Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Moral Certitude of Modernity

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers writes:

I've been reading Marilynne Robinson's book of essays, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. Her essay entitled “Puritans and Prigs” sets out to defend the Puritans and contrast them to a group she calls prigs, the sort of politically correct thought police that the right used to rail against in the 1990s. I think her argument also has a lot in common with your indictments of fundamentalism and movement conservatism.

The Puritans' belief that we are all sinners, Robinson says, gives "excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain." However, she argues that modernity, of which prigs are emblematic, is essentially Stalinist, in that it believes that society "can and should produce good people, that is, people suited to life in whatever imagined optimum society, who then stabilize the society in its goodness so that it produces more good people, and so on. First the bad ideas must be weeded out and socially useful ones put in their place. Then the bad people must be identified, especially those that are carriers of bad ideas."

. . .

Indeed, much the same could be said of today’s right. For my part, it seems all such prigs (left and right) stem from the fundamental epistemological arrogance of modernity--that all things can be known. This is as true of Darwinism as it is of Biblical fundamentalism. The older I get, the more folly such claims seem to contain. This is not a new insight: one need only look at Ecclesiastes. Efforts such as political correctness and movement conservatism are destructive of civil society and are based on nothing more than a chasing after the wind.

I think this is a brilliant summation of the problem with both the contemporary right and the contemporary left. Forgiveness and understanding are no longer virtues.

They've been replaced by self-righteousness and moral certitude . . .


petpluto said...

Forgiveness and understanding are no longer virtues.

I don't really know how one gets forgiveness or understanding from the Puritanical way of life. Self-righteousness and moral certitude almost certainly describe Puritans and Puritan leaders especially as well - if not better - than anyone alive today.

mikhailbakunin said...

Yeah, I think Robinson is really using "Puritan" as a kind of shorthand to describe a particular ideological premise that the Puritans espoused through their theology. The Puritan concepts of sin and grace are essentially tied to forgiveness and understanding.

Certainly, you're right that the Puritan separatists who came to America didn't quite live up to those ideals -- or so it would seem, from what little I know of them.

But I wouldn't get too hung up on Robinson's terminology, as imprecise as it may be.

petpluto said...

But I wouldn't get too hung up on Robinson's terminology, as imprecise as it may be.

I would, simply because the article and the letter (and your own liking of it) seem to be tied to the idea that yesteryear was better - that people were more understanding and forgiving because they were Puritans and not prigs, when in reality, the idea that we were all sinners didn't really help with that at all. As a philosophy, religions with a Calvinist base didn't have forgiveness or understanding as their underpinnings.

It isn't like Puritans didn't weed out bad ideas or bad people. It isn't like they let Anne Hutchinson stay. And it isn't like doing that wasn't a part of their religious beliefs.

Our contemporaries are very much like our predecessors. The ideologies may change, but the priggishness that comes along with believing your ideology is the ideology doesn't really.

So, in comparing our contemporaries to our predecessors and finding our contemporaries lacking by Puritanical standards, well, her argument for why the 1600s had better people is fundamentally flawed.

As for your assertion that forgiveness and understanding aren't virtues any longer, I would be interested to know at what points in history did members of ideological sects - political or otherwise - consistently practice those virtues. The only example I can come up with is Reconstruction and allowing the South back into the country under full statehood after the Civil War; and even that one is based on possibly Lincoln's forgiveness and understanding but also probably on his pragmatism. And its continuation under Johnson more due to his Southern sympathies than his forgiveness and compassion. I'm not saying there isn't such a time, but none come readily to mind.

Jeremy said...

I think Robinson is arguing that one philosophical tradition gives "grounds" for forgiveness and understanding, while the other basically demands self-righteousness.

This isn't a reactionary vision -- at least not from my perspective.

It's not about returning to a kinder, gentler era that was somehow less ideological. And Robinson isn't suggesting that we should all aim to become Puritans because Puritans were more virtuous in practice. Indeed, that would contradict the theme of her essay.

I think Robinson is really using the term "modern" to refer to the modernist tradition (and modernist thinkers like Darwin and Marx) who espoused a unique kind of intellectual positivism -- the idea that objective truth exists and we can discover it. For Marx, there could be no compromise once we'd ascertained the Truth. Metaphysical positivism leads inevitably to revolution.

I'm sure other intellectual traditions have asserted that "all things can be known" -- certainly materialism existed before Marx -- but this was really the key feature of modernist thought.

And I think that this idea has seeped into contemporary society chiefly through the modernist tradition.

Anonymous said...

Basing one's argument on semantics is entirely the problem that Robinson is bringing up. For example, instead of saying something is, "bad," prigs would argue that we must say, "double-plus ungood."

Ms. Judice said...

Self-righteousness on both sides is loathsome. I feel that we can't have much-needed conversations without offending someone. Political correctness is strangling any sort of real progress that we should be making. I think to some degree we need to suspend the desire to correct others and let them express their thoughts before we immediately dismiss their comments as being insensitive.

JB said...

Jer, since when are you some kind of post-modernist, denying objective truth and epistemological certainty? You sound like Karl Popper in these posts, directing your ire at anyone who claims complete knowledge or certitude. That's not to say I disagree - I see it in a similar way. Understanding and forgiveness come from compassion, and compassion depends on accepting those who differ instead of condemning them. It also means letting go of moral judgment, something liberals and conservatives are loath to do.

mikhailbakunin said...

I agree with you.

I wouldn't call myself a postmodernist, but I don't really know enough about postmodernism to reject the label. I'm certainly not interested in deconstructing all social doctrines to the point of abstraction . . . but that's probably an unfair characterization of postmodernism.

Anyway, what I'd prefer is something akin to Andrew Sullivan's Conservatism of Doubt. I really do believe that the world needs a lot more epistemological uncertainty.