Sunday, January 28, 2007

Individualism

One of my regular gigs as a singer was to assist with stirring and solemn music at what seemed like a thousand graduations at the University of Chicago. That meant mostly sitting around listening to names being called and speeches being given. I still remember Hanna Holborn Gray, then the president, congratulating each new bachelor, master or doctor upon their entrance into the 'ancient and venerable company of scholars', then rising to belt out the 'Alma Mater' anthem.

The image of a company of scholars always stuck in my mind, something like the picture that Dante paints in Canto IV of Inferno where he strikes up a conversation with Virgil, Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. This is Dante's poetic way of saying that his own knowledge and art, his way of interpreting his own life and world, is borrowed from the giants who went before him. This is a lofty case of a general rule in life: no one comes to knowledge as an individual. We all begin and live our spiritual lives largely in communion with the thoughts and experiences of others, as the great Pope John Paul II demonstrated in Fides et Ratio.

However, we quite often live with the illusion that we are not dependent on the ideas that have gone before us. The marketplace promotes the ungrateful stance, for instance, that we are free agents in the world. How often do we give thought to the fact that someone else grows our food, butchers our meat, binds our books, and even mixes our paint and manufactures drywall (etc etc) for us? Analogously, the very fact that we use words to express ourselves demonstrates that we inherit a whole set of concepts about the world.

Recognition of this humble fact is not always considered an American virtue. Quintessential American philosophers such as Thoreau and Emerson eschewed dependence on anyone. Walt Whitman celebrated himself. For my part, I found Walden to be a book of total fantasy. Thoreau, the great individual, never bothers to notice that someone else forged his axe, ground his wheat and, for that matter engendered him, gave him birth and changed his diapers so that he could grow up and go off by himself.

This state of affairs makes religious formation, monastic formation especially, a difficulty. The monastic tradition is populated with all kinds of strange and difficult characters who are nonetheless considered venerable and worthy of attention. Why? Because the substance of human experience does not change so radically from age to age and person to person as to cut us off from the possibility of learning from one another. Even the simple Coptic Desert Mothers and Fathers have something to teach us world-weary postmodernists. To learn from them involves the necessary step of putting aside one's own ideas and listening (Ausculta o fili, praecepta magistri!) to the advice of someone who's been there already.

The very sad part of our current preference for individualism is that when crises arise, be they in religious life, marriage, or work, we are left with the poverty of our own inner resources. The 'ancient and venerable company' of humanity is there, waiting to help those who would leave aside their own smallness and step out into the world of trust, relationship and love. Will we take the plunge?

3 comments:

Edith OSB said...

Thank you for this post - it is nice to hear that someone else muses about graduation rituals - and wonders if modern Americans join the "company" of anything.

The textbook I use for teaching Family and Society traces the development of concepts of marriage - the traditional marriage focused on integrating with society (complementary roles; needed for economic stability; children as a public good), followed in the mid-20th century by the companionate marriage focusing on the joy of relationship between members of the couple. The most recent editions talk of a further development, the individualist marriage that lasts "as long as it works for me" and then ends as the people go on to whatever does make them happy.

The textbook is certainly not promoting this, but reporting a trend. It is a way of thinking that is like a virus. Once a person begins to form and dissolve relationships on the basis of "does it work for me?" then real commitment or stability becomes a near impossibility.

I am new in monastic life myself - in my eighth year - but over 50 in age. As those who are younger in age come to the monastery, I fear we will begin to see the individualistic monastic profession - "as long as it works for me." The fruits of monastic stability will may lost to that generation, just as are the fruits of marital stability.

Anonymous said...

Father Peter:

I think you're a bit too hard on Thoreau. For example, in the chapter from "Walden" entitled "Economy," he includes references to or quotations from the Gospel of Matthew, Ovid's "Metamorphosis," Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," the "Analects" of Confucius, the "Vishnu Purana," Hippocrates, and...Charles Darwin. Hardly the work of a man unaware of intellectual forebears. I believe he was particularly partial to Stoics, both Greek and Roman.

DFB

Prior Peter, OSB said...

Dave,
This is a just objection. I believe that my general point still holds, that the transcendentalists were consciously trying to step out of adherence to a tradition, but I would definitely need to refine my argument a good deal. It's been about 12 years since I read Thoreau!

Glad you mention Darwin. I haven't posted on him in awhile...

Let me conclude here merely by noting that making references to authorities is not necessarily the same thing as learning from them or turning to them for answers.

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