Monday, July 25, 2011

The World Must Be Peopled

"The World Must Be Peopled." Such was my favorite line from William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which I witnessed for the second consecutive night this evening in Clark Park.

"Shakespeare in Clark Park," having now for a sixth consecutive year provided free performances of the works of he who commanded English like no other man has, is becoming an institution in these parts. It is positively delightful to sit out on the grass in the lovely July sunset with the whole community, being challenged by art which is higher than our faculties rather than being sedated by entertainment that indulges our baser cravings, being shown a portrait of the good life entirely different from that which bombards us in most of our lives.

The experience could be a springboard for several themes with which I have been occupied, but I would like to return to the question of Community v. Network as discussed in my previous blog post, more specifically the related question of Past v. Present.

As is a constant delight to me, dear brothers Jonathan and Ben responded with thoughtful challenges to my views. I hope that we may continue to pursue the truth together, even over this great network and on this ethereal forum, not simply for conversation as an end in itself, but for the discovery of an idea of the good life (that is, the life worth aspiring to and fighting for) greater than either Shakespeare or we have known.

In order to return to this question, let us pause a moment and examine exactly what Shakespeare presents to us in this play. Much Ado is a comedy, and therefore presents something like life in the ideal: life in which the designs of evil may cast a dark shadow, but a shadow that ultimately flees before the light. At the end all is well.

As Shakespeare presents, "all" being "well" is characterized chiefly by a right ordering of human relationships. For him to say so requires saying first off that there is a right ordering, and consequently that there are wrong orderings as well. Contrary to Benedict and Beatrice's early avowals, it is right that they marry, and it would have been wrong if they did not. The estate of Beatrice's father must be carried forward after he dies; Benedict cannot happily remain a bachelor forever, nor Beatrice a maid; the world must be peopled.

Moreover, it was right that Hero should have known no man when she married Claudio. Had the accusation against her not been false, it would have been right that she should be ashamed; in such a situation her father went so far as to say:
O Fate! take not away thy heavy hand.
Death is the fairest cover for her shame
That may be wish'd for.
If we take Shakespeare seriously, we are presented with a double offense. The obvious offense is the content of the moral order here presented, which in our day has been rejected in nearly every respect. But before we arrive at the content of that order, we are first offended that there should even be such an order, objective and received, rather than subjective and created.

That I am in favor of an objective and received order over a subjective and created one, and that the order I believe would better make for peace, happiness, truth, and meaning resembles in many respects the one I have described here, is somewhat beside the point I wish to make. Rather, I would like to ask that we engage the question of the good life critically, rationally, and earnestly, with humility toward the past.

I want to emphasize humility toward the past. It is common to hear easy dismissals of past social orders. But I do not think that most who do so have done the intellectual heavy lifting required to make such statements. In essence, I do not believe they make the effort to understand that which they reject, nor do I believe they claim to.

I can think of two reasons why not. First, doing so is work, and there are many pursuits worthy of work. Second, doing so is unnecessary, because we are fundamentally different than those who lived in the past.

I will address the latter impulse before the former. C.S. Lewis called it chronological snobbery. I believe it stems in part from an idea of social progress that comes from the demonstrated reality of technological progress. The story goes something like this: People twenty years ago did not have the Internet, people seventy years ago did not have television, and people a hundred twenty years ago did not have electricity. Likewise, a hundred years ago women were not allowed to vote and what we now call racism was entrenched and accepted.

It is easy and natural to look at such a picture, which is stark and obvious, and to conclude that just as our technological advances have built on all of the best from our predecessors, so too have our social ideas advanced. We even have an idea of an abstract concept of a "civil rights movement," in which a society slowly becomes aware of a grave injustice in its order due to a minority courageously standing for the truth. I do not know how many times I have heard that such and such issue is "the Civil Rights issue of our time." Such an idea is an analog to the scientific method. It is an idea about how to make progress at a faster rate than it has been made in the past.

While the position that social progress is inevitable and self-advancing is completely natural given a naive presentation of contemporary life, it is overly simplistic. Unlike scientific knowledge, social knowledge does not automatically distill itself over time; that which is wrong is not naturally and inevitably corrected by that which is right. Rather, societies may regress as well as progress. Different ages may be peculiarly prescient, and they may also be peculiarly blind. That statement goes for the past, and it also goes for the present.

If true, we are brought more concretely back to the first objection to thinking about the past: it is hard work. If our age does not have a privileged moral position in the social realm, then the legitimacy of the claims of all other ages might seem to leave us in the midst of an indecipherable cacophany.

While I believe we may receive guidance from the past on how to make sense of the past, I will not dispute that we are left with a very difficult task. But I will assert that doing that work is not as hard as collectively going it alone, of soldiering into the terrifying future with nothing about us but our own wits. I will also assert that buried not so deeply in the sands of time are treasures of such richness that were we to possess them we would not think of questioning whether the manual work of digging was worth the opportunity cost. Luke Skywalker was better able to meet the foe with his father's lightsaber, and Frodo Baggins could not have faced Shelob without the light of an ancient star. We do well to carry with us the wisdom of our forebears.

Finally, I would like to respond to Jonathan's comment by acknolwedging the nonexistence of the kind of ideal past presented in Shakespeare's play. No people has ever built the just society or realized the rightness of all human relationships. But we in our time have considerably better heuristics available to us than "change is good" or "change is bad." In fact, thanks to technological advances, we may be better suited than any people has been to intelligently evaluate the past.

Let us set about the good work together. The future needs the past, and if we do not uncover it I do not know who will.