Tragedy as an Element of Authenticity

I once had a professor mention that the task of trying to find one’s individual path in life according to the notion of authenticity was a Sisyphean task. While I do not agree with this professor, it seems that the task of finding of one’s authentic path in life is far more complicated, and problematic than the way that authenticity is ordinarily understood suggests.

Typically, the notion of authenticity is understand to suggest that the key to living a good life is turning inward and figuring out what you want to do with your life. After one has done this one can then take actions to pursue what one wants to do with one’s life. Consequently, according to this interpretation of the notion of authenticity, the task of finding one’s authentic path is fairly simple and unproblematic.

Furthermore, it is interesting that this popular notion of authenticity tend to gloss over the fact that finding what one wants to do with one’s life need not admit to a singular answer. For example, in my life as I have turned inwards I have realized that I am drawn to activities of artistic creation, activities of philosophical, spiritual and political reflection, and activities of civic/political involvement. But at the same time I recognize that engaging in these activities well requires a large degree of time and devotion, such that I cannot fully commit to all three with the amount of time that I have within my life. In my case thus I have had to make an agonistic choice to primarily commit to one form of activity at the expense of the others. Furthermore, we have little reason to think that my example is particularly peculiar as many people are deeply conflicted regarding the kinds of activities that they want to build their lives around. Consequently, it seems that the task of finding of what one wants to do with one’s life does not admit of a simple, singular answer. When we turn inwards sometimes we realize that there are multiple activities that we want to build our lives around, and that we cannot adequately make time to pursue all of these activities in a way that gives all of them their due. In such a situation we will have to make the choice to devote ourselves to a certain set of these activities at the expense of others that we still find very attractive and valuable.

As a result of the preceding, the turn inwards that is required to figure out what one wants out of life requires us to confront a possibly tragic choice. I call this choice tragic, in reference to the fact that there may be an insoluble conflict between the alternative life paths that one may take. This concept of tragedy is influenced by Sophocles, as a large element of the Sophoclean conception of tragedy has to do with the conflict between incompatible priorities or values. For example, in Sophocles’ Antigone we have the obligations to the city conflicting with the obligations that a daughter has towards her brother. Just as Antigone has to choose to give priority to one set of claims that she finds valid, over another, those who make the inward turn of authenticity sometimes will have to choose between giving priority to one form of activity they find attractive over another that they find attractive. Consequently, the inward turn of authenticity always contains within it the possible experience of tragedy in this Sophoclean sense.

Now, it should be noted that I am not rejecting the notion of authenticity; rather, my issue is that we tend to speak about authenticity as though finding what one wants to do with one’s life will give us a simple, singular answer that we will then be able to efficiently pursue. Within popular culture we tend to speak of the inward turn of authenticity as something that is quite easy to deal with and move on from. However, as I have noted above the inward turn that is required to understand what one wants to do with one’s life can put us in the position of having to make a tragic choice, and there is always the possibility that we will deeply regret our decisions. So, it seems that the inward turn of authenticity is not as simple or as easy to deal with as the popular conception of it suggests, and by stating that it is simple and easy we are deceiving ourselves and ill-preparing ourselves for what we may have to deal with in their lives. For this reason we need to recognize the courage that it requires to make the inward turn and make the commitment to a particular set of priorities over another. Making this choice and facing it requires courage because one has to face the real possibility that one will make the wrong choice, and pursue a life that is meaningless or superficial. Furthermore, another upshot of this is that any person, who after taking the inward turn is confronted by a tragic choice between alternatives and makes the choice for one of these alternatives over the other, may experience a deep sense of loss over what could have been. This sense of loss is not an unhealthy manifestation of a disordered mind, but rather the reflection that a person has made the choice to forgo developing an element of themselves that they would have developed under different conditions.

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Reason, providence, inspiration and value conflict: Is reason able to reconcile value conflict?

Many people within developed western nations believe that if reason is applied consistently we will be able to create the most perfect society imaginable. I call this idea providential rationalism. From the standpoint of providential rationalism it is through rational speech that we are able to overcome conflict between seemingly opposed values and it is through the application of reason that we will be able develop technology that will enable us to truly be masters of our destiny. For the purposes of this entry I will examine the former facet of providential rationalism, while not considering the latter in detail. In particular, I will show that this facet of providential rationalism, let us call it dialogical providential rationalism, is implausible unless one assumes some form of providence. Furthermore, I will argue that that the alternative view that reason is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the overcoming of value conflict is more plausible than dialogical providential rationalism.

Dialogical providential rationalism rightly points out that when conflicts between seemingly opposed values are overcome, this occurs through the medium of rational speech. Through an exchange of arguments , we come to either see that the conflict between values was really illusory, or that one value is more important on reflection and consequently should take precedence when the two conflict. For example, it might seem that the value of the family is threatened by having the state intervene in family life where this is necessary to ensure a decent level of well-being for the child, as the family is necessarily based on paternal authority, rather than state authority. But on reflection this conflict is only illusory as it seems more plausible to think that the people, through the state, entrust parents with authority over their children on the conditions that the parents adequately provide for their children. However, if the parents break the element of the social contract that requires parents to adequately provide for their children, then the state may intervene because the entire point of parental authority is to secure the proper development of children. Consequently, while there seemed to be a conflict between the family and the rights of children, this conflict is not really a conflict at all. I am not expecting everyone to buy into this particular interpretation of the conflict between the family and the rights of children, rather it is just an example to show how seeming value conflict can be overcome.

However, the problem with dialogical providential rationalism is that it suggests that reason is sufficient to overcome all conflict between values. This seems implausible as there are many conflicts that do not seem to be reconcilable no matter how much we argue about these values. It seems plausible to think that if some reasonable person committed to the belief that equal freedom is the fundamental end of the state, and a reasonable person who believes that happiness is the ultimate end of the state would never come to an agreement about the ultimate end of the state. It is possible that they will be able to convince one another, or come up with an imaginative solution to reconcile their conflict, but it does not seem to be true that if they spoke for long enough they would overcome this conflict. What makes conflict between values so difficult to overcome is that the only way the conflict can be overcome is if the subjects to the disagreement are persuaded by some solution to the conflict. If one party provides a solution to the value conflict, but the other is not persuaded by the solution, then the conflict has not been overcome.

In consideration of the preceding, it seems to only make sense to think that if two reasonable agents reason for long enough about a value conflict, they will be able to overcome the conflict, if we assume that nature or God has structured reason and humanity in such a way that all conflicts can be reconciled with the application of enough rational speech. Furthermore, what is the belief that God or nature has made it so that reason can overcome all value conflicts, but a belief in a providential universe? Consequently, it seems that dialogical providential rationalism depends on the assumption of providence. Of course it is true that when we look back at history we see that seemingly opposed conflicts between values have been overcome, but this only suggests that reason has overcome some value conflicts, not that reason can overcome all value conflicts. Thus, this fact does nothing to damage the argument I have put forth. It should be noted that I am not arguing that providence is an implausible belief, but that dialogical providential rationalism assumes that we live in a providential universe.

The alternative that I would put forth to dialogical providential rationalism is that reason aids humans in overcome conflict between values, but that reason is a necessary as opposed to a sufficient condition for the overcoming of such conflict. But if reason is only a necessary condition for the overcoming of conflict between values, then some other element is necessary to overcome conflict between values. The other element is inspiration or imagination. This is made clear because in order to overcome conflict one must be possessed by something like, artistic inspiration, or imagination, in that the agents engaged in dialogue must imaginatively go beyond their current understanding of the values to reconcile the conflict. If the agents just reiterate arguments in favour of one value within the conflict, it is highly unlikely that the conflict will be overcome. But, if they are inspired and imaginatively reconcile the insights behind the conflicting values, then the value conflict may be overcome.

In many ways the overcoming of value conflict is like the creation of music, rather than the building of a house according to a blueprint. In creating music one cannot just decide that at 3:00PM one will write a piece of music, rather inspiration strikes and you are able to create something beautiful and unique. And when inspiration strikes is a matter of fortune rather than human control. Likewise, with value conflict simple rational argument is not sufficient to overcome the conflict, rather the agents must be struck by some kind of inspiration that enables them to see beyond their current understanding of the values to an understanding that is deeply convincing to all subjects of the disagreement, but yet overcomes the conflict. Furthermore, like with musical inspiration the imagination required to overcome value conflict is something that one is struck by, rather than something that one controls. Consequently, reason is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition for the reconciliation of value conflict, and over and above reason what enables value conflict to be reconciled is being struck by inspiration. The alternative that I have put forth seems plausible as it recognizes that reason is the only tool that humans are in control of that can assist them in overcoming value conflict, but it also recognizes the limits of reason in facilitating the reconciliation of value conflict. Therefore, the alternative I have put forth seems to be more plausible than dialogical providential rationalism.

Reason is an amazing capacity of human beings, and it has great value. For example, it can help us to better understand others and learn from them. But we need to clearly understand its limits so that we do not turn reason into an idol that can solve all of our problems. Reason may be a less dangerous idol, than others, but when it is transformed into an idol, it still poses great dangers.

The Place of Progressive Historicism in Modern Consciousness

Progressive historicism is the notion that historical forces have a direction, and this direction is towards the fullest development of humanity. In an academic context, this idea tends to be ridiculed as it is viewed as an archaic, western metanarrative that is not only false, but also pernicious in the way that it has been and is still used to justify colonialism and other evils. However, despite the fact that this idea is not taken particularly seriously among academics, it is still a large part of the popular consciousness of modern post-industrial societies. Furthermore, while progressive historicism provides an intelligible answer to the question of how we have arrived at this point in history, we should be suspicious of progressive historicism, because while there have been significant improvements in well-being throughout the development of human society, these improvements are not necessarily tied to a necessary process, and these improvements have also included historical losses in forms of value. Similarly, we should be suspicious of the progressive historicist narrative as it encourages a form of close-mindedness which discourages people from properly considering what the good is.

The tendency to write off progressive historicism as an antiquated theory is problematic, because even though its premises seem questionable and it has been used as a justification for problematic practises it has become a large part of the consciousness of post-industrial societies. For example, we often refer to people with ideas we disapprove of as backwards or medieval, and refer to those with ideas that we approve and admire as ahead of their time. Furthermore, I have heard seemingly intelligent people write off Plato and Aristotle, among others because the fact that they had lived an earlier era necessarily means that they are stupid and must be wrong about everything. This suggests that the way that individuals think about history fits in with the progressive historicist narrative as people tend to see the past as having been superseded by the present, and see humanity marching towards a bright new future.

The appeal of progressive historicism partially lies in the fact that we know that people in early ages have been subject to mass famine, disease, suffering and oppression, and at the very least, in post-industrial societies, it seems that we have begun to overcome famine and disease, and furthermore traditionally oppressed groups (women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals) have been able to gain legal, and perhaps social equality. In this sense, it seems that there has been progress in terms of justice as more and more people have their dignity respected, and progress in terms of technology as humanity becomes less endangered by the forces of nature and has more control over their destiny.

However, there are a few reasons why we should be suspicious of progressive historicism. Firstly, the idea of a necessary historical process while effective at explaining societal development is not necessary to explain such development. We can recognize that there has been a process of development, but consider it to be something that was contingent, and thus not inevitable, but rather one possibility among many. In this case we might consider history as something that is path dependent in that at one point there were certain events that could have led to a multiplicity of differing trajectories for the development of society, but particular choices that were made caused the current path of historical development to be much more likely. Unless we are already strongly committed to the idea of necessity determining societal change, it seems that the alternative that I have articulated is at least equally plausible to the progressive historicist story.

Secondly, the other issue with the progressive historicist story is that it pays keen attention to the gains that have occurred for humanity, but is troubling silent about the losses that have occurred throughout societal development. The development of society is partially a story of the gradual expansion of the recognition of dignity, but as a result of this development and particular technological changes certain forms of practise that constitute unique forms of value have been lost. For example, even if we are deeply disturbed by the brutality of the warrior way of life and the ethic of honor that goes along with it, we also admire the kind of courage that was necessary to live this life. And while this way of life had to be set aside to make way for egalitarian justice, certain forms of value were lost. Likewise, while finding certain elements of Ancient Athenian democracy particularly troubling (ie slavery), we can also see something deeply valuable in the solidarity that the citizenry of Athens achieved at particular points in its history. But this solidarity was probably made far more likely by the fact that the citizenry had slaves who could provide for their daily needs while they were active within the public sphere. Thus, the ending of slavery while necessary for the expansion of the recognition of all as equal, likely also lead to the loss of forms of value, such as the solidarity that could be achieved among the citizenry of Ancient Athens. Consequently, we should be suspicious of the progressive historicist narrative as it does not seem to tell an accurate story of the development of value throughout society’s history. Clearly, the equal dignity of all is more important than the courage of the warrior or the solidarity of Ancient Athens, but nonetheless these are still losses in value that must be taken account of.

Thirdly, the last reason why we should be suspicious of progressive historicism is the fact that the progressive historicist narrative encourages a kind of close-mindedness that sees the wisdom of the past as having been superseded by the wisdom of the modern era. This close-mindedness closes off people from deeply asking the question of what the good life is, as individuals under the grip of progressive historicism only seriously consider modern alternatives that share their own basic assumptions about what the good is, and do not deeply consider the wisdom of previous ages. If there is an inevitable process that is leading to the fullest development of humanity, then why would we need to learn from the wisdom of the past? Consequently, it seems that the progressive historicist narrative is problematic in its tendency to encourage close-mindedness. As a result while there seems to be a grain of truth within the progressive historicist notion that societal development has involved a long march towards equal respect for the dignity of all, this is only one element of the story of our history, and if we myopically focus on this one element we may fail to properly answer the question of what the good is.