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Democracy: The Threat from Relativism

“A Power which regulates human behavior according to its own notions of social utility is absolute in a quite different way from one whose subjects have had their actions prescribed for them by God.  And here we glimpse the fact that the denial of a divine law giving and the establishment of a human lawgiving are the most prodigious strides which society can take towards a truly absolute Power. So long as a supernatural origin was ascribed to law, this step remained untaken.”1

– Bertrand de Jouvenel

Less than a month ago, my grandson Gordon studying at Eton College in England participated in a relay and decided to cross the treacherous English Channel with three other schoolmates of his. They left England from the White Cliffs of Dover and swam towards the port-city of Calais in France. Calais is well known for the historical event called the Siege of Calais (1346-1347) which occurred when the English under the command of King Edward III successfully besieged the French garrison in the early phase of the Hundred Years War.

The boys from the prestigious Eton College made the crossing despite some very tough conditions in the second half of the crossing – high winds, waves and many jellyfish.  They swam without wetsuits for 13.5 hours and they were rewarded with over ten thousand English pounds, a sum which is very helpful for kidney patients (the brother of one of the swimmers is one of them).

There is no doubt that to cross the English Channel swimming and without a wetsuit requires a lot of stamina and no less amount of preparation in order to reach the desired goal, the coast of France.

This made me think of a similar problem that our contemporary world is facing today in the realm of politics and economics: the goal of reaching and sustaining free and healthy political and economic systems that would benefit all sectors of society and respect the dignity of the human person. Do or can political democracy and economic liberalism meet this challenge in this relativistic world of ours? This is the subject matter of this essay.

For not a few persons, “Democracy” in politics has become a “sacrosanct” term which, under no conditions, must be challenged.  They don’t seem to understand that, unfortunately, under the banner of democracy and free elections, the very process of political freedom can be undermined and gradually metamorphosed into a totalitarian regime. There is no doubt in my mind that this would be a great tragedy because it would violate God’s greatest gift to man: freedom.

The young generations of today must be taught that freedom is like a beautiful and delicate rose plant which is being cultivated under the care of the garden’s owner. He has the obligation to fertilize, prune, and, if necessary, spray it against the spread of all sorts of insects and weeds, etc. Not to do so would only result in the gradual deterioration and final destruction of the plant, and the owner would be left without his precious roses. This is precisely what can happen to freedom if we do not realize that, as in the case of the rose plant, it is also a delicate gift from God which it is our duty to protect from the many sources of destruction that surround it.

The first and most serious and subtle danger for freedom today is the concept of relativism. According to this “philosophy” (educational practice), there is no objective truth. Everything is relative; the ultimate source of truth is man’s own interpretation of truth itself. In other words, it is my own misinformed reason or will which guides me in deciding what is right and what is wrong. There is no other authority beside my own, much less the belief in a transcendental or external authority which would serve as a moral compass that can help man decide which actions can or cannot be ethically justified. This is what has been called since early antiquity, even before the stoics, the law of nature or what is also known as natural law. To ignore or reject it can only bring about chaos and increasing demands for order which can easily turn into some type of totalitarianism.2

Let us not forget that that the words democracy and freedom do not mean the same thing for all people. Mme. Roland, a Girondin aristocrat supporter of the French Revolution and a friend of Danton and Robespierre, became well aware of this when, on her way to the guillotine, cried out: “O Liberté, que de crimes on commit en ton nom” (O Liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name).  Something similar can be said of the term democracy: “O Democracy, how many crimes are committed in thy name.” If any doubts exist about this statement, just take a look around you and analyze the recent political events that have taken place in Latin America, especially in “democratic Venezuela”!3 Thus, beware of the terms “democracy” and “freedom,” which are often used in our relativistic society as a subterfuge for government controls and/or collectivist policies, especially in politics and economics. The new generations must be taught that freedom, being such a delicate plant, can easily disappear under the slogan of democracy and the hypocritical mantle of social justice and the common good.

To avoid such an outcome, the new generations of the twenty-first century must be made aware of these dangers, starting with the family, going all the way up to the higher levels of education. They must be reminded that freedom is the greatest gift of God, but, like roses in a well cultivated garden, cannot be left unattended and abandoned to the whims of a relativistic public that has no clear notion as to what is the best method for their healthy development. Opinions may abound, but, it is worth repeating, there is only one truth, not many from which man can choose.4

Before concluding this short essay, let me insist that, if freedom is to flourish and perdure, it must be founded on a solid ethical foundation which does not shy away from emphatically declaring what is right and what is wrong. What better way of reaching this goal than by recognizing the historical validity of an objective moral order, without which disorder and chaos would certainly follow. Christians and Jews believe that when God created the universe, he established not only physical laws (e.g. the law of gravity) but also moral laws which served as the moral compass in ethical questions. Later, these laws were clearly enumerated in Mount Sinai by Moses in the Decalogue or Ten Commandments.5 They play a vital role in both Judaism and Christianity. Many believe that to violate them will only bring the wrath of the Lord upon mankind.6

Relativism, the greatest foe of freedom, so much in vogue today, denies the reality of an objective moral order or what historically is known as Natural Law. Modern philosophy, in many cases, could be summarized in the short phrase “anything goes,” because, for quite a few philosophers, objective truth does not exist. It is a purely subjective phenomenon which not only changes over time but even from person to person. Change is the order of the day. Acts which historically have been considered evil are now legitimized and even praised.

No longer is evil considered evil, and goodness, civility, and chivalry are relegated to a distant past.  Young people today are surrounded by false ethical doctrines which come under the appearance of progressive dogmas that need to be spread around the globe for the benefit of mankind. These popular tenets or maxims are like dangerous bright colored jellyfish which pollute the waters of this earth and/or the numerous insects which gradually destroy the flower beds on which beautiful roses are grown.

Let us, therefore, congratulate the brave young men who crossed the dangerous waters of the English Channel for the benefit of suffering kidney patients. They have demonstrated that freedom and true democratic values still prevail, and good deeds are not done under the shadow of dictatorial rule but freely and gladly accomplished.  Love, freedom, and the belief in a non-enforced social responsibility are still very much alive.

1. Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power, The Natural History of its Growth, Liberty Fund,1993, p. 221.

2. “Those who deny the existence of Natural Law and contend that this idea of a power beyond matter urging man to do good and avoid evil is unsound, should look back into history and study, for example, the moral teachings of the Greeks and Romans.” See Alberto M. Piedra, Natural Law, The Foundation of an Orderly Economic System, p.2, Lexington Books, 2004.

3. See: Alberto M. Piedra, Constitutional Coups,

4. Marcus Tullius Cicero, the brilliant Greek philosopher and jurist who became the greatest speaker in ancient Rome wrote in De Legibus that both justice and law originate from what nature has given man, what the human mind embraces. There is, under the law, right reason which is in accordance with nature existing in all, unchangeable and eternal. St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae clarifies this statement by defining Natural Law as the participation of the eternal law in the rational creature. Natural Law is written in the hearts of each and every man. It is nothing other than the light of reason infused by God, whereby man understands what must be done and what must be avoided, what is good and what is evil.

5. The Decalogue is a set of principles related to ethics and worship. They appear in the Hebrew Bible and in both Exodus and Deuteronomy.

6. “Do not worship other gods, any of the gods of the people around you. If you do worship other gods, the Lord’s anger will come against you like fire and will destroy you completely, because the Lord your God who is present with you, tolerates no rivals.” Deuteronomy 7, Biblia Bilingue, Bilingual Bible, Consejo Episcopal , Latinoamericano CELAM, January 18, 1979.