We touch in this passage upon another major theme in Ratzinger’s writings – the historical amnesia of Western Civilization, our being cut off from the vast wisdom of tradition accumulated and passed down through the centuries. It is this sundering of the individual from ‘usages and customs’ that draws us down into moral decadence and chaos.
Simply put, when nothing is passed on, everyone is left having to figure it all out themselves. Since this is rather difficult, to say the least, most of us end up parroting whatever the majority opinions or fashionable gurus of the day tell us, in easy to remember slogans. Hence we are trapped in the present moment and whatever 'wisdom' it has to offer us.
Of course human traditions are flawed—after all, slavery is a venerable human tradition, as is child sacrifice. But when tradition is discarded whole cloth, which is certainly the case in much of North America and Europe today, then the sole counterbalance to the force of the ego and the spirit of the age is lost. We are left trapped in our own desires and devices, our own projects, agendae, and plans, with no actual experience of a standard, a rule, a social norm to check or correct us.
Social convention, for all its flaws, has a capacity for curbing the unbridled egoism of the human person. That there are things that 'one simply doesn't do' is more important than we like to admit. Its loss (largely) in our day is a terrible one. The amnesia of our inherited moral wisdom is even worse; each person has to laboriously work their way through the whole mess.
Nobody is enough of a genius to figure it out all for himself.
This does not mean you slavish follow the morality of the day or never question.
It means that acting strictly on the idea that your wisdom is the only one that matters is foolish.
Knowledge and wisdom are, and MUST be, collective pursuits.
You can only build on what others have done. Whether it's Catholicism or any other kind of belief system.
You might think you're enough of a genius to have out-smarted thousands upon millions of people who have contemplated whatever issue it is you are thinking about.
But you're not.
Radical individualism in any kind of intellectual endeavour is sheer foolishness.
That's why I think people who say "you should think for yourself" (usually said to people who are religious) are the biggest phonies of all.
Having a religious or intellectual tradition is a far better platform to begins one's thinking process than eclectically "thinking for oneself."
Contrary to popular thought, religion forces you to think. Because if you have a religious problem in front of you, you have to find a way to logically settle it. And when you communicate your opinion, somebody else is bound to care and maybe see the flaws in your argument.
Whereas if you're among people who "think for yourselves", one opinion is as good as any other.
When one opinion is as good as another, it doesn't force you to find a better opinion.
Whereas if other people care about your answer-- because you all don't "think for yourselves"-- you have to answer objections.
And that forces you to think some more. Because you have to answer to someone else for your thinking and satisfy certain criteria.
Whereas if you think for yourself, you don't have to satisfy anyone's objections -- your opinions are just for yourself. If you're satisfied with them, then you don't need to explain yourself to anyone else. In your mind, they're too dumb to get it, especially if they're "not thinking for themselves".
What it boils down to is that "thinking for oneself" is intellectual phoniness. Anyone who's really intelligent doesn't "think for himself". He thinks in conjunction with what is already known to be true, truth that was discovered and discerned by thousands of other people.