Sacred Causes

It is a natural impulse for man to escape from the narrowness of personal and family daily routine to venture into the wider universe of history, where he feels his life transcends itself and acquires a superior “meaning.” The most banal and crude way of doing this, accessible even to the mediocre, the unqualified, and the rascal, is militancy in a party or “cause,” that is, in some group selfishness embellished with pompous words like “freedom,” “equality,” “justice,” “patriotism,” “morality,” or “human rights.” These words may represent some substantial value but they do not mean anything when, instead of filling them with his own personal substance, it is the individual who acquires from them all the value that he may have. The most criminal illusion of modernity was to persuade people that they can ennoble themselves through their identification with a “cause,” when in fact all causes, regarded as names of abstract values, can only acquire concrete value through the nobility of the men who represent them. The bottom of degradation is touched when some “causes” become so highly prized that they seem to infuse virtue in any deadbeat, phony, or thug who consents to represent them. The very word virtue is derived from the Latin vir, viri, which means “man,” designating that virtues are qualities proper to individual human beings and not to general abstract ideas, however beautiful and attractive the names of these ideas may be.

There is no greater evidence of this than Christianity itself, which, prior to being a “movement,” a “cause,” an institution, or even a doctrine, was a flesh-and-blood person, the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom, and exclusively from whom, everything else that came to exist in the history of the Church receives any validation it may aspire to get.

When taken as maximal or only measure for gauging good and evil, a “cause” acquires the prestige of sacred things and becomes an object of idolatrous alienation. Now, to a greater or lesser extent, this happens to all, absolutely all, economic, social, and political causes of the modern world, with no exception. Communism, fascism, feminism, the black rights movement, the gay rights movement, and sometimes even free-market liberalism cannot admit any greater virtue than the adherence to their causes or any greater sin than that of fighting against them. To a militant, “a good person” is anyone who sides with him in his cause, “a bad person” anyone who is against it. It is a judgment against which one cannot allege, not even as an attenuating circumstance, any universal value embodied in a concrete person. Even though all those movements are historically confined, making no sense at all beyond a strict chronological limit, the moral judgments based thereupon are accompanied with a claim to timeless universality, abolishing even the sense of cultural relativity: to enragées feminists, the male’s authority is hateful in all times, even in those in which the hardship of economic conditions, natural dangers, and the threat of constant wars made unthinkable any wish for sexual equalitarianism.

What is more: the effort made in public in favor of a “cause” is so an absolute and definitive a criterion for judgment that, once this criterion is met, it exempts a person from practicing in his private life the very virtues that the movement to which he belongs claims to represent. The allegation, for example, that Karl Marx established the most rigid class discrimination at his home, excluding from his family table an illegitimate son he fathered with his housemaid, is considered a “mere” argumentum ad hominem which proves nothing against the sublime value of the Marxist “cause.” In the same fashion, Mr. Luiz Mott[1] is praised for his fight in favor of gay marriage, even though he brags about having hitherto gone to bed with more than five hundred men, that is, about having never had the least respect for the institution of marriage, whether it be homosexual or heterosexual. Mutatis mutandis, the most obvious personal virtues of an opponent become irrelevant or despicable in comparison to the fact that he is “on the wrong side.” Morally speaking, Francisco Franco, Charles de Gaule, or Humberto Castello Branco[2], men of exemplary personal honesty, were infinitely superior to Fidel Castro or Che Guevara, serial killers who murdered his own friends, not to mention Mao Dzedong, a compulsive rapist. But what communist would admit seeing in this detail a sign, even a far removed one, that the nobility of the cause he defends may not be as absolute as it appears to him? Even the virtues of the martyrs and saints do not mean a thing in comparison with a high office in the Communist party.

When I say that this phenomenon signifies that all that is contingent and provisional has been made sacred, I am not using figurative language. Mircea Eliade, and following his path, all the historians of religion, defined “the sacred” as all that to which one ascribes an ultimate value, a sovereign and insurmountable judging authority, which is, in turn, immune to all judgment. Insofar as they understand adherence to, or rejection of, their cause as the ultimate and unappealable criterion for judgment of human conducts, those movements I referred to above have become grotesque caricatures of religion and morality, and through their mere existence, they already bring about the moral degradation of mankind on the level of sheer politically opportune criminality.

[1] A leader of the gay rights movement in Brazil.

[2] Marshall Castello Branco was president of Brazil from 1964 to 1967, the first three years of the military dicatorship in that country.

Olavo de Carvalho is the President of The Inter-American Institute and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Philosophy, Political Science, and the Humanities.

The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute. This article was originally published in the Brazilian newspaper Diário do Comércio on January 17, 2012, and translated from the Portuguese by Alessandro Cota.

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