ISMISM New concepts for the Nineties No.15: relativism

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The Independent Online
Relativism: 1. The notion that truth - be it moral or aesthetic - is not absolute or universal, but rather varies between individuals or cultures; 2. the idea that the concepts of time and space are not absolutes; 3. late C20, the influence of consanguinity upon social, cultural and political life.

How things change with time. Relativism was once a matter for lofty sorts. It began with Plato, who turned his withering intellect upon Protagorus for his suggestion that man was the measure of all things, and continued until Hegel. Then Einstein changed its tack with his reconfiguration of Newton's sense that time and space were absolutes, insisting that both were in some sense created by our observation of the world. And then, of course, came Terry Major Ball, Geoff Dwight and the hapless brother of the super-thin modelette Kate Moss.

There may be no absolute truths any more but there are clearly more and more in the way of absolutely awful relatives. The awfulness is not compulsory: there is plain commercial relativity, for which see the ample media coverage of all four McGann brothers acting for the first time together in a TV extravaganza.

Then there is that living proof of the philosophical construct that if everyone insists on calling what they like good, then there is no absolute meaning to the term. Mark Thatcher, celebrated for his activities in the penumbra of Saudi Arabian arms deals, was in town again last week for his father Denis's 80th birthday thrash. There is relativism and relativism.

Moral relativism brings us to the Pope, that doughty campaigner against the shifting sands of secular modernism. JPII sees all around him laxity masquerading as pluralism. He has a point, though, as so often, he goes too far, encouraged by placemen in the Vatican who still think pluralism is a lung disease.

Relativism is the first refuge of the scoundrel, wags Roger Scruton in his latest tome. He surely cannot have been thinking about the Royal Family after their splendid performance on VE Day, though they are the quintessence of relativism, their very existence depending upon being related to someone else.

Perhaps he had in mind Geoffrey Dwight, brother of Reginald Kenneth Dwight, better known as Elton John. The pop star's sibling sleeps on in a wooden shack that he built himself in Clwyd. By contrast, according to the Sun, Elton, on his £5m Windsor estate, has built for his two Shetland ponies and his two donkeys a castle complete with drawbridge, battlements and slits for firing arrows if they are so minded. Which brother is more embarrassed by the other? Even relativism, it seems, can be relative.