Friday, November 11, 2016

The Intelligent Obligation to be Moral

     I thought that today may be a good day to revive Falstaff, not from the dead really, because even in Shakespeare's own hands Falstaff can never truly and finally die; but, rather, to bring him back, like Avalonian Arthur, because his sensibility is most needed in the present conversations of cultural and political life. Falstaff lived subverting conventional thought and morality, the edicts of a monarchical state, and ultimately his own intentions. And through Falstaff, Shakespeare gives us a compelling exemplar of the complex, flawed, ego-driven, and yes, loving, nature of humanity.  Some suggest Falstaff is the most compellingly human life yet authored. Presently, it seems the times call out for a Falstaff to help us keep our eye on the ball, as it were. I don't claim to offer that, but I do offer my best effort toward it. There was a time when Falstaff Was My Tutor was quite popular, read round the world even, and I hope that in time it will be so again.

     I have been re-reading a collection of essays by Lionel Trilling, a modernist bulwark at Columbia University for decades, who died in 1974. The title of these essays , in particular, always enchanted me: The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent. I realize now, writing this on November 9th, 2016, that my urge to re-engage these essays earlier this summer, after so long remaining on the shelf, had more to do with my unconscious need to explore why, in American Culture, intelligence is considered to be some sort of perilous faculty, that "cleverness is the first step into mischief," that the heart and the mind are rivals in the struggle for truth. Why is it, as Trilling himself writes, "...always too late for mind, yet never too late for honest stupidity; always a little too late for understanding, never too late for righteous, bewildered wrath; always too late for thought, never too late for naive moralizing?"

     It seems to me the case that, as the result of their combat in the cultural arena, heart and mind are irresolvably locked in a death spiral plummeting each to its certain destruction, leaving only a painful nihilism occupying their former places, powerless in its ability to create and expertly equipped to destroy. Nihilism is the true enemy of culture, nihilism threatens civility, nihilism destroys beauty, and it is certainly nihilism which nudges democracies ever closer to accepting totalitarianism with nothing more than a rueful sigh of powerlessness. The rueful sigh is expelled at the dilatory realization that there is no longer a creative, generative, unifying mythology operating in the cultural fascia, binding us together with a sense of common experience or purpose.      
     Nihilism creates and exaggerates a simplistic, naive transparency of the world and ideas, ideas which in nihilistic fashion, tend to remain undifferentiated from and confused with opinion. It forsakes human beings, it forsakes an inquiry into truth, rendering both human beings and truth less important than ideas. Nihilism abandons, to subvert Trilling's title a bit, the intelligent obligation to be moral. Morality is not something that human beings need to be taught, nor is it a set of rules divinely ceded to humankind and recorded in some holy text so they may be careful to not be ignored. No, every child understands that it is better for everyone when they treat others as they would like to be treated. I do not think it likely that, before the Israelites set up camp at the base of Mt. Sinai and received the Decalogue, they thought murder, adultery, and larceny were perfectly acceptable and committed them whenever the occasion allowed. 

     A moral vacuum develops whenever and wherever ideas assume primacy over human beings and is inevitable whenever real people are objectified or marginalized as statistics, modal examples, or as slaves, servants, or subjects, such as when they are uniformly required to offer complete subservience to an institution, a person, or a belief. In other words, an idea. This is what I am identifying as nihilism, and this is the present state of things in modern religion; it exists to an alarming extent in the academy; and it is certainly true, as we have just seen both on the left and the right, in contemporary American and British politics. Intellect is enfeebled when it is employed solely in the service of utility, when it is used solely for developing pragmatic solutions and definitive answers. In a moral vacuum, nothing is sacred except for the monolithic idea itself.

     It is, in my opinion, exactly this lack of a placeholder for the sacred that plunges the institutions of culture into nihilism and, as to whether they address the real concerns of real people, into irrelevance so that there cannot possibly emerge any new cultural mythologies at all, let alone truly novel, generative, creative, unifying mythologies that, at the same time reflect and encourage, feed and inspire, the human spirit. Religion, pick any one from among them, in its early manifestation was replete with mystery and awe, and because it valued--worshiped even--mystery and awe, the sacred was palpably known. I might well say the same thing about academia. In fact, Trilling's own teacher, John Erskine, wrote that "we really seek intelligence not for the answers it may suggest to the problems of life, but because we believe it is life [...] We love it, as we love virtue, for its own sake, and we believe it is only virtue's other and more precise name." When one values intelligence, not for the answers it may suggest to the problems of living but instead, for its own sake as life itself, the element of the sacred is reintroduced into and made relevant to the living of individual lives, and the pedagogical lynch pin of the sacred is complexity, uncertainty, possibility, difficulty, and most importantly, disturbance.

     The mind, the mental, the intellect, appears to operate as a force multiplier making any sensory or cognitive experience that much more powerful. And while this itself should not be mistaken for a monolithic idea, it really does seem that the natural affiliation of the mental is with the moral, each enhancing the other. Intellect and moral sensibility should, rather than make us smugly comfortable, disturb us, disquiet us, and lead us to dissent from orthodoxy; they should even lead us, as Trilling put it, "to dissent from the orthodoxies of dissent." Our philosophies, our religions, even our science should, in some profound ways, disturb us if we are engaged with them, and they with us, vitally and meaningfully. Disturbance urges us to augment and elaborate our strategies of living. Put simply, embracing disturbance forces us to grow, and if lived authentically, this quickly becomes a challenging, exacting, and arduous life. It may even become a life of deep satisfaction and, dare I say it, joy. Gentle experiences don't disturb us, and therefore they don't often move us to reflection or contemplation, either; only the dangerous or the uncanny will reliably do that for us (and both are qualities of the sacred). The experiences that create the necessary psychic conditions that result in the expansion of consciousness are usually existentially terrifying; they move one to become so deeply disturbed, so entirely whelmed, that such events and their sequelae remain powerful currents in the stream of existential imagination, against which, we continue to beat until the ends of our lives. The wound is created by the penetration of the sacred into being and being into the sacred, culminating in a disturbing awareness of the vastness of each, soul and space. Such a wounding is, I think, a prerequisite for the discovery of an inner life and what's more, it is at least the necessary, but probably not entirely sufficient condition for the emergence of new mythologies.

     I have often been accused of thinking too much. To this charge, I suppose I plead guilty. No doubt that I am a depth psychologist because I think it is impossible to think too much about life, life that may, after all, only be understood by reflection. The disturbances, woundings, dissentings, and other manifestations of the sacred are not, as Trilling might point out, "a mere display of [may I say, personal and] cultural indecisiveness but, rather, that they constitute a dialectic, with all the dignity that inheres in that word." To encounter the sacred is to begin a conversation with life that not only, I believe, constitutes the essence of mythology, but also refines and advances morality and intelligence as well as our obligation to both.


  1. Oh, but it is so good to have you back :)

    1. Thank you, Sue! It's nice to reconnect. My best to you.

  2. Pleased as Punch to discover your blogs, Brad Olson, by way of looking you up after reading today's MythBlast. Gems of insight, most nourishing. Thanks.

    1. Thank you, Merrikate, I'm glad you found your way here!