On the ‘repeal of reticence’
by Andrew Taggart
Rochelle Gurstein’s thoughts about the “repeal of reticence” have been swimming around in my head for months now. How could it be that we have become accustomed to sharing all our thoughts, desires, wishes, and fantasies with total strangers? And how did it come about that exposing the private lives of political figures could be taken as the norm? As an intellectual shorthand, let’s call the invention of the blog the natural answer to the first question and Wikileaks the natural response to the second.
To make the first question more perspicuous, let’s return to what the Catholic monk Anthony (251-356 AD) had to say about the art of confessional writing in the 4th C.: “Let each of us write down the actions and motions of our soul, as if we had to make them known to others.” Anthony continues, “Let writing take the place of the eyes of others.” And now Pierre Hadot’s commentary: “This is an invaluable psychological remark: the therapeutic value of the examination of the conscience will be greater if it is externalized by means of writing. We would be ashamed to commit misdeeds in public, and writing gives us the impression that we are in public.”
“Let writing take the place of the eyes of others”: how astute these remarks yet how removed from the world to which we belong. For Anthony, the “eyes of others” was a mechanism for shame. Do not do or think that which would cause you to feel shame in the presence of those you respect. For were you to do so, you would rightly feel exposed, naked, unmanned. Write, therefore, as if your private thoughts were made public. Doing so habitually shall retrain you to think in more godly terms, keeping you within the fold of the divine community. Your writing, your eyes, your very being will turn toward God in reverence and thanksgiving.
Anthony’s striking practical advice is premised on living in a circumscribed, traditional community governed by a recognizable set of rules, concerns, ways of acting, and final ends. To Anthony, it does not seem in any way unclear whom he is addressing and what they might think of, say, his expressing concupiscent desires.
But Anthony’s world is not ours. For us, there are no shared standards, no common points of reference, and hence no sense of shame. Let’s say, as yet another shorthand, that the loss of etiquette, broadly understood, is a key marker of modern social life.
More often than not, then, the blog is a conduit as well as a cultivator of the confession as provocation and spectacle, as visibility and recognition. As provocation and spectacle: The blogger: “Drink deeply, reader, of my lowest desires. I’m anonymous but I’m also the consummate individual who goes trawling on Friday nights, who does what he wants without any reason apart from wanting. I’m free insofar as I desire and insofar as I give expression to my desire.” As visibility and recognition: “Look at me, reader. In this post-aristocratic, democratic age where ‘natural rank ordering’ no longer exists, see how I stand out, how I distinguish myself, what I make of myself. My self-importance is validated daily by the number of page views on my website, by my growing empire of FB friends, by the busy schedule i can’t keep up with.” We are all bloggers now.
The prevalence of solipsism in contemporary culture needs to be set over and against the loss of spiritual and philosophical contemplation. Like Augustine, Anthony thought that we must look inward in order to gaze upward. The blogger, by contrast, gapes inward–but not too far inward–in order to disseminate outward and in order to return the gaze him-ward. In the first case, we observe the mystical desire for the godhead; in the second, the immanent longing for fame.
Virtue begins in a life-world we share with those we respect, is cultivated by means of living virtuously and judging rightly, and ends when virtue has become second nature. Where in the world does that leave us?
Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, pp. 243-4.
Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity