Good and Best
The morning post includes an appeal from a charity (whose computer has me irremoveably on its list) urging me to forget all else while I think hard that a small subscription will keep alive a child for another year.
It also includes a travel brochure asking whether I want to die without having seen the the ruins of the Inca civilization.
A friend rings to say that I just must not miss the current production of Hamlet, which has only five days to run. A columnist in the newspaper assumes I will agree that the survival of the red squirrel is a matter of major and urgent concern.
At one level, the answers are obvious. No, I don’t want the child to die, yes the Inca must be fascinating, yes it would be interesting to see the Hamlet and yes I want the red squirrel to survive.
At the same time it must be obvious to those who clutch at my sleeve that unless unlimited time and/or funds are available, giving to one charity means not giving to another, seeing all those Incas means not seeing something else etc.
I don’t mind that, so long as everybody concerned sees the rhetoric for what it is. If my friend says it’s the best Hamlet ever staged, we both know that he is simply underlining his message. It becomes worrying only when the seller or the target, or both, equate the rhetoric with the truth.
Is that all there is to it, without wider resonance? Possibly yes, in which case I can stop fussing. But I find increasingly that relative exhortations and questions are formulated as absolute. I wonder whether this connects with the growth during the last fifty years of relativism in ethics and aesthetics. If it does, then it does so in an interesting and paradoxical way.
If ‘anything goes’, if one painting or symphony or course of action is as good as the next, then why not assert the excellence of one thing without reference to any other? Why not call Liszt a ‘great’ composer if there is no need to find another adjective for Beethoven? In other words, within a relativist framework, each individual thing tends to become absolute in its own right.
One test of this might be to look at a period when a relativist framework was less in fashion. Take, for instance, the Great Britain of the 1850s, the beginning of the high tide of Imperialism, the beginning of a whole spectrum of certainties ranging from the right way to behave to the right way to paint. My impression is that, outside a superb burst of inventiveness in technology, the new claims of x had to be measured against the proven excellence of y.
And of course it may well be that, judged today, x has proved more enduring than y. On balance I thank the Lord that I don’t live in the Great Britain of the 1850s. Perhaps all I’m pleading for is a little more caution on the part of those who want my time, my vote, my money or simply my exclusive attention.