Sentimentality or Honesty? On Charles Taylor
The second proposition is “Our response should not be nostalgia for the old, more unified, more religious Christendom.” Taylor is a Roman Catholic, and as with his response to disenchantment, he stakes out a position on nostalgia at odds with some prominent Catholic philosophers, like his contemporary Alasdair MacIntyre and his old teacher G.E.M. Anscombe. For them, modernity—disenchanted, secular, materialistic—is in its essence regrettable. For Taylor, modernity does not have to be a bad thing.
Like many religious philosophers, Taylor sees the foregrounding of earthly life, as opposed to eternal life, as one aspect of modernity. This worries him, because seeing one’s bodily survival and flourishing as the ultimate goal of existence tends toward selfishness. In “A Catholic Modernity?,” my favorite essay in Dilemmas and Connections, Taylor discusses possible alternatives to the culture of earthly life. One alternative comes from Nietzsche, who “rebelled against the idea that our highest goal is to preserve and increase life, to prevent suffering…. Life itself can push to cruelty, to domination, to exclusion, and, indeed, does so in its moments of most exuberant affirmation.” Another alternative comes from Christianity, which, especially in Catholicism, can give license to asceticism, monasticism and other denials of aspects of life.
But Taylor is no Nietzschean, and he does not want to romanticize what we might call Extreme Catholicism. Not only is that premodern Catholicism unrecoverable, Taylor says; it had to expire in order for us to become a more charitable, humane species. Taylor argues that with the Protestant Reformation came an “affirmation of ordinary life” (the term is discussed at length in Sources of the Self) that refocused religious devotion on the daily acts and works of ordinary people while elevating the sufferings of those ordinary people to a matter of divine concern.
In the Catholic world, it was too easy to feel that none of us mattered—all that did matter was present in the church, or the Mass, or heaven. But once it became clear that God was present when you read the Bible, it also became clear that the affairs of those Bible readers mattered to God. Taylor seems to say that Protestantism rescued Catholicism. Modernity gives us horrors, but also graces such as we never knew: “The age of Hiroshima and Auschwitz has also produced Amnesty International and Médecins sans Frontières.” Taylor says that Christianity “needed this breach with the culture of Christendom…for the impulse of solidarity to transcend the frontier of Christendom itself.” Pan-human solidarity, so much a part of our humanity now, is too valuable to lose. So the work at hand is to live with modernity: it’s worth it.
Here’s the third proposition: “If we’re going to live with modernity, we should start by trying to understand its many forms—chief among them, in the contemporary West, the cult of authenticity.” Rather than being good Christians (or, for that matter, good utilitarians or good Kantians), we now seek to be authentic, true to ourselves. I just want to be me. Like the worship of life, the worship of one’s authentic self, or true nature—a worship heightened in the Romantic movement—can result in narcissism, not to mention absurdity. We now say things that would have made no sense in the year 1500, things like, “I would marry her, but I’m not sure settling down is who I am.” Obviously, there is a problem here, one Taylor recognizes. But he insists that this need not be a bad striving. It could even be fruitful, if only modern man and woman figure out how to make it so.
Proposition four: “That is the task at hand: how to live a life that is personally authentic—a goal the medieval church would not have understood, much less approved of—while giving that life meaning, spirituality, fullness.” In other words, how can we keep our modern humanity without losing what is best from the more enchanted past?
It is on this question that the personal Taylor and the political Taylor converge, in ways that can be quite satisfying. It might seem that the Taylor who writes about the modern personality (Sources of the Self, The Ethics of Authenticity) and the Taylor who writes about the modern state (parts of A Secular Age and Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition”) are working on two different projects. I don’t think that is so. Although I could not find a place where Taylor connects the two urges, it seems to me that “authenticity,” a word he uses only for the personal project, is actually the word he wants for the political project too.
Philosophers like Rousseau tend to see political community as the natural enemy of personal authenticity; the state is what represses our true selves. (I have to thank my friend Matthew Simpson, the philosopher and Rousseau scholar, for clarifying this point.) But as I read Taylor, he seems to say that just as any given woman in Quebec wants to be true to herself, the Québécois want to be true to their culture. It is the same problem on two different levels. It is the Romantic urge personally and politically, and in both cases it seems to appear, historically speaking, just on either side of the year 1800. The political urge makes no sense without the personal one. Taylor recognizes this equivalence implicitly, and his work argues for it, but he never quite formulates the extent to which, for him, the personal is political.
Here’s proposition five: “To the extent that we can succeed in being authentic, as people and as cultures—succeed in creating political forms or governments that allow people and groups to flourish that way—we will have a greater fullness than what people had in the old age of enchantment.” In fact, Taylor believes, we may be able to have a fullness unimaginable in days of old. In a sense, we will have solved the problem implied in proposition one, the problem of disenchantment. We will have shown disenchantment to be a blessing.
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These propositions raise a big question: What will that “greater fullness” look like? What does a world adapted to modernity—charitable and altruistic, in which people may seek out their authentic selves but in a way that leaves them spiritually full and oriented toward a horizon other than the preservation of physical life—actually look like?
It’s a fair question, and as far as I can tell Taylor sends us to a cold shower once again. His reluctance to offer specific suggestions for how states should organize themselves may be a failure of nerve. It could also be that his particular take on communitarianism naturally implies that every community will organize itself a bit differently, making up its own rules, suited to the needs of its constituent groups. Perhaps there is no single set of rules that will work for both Canada and Israel (Taylor is strangely silent on Israel, which would seem to be—after his beloved Quebec—the most important cautionary tale in the limits of balancing democracy and ethnic identity). And so, as Taylor the erstwhile Wittgenstein scholar might say, whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
That reticence can make Taylor seem an even grander statesman: after all, as President Obama showed during the Egyptian crisis, for politicians especially, discretion is the better part of valor. Philosophers are paid to have opinions, whereas politicians often succeed to the extent that they never commit themselves exclusively to any one opinion.
But after reading Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, the new essay collection about Taylor (with a title so bad he could have chosen it), I think Taylor’s discretion is something other than statesmanlike. Two essays in particular argue for a kind of sentimentality in Taylor, as if he believes—even when writing about the most consequential matters of world governance—that the play of ideas is more important than the logical conclusions. These two essays are by historians, not philosophers. The first is by Jon Butler, a scholar of American and transatlantic religion (and once my teacher); the second is by Jonathan Sheehan, who studies early modern Europe and the Reformation.