Thursday, July 14, 2011

Habit and Identity

File this in "Nothing New Under the Sun." An article by Jeffrey Hart in The University Bookman from 1963, discussing the works of Edmund Burke. The subject is habit and identity. The entire essay is excellent, but the conclusion stood out to me:

The “modern imagination,” according to Lionel Trilling, conceives of the self as experiencing autonomy and delight only “in opposition to the general culture,” and he seems to ratify the idea that the life of culture, the life of habit and assumption, is hostile to “the freedom of the self.” It is certainly not to be disputed that modern society in many respects resists the affections. “To make us love our country,” as Burke said, “our country ought to be loveable.” Yet it is pertinent to raise the question of whether, in actuality, it is really the Scholar Gypsies of our experience—the marginal figures of the culture, as the sociologists call them, those who are most antagonistic to habit and assumption—who really impress us as being free, autonomous, “full of delight.” Or is it that other exemplar in Arnold, that least opposing of selves, not his Scholar Gypsy but his Eton Boy, at ease in his relation to the culture and its habits, and characterized by “simplicity and truth of feeling,” who is really “free”? One’s answer to this question will depend, no doubt, on whether one conceives of one’s own most satisfactory experiences as occurring in opposition to the culture or in harmony with it, and such an answer, of course, will necessarily have political implications.

The issue at stake here is nicely epitomized by the way in which, during Burke’s period, political opponents made use of the “chain” metaphor. Traditional opinion affirmed a so-called Chain of Being, and insofar as this figure had a social implication it meant that “being” depended upon limitation; men had particular, limited roles to play, as defined by a “chain” of assumption and habit, and in participating in these roles men experienced their own “being.” Burke speaks of the “great chain of society,” of “proud submission” and “dignified obedience,” and we understand that such dignity and pride are, paradoxically, dependent upon the limitation implied by “obedience” and “submission.” Rousseau, however, used the chain metaphor in an opposite way, though he had in mind the same chain. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

Thus, whereas such a traditionalist spokesman as Burke affirmed the chain of custom and habit in the interest of “being,” Rousseau attacks it in the interest of “freedom.” Yet, as I have argued, it does not seem to be the experience of freedom that emerges when the chain is broken.
Thus the paradox of the American Revolution: how to break the chain and yet preserve freedom. Fascinating stuff. Read the whole thing.

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