Life is not like water (VI)


We have been following nature’s course through modernity with a view to solving an enigma. How could it be so self-evident during earlier epochs that the virtuous person would, without question, live according to nature when it became just as self-evident in our time that the morally upright person would have to act contrary to nature? The answer is to be discovered, in key part, in the disappearance of what the young Hegel once called the “friendliness of life.”

The leitmotiv of human life as one that flowed like water was well-known in the ancient world. The Daodejing says that “The highest goodness is like water,” Xenophanes says that “All things that come into being and grow are earth and water,” and in one of the extant fragments from Thales we read, simply, that “Life is water.” Among Daoists in particular, it would have been counterintuitive to speak of fighting against water or of striving to swim upstream, perhaps as absurd as Don Quixote fighting windmills or Sisyphus trying to push a boulder uphill. Yet this does not mean that water was always an easy friend.

The paradigmatic example of water’s ferocious power is, of course, the story of the flood. In the Early Theological Writings, Hegel writes that where once there existed unspoken amity, friendliness, and love, the flood sundered man from nature, evoking a “disbelief in nature” and, in turn, giving rise to man’s desire for mastery. Coming to consciousness of his world, man would build a tower impregnable to sea fury and though his wounds would never heal, at least he could console himself with the thought that he would never be harmed again.

Examined closely, the myth of the flood is a story of the emergence of higher order abstract reasoning on the heels of the destruction of a natural amity between friend and friend, human beings and the natural world. And where one might just as well imagine human beings weathering the storm and, once the flood had subsided, giving thanks to the earth and the sun, making love to each other and kissing their children and their gods all in the hope of restoring the general friendliness of life, one observes instead the construction of semi-permanent structures, forms of protection, bulwarks against harm and wounds and possible injuries.

One could do worse than to read this myth as an allegory for modernity. The breakdown of a previous social order led, out of fear and hope and, yes, also hubris, to the supervenience of principle upon lost love. If you do not love me anymore, then let us settle up, call in the law, summon forth the lawyers, draw up our contracts. Let us legislate and codify, regulate and systematize, making ourselves into good Confucians, middle managers, and dutiful bureaucrats. Above all, let everyone follow the rules (and, in the boudoir, eroticize transgressing them).

Given this disenchanted nature, morality must be a struggle against life, a set of duties trumping our inclinations, a list of obligations that at times terminate in tragic conflict. For us, morality must be deliberative and obligatory while nature remains mechanistic, undirected, following its own separate course. Now morality must be universalizable–stern and rigorous stuff–applicable mainly to the good will or good outcomes, or else it succumbs to mere cant, empty relativism, or the shameless will to power.

In Patterns of Moral Complexity, the contemporary moral philosopher Charles Larmore writes candidly about what he deems the “heterogeneity of morals.” He concludes, “We have to live with the fact that we have obligations we cannot honor.” All right, but what obligations are these and why can’t they always be honored? Larmore claims that the principles of partiality, deontology, and consequentialism are the three principles that constitute modern morality. We are partial, he believes, in that we have particular projects that we deem good and that we seek to realize. In the pursuit of final aims that are ours, we do not expect others to value or pursue the same. Additionally, we have incontrovertible duties, as Kant held, duties that admit of no exceptions and that enjoin us always to act, or to abstain from acting, in a certain way (telling the truth, keeping our promises, never using another as a means, and so forth). Finally, we have an obligation to bring into being the most good or least evil overall. To say, therefore, that modern life is “morally complex” is just to say that there will be scenarios in which one principle may come into conflict with another and this with tragic implications. Larmore once again: “I do not think there is any systematic principle [that is, any higher order principle transcending these three] that will decide these conflicts.” Larmore’s honesty is telling, and I think he is right about the inevitability of tragic conflict in modernity, provided we accept the assumption that morality consists solely of incommensurable obligations.

For Larmore takes for granted what we moderns also take for granted–that we act on principles and that these principles “lie,” in his words, “at a high level of generality.” But this is only true once we take on board the assumption that nature is ‘other’ and that our fellows are not our friends but strangers, mere acquaintances, and potential foes. Our distrust runs deep. Yet when life is going well, there is no principle that we apply with rigor and constancy but, more simply, the face to face, the touch, the besito; no abstractions but your words; no Confucianism but, says the Daodejing, “filial piety and fraternal affection” arising and holding us close to one another.

An order collapses, “The state is in chaos,” and “there arises the loyal minister.” These are Laozi’s words of caution. Indeed, once nature flees from us and we, in our turn, seek to bring it back to us by taming it, then we and nature go our separate ways. Truly, modern life may be like H20, but it is not like water. Recognizing as much, we poets of life long for ethical life to be restored.

Part VII (final) tomorrow: Ethical Life Restored…