Ideas Have Consequences: Four Philosophers Who Shaped 2020

The Defense of Faith Committee was pleased to welcome Bishop Robert Barron as speaker at the Defense of Faith Program at the virtual Annual Meeting on September 18. Bishop Barron is perhaps best known as the host of Catholicism, a groundbreaking, award-winning documentary about the Catholic faith that aired on PBS. He is auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles. He has a master’s degree in philosophy from the Catholic University of America and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Institut Catholique de Paris.


Bishop Barron’s talk was aimed at helping us to understand the roots of this convulsive time in our national history, as demonstrated by the global pandemic, unstable politics, and outbursts of violence. His focus was on four modern philosophers: Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault, as creating the basis for the culture that has produced the current crisis the U.S. is experiencing. He noted that all four were atheists.


In discussing the thought of Karl Marx (1818-83), Bishop Barron began with Marx’s notion that there is an economic substructure to any society and a superstructure that protects it. The superstructure includes politics, the military, art, and religion, for example. In the capitalist system, the superstructure hides the exploitation of the workers and provides illusory relief (such as religion) to alleviate their alienation. Thus, Marx’s famous remark: “Religion is the opium of the people.” The goal of the Marxist revolutionary is to destroy the oppressive superstructure and replace it with communism. Marx’s atheism is not merely respect for individual choice to disbelieve; instead, Marxists must destroy religion as part the superstructure.


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is famous for his proclamation of the death of God. But God has been the ground of objective truth and moral value for Western Civilization from ancient times. Bishop Barron pointed out that in the absence of objective truth and moral value, we are left with just a clash of wills, as Nietzsche recognized. His hero was a type of superior human being who, in this clash of wills, is able to assert his will and triumph. This primacy of will over reason, Bishop Barron observes, is being played out on our streets today. Nietzsche decried Christian morality with its emphasis on pity, compassion, love, and nonviolence, calling it a “slave morality,” practiced by those who cannot effectively assert their wills.


Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) formulated a philosophy called “existentialism.” The hallmark of existentialism is that existence precedes essence. Bishop Barron explained that “essence” means those forms, patterns, values that indicate what it is to live a good life. “Existence” means one’s individuality, especially one’s freedom. Traditionally, people have tried to conform their wills to essence. Sartre exhorts us to live our lives as we see fit. We determine the meaning of our lives. Thus, Sartre follows Nietzsche in the denial of objective truth and moral value. Bishop Barron notes that these ideas, once the subject of discussion in Paris cafes are now the default position of young people today. Sartre’s atheism follows from his philosophy. To paraphrase a famous statement of Sartre’s: “If God exists, I can’t really be free.”


For Bishop Barron, Michel Foucault (1926-84) sums up the other three philosophers. He believes that Foucault more directly bears on the conversation and praxis of today than the others, despite being less well-known. He is famous for his “archeology of history.” Foucault addressed various subjects, such as sexuality and incarceration, and concluded that our sexual mores and our punishments for various crimes varied considerably over time. These variations are a function of power according to Foucault, which may be exercised unconsciously as well as consciously. The powerful will arrange society—and even language—to maintain their power. Through the “modes of discourse” that we use, we inherit and unconsciously absorb the values of the power structure.


Bishop Barron noted that these ideas have made their way into the academies of the West and through the academies have now influenced several generations. What we see today are many of these ideas incarnating themselves.


Bishop Barron summarized the four philosophies and related them to the trends we experience today.


He characterized Marxism as a social theory of antagonism. Violence for the Marxist is not a regrettable side effect. Given the need to foment revolution of the oppressed against the oppressors, it is in many ways the point. What we see in our streets today is an attempt to smash the superstructure.


Nietzsche’s ideas are manifestly at work in the modern rejection of God and of objective truth and values. As a result, what we see is just a clash of wills.


According to Bishop Barron we can see the influence of Sartre in the culture of self-invention, which is rampant today. Because there is no objective truth, then sexuality, gender, human nature, and moral systems are just societal constructs that can be overturned by the heroic, self-assertive freedom of the individual.


For Foucault, language bears the weight (mostly unconsciously) of the influence of the powerful. Thus, Bishop Barron notes the fascination of people today on how words are used.


What is the ecclesial response to these ideas? Bishop Barron admitted that this must be the subject of another talk in order to cover it adequately. Generally speaking, he stated, the Church stands athwart almost all of these ideas because it speaks most clearly of God and asserts the objectivity of truth. Thus, the Church is the supreme representative of “essence.” The Church’s social justice teaching is cooperative, not antagonistic; violence is not the means of effecting social change. This is why, Bishop Barron observed, the forces behind these ideas “don’t like us.”  In the end, the best way to stand against these philosophies is for the Church to claim its own great tradition.