An Authentic Modernity

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.

Books in Review: 'The Wealth and Poverty of Nations'

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. By David S. Landes. Norton. 650 pp. $30.


The irony of this major study of economic development is that its author writes as a complacent secularist and yet his fundamental thesis is theological. One can see this by comparing it to a rival study, in some ways its superior in clarity and theoretical cogency, How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World (1986). In that book, Nathan Rosenberg and L. E. Birdzell, Jr. stress institutional relationships, such as those between political and economic structures, and between science and markets. But David Landes, professor emeritus of history and economics at Harvard, unabashedly stresses culture, especially religion, and in particular, the Judaism that lies behind Christianity. In his final summary pages we read, for example:

"If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference. (Max Weber was right on.) Witness the enterprise of expatriate minorities—the Chinese in East and Southeast Asia, Indians in East Africa, Lebanese in West Africa, Jews and Calvinists throughout much of Europe, and on and on. Yet culture, in the sense of the inner values and attitudes that guide a population, frightens scholars."

And what precisely do the "inner values and attitudes" shaped by religion do? Landes quotes approvingly the view of the nineteenth-century Argentine champion of freedom, Alberdi, who called the religion of the English, the Germans, the Swiss, and the North Americans "the agent that makes them what they are." The center of culture, so to speak, is cult; men aspire to what they worship.

Europe’s buoyant political and economic dynamism required three specific theological breakthroughs, Landes thinks: the Judeo-Christian respect for manual labor, the Judeo-Christian subordination of nature to man, and the Judeo-Christian sense of linear time. He emphasizes elsewhere how the authority of God, conscience, and church limits the authority of secular state claims and thus creates space for liberty.

Landes believes that European success required more than Judeo-Christian theology, though: "In the last analysis, however, I would stress the market. Enterprise was free in Europe. Innovation worked and paid, and rulers and vested interests were limited in their ability to prevent or discourage innovation." Culture is crucial, but alone it does not suffice.

Landes organizes his text into twenty-nine chapters, covering the whole of human history and every part of the world. These chapters are crowded with vignettes, anecdotes, delicious quotes from ancient chronicles and journals, shrewd distinctions, and reasons for and against various arguments put forward by economic historians of past and present. His style is unusually lively for an academic, and its tone is rather more like that of journalism of a high order than of systematic scholarship. His method is eclectic and commonsensical rather than heavily theoretical or ideological.

It is not as though Landes does not have an ideology of his own; about that, more later. But no other historian recounts quite so large a store of anecdotes, concrete empirical materials, and fragments of theory—just enough theory to be the skeleton for his vast range of concrete stories. From Landes, one gains a new sense of how steel was first made; the technological grandeur and the limitations of the great Chinese empires of hundreds of years ago; the tragedy of the intellectual and practical decline of Islam; the pride and self-enclosed world of Spain at the height of its power; and countless fascinating stories of craftsmen, organizers of great enterprises, and trades and barters of all types. It is as if all of economic history had come to a great world’s fair, and one could visit it, pavilion after pavilion, being inspired with wonder and a sense of intellectual delight. And the theme of all the exhibits is unified: What has worked, and why; and what has not.

Landes provides a great deal of evidence that Jewish-Christian Europe cultivated discovery and novelty as did no other culture. He judges that the inventiveness of the years 1000-1500 in Europe were the most dynamic of the preceding 4000 years. He lists some of the crucial inventions of that era: water mills and other mechanical devices; the mechanical clock—the first digital, not analog, device; the eyeglass, greatly heightening the sense of precision and the possibilities of miniaturization; printing; gunpowder—used, not as the Chinese used it, for incendiary display but for the projection of force.

This is a book to be taken seriously, especially by non-economists. Anyone who wants to get a down-to-earth economic education enriched with endless examples will find in this text an unparalleled opportunity. Nonetheless, I see four flaws in it.

First, there is the problem of the author’s ideology, lightly disguised in his last paragraph: "We must cultivate a skeptical faith, avoid dogma, listen and watch well, try to clarify and define ends, the better to choose means." It would be naive to believe from this that Landes is without an ideology of his own. Even he admits to holding strong opinions. He is, for example, disturbingly anti-Catholic. He also takes pokes as often as he can at "classical economists," free-marketeers, and partisans of laissez-faire. His arguments reveal the principles of the sort of mixed-regime liberalism one has come to expect from Cambridge, Massachusetts, closer in his case perhaps to Paul Samuelson than to John Kenneth Galbraith.

Second, these principles prevent him from paying attention to a rival vision of economic history: that of the "classical liberals" or "Austrian school." Among the writers on economic history whom he entirely ignores are Schumpeter, Mises, Hayek, Viner, Rothbard, and Kirz ner. Further, on the medieval period to which Landes pays such surprising and welcome attention, and precisely on Max Weber, Landes neglects to treat Randall Collins’ key volume, Weberian Sociological Theory (1986). By not paying attention to the work of various students and critics of Weber, Landes falls into the trap of never being very clear about what Weber actually said, and which precise parts of his hypothesis have been overturned or revised in the nearly one hundred years since he wrote.

Weber, for instance, is not very good in helping to explain differences in the performance of Protestant groups; why so few Calvinists have been found who actually taught what Weber imputes to them; why the economic performance of some Calvinist groups was long retarded; and, as Randall Collins points out, why Weber did not see that all the conditions for the rise of the spirit of capitalism that Weber attributes to the eighteenth century had already been met in the twelfth, as the huge tide of economic innovations and great social transformations at that time suggests.

Collins stresses the following points of Weberian theory: the specialized economic pursuits of various orders of monks; the availability of appeal to international authority in Rome regarding disputes among competing jurisdictions (emperors, kings, barons, prelates, abbots, orders, merchants, guilds, confraternities, etc.); the total economic dedication of tens of thousands of skilled celibate laborers; systems of accounts; sustained investment and continuous accumulation of capital; emphasis upon innovation and efficiency; the clearing of land and the use of mechanical power; the growth of new industries, from mining and metallurgy to machine-made textiles; and the building of libraries and the cultivation of research both practical and theoretical. All this long precedes the birth of Calvinism.

The third flaw is Landes’ "cultivated skeptical faith," which seems to be insufficiently skeptical about secularism, for while he invokes religion, he never takes it seriously enough to study it, even a little. For Landes "the invention of invention" is the crucial economic dynamic. He senses that its origin is religious, and he himself notices (without adjusting his theoretical framework) that its power is manifest well before the Reformation. But he never allows his skepticism to question secularism. Had he done so, he might have discovered, as Daniel Boorstin did in The Creators (1993), that the Jewish/Christian conviction that all people are made in the image of their Creator, and called to be like Him, has been a creative force unique in the entire modern world.

Landes might then have seen that Max Weber’s preoccupation with "hard work," a "secular asceticism," and the "logic" of bureaucratic development missed the bullseye. The truly dynamic factor in economics is creativity, serendipity, innovation, and the act of enterprise. When Weber wrote, the number of democratic republics in the world could be numbered on one hand, and so he also failed to see how such republics (i.e., under limited government, as well as government by the people) interact with and alter the economic order. In general, Landes is disappointingly weak on many theoretical links that one would like to understand as clearly as possible: between markets and republics; faith and inquiry; hope and enterprise; habits and practices; institutions and laws.

Finally, in a footnote in his final chapter, Landes suggests that people turn to religious faith out of weakness, seeking comfort, whereas "science and reason are tough companions." He is quite wrong about religious faith; it is often a far tougher companion than science and reason. These, by contrast, often seem to offer a sure circle of comfort.

One wishes that in his wide reading Landes had come to detect that stubborn faith in a divine and purposeful universe whose springs run somewhat deeper than science and reason alone, and prevent them from floating on air. Such a faith, rather than the comfort-seeking religious faith he thinks he finds, would seem to be consistent with the thesis Landes already holds: that Jews and Christians have felt a deep and persistent obligation to be faithful to reason and science, come what may—and thus the obligation to build the civilization whose centuries of nooks and crannies Landes has observed teeming with joyful vitality. Landes should be more surprised by this joy. It is an important datum.

Published in First Things May 26, 2004