Elsewhere

The New Yorker's Joshua Rothman talks with the philosopher Charles Taylor, who has some interesting things to say about democracy in the age of Trump (he said them before the election):

Real belief, Taylor reminded me—the kind of belief that offers some form of spiritual fulfillment—can be dangerous. Around the time of the Second World War, he said, many thinkers grew wary of such beliefs. “Joseph Schumpeter and others thought it would be better to care less,” Taylor told me. “The idea was to go to the polls every four years and elect an élite team. Don’t get excited and have mass movements of Communism and Fascism. It’s an idea that says, ‘Avoid the worst—avoid the terrible things that arise.’ “ He paused, then shrugged. “I have another ethic. I’m with Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hannah Arendt, Rousseau, Montesquieu. I believe it’s a higher mode of being to participate in your own self-government.” In Taylor view, cool disengagement is a fiction; an ardent search for goodness is the human reality. “We all seek a sense of what it would be like to be fully connected to something. We all have a sense of what really living, and not just existing, would be. We know that there’s a level of life that’s rare to attain. And whether we attain that or not can be a source of deep satisfaction or shame to us.” It’s possible, Taylor said, to live as a “resident alien” in a democracy, going to work and raising your family without “getting a charge” out of the democratic story. But something might happen to change that. “The feeling that I’m really happy to be living in this society or that I’m really upset; that I’m either living fully or being deprived of that experience—those feelings are signs that the ethic of democracy has seized you.” [...]

Taylor believes that, as individuals, we derive our sense of selfhood from shared values that are, in turn, embodied in public institutions. When those institutions change, those changes reverberate within us: they can seem to endanger the very meanings of our lives. It’s partly for this reason that events in the political world can devastate us so intimately, striking us with the force of a breakup or a death. (Similarly, a charismatic candidate can, like a new object of infatuation, help us find new possibilities within ourselves.)

Taylor’s calm, scholarly empathy is reassuring; his three-point program for engaging with one’s political opponents—“Try to listen; find out what’s troubling them; stop condemning”—is deeply humane. At times, speaking about Trump’s racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic rhetoric, his voice would rise in anger. Then he would pause, take a breath, and remind me that enthusiasm for Trump could be seen as a genuine and ardent, if misguided, expression of the democratic ethos. “The belief that democracy is supposed to be a system in which non-élites have a say—that principle is built right into the nature of democracy,” he said. “But there are constructive ways of asserting it and destructive ways.” Where Bernie Sanders had proposed a program that might have actually given non-élites more power, Trump proposed to consolidate power among a subset of non-élites by, as Taylor put it, “excising some populations from his definition of ‘the people.’"

At the New York Times, Commonweal contributor Gordon Marino writes about the value of regret and the impossibility of "forgiving yourself":

[S]elf-forgiveness is a misconception. The only people who can forgive us are those we have sinned against, those we have harmed. Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamozov argued that not even God has the right to forgive someone who has tortured and murdered children. After all, God wasn’t the one who was tortured.

I have no authority to forgive someone for mugging you, and I can’t forgive myself for cheating someone else. This is not to endorse endlessly torturing ourselves or pathological guilt. When the super-ego becomes a mad dog, we lose faith in ourselves and in our ability to mend our ways. We can learn to let things go, but before we let them go, we have to let regret get hold of us. Perhaps the old biblical formula is best—repent, ask for forgiveness with a sincere resolve to change your ways. [...]

Kierkegaard observed that you don’t change God when you pray, you change yourself. Perhaps it is the same with regret. I can’t rewind and expunge my past actions, but perhaps I change who I am in my act of remorse. Henry David Thoreau advised: “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.” To live afresh is to be morally born again.

The great English poet Geoffrey Hill died this past summer at the age of eighty-four. The PN Review has published the sermon that Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, delivered at Hill's funeral at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. An excerpt:

Geoffrey’s late collections, certainly from Speech! Speech! onwards, are characterised by savagely ludic self-chastisement: some of it a pre-emptive strike against the hapless reader or the snide critic, sometimes a rueful fingering over the near-flawless lyric voice of his earlier work, sometimes simply a caricature of the grumpy old man persona—all worked through with comprehensively unmerciful clarity. One of his own most persistent themes, from that wonderful inaugural lecture in Leeds in 1977, is how we ‘word’ repentance, particularly in the face of that moment where the unmoral is suddenly caught up in the moral—where, in the language he uses later, the simultaneity of semantic and ethical recognition is inescapable; when doing justice in words is transparently bound up with doing justice to what there is in every sense (including what there is, uncomfortably, unreconciledly, inside the poet). [...]

Poetry like all speech ends in renunciation; the great set book contains nothing that is not bound to revert to another’s ownership. What we say is an attempt to open eyes, as Christ did with the clay and spittle laid on the blind man’s eyes; but can we bear what is uncovered? Doing justice is a dangerous enterprise, dangerous for our fragile selves, wounding us and those we love when we cannot bear the weight we have loosed and allowed to slip onto our backs. Geoffrey knew all this, and if his knowing was often angry, that anger was not the final motor of the poetry: not something ‘clamouring for expression’ but the deeper knowledge of what the subterranean shifting of ‘lost loves’ and half-lost guilts might bring to birth—or not, of course, because successful ‘voicing’ is not granted automatically to anyone.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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