Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Secular Age 2

From the Theory Camp discussion of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age.

Charles Taylor rehearses the argument that all structure needs some outlet of anti-structure. In the pre-modern "enchanted" world, order exists in tension with disorder, and both need one another. Order is a world of power and inequality, even if it conduces to human flourishing; disordering the world’s order in the name of human solidarity - as in the medieval Carnivale - reminds us of the transcendent which unites and equalizes us.

When, in the modern world, we lost the sense that structure needs its complement of anti-structure, we laid the foundation for secularizing the public sphere. This way also leads to totalitarianism. He sees the French Revolution as the beginning of the eclipse of anti-structure. The revolutionary regime made festivals, as communist regimes do. But these celebratory totalitarian festivals are so dull that they fall with the regime.

Modern liberal societies recognize the need for complementary anti-structures in the division of powers. Pluralist liberalism allows a wide realm of anti-structure in the negative liberty of the private domain. The “public spheres of private life” – art, music, literature, thought, religion – create the voluntary public that complements the obligatory public of the state.

“All structures need to be limited, if not suspended. Yet we can’t do without structure altogether. We need to tack back and forth between codes and their limitation, seeking the better society, without ever falling into the illusion that we might leap out of this tension of opposites into pure anti-structure, which could reign alone, a purified non-code, forever.” (54)

The latter was the ‘60s revolutionaries’ error.

I see the force of this argument intellectually, but resist it in every other way. I have a dread of disorder, and do not see chaos as appealing at all. I would not go so far as to impose order on the unwilling, but I do think their lives would be better, and social life would be better, if everyone lived an orderly life.

Taylor reads the Reformation, as I do, as bringing the ordered life of the monastery out into the world, into the lives of all Christians. Taylor thinks the Reformers were unrealistic in thinking that the masses could sustain that level of order. I believe Taylor is correct. Which brings me to this question: Did the monasteries and convents also need bouts of anti-structure to renew their commitment to order? Or can some people, a small minority no doubt, maintain structure indefinitely without anti-structure?

1 comment:

TallCoolOne said...

The answer to your second question is, undoubtedly, yes. History seems littered with people who can create order under any conditions.

The first question, though quite a bit more tricky, would also seem proved in the positve by such examples as "Carmina Burana" and Fra Lippo Lippi.

Again, relying only on your accounting, I think I would agree with Taylor's "read" more than you do. Your horror vacui -- whatever the psychological origins and bulwarks -- likely predisposed you to Calvinism (even if you were born into it), which whatever else it may be, certainly is not an outlook comfortable with "lifestyle" pluralism. My messy desk, complementing my messy house, mark me as another kind of being (again, whatever the underlying causes and supports).

I suspect a large amount of the tolerance for "disorder" on the part of "order" in earlier times stemmed from a simple lack of coercive mechanisms. Authority just didn't know enough and couldn't, in most every case, move swiftly enough to do much about instances of chaos. Compared with our (numerous) ID numbers, databases, and responsive government (strange as that sounds in the face of bureaucratic inertia), there really is no comparison.

Going now to Amazon to look up Taylor's titles.