The Competing Conservative
Traditions in America
All at once, nothing seemed certain in the movements of the
spheres.... At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began
to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were
no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil,
of knowledge, above all of value.
The beginning of twentieth-century thinking, according to Paul Johnson in his book Modern Times, is found in the phrase "everything is relative and there are no absolutes." Albert Einstein's principle of relativity held that "the totality of physical phenomena is of such a character that it gives no basis for the introduction of the concept of 'absolute motion'; or, shorter but less precise: There is no absolute motion." 2 From Einstein's premise it was argued that good and evil, right and wrong, and traditional notions of moral behavior were as relative and subject to interpretation as the expanse of the physical universe. While Einstein himself believed passionately in absolute right and wrong and detested the moral relativism attributed to his theory, the legacy of his scientific research was that values should change to fit cultural conventions. 3
Soon the ideals of relativity became a part of everyday life. Popularizers mistakenly took the "relativity" of space, time and length in the natural realm, for "relativism" in moral law. The nineteenth century witnessed the climax of the Judeo-Christian philosophy of personal responsibility—that each individual was accountable for their actions. In the twentieth century the individual conscience was seared; existential angst and personal despair characterized thinking and the state began to swallow up the independence of the person.