Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Nature v. Nurture: Avoiding Extremes

YVES SIMON IS QUITE INSISTENT that we should avoid taking any position of extremes in the "nature" versus "nurture" issue, between the Rousseauian/Emersonian insistence on spontaneity and the Fourierian dismantling and remantling of human society. How much of man's behavior is natural? How much of man's behavior is learned? How much of man's behavior is spontaneous? How much of man's behavior is conventional? Beyond those questions that are empirical in nature and perhaps impossible of full resolution, we have the more fundamental questions. How much of man's behavior ought to be spontaneous? How much of man's behavior ought to be conventionally controlled? We have questions related to those: Are all conventional values evil, suppressive? Is all spontaneity good?

Simon resists absolute answers to these questions. He rejects the notion of the "noble savage" as a result of "preconceived opinions," one fraught with ambiguity of the very notion of what is primitive, and one whose truth is belied by the empirical evidence associated with more primitive peoples which seem to be about as equally divided between being good and evil as the most civilized man. Simon, 30-31. Yet even while debunking these theories as the monolithic truth, he maintains that "there is something to them, no matter how badly they may be warped by all sorts of unwarranted extensions of the basic idea that there is good in each of us and that it should be let out." The very survival of the idea is, in his view, evidence that it is "bound to have a measure of truth in it." Simon, 29. Simon, therefore, advocates a position between pure natural spontaneity as ipso facto good and pure natural spontaneity as ipso facto evil.

Yves R. Simon

Similarly, the suggestion that the opposite extreme--that society must be governed by extrinsic controls, habits, customs, and mores and not mere instinct--is the whole picture is equally to be shunned. One can envision a society where all individual expression would be suppressed, and it seems almost inhuman. Yet the value of such social structures cannot be rejected: "[T]here is here no question of minimizing the value of fulfillment by way of upbringing, training, socializiation--all of which assure that rules of correct behavior, even if not always understood, are nevertheless observed with but a few exceptions." Simon, 33. But this is not adequate in an absolute sense: "For the tasks of man to be properly fulfilled, there has got to be something rational in the way they are fulfilled." Simon, 33. There must not only be an answer to the question of how, there must also be an answer to the question of why.

The truth of the matter is that insofar as it is anterior to the work of reason, human fulfillment lacks the rational modality which belongs to it precisely as human fulfillment. Instinct and custom may make us both behave and be happy; but it is only if we know what we are doing and why that we become fully human.

Simon, 33. Yet even here Simon avoids the extreme between "knowledge as virtue" and "practice as virtue." Simon acknowledges that there can be a "misplaced insistence on explaining the principles of our action [which] threatens and perhaps even blocks their fulfillment." Simon, 33. Quoting Shakespeare's Hamlet, Simon concedes that
the native of hue of resolution is often
sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.

Even the quirky Fourier is to obtain some hearing. No one can disclaim the intricate relationship between society and its influence on human behavior. But to suggest, as Fourier and his "fantasies" do, that "society can [and ought] accommodate any and every human tendency," that "[c]lever organization would allow . . . every human desire, every human oddity, to find its proper expression without doing real harm to anyone," Simon, 34, and that there is no role for societal guidance or even for social repression is an extreme to be avoided. We are neither "moral man in immoral society" nor immoral man in moral society. We are to be moral man in moral society:
Fourier's specific fantasies aside, let us acknowledge that he addressed an extremely difficult and complex problem, to which no one really has all the answers. . . . I am convinced that it is hardly possible to exaggerate the influence of society upon human behavior and characters. This influence may be misplaced, and it may be misunderstood, but I do not think that it can be exaggerated.
Simon, 34. The role of societal convention on shaping individual character is thus not to be rejected, either from an empirical viewpoint or a rational point of view. Likewise, the notion that all societal role is baneful to individual expression is to be rejected. In morals, socialism and individualism both are to be rejected as absolute determinants of moral reality. The truth is that morality is both social and individual. "Organized society . . . has . . . a great deal to do with safeguarding good human behavior." Simon, 36. The absence of such social structures, and the mayhem and violence that follows when these--as a result of war, natural disaster, or other cause--fail is manifest and well-documented. The role of society in forming individuals is fundamental: "All societies, to a greater or lesser degree, indoctrinate their citizens." Simon, 37. But that is not to say that such indoctrination is necessarily stifling. Human society does not result in social determinism, "complete automaticity," necessarily robbing people of individuality, such a herd does to sheep, or a beehive to a bee, or a anthill to an ant, though, in Simon's view, "[t]hat such a mode of sociability exists is beyond any doubt." Simon, 38, 39. Even so, "[i]t is an error to think that such automaticity can ever be attained." Simon, 39. Moreover, it is not at all clear that such socialization is evil. In fact, Simon suggests that such socialization has a role to play in "inspiration" of the individual. Simon, 42.

I do not think that we can just ignore social relations in which individuals, far from being depersonalized and made to conform, are actually inspired to be themselves. . . . [T]here is clearly more to human sociability than what keeps the herds of sheep together. . . . For the simple truth accessible to all of us directly is that not all social forms require or impose conformity. A part of human sociability operates also to inspire individuals to fulfill their own personal destinies.

Simon, 42-43. Citing the distinction of Ferdinand Tönnies, Simon distinguishes between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, a stifling society, and an organic, creative community.

In our quest for understanding the full richness and depth of the traditional understanding of virtue, there appears to be only one rule: to avoid all extreme ideologies, and to humbly acknowledge that the problem of virtue, the interplay between society and individual, society and morality, spontaneity and convention, nature and nurture is exceedingly complex and multifarious. What is required of us is to accept the following common-sense matrix:
  • Distinguishing between nature and use is reasonable in the context of morals;
  • The superiority of natural spontaneity over rational deliberation cannot be taken for granted; and
  • The process of socialization is not only a process of conformity, but also one in which the individual may be groomed to express his individuality.

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