[lit-ideas] Honor? Charles Taylor anyone?

  • From: "John McCreery" <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 15 May 2006 17:41:39 +0900

Mulling over our discussions of honor and other political topics, I am
constantly reminded of Joanne Freeman's wonderful book _Affairs of
Honor: National Politics in the New Republic_. The editorial review on
Amazon describes it as follows:

"The more things change, the more they remain the same. Modern
American politics may often resemble a demented circus, but thus it
has always been. So writes historian Joanne Freeman in this vigorous
account of America's first national leaders, those entrusted with
creating a nation unlike any other on Earth, one "egalitarian,
democratic, representative, straightforward, and virtuous in spirit,
public-minded in practice." The reality was less noble than all that;
as Freeman writes, the first postrevolutionary Congress, convened in
the spring of 1789, was marked by regional and private rivalries,
mudslinging, acrimony, favor-seeking, and backroom bargaining, all of
which produced far more discord than unity. In that climate, as John
Adams and George Washington would often complain, these early
politicians were more interested in "their interests, careers,
reputations, and pocketbooks" than in matters of the public good. Yet,
Freeman suggests, it could scarcely have been otherwise; an "emotional
logic" governed the governors, involving a shared code of honor that
drew no lines between the personal with the political, so that any
disagreement over policy was liable to turn into a duel or campaign of
slander; a day-to-day style of conduct in which panic, paranoia, and
shrill accusations were the norm; a fortress mentality in which anyone
who was not a sworn friend was a sworn enemy."

I am also reminded, however, of a book I have always been meaning to
read more deeply, Charles Taylor's _Sources of the Self: The Making of
Modern Identity_, which seems to me to offer a framework in which we
might understand our differences (which does not, I hasten to add,
mean that we resolve them). Taylor's theme is the moral ontologies and
strong evaluations by which we define and position ourselves and how
these have changed over time. His discussion is limited to the Western
tradition but is, I believe, of broader relevance. Key points include
his sorting strong evaluations (those which we take to be more than
matters of opinion) along three dimensions: rights and obligations in
relation to other human beings; what constitutes a fulfilling life;
and dignity, being admired and respected by others. A key thesis is
the proposition that, in contrast to the (variously) heroic selves
celebrated in ages past, the modern self embodies (1) a celebration of
ordinary, everday life and (2) deep confusion over where the value in
such lives abides. Here, is an attempt, early in the book (p. 23) to
summarize this thesis.

"The notion that the life of production and reproduction, of work and
the family, is the main locus of the good life flies in the face of
what were originally the dominant distinctions of our civilization.
For both the warrior ethic and the Platonic, ordinary life in this
sense is part of the lower range, part of what contrasts with the
incomprably higher. The affirmation of ordinary life therefore
involves a polemical stance towards these traditional views and their
implied elitism. This was true of the Reformation theologies, which
are the main source of the drive to this affirmation in modern times.

"It is this polemical stance, carried over and transposed in secular
guise, which powers the reductive views like utilitarianism which want
to denounce all qualitative distinctions. They are all accused, just
as the honour ethic or the monastic ethic of supererogation was
earlier, of wrongly and perversely downgrading ordinary life, of
failing to see that our destiny lies here in production and
reproduction and not in some alleged higher sphere, of being blind to
the dignity and worth of ordinary human desire and fulfilment.

"In this, naturalism and utilitarianism touch a strong nerve of modern
sensibility, and this explains some of their persuasive force. My
claim is here that they are nevertheless deeply confused. For the
affirmation of ordinary life, while necessarily denouncing ceertain
distinctions, itself amounts to one; else it has no meaning at all.
The notion that there is a certain dignitiy and worth in this life
requires a contrast; no longer, indeed, between this life and some
'higher' activity like contemplation, war, active citizenship or
heroic asceticism, but now lying between different ways of living the
life of production and reproduction. Thge notion is never that whatevr
we do is acceptable. This would be unintelligible as the basis for a
notion of dignity. Rather the key point is that the higher is to be
found not outside of but as a manner of living ordinary life. For the
Reformers this manner was defined theologically; for classical
utilitarians, in terms of (instrumental) rationality. For Marxists,
the expressivist element of free self-creation is added to
Enlightenment rationality. But in all cases, some distinction is
maintained byetween the higher, the admirable life and the lower life
of sloth, irrationality, slavery or alienation."

What all this might mean is explored, in a primarily Canadian context, in

Soft Relativism and the Malaise of Modernity
Russell McNeil
April 4, 1997


But I've run on enough. The proposal I put before anyone who would
like to join me is that we spend a few weeks or months slowly chewing
our way through Taylor's _Sources of the Modern Self_, which is not an
easy book but is, on the whole, a readable one. We may not, in this
way, discover grounds for agreement; but we could, at least, clarify
our differences a bit.

Anyone up for this?

-- John McCreery The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN

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