Self-understanding: It’s a messy business

Early in his The Last Days of the Renaissance & The March to Modernity, Theodore K. Rabb discusses the dramatic impact of the decimation caused by the plague on social and economic structures in the centuries following. Further he suggests that the rise of the use of gunpowder caused significant shifts as well by eroding the socio-cultural codes of knightly valor while concentrating military power with those with sufficient financial means to make and maintain the artillery associated with gunpowder. It goes without saying that these changes impacted not only social structures but also the contexts in which people conceived of themselves as persons. That is to say, that these social and cultural events forced changes in self-perception, changes that unfolded over the ensuing centuries.

But Rabb’s indication of the devastation of the plague and the technology of war prompted thinking about how often our sense of ourselves and the world is changed by dramatic events rather that pure philosophical abstraction. Much is made of the anthropological impact of Rene Descartes’ reasoning to the foundation of the thinking self–“I think, therefore I am.” But many philosophical shifts have been born out of more traumatic events. A few examples came to mind:

  • In Evil and Modern Thought, Susan Nieman re-reads the history of philosophy as a coming to grips with the problem of evil out of the devastation of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
  • Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club addresses the impact of the American Civil war on the deeply influential philosophies of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and Charles Pierce.
  • Many have observed the impact of The Great War and to a lesser extent WWII on subsequent human thought and self-understanding.
  • Nieman and others have discussed the impact of the Holocaust on all philosophical thinking thereafter.
  • And we are understandably still exploring the impact on our self-understanding of the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

Other examples could likely be adduced. But these suffice to warn us against attempting to write the history of philosophy and especially the narrative of shifting notions of the human person as merely a progression of philosophical developments from Descartes to Locke to Rousseau or whatever. Rather than a peaceful, logical narrative, our shifting collective self-understanding is often moved forward by paroxysms of terror or violence.

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Feeling Badly

In a recent opinion piece in the Hedgehog Review (Spring 2018), James McWilliams ponders the significance of the recent removal of public monuments honoring Confederate heroes such as General Robert E. Lee. He worries that, for many people, endorsing the removal was a way support a popular cause without probing more deeply their own complicity in the legacy of slavery or contemporary racism. Atonement, he fears, came too cheaply.

Protests of such removals confirm that racism is alive in America, he maintains, and still tightly linked with the nation’s past. Rather than papering over that history by removing its memorials, McWilliams insists that today’s whites need to connect personally and emotionally with past and present racism by feeling shame. White shame over the racist past and present, he claims, is necessary for progress in justice. “Before justice and history merge on the landscape, they will first have to merge in our hearts. Without shame that cannot happen. Taking on shame is a process that will inevitably ask whites not only to feel that emotion, but also to live in it, and to harness it for the cause of righteousness” (16).

The author is surely correct that progress in racism and justice requires both rational and emotional engagement. If people don’t feel badly at some level about the existence of injustice, it is unlikely that they will be moved to remedy it. But in advocating shame he has misidentified the feeling that is needed.

First, shame is the wrong emotion because it cannot be easily conjured. No doubt many people foster racist attitudes. But most people find it difficult to link themselves with the extreme racist actions of the past even if they are knowingly direct descendants of slave owners. And while McWilliams’ own shame may be linked to his belief that he, by virtue of his whiteness, “benefits daily from the legacy of slavery,” that complicity is generally too opaque for most people to conjure shame from. At best one might be able to develop a general shame at human malignance.

Second, shame is the wrong feeling to foster because it is not productive. Contrary to McWilliams’ hopes, shame is not easy to “harness for the cause of righteousness.” Shame does not unify; it isolates. Shame does not motivate; it debilitates. One need only consider the shame of Adam and Eve in the garden to recognize shame’s limitations. Like them, faced with shame, we cover.

From a biblical perspective, a better emotional response is sorrow. Sorrow over one’s own sins blends naturally with sorrow over the sins of others, past and present, and sin’s effects. And sorrow unifies more than shame because we can share each other’s sadness. Lament is communal. Further, sorrow motivates better than shame. Whereas shame moves us inward, sorrow can move us outward toward others.

There is certainly room for shame in the story of slavery and racism. Each of us needs to work out the shameful prejudices that mark our interaction with others. But that shameful history will not be solved through the multiplication of shame. It should be met with shared sorrow and shared resolve.