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Well, first things first.

I’m not really talking or thinking or writing about all this stuff because I want to apply it to the contemporary world and construct some kind of universal moral code for all of us to follow.

Sometimes I like to think and write about this stuff because I just do–I like to know because it’s there to know.  Or at least investigate.

And I don’t really care whether or not people here and now would agree with me or not.   The status of truth, and of reality, is not dependent on its popularity.  If everybody on the planet thought the world was flat, it would still be round.

MacIntyre brings up some points that are interesting to me in and of themselves, both in his central argument and in some of the side issues he deals with.  This morning, about halfway through the book, I found the most coherent reading of Sophocles’s Antigone I’d ever seen, and it cleared up a lot about that play that had always puzzled me.  It also cleared up a lot about my response to that play in its various guises and versions and modern retellings.

I may actually get around to talking about that eventually.

For today, though:  aside from the differences in the premises and content of moral philosophy I’ve already been on about here, differences between the world before the Enlightenment and the world since, MacIntyre points out that there is a difference in the questions that philosophy was supposed to answer.

In the world before the Enlightenment, the question moral philosophy was supposed to answer was:  what kind of person should I be?

In the world since the Englightenment, the question moral philosophy was supposed to answer was:  what rules should I follow?

And even though it appears as if the first of those two questions should entail the second, it doesn’t quite, and the lack of the first question in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment moral philosophy causes a lot of problems in answering the question it did attempt to answer.

I feel like my tongue is turning into ribbons and bows.

And no, I’m not talking out loud here at the computer.  But you know what I mean.

What strikes me about this, though, is that, if there’s a single signature characteristic of twentieth and twenty-first century American life, it’s the idea that each of us can make ourselves into what we want to be. 

That is, that each of us can decide that we’d rather be very different than we are, and by hard work and perserverance change ourselves into whatever that is. 

And we mean that radically–we resist the idea that we have any inborn limitations at all.  Don’t like your sex?  We have sex-change operations.  Don’t like the way you talk?  We have speech therapists, accent training. 

There’s even an MTV reality show called Made on which teenagers who desperately want to be something they aren’t likely to be successful at get lots of help and coaching:  the fat, unatheletic girl who wants to be on the cheerleading team was the one I actually watched several episodes of.

It seems to me that in a culture so determined to have each of us be whatever we decide to be, there ought to be at least some examination of what kinds of things it would be a good idea to aspire to.  What kind of person should I be? sounds like it ought to be our central cultural question.

I don’t think it’s a question anybody asks, however, because we have resolved it, and not always tacitly, with the answer, “anything you really want.”

And we believe that even though we don’t actually believe it, if that makes any sense.  We would not think it was all right if somebody answered the question with “I want to be a pedophile” or “I want to be a cannibal” or “I want to bring National Socialism back to Europe.”

In the meantime, we do address the question of what rules I should follow, but we largely do it by saying that there should be as few rules as possible, close to none, because rules are inherently oppressive.  They’re just you imposing your religion/philosophy/whatever on me.

And we do all that while organizations both on and off college campuses campaign vigorously for a conception of the self as completely static in all kinds of ways–bound by race and sex and ethnicity in ways that we cannot escape.

In other words, the culture of autonomous individualism is getting increasingly incoherent, and what is incoherent is, in the long term, unstable.

All of which brings me back to the question that started me going on all this a few days ago:  is it possible to construct a single, universally applicable moral code founded, as Thomas Aquinas would have put it, on reason alone?

The question is:  is it possible?

It’s not:  would people accept it?

For the moment, I just want to know what’s true.

P.S.  Just a note here.  It’s been years, but from what I remember, Augustine says little or nothing about his father in the Confessions–it’s how he says it that interests me.  At least in the Latin original, although he calls Monica “my mother” on almost every occasion he mentions her, he calls his father “the man” or “that man” or “her husband.”  Look, for instance, at Book IX, section 9 for an extended example.  The one case in which he says anything directly about his father at all occurs in a passage in which he describes a visit by his parents.  Except that’s not what he says.  He says his mother came to visit him, and she brought “that man.”  Then he goes on to lament at his chagrin that he knows his mother must be subject to and owe her obedience to such a man as that.  
 I don’t know.  Maybe it’s just me, but I find this very peculiar.  The implications of the word choices seem to me to be vast, and the next step after that lament–well, Augustine couldn’t go there, precisely because it was inconceivable to him that “to be good” could mean anything but “to fulfill one’s roles in life as close to their ideal as possible,” and the role of wife did not include the possibility of walking out on your husband.
P.P. S.  There are a number of people here who know something about military history and the military history of WWII in particular.  Have any of you seen the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers? What did you think of it?

Written by janeh

March 5th, 2010 at 11:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. re Band of Brothers. I have the DVD set of it and like it. Perhaps its time for a confession. I was 9 when WW2 ended and was draft age during the Korean War but my hearing loss has always kept me out of the military. I do have cousins who were in WW2 or the Korean War.

    I’ve always wondered how I would survive training and/or combat so I’ve done a lot of reading but have no actual experience. SO far as I can tell, Band of Brothers is reasonably realistic.


    5 Mar 10 at 2:00 pm

  2. My “expertise” such as it is, was Air Force, and Australia had few ground soldiers, if any, involved in the European Theatre in WWII. My father’s Air Force combat experience was as a dive bomber pilot in the South-West Pacific. However, like John, I have read a lot about WWII over the years and, as I was growing up, I watched many if not most of the war movies that were popular in the 50s, 60s and 70s until the anti-Vietnam War sentiment (and sheer boredom, perhaps) reduced the flood from Hollywood to a trickle.

    Band of Brothers is unusual since it is actually made about the people involved in one extraordinary unit, the 101st Airborne Division that fought its way from the Normandy beaches to Bertesgarten via some of the fiercest fighting, including the famous Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes where the 101st was involved in the defence of Bastogne. (They weren’t the only US forces involved in the Ardennes campaign. Audie Murphy won his Medal of Honor there with an infantry unit.)

    Never mind, until Band of Brothers came along, my list of excellent war movies was very short indeed. All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, Battle Cry, and a very few others. Patton and Saving Private Ryan would be the only relatively recent films I’ve seen that I would rate as excellent. The overwhelming majority were dreck, made as propaganda pieces or as showcases for the Hollywood glitterati, with most young male actors, including sons of stars with little else to commend them, managing to get cameo roles.

    One major exception, a little thing made in the late 40s and based on a stage play of the same name, was Battleground – coincidentally about the very same Battle of the Bulge, albeit not about the 101st. It is probably the most under-rated movie, let alone war movie, that I’ve ever seen and was, until Band of Brothers, my benchmark of war movie excellence. Band of Brothers now shares that benchmark.

    Robert should be more au fait on the Army-specific technical aspects of, assuming he has seen it. But from what I’ve read, it’s about as historically accurate as is reasonably possible to get this far from the action. The weapons used were historically accurate. The uniforms looked authentic and I didn’t pick out any glaring anachronisms (usually the most obvious weakness of Hollywood period shows), ie costumes, hairdos, jargon and other idiomatic atrocities.

    All in all, it was a brilliant effort.


    5 Mar 10 at 8:22 pm

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