggle today against scientism — against the Dictatorship of Relativism and the liberal and progressive forces that sustain its tyranny — is not new. It has roots that go below the World Wars, below the Enlightenment, even below the Protestant Reformation, to the Nominalist philosophers of the later Middle Ages. We aren’t dealing with some passing fashion trend. The “kids today” may believe things that are monstrous, because “that is what they were taught,” but everything in this world has a history.

As the blood of our martyrs (both Christian and Jewish) will attest, the old Pagan Romans were not relativists, in any recognizable modern sense. They knew our beliefs were in conflict with theirs. But they didn’t want to kill us, they only wanted us to shut up; to knuckle under; to assimilate. We were, in effect, troublesome multiculturals.

They had the equipment with which to think each case through. The jus civile might not apply to us, as we were usually not full Roman citizens. But the jus gentium, or something like “the law of nature,” provided a further backstop for the Roman magistrates. It was, as the Greeks had taught them, the law behind the law — what all men, if even partly civilized, acknowledge to be good and true; and as Henry Maine once expounded, the Romans were capable of being disturbed by conflicts between their own highly codified jus civile and the philosophical jus gentium. This was a key to why, in the end, they cracked, and became Christians themselves.

But we, in our time, have been dealing with a more fundamental challenge to right and equity. We face contemporary “authorities” who believe that things may be asserted with no reason at all, and therefore imposed without any reason. When one comes up against an assertion such as, “gender is a social construct,” one must realize that there are no holds. We are dealing with an “alternative worldview,” which may be enforced by law, and yet which is demonstrably insane. Things cannot be resolved as easily as they were between us and the Romans.