Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Secular Age 4

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

Charles Taylor treats Reform - the larger movement that includes the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and their precursors - as the social movement that ultimately and without intending to produced today's secular subculture. His argument is surefooted and dense. At one point, though, he makes this remarkable admission:

“a very long-lasting bent in European culture towards Reform, in the widest sense … [is] the attempt by elites to make over society, and the life and practices of non-elites, so as to conform to what the elites identify as higher standards. This is a remarkable fact. I don’t pretend to have an explanation for it.” (242)

His main point is that the religious mission to fully Christianize the masses had a secondary goal of civilizing them. The irony is that civilizing, which was to be a secondary benefit of evangelizing and conversion, came to displace evangelizing as the primary goal. And this is doubly true of all the many subsequent social reform movements, which are still largely carried about by religiously motivated elites.

I have been puzzling over the "remarkable fact" for which he has no explanation. I put this question to the Theory Camp this morning. "Scott" (not her real name) offered that the elites might want to reform the masses in the elites' own image as an exercise of power. Scott apologized for offering so cynical an explanation. We then discussed the various "hermeneutics of suspicion" as a distinctively modern way of understanding - and undermining - seemingly well-meant actions.

I am disinclined to a cynical view. To be sure, every social movement is tinged with pride and self-assertion. Still, I think that the many movements to lift up the poor, marginal, and even self-destructive are primarily motivated by a good desire to help. They may be misguided, soft-headed, and produce unintended consequences. But the motivation is, on the whole, good. And the fact that a segment of the elite is moved to help the worse off is a basic fact about our society.

Taylor says that the great ethical issue for a secular society is whether this movement toward mutual benefit can really be produced by secularity itself, or whether it is parasitical on a prior religious culture, and draws mostly from religious people today. My observation is that people who stick with good works for the badly off are mostly religious people. In principle a sustained good works movement of secularists could be possible. But I don't think it likely. When secularists want the poor helped, they make the state do it, and tax everyone to pay for it. A move which produces more unintended bad consequences than good works that voluntarily come from the (religious) heart.


TallCoolOne said...

Does Taylor offer any kind of account for the disappearance of what might be called "class sympathy" in the period after the Reformation? By the 17th century, the upper and lower strata of society were at odds on almost everything, which lead to regicides and, ultimately, Revolutions. This loss of social solidarity would seem a major aspect of the issue.

And while I can mostly appreciate the "hermeneutics of suspicion are efforts in cynicism" analysis, I do not think that is at all ultimately satisfactory as an explanation. Certainly I do not see it as the case in the "greats": Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. I do, however, see quite a bit of cynicism at work in the appropriation of those figures in their epigones.

How do you square your recent call for universal health coverage with today's denigration of governmental activity?

Gruntled said...

I think we need government-created universal health care because that task is too big for charity and nagging to sustain. Self-reform is still best, and charity is next best, but a few social practices need to be universally available.

TallCoolOne said...

I guess we'll just have to disagree about that and the hermenutics of suspicion.

But what about the decine (erasure?) of class sympathy? I really do think this is a characteric of Modernity, which was not present, at least in nearly the same levels, in earlier epochs.

An example of this, and one right along the lines of your discussion, would be the reactions to the cholera outbreak in France in 1832. The upper classes blamed the spread of the disease on the "lifestyles" of the lower classes, while the lower classes accused the upper classes of poisoning the water supplies. And all of this without the slightest knowledge of how cholera was actually caused and spread. (The upper classes were more right, if not exactly vindicated.)

In antiquity and the Middle Ages, similar actions did occur, but much less frequently, and when they did, they usually involved blaming outsiders of some kind (foreigners, Jews). Modernity, though, seems to introduce an _internal_ set of enemies, which tends to fracture along class lines (among others). Does Taylor's analysis account for this in any way? (Apologies if this would be obvious if I only had the book.)

Gruntled said...

Taylor does not address class sympathy. He does, though, say that a characteristic feature of the social imaginary is that we accept that the world is made up of impersonal structures, rather than personal relationships. "Class" would seem to be such a structure.

Jon said...

I think your Scott's bang on the point, albeit combined with the equally strong human need to serve. Service AND power, all in one helping. Victorian Anglo charity explicitly had that flavor - a need to tranform along with helping into a mirror of the helper. Don't most charities today like to convert the helpee in one way or another? Isn't the whole idea behind the Peace Corps, still going, that the American way's better than the ways of the those they're going to serve? Never mind that Americans today don't have much experience with the true poverty today that the Peace Corp's meant to serve.

Of course, it was also the excuse for all imperialism (those Filipinos can't possibly understand democracy and need our ongoing support (and tribute and military occupation and a base or three...), and plenty of ethnic cleansing (those injuns will be better off far away, even if they can't seem to understand that themselves).

TallCoolOne, Thucydides documents internal suspicion in classical Greece. I think the distinction isn't so much about modernity as free speech, and of course there was no free speech for a very long time in Europe. In monarchies and aristocratic societies medieval era, saying anything but fulsome praise for your superiors was dumb. And there was plenty of writing about the ills of peasants.

TallCoolOne said...

It isn't so much that there has been a logarithmic curve in class antipathy across the years, Jon, just that post-Reformation events caused the genuine sympathy between classes to dwindle to the point where, if not for the mass media, it wouldn't exist at all today as a significant social fact. (And even then, the media has to constantly remind us all that the rich and famous are "just like us.")

It's been a while since I read Thucydides, but wasn't the suspicion he charted related to the Athenian democrats' being manipulated? (Might be totally off-base there, but it's what's in my head.)

Jon said...

I know there's a school of thought about universality of culture until the Reformation, and then nationalism only springing up after. But that seems to me to founder on three reefs. First, Europe's hardly the world. Second, Christianity had a beginning, and what important part of nationalism doesn't already appear in that same source, in Pericles' Funerary speech and Spartan speeches? Third, we have no good data for dark ages and medieval Europe - it might be true for that period and that region, but we have no open and honest speech from that era.

I wish you'd address my free speech point. Put yourself in a medieval scholar's point of view. You live in a society where, if you offend any of many elites in your society, or live obviously in defiance of rules, you WILL suffer, likely with torture or death. If you say flattering things about said elites, on the other hand, you might get a job. If you can get youself to regularly say flattering things about somebody, you might get a patron and a regular job. How many honest bad things would you expect to see written, then?

Thucydides also wrote about internal suspicion in Sparta, something that, of course, no Spartan could've done. The war's progress was calculated to raise panhellenic class suspicion, as, like our Cold War, both sides encouraged revolutions, except with the lefty parties of the people tending democratic and righty parties of the elites tending pro-oligarchic.

TallCoolOne said...

I have, on other entries in this blog, addressed what you call -- mistakenly, I think -- free speech. My term for it was "articulation error," because I was referring to how difficult it is to gather trustworthy empirical data on certain kinds of ideas because people either don't want their real "feelings" to be known, or can't articualte them cogently for some reason.

I think we have very different understandings of what the history of Western society was like. (And I do know that the West is not the world.) Yours might be the more accurate, but I have a very hard time seeing the kind of scepticism embedded in it as ultimately coherent. The existence of legal records -- though not infallible, themselves -- should demonstrate that things could be, and in fact were, written about animosity between classes without undue "filtering" slipping in. The same goes for sympathy between the classes.

TallCoolOne said...

Now that I've read the first two chapters of Taylor's book, I can say with confidence that he does address class sympathy, though not by that phrase and not always directly. (He is, after all, a world-class thinker, and I'm not.)

In fact, I've been a bit shocked at how your posts "read" the text. It's almost like I'm reading a different book from what you did.

Wonders never cease.