Imaginary Havens for Weary Minds

Imaginary Havens for Weary Minds

I am very struck, in reading The Ethics of Authenticity by Charles Taylor, to see a flawed assumption that colours the entire work. And that assumption is that we moderns are alienated from our true selves, because we have lost our moral standing, and qualities we once had. This is a pessimistic and even a tragic view.

For example, Taylor says: “Sometimes people feel that some important decline has occurred during the last years or decades – since the Second World War, or the 1950s, for instance. And sometimes this loss is felt over a much longer historical period: the whole modern era from the seventeenth century is frequently seen as the time frame of decline.”

He singles out individualism, instrumental reason and the rise of what Tocqueville calls “soft” despotism as sources of our malaise about modernity.

As a result, Taylor says the fading of moral horizons has resulted in a loss of meaning; the eclipse of ends has led to the dominance of instrumental reason; and we have lost our freedom as a result. Fading, eclipse, loss…. In other words, the past is normative.

I can’t help wondering who, in Taylor’s opinion, has suffered a loss of meaning, identity and freedom since the seventeenth century. On the contrary, the movement of the Enlightenment, the drive to defeat theocracies and religious obscurantism, the emancipation of slaves and of women, affordable public education, decolonization and the rise of modern medicine all strike me as positive forces working to develop and strengthen human identity. (However, our life-together is a work in progress, and no matter what gains we make, there is always the risk of society backsliding.)

In criticizing Taylor, I confess I have sometimes made a similar assumption myself about the modern loss of identity, largely because I was brought up believing in the prestige of ancient ideas (even when they didn’t make sense). This amounts to looking backwards to the ancients, picturing them as the ancestors of our ideas nowadays, and therefore rooting everything in their example.

I was brought up believing in the prestige of ancient ideas. I spent years visiting ruined cities. I saw the ideas of Antiquity as (sometimes failed) architecture.

Why do I no longer believe this? Simply because when I compare that old assumption about the modern loss of identity with what life has taught me, in the here and now, I come up with a completely different conclusion.

True, a good part of my career as a journalist was focused on alienation: reporting on exile, refugees, hostages, people dependent on mind-control technologies or living in highly polluted environments or with debilitating illnesses, people subject to discrimination, Aboriginals torn from the land and wisdom of their forefathers, communities fearful of losing their collective identity….

But all those 15,000 interviews I conducted did not convince me we moderns are utterly alienated from our true selves, because we have lost our moral standing, and qualities we once had. I did not moralize alienation: on the contrary, I reported on alienation because I see the defence of human rights as a practical commitment stemming from empathy and solidarity, and these values have motivated me.

Fortunately, while conducting those 15,000 interviews, I was also able to report on extraordinary artistic creations, medical discoveries and technological innovations which give new meaning to life. Frankly, I see these creations and discoveries and innovations as quintessentially modern: without them, life would be drab, less secure, and devoid of meaning for many people.

Why assume the past was a better time than the present?

If I continue with Taylor for a moment, and think back to former times, or even to my childhood and youth, I am unable to see a rosier picture, a more beautiful meadow or mountaintop or forest idyll, a better time when everything was in its proper place. Did people in former times (for example, in the seventeenth century) really know who they were, did they live in harmony with Nature, did they have a sense of community, were they bound together by their faith in God (one of Taylor’s underlying assumptions)? Did everybody really get along? And why bring God into the equation?

This idyll seems overly idealistic, like a Utopia projected onto the past, an imaginary haven for our weary minds. I suppose this haven of the past is just as likely to have existed as some future Utopia is likely one day to come into being.

The pace of change sometimes gives me vertigo

Who knows: we moderns may be alienated in the contemporary world. But not for the reasons Charles Taylor suggests.

For one thing, change drives a rift between what we see around us, and what we used to know. It may be alienating to live in an ever-changing world which we no longer recognize so well. But why assume there was a better time in the past?

Then there is the pace of that change, which can be alienating.

And then there is the sheer scale of urban life. I remember feeling a state of shock on visiting Los Angeles and Shanghai, where the air pollution was so thick, I had no idea where I was. In other cities, skyscrapers tower over and alienate atom-like individuals. This is true of Manhattan, it is increasingly true of Montreal, but it is not so true of Quebec City, where I now live.

The widening gap between rich and poor in our cities is also alienating.

But change, the pace of change and the scale of urban life don’t have a lot to do with morality.

Alienation is a powerful idea, but it can be taken different ways

Alienation is a powerful idea, but to say that someone is alienated from himself or herself, that someone has lost identity, stems from a value judgment or even reflexive assumption about the way people ought to be.

The word alienation means different things to different people – it is an idea that moves in different directions.

In writing to the Ephesians, Paul says: “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness.” That is the religious take on alienation from God.

Then again, Karl Marx denounces religion as “the opium of the masses” and therefore a form of alienation from oneself and others. That is the atheistic take on alienation. I suppose Paul and Marx are alienated from one another!

What then about living in a state of Nature? In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes provides a completely different view: he writes of man in a state of Nature, without laws, and it is clear he is describing alienation from the rule of law: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

So where does this idea of things being better in the past really come from?

Charles Taylor strikes me as overly pessimistic. There may be a Catholic agenda lurking in the background. Is he simultaneously reaching back to the regressive model of time from Antiquity (we have lessons to learn from the good old days) while upholding the Bible’s arrow-like model of time (we should be more like people from the good old days, who longed for their future redemption)?

I don’t believe we need to be brought back to the fold, like sheep herded by a shepherd, in order to understand who we really are.

I believe life is what we make of it, here and now. When I walk in the forest, I don’t need to project some tragic or idyllic or Utopian character onto it. I just turn the motor of my mind off, listen to the secret voice of Nature, breathe deeply, take in the fractal greenness of everything, and am aware of all the other wildlife that is discreetly aware of me.

I love forests but I don’t picture myself in a forest idyll of the mind

Finding the Way Home

March 22, 2023

On the Shoulders of Giants

March 22, 2023

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *