An Authentic Modernity

By Michael Novak on May 26, 2004 in Book Reviews

The Ethics of Authenticity. By Charles Taylor. Harvard University Press. 142 pp. $17.95.


To grow up in Canada is to inherit a privileged position for understanding modernity-sufficently distant from that hurtling spaceship of “the republic to our south,” while retaining (perhaps from connections to nature, to the history of France, and to Catholicism) a sharp, intuitive sense of what it once was like to be “premodern.” A Canadian can more easily remain detached from capitalism, the spirit of commerce, and the fury of markets, sheltered as he somewhat is by the residual corporatism of medieval Europe and modern socialism. Thus a Canadian tends to associate the negative aspects of modernity with capitalism, its more positive sides to some inarticulate communitarian sense that is not capitalist.

The Canadian thinker Charles Taylor, in any case, is gaining status as the world’s premier philosopher of modernity, the most judicious, the one who makes the most apt and discerning distinctions, the one who best sees both modernity’s grandeur and its misery. I do not know whether he is what is called a “practicing” Catholic, or even what his spiritual disposition is towards Catholicism. He seems to know in his bones what it is like to have been a premodern Catholic, in love with the ancient philosophy of the Greeks, the Romans, schooled in the history of medieval philosophy, and well-informed about the twentieth-century French Catholic ressourcement. He retains a viewpoint larger than modernity (and thus able to judge it) while at the same time wholly committed to modernity (as one whose vocation it is to recognize in it a gift-and a challenge-from God). Analogously, the stance toward democracy in America assumed by Alexis de Tocqueville was not that of an English Protestant of bourgeois upbringing, but that of a man shaped by the history of Catholic and aristocratic France. To be in but not of the cultural world of modernity is to have a comparative advantage.

The original Canadian edition of this book, published during Taylor’s sixtieth year, was entitled The Malaise of Modernity. Perhaps because the connotations of the word “malaise” are different in French and in English, perhaps because the word is virtually unusable in this context in the United States so soon after Jimmy Carter, and surely because Taylor expressly frames his book as a continuation of the inquiry nobly undertaken by Lionel Trilling in his Norton Lectures at Harvard under the title Sincerity and Authenticity, the American edition has been entitled The Ethics of Authenticity. But “ethics” is not quite the right word; in a way, “ethos” is closer, although not quite satisfactory either. What is really at stake is a fair judgment on modernity, an assessment, a fine discrimination of both its nobility and ethical allure, on the one hand, and its self- destructiveness, and self-flattening and demeaning tendencies, on the other.

The book consists of ten chapters of about twelve pages each, and although its argument is at times subtle, allusive, and demanding of full and total concentration, it also marches briskly along. The author inserts frequent guideposts to where he has been and where he is going.

One of Taylor’s contributions is to distinguish clearly among three quite different strands of experience-individualism, instrumental reason, and subjectivism-intending to show how each of these contains both destructive and creative possibilities. Actually he has time in so brief a space to analyze only one of these strands in some detail, and asks us to use this analysis as a model for completing the other two ourselves. He points out that each of these three strands has some aspects that attract us and others that repel us.
What I am suggesting is a position distinct from both boosters and knockers of contemporary culture. Unlike the boosters, I do not believe that everything is as it should be in this culture. Here I tend to agree with the knockers. But unlike them, I think that authenticity should be taken seriously as a moral ideal. I differ also from the various middle positions, which hold that there are some good things in this culture (like greater freedom for the individual), but that these come at the expense of certain dangers (like a weakening of the sense of citizenship), so that one’s best policy is to find the ideal point of trade- off between advantages and costs.

The picture I am offering is rather that of an ideal that has degraded but that is very worthwhile in itself, and indeed, I would like to say, unrepudiable by moderns. So what we need is neither root-and-branch condemnation nor uncritical praise; and not a carefully balanced trade-off. What we need is a work of retrieval, through which this ideal can help us restore our practice.

To go along with this, you have to believe three things, all controversial: (1) that authenticity is a valid idea; (2) that you can argue in reason about ideals and about the conformity of practices to these ideals; and (3) that these arguments can make a difference.
How to fashion such a position is, of course, a work of reason. Here is Taylor’s enduring contribution. His appeal to reasoned judgment is traditional enough, but to make this appeal against the howling winds of relativism so characteristic of modernity is to do the traditional thing in a new and “authentic” way. As Trilling has pointed out, the ancients knew very well the value of sincerity (sine + cere = “true marble without addition of wax,” i.e., honest work). In their way, the ancients recognized the difference between learning ethical rules by rote and truly appropriating them-making them one’s own-in the concrete struggles of the agora and the battlefield. But in making things “their own” they did not have to do so in loneliness, on their own; the rules were publicly agreed upon. The full force of what we today mean by “authenticity” was, therefore, unknown before the modern period. But recognizing many hints, portents, anticipations, and incompletely self- conscious foreshadowings of our predicament even among the ancients, one hates to be apodictic about this.

To repeat, Taylor by his own lights needs to show that one can offer telling reasons for one’s discriminations, and he does so with a brilliant maneuver. One thing modernity certainly requires, he points out, is an awareness of personal identity different from that of all others, an acute self-consciousness. Very well, then, how can one answer the question, “Who am I?” without searching through the stream of memory in order to select out those items that one deems “significant” to one’s identity? But how can one do this without appealing to various reasons for declaring one thing “significant,” and another not? In this way, the question “Who am I?” is a question of, by, and for reason. You can go ahead and just be, if you want to, but the moment you rise to the fully human activity of “living an examined life,” you must invoke the rules and standards of reasoned judgment.

Taylor next shows that this effort at self-examination is always, and must be, dialogic: we learn how to understand ourselves through conversation-through being variously perceived, understood, and judged by others, and in turn learning how to perceive, understand, and judge in our own right.

A book of 120 pages can hardly do justice to the complexity of the matters being discussed, and Taylor could scarcely have succeeded, if he had not in Sources of the Self (1989) earned his way through scores of other useful distinctions. Unlike Bernard Lonergan or Alasdair MacIntyre, it would be misleading to describe Taylor as an Aristotelian or a Thomist; but it would also be quite wrong to overlook the ways in which he puts Aristotelian and Thomistic distinctions to work for him. Like Lonergan and MacIntyre, he understands the importance of keeping modern consciousness open to critical reason, to the eros of the pursuit of an accurate and true grasp of reality, to public claims of beauty and justice, and even to God.

Taylor draws easily and confidently on literature and art to display the contours and hidden turns of modern consciousness-oddly enough, rather like Richard Rorty. But he has a deeper and richer philosophical mind than Rorty’s, not so “merely” modern, and not so limited in its appreciation of what came before the modern.

In a certain sense, moreover, Taylor is working in disguise. The followers of the philosopher Leo Strauss are fond of saying that John Locke was not as religious as he seemed; rather, he employed religious language in order to persuade religious hearers. It seems to me that Taylor is often doing the reverse. He writes as if he were less religious, and less traditional, than he is. While convincing us that he is authentically modern, and on the whole happy about that (although rightly worried), he never quite gives his whole heart, mind, and soul to modernity. That is the way it must be with ethics, even regarding authenticity. Let me put this another way. Taylor is actually trying to reach, as best he can, the truth about modernity, and to do so in a wholly modern way. He is subverting modernity from within. He sees both its dangers and its true possibilities. He recovers it for reason. His is, then, as promised, a work of retrieval.

Published in First Things May 26, 2004

Copyright (c) 1993 First Things 33 (May 1993): 40-42.

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