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  Sunday, February 16, 2003


Of customs, and how a received law should not easily be changed

From Essays After Montaigne

Is there any opinion so fantastical, or conceit so extravagant (I omit to speake of the grosse imposture of religions, wherewith so many great nations and so many worthy and sufficient men have beene besotted, and drunken: For, being a thing beyond the compasse of our humane reason, it is more excusable if a man that is not extraordinarily illuminated thereunto by divine favour, doe lose and miscarrie himselfe therein), or of other opinions, is there any so strange, that custome hath not planted and established by lawes in what regions soever it hath thought good? And this ancient exclamation is most just: 'Is it not a shame for a naturall Philosopher, that is the watchman and hunts-man of nature, to seeke the testimonie of truth from mindes endued and double dide with custome?' I am of opinion, that no fantasie so mad can fall into humane imagination, that meetes not with the example of some publike custome, and by consequence that our reason doth not ground and bring to a stay.
The laws of conscience, which we say to proceed from nature, rise and proceed of custome; every man holding in special regard and inward veneration the opinions approved, and customes received about him, cannot without remorse leave them, nor without applause applie himselfe unto them...
Touching indifferent things, as clothes and garments, whosoever will reduce them to their true end, which is the service and commodity of the bodie, whence dependeth their originall grace and comlines... Those considerations do neverthelesse never distract a man of understanding from following the common guise. Rather, on the contrary, mee seemeth that all severall, strange, and particular fashions proceed rather of follie or ambitious affectation than of true reason: and that a wise man ought inwardly to retire his minde from the common presse, and hold the same liberty and power to judge freely of all things, but for outward matters he ought absolutely to follow the fashions and forme customarily received. Publike society hath nought to do with our thoughts; but for other things, as our actions, our travel, our fortune, and our life, that must be accomodated and left to its service and common opinions: as that good and great Socrates, who refused to save his life by disobeying the magistrate, yea a magistrate most wicked and unjust. For that is the rule of rules, and generall law of lawes, for every man to observe those of the place wherein he liveth.
Loe here some of another kind. There riseth a great doubt whether any so evident profit may be found in the change of a received law, of what nature soever, as there is hurt in removing the same; forsomuch as a well-setled policie may be compared to a frame or building of divers parts joyned together with such a ligament as it is impossible to stirre or displace one, but the whole body must needes be shaken, and shew a feeling of it. The Thurians Law-giver instituted that 'whosoever would goe about, either to abolish any one of the old Lawes, or attempt to establish a new, should present himself before the people with a rope about his necke, to the end, that if his invention were not approved of all men, he should presently be strangled.'
There is much difference betweene the cause of him that followeth the formes and lawes of his countrie, and him that undertaketh to governe and change them. The first alleageth for his excuse, simplicitie, obedience, and example; whatsoever he doth cannot be malice, at the most it is but ill lucke... For he that medleth with causing and changing, usurpeth the authoritie of judging: and must resolve himselfe to see the fault of what he hunteth for, and the good of what he bringeth in... Seeming most impious to me, to goe about to subject publike constitutions and unmoveable observances, to the instabilitie of a private fantasie (private reason is but a private jurisdiction) and to undertake that on divine lawes, which no policie would tolerate in civill law. Wherein although man's reason have much more commerce, yet are they soveraignly judges of their judges: and their extreme sufficiencie serveth to expound custome and extend the use that of them is received, and not to divert and innovate the same.

I grew up rather more intellectually independent than I would have liked, and as a result was a very independent-minded young man, or so I thought. My parents were divorced before that was commonplace; I was one of a handful of white children in a large inner-city elementary school; and later, I lived in a predominantly black household in an overwhelmingly white suburb. I was different from everyone else, and that was how I defined myself. I had to listen to music that annoyed everyone around me--if everyone read a book and told me how great it was, I wouldn't read it.

It was only after I met other such brave iconoclasts that I realized that simply saying "No" where everyone else said "Yes" didn't actually make me unique--I was still defining myself in relation to the same things as everyone else. In college, I discovered that there's a certain sameness to most independent thinkers. They all seemed to have a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Bob Marley's Legend, and maybe some classical music or classic jazz (especially Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis). Most rebels are rebelling against the same things, or as Rick Marin puts it in his suitably ironic review of The Hipster Handbook, "but then, hipsters are, and have always been, conformist nonconformists." We're all shaped by the customs of our culture, whether we agree with them or not.

Since at least the Enlightenment, our culture has been blessed with freethinkers who pride themselves on the purity of their reasoning and understanding. They define themselves by many variations on the same theme as, for example, "one who has rejected authority and dogma, especially in his religious thinking, in favor of rational inquiry and speculation" (as though the notions of rationality and rational inquiry were not themselves dogmas), or one who uses "logic and reason to evaluate the credibility of a claim or statement" (as though thinking constrained by logic and reason could be truly free).

There are thousands of Web sites out there to help you to join the community of freethinkers, almost as if they were proselytizing. There are even freethinking fundamentalists seeking fidelity to a revealed scripture. They advocate discarding a divine dogma for a man-made dogma, or, as most of them don't believe in the divine, discarding one man-made dogma for another. I'm not convinced. In my opinion, they don't aspire to enough.

It was only very recently that I discovered genuinely independent minds. They can be hard to find. Because their focus is usually on matters of substance, there may be no superficial indication of their independence (which reminds me of the Preacher's explanation of how to find a church). They can't be identified by their black turtlenecks, tattoos, or body piercings. And they can be hard to find because they may have, through their own independent means, chosen to embrace authority, dogma, and custom. My introduction to this sort of independent thinker came through Marilynne Robinson's The Death of Adam, an eye-opening book of essays that, in her words:

...assert, in one way or another, that the prevailing view of things can be assumed to be wrong, and that its opposite, being its image or shadow, can also be assumed to be wrong. They undertake to demonstrate that there are other ways of thinking, for which better arguments can be made.

Here was a fiercely religious Christian who was appalled by the social and economic agenda of this country's conservatives. And it was clear that her social and economic views were inextricable from her religious beliefs. Yet far from being a fundamentalist, she was also able to traffic in the strictest logic and purest reason. Using their own tools, she was able to demonstrate the intellectual failings of the followers of Charles Darwin. Her thinking transcends the derived and accepted notions and weak categories that so often pass for intellectual frameworks. She struck me as a modern-day Socrates, starting from the very beginning of every discussion:

I often look at primary texts, books generally acknowledged to have had a formative impact, because they are a standard against which other things can be judged, for example the reputations of these same works, or the reputations of those who wrote them, or the cultures that produced and received them, or the commentaries and histories which imply that their own writers and readers have a meaningful familiarity with them. If the primary text itself departs too far from the character common wisdom and specialist wisdom (these are typically indistinguishable) have ascribed to it, then clearly some rethinking is in order.

Reading her essays, and from those, the writings of Augustine, Calvin, and others, I have been forced to revise my way of seeing the world. I've come to understand religion as something other than a stifling influence on intellectual life; to realize the impossibility of living an intellectual life without the basis of dogma; and to understand the limits of our perception and reason. Rather than seeking to free myself from dogma, I instead seek to be mindful of and clear about what dogma I have accepted.

The great risk of independent thinking is hubris. After all, the underlying justification for such thinking is that the individual is best qualified to reason for themselves. The acceptance of such a notion as dogma can undermine the humility and community spirit necessary for the continuance of custom and the maintenance of society. Just as an independent thinker may choose to embrace dogma and custom, custom and dogma can dictate their own abandonment. We, individually and as a nation, have adopted "You're not the boss of me" as a slogan in the most dogmatic fashion.

I don't intend to argue that independent thinking is wrong or dangerous, nor do I intend to argue that custom and dogma are to be abandoned. Independent thinking is necessary for the evolution of a society, and custom and dogma are necessary for the stability of a society (without which independent thinking would be difficult or irrelevant). But we've reached an impasse where self-determination has become the sole accepted dogma among all parties to the national discourse. As quickly happens where everybody claims the right to act as they see fit in a society, these independent actors are finding themselves and their ability to act impinged upon by other independent actors. Without recourse to shared manners, customs, or dogma to promote communal harmony, far less efficient legalistic mechanisms, from judge and jury to legislation, are called upon to resolve even the simplest of disagreements.


8:35:36 AM     What do you think? ()


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