Humanity and Honor, Culture and ClarityBy John Médaille for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Sometimes when you sit in the pew you get the feeling that the preacher is talking to you. Of course, this impression is magnified when the preacher loudly calls your name from the pulpit; you cannot help but feel self-conscious when congregation turns to stare. This is certainly the feeling I got reading Caleb Stegall’s Further Clarity.
So let me make one point very clearly: the comment about language was not a “crack,” but the very core of the question. The only way to be human is to be so through culture, and the only route to culture is language, and both language and culture are creations of community. Thus to be human is to be in community, linguistic and otherwise, with one’s fellows. And what is the Front Porch Republic if not a formal recognition of this fact?
The question is often posed to us under the guise of a false dichotomy: you must be an “individualist” (whatever that is) or a socialist. I call this a false dichotomy because in reality it isn’t even a difference. Persons considered as “individuals” and stripped of community tend to become wards of the state, and this is never more true than in the person who claims to be “self-made,” people who are usually the beneficiaries of huge state subsidies. Individualism and statism go hand in hand; this is simply the historical reality, and person who preaches the one preaches the other, intentionally or not. The only real bulwark against the state is the community; the front porch is there to welcome neighbors, to be sure, but also serves as a rampart against state power; the community conscious of its rights will not let the state trifle with them.
The very absurdity of the question is shown by the absurdity of the example, Sarah Palin, herself a creature of an indulgent media and an absurdist politics. Indeed, in this case life has not merely imitated art, but excelled it, since the Theater of the Absurd cannot produce a parallel, despite the most imaginative efforts of its authors. And as in the history of the real Theater, the absurdist theater of politics will shortly be followed by the politics of the Theater of Cruelty and the Theater of Violence. Pulp Fiction is our future, because it is the future of every individualist ideology. Some object that we have concentrated on the example rather than the question, but we did not choose the exemplar that was used to illustrate the question. Further, I think the person who did choose the example was correct: this was the right person to illustrate the ideology of individualism, rugged or otherwise.
The ideology of individualism presupposes an “ownership” of the self. But of all the things we can own, the one thing that is excluded is our own self. We cannot own our selves because we cannot seize control of our origins. Each of us is called into being through an act of love, and called into the ready-made community of the family. We receive our being, our name, our language, our culture as pure gifts. And being called into being, we are also called into radical dependency; none of us could have lasted a day without the help of others. Ideally, this dependency is filled by love, particularly a mother’s love. And while this is not always the case, this is always the ideal which all recognize even when they haven’t received it.
This dependency never leaves us; I am no less dependent on others today than on the day I was born. I might survive a few more days without the contribution of others, but these would be days of sadness. So what then is the difference between the man and the boy? It is that the man must make a decision about how much to contribute. If we are dependent on others—as clearly we are—then someone must be making a contribution. That is to say, someone must be using the gifts he receives to give more than he gets. In a healthy society, this someone will be everyone, or at least everyone of a certain age. Honor consists in acknowledging the gift as gift and passing it on with our own improvements and our own stamp. And it is honor, not individualism, that is the issue.
I think the proper framework for this question is given (as in so many questions) by the Fathers of the Church. They discussed the question in terms of autarkeia and koina, self-reliance and community. These were not things opposed, but complementary. Self-reliance was rooted in community and presupposed production not just to supply the person and his family, but to have something left over to contribute to the community, both in the form of charity and the form of commerce. The gift one gives to the community is commonly (in complex societies) given in the form of an exchange. However, it would be a mistake to read this only at the level of a commercial transaction. The brewer, the baker, the blacksmith share their gifts with the community as an exchange, but the exchange only funds the gift, and the gift cannot be reducible to the exchange. The products and services embody their givers, are an expression of their personalities. They must be funded, as every gift is funded, but they can never lose the quality of gift, if both social order and economic rationality are to be observed. If the transactions are merely a way of getting, and not a form of giving, then anything is possible, even any evil thing, and justified in the name of profit.
But a gift presupposes a gift-giver, and if we do not own ourselves, where is the origin of the gift? While we cannot own ourselves because we cannot create ourselves, we can and do own our actions. These actions, repeated, become habits, and the collection of habits, good and bad, virtuous and vicious, form the personality. We do not create ourselves, but we do (to a degree) create our personalities. This is still not an effort of pure individuality, because it depends on the quality of gifts we get (and nobody gets the same gifts) and the culture that surrounds us. But for all that, there is a decision which is ours, and it is in the quality of this decision that honor consists.
The only alternative to honor is self-interest. But self-interest, considered by itself, is pathological, and a person, a family, a firm, or a nation that looks only to self-interest will be dysfunctional. There is, of course, a certain self-interest in honor, but honor always exceeds self-interest. I am a member of the most self-interested generation in American history, a generation that has consciously decided not to pass on its gifts, but to appropriate them all for ourselves, in the name of rational self-interest. But of course, pure self-interest can never be rational, can never be correctly proportioned to the reality of the human condition. Hence it is no surprise that we have left them with debts they cannot pay, wars they cannot win, obligations they cannot meet, and have denied them the education that allows a man to know where honor lies and the social infrastructure which allows him to make a living and a contribution of his own.
Culture is how communities answer the questions posed by our being. There are a variety of answers, but the same questions. But the culture of self-interest considers that the questions are not worth answering, because the answers may limit our self-interest, and hence asking them is self-contradictory. Self-interest is about to have its final victory, which will turn out to be its final defeat, because no culture or country can survive the defeat of the common good. Those who long for a rugged individualism will get it; mostly they have gotten it already. But they will soon have a rugged individualist for a president, a congress of the self-interested, and a court that is a servant of corporatism. And as in the collapse of the Soviet Union, it will be nothing but a wholesale looting of whatever remains to be looted. And then the night.
And then, perhaps, some honorable men can start rebuilding. But in order to do that, there needs to be some clarity about what it means to be human, and where our honor lies.