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The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Selections Annotated and Explained by Malaspina Great Books Web Editor Russell McNeil PhD
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:
Selections Annotated and Explained

Russell McNeil, PhD
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In 1862 the English literary critic and poet Matthew Arnold described Marcus Aurelius as "the most beautiful figure in history." The Stoicism of Aurelius is grounded in rationality and rests solidly on an ethical approach rooted in nature. Stoicism promises real happiness and joy in this life and a serenity that can never be soured by personal misfortune. This philosophy has universal appeal with practical implications on problems ranging from climate change and terrorism to the personal management of sickness, aging, depression and addiction. I truly believe that the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius has much to offer us now...(Click on book cover for more)

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Modern Literature
Name:Charles Taylor - Canadian Series

Soft Relativism & Malaise Of Modernity
Birth Year:1931
Death Year:na
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Biography, Lectures, and Research Links: Malaspina Great Books - Charles Taylor (1931) Biography - Canadian Series, World Philosophy Series, Theology Series

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B.A. (History) McGill University, 1952; B.A. (Oxford) (Politics, Philosophy and Economics), 1955; M.A. (Oxford), 1960; D.Phil (Oxford), 1961

Teaching and Research Areas

Philosophy of Action, Philosophy of Social Science, Political Theory,Greek Political Thought, Moral Philosophy, the Culture of Western Modernity, Philosophy of Language, Theories of Meaning, Language and Politics, German Idealism.

Selected Publications

Hegel, Cambridge University Press, 1975 Hegel and Modern Society, Cambridge University Press, 1979 Social Theory as Practice, Oxford University Press, Delhi Human Agency and Language, Cambridge University Press,1985 Philosophy and the Human Sciences, Cambridge University Press, 1985 Source of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Harvard University Press, 1989 The Malaise of Modernity, Toronto: Anansi, 1991 (based on the Massey Lectures for the CBC held in 1991) Multiculturalism and The Politics of Recognition, Princeton University Press, 1992 Rapprocher les solitudes: ecrits sur le federalisme et le nationalisme au Canada, Presses de l'Universite Laval, 1992 Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993 Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, Princeton University Press, 1994 Multiculturalisme: difference et democratie, Aubier, Paris, 1994 Philosophical Arguments, Harvard University Press,1995

On Charles Taylor's Work

Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: the Philosophy of Charles Taylor in Question, edited by James Tully, with the assistance of Daniel Weinstock. Cambridge University Press: 1994. This work (pp.258-64) contains A full bibliography of Charles Taylor's writings to the time of publication.

Current Research Project

An investigation of the political culture of modernity. [Adapted from McGill University]

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Soft Relativism And The Malaise Of Modernity

Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Malaspina Great Books Exclusive]

The book Malaise of Modernity is extracted from the much larger philosophical work called Sources of the Self -- the Making of the Modern Identity.

Charles Taylor challenges a few pet ideas. Hits us all right where we live. Many of the precious codes, beliefs, and attitudes that many of us moderns espouse are misguided. More to the point: our basic values are in fact, debased, deviant, and meaningless!

Fighting words! Charles Taylor makes more than fine theoretical philosophical distinctions in this Massey Lecture. He's hit home. He's talking about us. He's talking about the criteria we use to make the choices we do; the careers we follow; the very impulse to "career;" the friends we make, the reasons we choose those friends; the music we listen to; the reasons we listen to that music; the art we enjoy or avoid; the books we read or don't; the popular culture we absorb, the television we watch; the movies we select and why; the political positions we hold--or don't; the people we love; the people we abandon; the questions we ask or don't; the lectures we give or dare not; the BA papers we write or should have!

This is a book about the art of living, loving, and what it means to be human in the modern world.

Of course it's controversial. It takes a strip off all of us. The report is dismal. In all three areas: living, loving, and being human, we fail. And the failure is a major reason our culture is in distress.

Distress, malaise? The red flags are out there. Have we processed this yet? I'm a maritimer. I was born 51 years ago in a vibrant coal town, above coal seams teaming with human labour, a few hundred yards from a sea teaming with fish. In less than half a century the seams were emptied and the sea made sterile. The cod are all but gone. Monday's movie Margaret's Museum here at 10:30 explores the roots of that particular small town malaise. The movie -- set against a backdrop of viscous human exploitation -- explores, among other things, why living and loving are impossible in a modern industrial hell. That movie could have been made right here in Nanaimo -- our local history until the 1950's at least, parallels that sketched in Margaret's Museum.

What is the connection to this? Taylor describes three interrelated malaises: one moral; one related to instrumental reason; and one related to a loss of freedom. The second of these, the malaise related to the rise in instrumental reason is one in which "rational" decisions are made increasingly on the basis of economic efficiency. It is easy in such a world to justify any means to achieving broader social ends: the effective sacrifice of the bodies and souls of the men and women in a small coal mining towns hidden away on Vancouver Island, Cape Breton Island or Wales, was a small "economic" price to pay for the enormous "benefits" of the then "coal based" energy economy of the western world.

As Taylor points out in several places here, instrumental "logic" obfuscates, obscures true meaning. It is really a kind of fuzzy logic designed to persuade through the magic of mathematics and statistics while ignoring, as often as not, the real human values instrumental reason circumvents in the exclusive pursuit of economic justifications!

You can think of lots of examples of stuff like this. Think about how it works. Was putting a road though Malaspina and Nanaimo the 'right ' thing to do? Is clear cutting old growth forests in B.C. the right thing to do? Should you get married? Should you go to grad school? What is the right thing to do? It is interesting when we scan our thinking on questions like these -- ranging from the very personal to the broadly social -- how often we admit to two conflicting responses: an inner sense of the right thing to do, and an external answer dictated by instrumental reason. Do you understand what I am getting at here?

The instrumentally guided decisions our culture has "made for us" in industrial decisions over the past few centuries has brought us to the brink of global disaster. We have instrumentally reasoned our species to the edge of an abyss. We're talking big time life support here. Ozone depletion isn't an academic issue anymore. For the first time in the few billion years life has been working itself out here, the quality and quantity of solar radiation reaching the biosphere is changing, in a fundamental way. We are messing with the system, water, land and air, and messing with it at a time global population is expected to double from 5 to over 10 billion people in your lifetimes.

Something has got to give. It's giving now. The tropical rain forests-- the lungs of the earth are disappearing, species extinctions continue at an unprecedented and alarming rate, greenhouse warming is on the way, and the AIDS pandemic (which incidentally may be linked in a curious way to global stress), now in its 15th year, continues to expand unchecked, and seemingly uncheckable.

Of course we -- each of us -- should respond with political outrage. In fact we respond with political apathy. This is the picture of malaise. While Taylor attributes large parts of this malaise to things like instrumental reason -- as I have just talked about, and soft despotism--a loss of freedoms, the main problem is right here. It is in the mirror. It is us. We have embraced a malevolent -- evil -- value, and, it is killing us.

What is this evil "value?" Its kindest characterization is "individualism". What matters most in my life, is my life, and my self fulfillment. My beliefs, my values, my codes, my likes, my loves, my attitudes, and my aspirations come from within and I have a right to carry out my life projects free of hassle and interference from others as long as I confer on others those same basic rights.

I do my thing. You do yours. Here is our new social contract: I make no value judgments about you. You make no value judgments about me.

Different strokes for different folks - peachy, peachy, peachy keen!

I'm not sure about you, but coming of age as a student in the '60s and '70s, this was really our currency. Our life paths were nobody's business but our own. All paths were equal. Self definition took various forms: coming out, dropping out, tuning out, Maharishi worship, drug worship, nihilism, communism, spiritualism, apathy, activism, sex. It didn't really matter. The interest categories may have shifted today, but the impulse to self-fulfillment hasn't.

Authenticity here takes the form of a "soft relativism." which disallows the claim that any way of being is "higher" than any other.

The "good life," in modern terms, is whatever the individual espouses.

In fact there is no moral position here at all. Morality is however you define it subjectively. "If it feels good, do it."

So! What's wrong with this soft relativism? It seems like the ultimate in freedom. You can rise or sink. But it is your choice--what Taylor calls a "liberalism of neutrality."

What's wrong? Two things. Soft relativism, or authenticity "improperly understood" is used to justify two "evils." Evils? Having read Eichmann we're ready to listen up. Soft relativism--breeds evil. Okay. How?

Evil Number One: rejection of transcendent values. One: soft relativism is used to reject anything and everything that transcends the self. And what transcends the self? Just about everything. The past does, nature does, citizenship does, religion or spirituality does, duties of solidarity do, the environment does--to name a few.

Let's try a few on.

How about the past? The past is irrelevant. Try an example.

How would a soft relativist approach a native land claim? What values does soft relativism attach to musty old commitments made by our great grandparents? Do we have any responsibility for any acts done by our predecessors? In the "flattened world," Taylor describes, the answer is a simple "no," by definition. The past is beyond us. The past has nothing to do with us. As moderns we found ways of betraying old land treaties. First, we "discover" a modern economic instrumental argument which -- had we had such an argument available to us two or three hundred years ago, we claim we would never have done the deal in the first place.

With these modern "instrumental arguments" in hand we claim we are now "smarter" than our great grandparents were and therefore are completely justified in our betrayal: of course we don't call it betrayal--we break our treaties and betray our past with the stroke of a pen by inventing a legal concept called extinguishing: the treaties our ancestors signed become "extinguished:" so eerily similar to the "language rules" used by the nazis to "extinguish" the citizenship and then the lives of millions during the holocaust.

How about nature? Is there anything innately true about the "nature" of all human beings. For the soft relativist, there is nothing in the nature of human values which is innate. Sure there are values many of us hold in common--but that's a matter of choice, not a matter of nature. So don't look to nature for the threads that bind--there are no threads.

Duty follows a similar analysis. Citizenship and solidarity are matters of choice. If citizen responsibility turns you on, great. If not, that's great too. The very "idea" of community and solidarity to community loses meaning and importance under a soft relativist stance. At best communities are disposable, temporary. What kinds of communities suffer this fate? All of them.

Our families are communities - disposable. Our friends form a community -disposable. There are larger communities too: neighbourhood, city, province, nation, continent, world. All of these become expendable when they no longer serve individual interest.

Add to these the many possible cross alliances we form in our lives.

The College is a community - Liberal Studies is a community. Men form a community as do women, young people, old people, people of color, gay people, people who have been abused, people who have suffered from persecution. Workers form communities called unions.

These cross alliances serve valid functions for us. They provide opportunities for us to act in common cause around issues that require collective support. The vibrancy of communities depends on the active engagement of all people who identify with the community - not only those who need the community.

As soft relativists we may indeed ally ourselves with communities but those alliances are at best temporary. Soft relativists abandon all of these communities the moment they no longer serve our purposes - of course this abandonment means that there was no solidarity in the first place. The communities are at best weak -- we characterize our experience in them as "apathy."

Membership in any of these communities can be seen in Rousseauian terms as analogous to the process of alienating part of what we are to a sovereign idea. In return for the protection of community we accept the duty of solidarity: we are prepared to pay a price. Solidarity requires that we be willing to step out of what is in our personal best interest when family is threatened, friends are in need, fellow workers are treated unfairly, or fellow citizens are persecuted.

Solidarity requires we be willing to make huge sacrifices if called to do so. Soft relativism permits us to ignore that call when duty lies outside our personal space.

What goes for community goes for the life support upon which all communities depend: the environment. What's the nature of our duty here? Soft relativism ignores the question. Again, it is up to the individual. The very idea of "duty" to the environment implies that there is a direct connection between personal values and the commons: water, air and soil. If we accept connection we accept duty and sacrifice when called to do so. Duty to cod? Is this a strange idea?

Duty to old growth forest or eagle habitat. What sacrifices are we prepared to make to do our duties here. What is our duty to earth and air? How do we express this duty in our lifestyles? What cars will we drive - will we drive at all? When a local developer plans to devastate a heron habitat in North Nanaimo or a spawning stream in South Harewood, how do we express our duty then?

All of these things: history, community, family, unions, nature, the environment, transcend the self. Soft relativism is used to reject anything that transcends the self when convenient. Duty is at best optional.

Evil Number Two: Utility in Relationships

Evil number two: relationships. For a soft relativist a relationship is defined in terms of self fulfillment. Any other relationship serves no useful purpose. Relationships come with riders and limitations. Duties can be suspended on the first rainy day. Loyalty has limits. What is our duty to a marriage partner who suffers a severe physical or mental disability? What is our duty to a friend who falls on hard times? or to a colleague who falls into disrepute? or to a parent in old age? or to a neighbour who is arrested for a horrendous crime? or to a fellow citizen who suffers from persecution? or to the man across the street with AIDS? or to the street urchin in Thailand? or to a beggar at Granville and Davie?

For Taylor soft relativism is inauthentic. It is authenticity "improperly understood." There are no moral horizons for any of these questions. We may reject anything that transcends the self and, anyone who is unimportant to self fulfillment. Is this modernity? Is this malaise? Are these evils?


How can something as seemingly precious as "individuality" do so much harm? Wasn't individualism the greatest by-product of the enlightenment; wasn't reason and "science" its greatest gift?

How did we get into this mess? Where did this notion of moral "relativity" come from? From science? The concept of relativity in modern physics asserts that physical values like time and space have only relative meanings. Perhaps we can blame Einstein for our malaise? Yet Einstein never did do away with absolutes.

In fact, Einstein gave us a deeper understanding of space and time by describing how they were linked. Sure it is no longer possible to make absolute claims about the sequence of events in space or time, but it is possible to make absolute claims about something deeper, the space-time interval. Furthermore, within any reference frame the subjective experience of space and time never changes. So let's not blame physics for relativism.

Perhaps then moral relativity can be thought of in a similar way.

Perhaps there still are moral absolutes in the modern world. All we need to do is to define them in a deeper more meaningful way. This offers the possibility that relativism can be understood in "harder," more connected ways. This form of relativism - more like Einstein's - would allow for differentiation against a background of differing life experiences, and differing frames of reference.

Taylor talks soft relativism as a "deviant" form of atomism bread by a combination of mobility and instrumental reason. This deviant atomism expresses itself in our cultures: popular culture and high culture, as nihilisms, postmodernisms, and other variants. If I may offer a modest opinion: these deviant disconnected ideas make no god damn sense. Every atom in nature is connected to every other atom: connected and affected by universal fields of force and energy -- atoms have no choice, no option, no will to step outside and invent a new physics. Soft relativists seem to feel they can do that in the human domain.

Let's try an example? Abortion. Pro choice favours choice including the choice to abort because it protects and affirms the dignity of a woman's right to sovereignty over her body. Pro life opposes such a choice because it denies the dignity of the life of the fetus.

As radically opposed as these positions are, there is common ground around the question of dignity. Human right and human dignity lie at the core of both positions. There is a way in which both arguments can be seen as arguments for human rights to life and to dignity. The core values are the same. Switching reference frames leads to different articulations. This doesn't solve the problem, but it might allow us to respect the possibility that there are authentic moral claims on both sides and that both sides experience subjectively identical moral experiences.

So, back to authenticity.

Taylor has attempted to take us towards a perspective in which true authenticity is seen not as an expression of a soft or deviant position, but as a valid ideal when "properly understood."

Taylor traces the roots of this new idea to an 18th century concept that humans are endowed with an intuitive moral sense of right and wrong. That contrasts with the older computational model that morality was laid out on a cosmic grid of truths and consequences (i.e. the Great Chain of Being): step outside the grid and you sink into the appropriate circle of hell.

The road to this newer position is traced from Plato's idea of the good through Saint Augustine's idea of reflexive self awareness. Rousseau expresses it as coming from a notion of morality which follows the voice of nature within us. Moral salvation comes from "recovering" authentic moral contact with self.

One is free when one decides for oneself what concerns us, and not by external influences. Hey, at first blush this Rousseau stuff sounds a lot like the individualism we have been dumping on here. I assure you it isn't. The key to the difference is the phrase, "not by external influences."

Taylor makes this distinction clear. The freedom that comes from this personal "work" or "recovery" is not a negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom to do whatever we want without interference. But this is really the opposite of what Rousseau means. Rousseau is talking about a recovery of something that is already there.

Negative freedom, the freedom to do whatever attracts us usually means the freedom to follow a social convention; the freedom to assume values that come not from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves but from someplace else. We could call this "cult" freedom. It's as if the world were a giant supermarket offering hundreds of prepackaged belief systems from National Socialism to Heavens Gate.

We go shopping. We choose the one that "feels" best for us without reference to internal recovery. In its extreme it may express as "seig heil" or a trip to Sirius, or voyage to Halle-Bopp under a purple shroud. In more mundane forms this expresses itself as it does for many of us as a "mood" morality: we blow with the winds -- do whatever our moods dictate with little reference to a moral framework.

But such choices have nothing to do with following a voice within or making moral contact with our self. It is as if each of us roams the world and picks up the most appealing prepackaged belief system we can find. What soft relativism really offers is the freedom to belong to the cult of our choice, the freedom to follow "a flow". Rousseau's idea of individual freedom is completely uninfluenced by any flow.

This contrasting idea of freedom (Rousseau's) amplifies the idea of individualism which proclaims that each of us has an original way of being human. If I am not human in my way I miss the whole point of being human at all. This is a powerful idea. Cults and conformity threaten this human right. Cults and conformity are a threat because cults and conformity inhibit us from following the authentic voice within. Cults and conformity make us feel that we are "doing our own thing"

We in fact are not doing our own thing, we are choosing from a menu of "things" out there, choosing one, and calling it ours. Discovering "our own thing" is what recovery requires. And that requires work. But it guarantees uniqueness.

How do we do the work of discovering our own thing? How do we discover authenticity "properly understood?" First, we recognize that human life is dialogical. We discover and recover our identity in dialogue with "significant others." Second, we recognize that things take on meaning only against a background of intelligibility-a horizon of significance.

Taylor discusses the example of non-standard sexual orientations in developing his argument. He notes how justifications here can be based on the contemporary soft relativistic understandings of authenticity. One decides to follow a gay lifestyle because of "choice." It's one of those neat packages out there. The subjectivist position underlying "soft relativism" implies that no one "choice" is better than another.

So when choice is the reason for following this path, the path is really no more significant than say a preference for tall people, or red hair. The soft relativistic choice to be gay is completely without significance.

The assertion of a same-sex orientation and life has to be done differently if it is to have significance. It has to come from an examination of what is our nature, and that is unique for each of us.

It has to be made in dialogue with others. And it has to be done against a horizon of significance. To be significant the assertion must derive from a conversation with meaning. We don't just choose but we choose against a horizon. And what horizons are significant are not of our choosing.

The infinite variety of unique identities that emerge authentically from the process of meaningful conversation against intelligible and significant horizons are equally significant. The identities are significant because they encompass equally significant bases for comparison.

What is it really that makes men and women equal? What is the basis for equality in terms of authenticity properly understood? For Taylor the answer would be that men and women are both beings capable of reason, memory, love, and dialogical recognition. Any other differences are trivial in comparison. This is where the idea of equality comes from.

The same sense of equality would apply to other "identities" discovered or recovered through this process: be they based on culture, age, race, race, religion, sexual orientation or social status. Soft relativism would exclude identities not essential for our self fulfillment. Authenticity properly understood would recognize the equality of legitimate identities.

The ideal of authenticity properly understood condemns the self- centred variants of authenticity that motivate our culture. In Chapter VII La Lotta Continua, Taylor proposes an interesting project, a way of reconciling the differences between the knockers and boosters of contemporary culture.

What does he say? Let's not condemn soft relativism root and branch. There is something of value here. The root ethic of soft relativism is fine, but its practice is debased. Rather than condemnation let's undertake a work of retrieval to rediscover the higher ideal behind the debased practices.

Is Authenticity Really Worth The Work?

Is the struggle worthwhile? If a fuller more self-responsible and differentiated life is more important than the prepackaged choices available to us now, the answer must be yes.

How do we begin?

Dialogical conversation against significant horizons? Humm. How does that work? How for example do we talk to the past? Does this have something to do with the way we read a book? Does it have something to do with the ideas we examine? Do we select our relationships and cultivate interests around only those things that lead to self-fulfillment, or are we willing to look squarely at ideas and people who challenge our most precious beliefs.

Do we recognize and celebrate that which is truly equal in others? Are we prepared to sacrifice our comfort, career, personal safety, reputation, and even our lives to defend this equality? Soft relativism ignores these questions. Authenticity properly understood places some harsh demands on us and you -- I argue -- because you cannot hide from this argument.

But, if change can make a difference, as Taylor believes, this project may offer the only option for human and ecological survival that preserves human dignity. Other schemes might save some of us, but we've seen those, as recently as the 1930's in Germany--cult thinking, following the herd, can be an effective strategy, but there is nothing in these strategies that seems particularly authentic.

La Lotta Continua -- the struggle continues! It's an old struggle. Plato started something "good." But the project is far from over. Each of us is still part of it.

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