Charles Taylor, “The Rise Of The Disciplinary Society”

Civilization is in a sense a matter of feeling shame in the appropriate places. – Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 142

Once Upon A Time, Youth Celebrating Like This Was Commonplace

Once Upon A Time, Youth Celebrating Like This Was Commonplace

In the first chapter of his A Secular Age, Charles Taylor spent a great deal of time not only outlining the all-too-often unremarked and unwritten assumptions of the world of the Latin West, but the first moments of what would become, inter alia, our contemporary world covering much the same territory in which belief in God is not only optional, but can be understood as one of the less-attractive choices among the options available.  This second chapter, no shorter and no less detailed, outlines the changing status quo, as always first among elites to be followed by the rest of society over time, with his view set firmly on what he called in the first chapter “disenchantment” as it expresses itself in what is emerging as the separate sphere of the religious, the political, the social, and the cultural.  That these divisions can even be considered, yet considered as describing wholly independent spheres of thought and study, let alone as disconnected – at least in principle – is part of the story Taylor is telling throughout the work as a whole; in this chapter, Taylor is interested in how the Christian or Latin West/North Atlantic in the centuries following the flowering of Reform there emerged a general sense not only that Reform needed to continue; but that Reform needed to include, increasingly, all social ranks, not just the elite.

Of particular interest to Taylor is the way this sense of Reform, which had previously understood itself as limited by sin and the general depravity of the mass of humankind (in both its current understandings of being separated from God as well as being willing to act in a fashion we would call depraved – violent, enjoying a certain sexual license, not honoring particular social and interpersonal boundaries we take for granted), in very little time came to believe it possible, then necessary, not only to encourage, but in fact to legislate Reform in all sorts of areas of life we contemporaries, I think, largely consider out of bounds.  This “Disciplinary Society”, as he names the chapter, is one in which, in the course of little more than a century, we move from a lived world combining violence, occasions of unbridled excess explicitly endorsed by elites (or at least not actively discouraged), to one in which these become not only outside both legal and socially acceptable behavior, but viewed with disgust rather than with anticipation of the possibility of “the world turned upside down”.

He sees in both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation (the two enormous religious expressions of Reform) the seeds of this Disciplinary Society, regardless of the official stance of both confessions not only on the universal nature of original sin, but the doctrinal reiteration that the mass of humanity was damned – either due to a failure to atone for one’s sins properly or because of predestination, it doesn’t much matter.  On the Reformation side, particular among Calvinists, especially in the Netherlands and Great Britain, there was the return of the doctrine of Providence, with the insistence that those who rule are the beneficent.  Within Roman Catholic areas, there was the rise of a kind of neo-Stoicism, which Taylor describes as an enormous influence, particularly in the Italian city-states.  In both, eventually, there arose the concept of Natural Law, not only as an ontological concept but – and this is more important for Taylor’s argument – as an ethical idea.

Behind all this ideological and philosophical background is the far more immediate, and important, emergence of the idea that society, in order to function, of necessity requires Reform as it emerged – greater control not only over particular aspects of human life such as the emerging preference for national standing armies rather than mercenaries, but over the whole of human life.  Out went not-really-proscribed violence among the nobility; in came the idea of the courtier.  Out went a certain disdain for the everyday life of the common person; in came the idea that one could fulfill one’s Christian duty precisely in the fulfilled life outside the Church’s immediate sphere.  Out went a view of human life as – at the very least – composed of both our reason and our desire; in came a view of the human as will under the guidance of reason taming then, following Descartes, using the emotions, tamed by will, to live a fully realized human life.

An interesting aspect of this, the emergence of what Taylor had called “the buffered self” in the previous chapter, is the distancing between human beings once involved in particular forms of socially acceptable intimate relations due to rank.  Taylor quotes from etiquette manual from the early 16th century, and argues (I think largely successfully) that not only does intimacy withdraw further and further in to an ever shrinking private sphere; part of this is increasing, as noted in the epigraph to this post, the rise of a policed sense of shame inculcated when social taboos are broken.

The consequence of Reform as a general social ideal is, perhaps in hindsight, the rise of the Disciplinary Society, up to and including the totalitarianisms of the 20th century.  If, indeed, the goal of Reform is just what the word entails, it would seem that, particularly in an age when there was no division among the religious, the political, etc., it would of necessity include the regulation of personal and social habits, the investigation of particular traditions for their place within Reform, and so on.  Regardless of what seems to be so in hindsight, Taylor is at great pains to make clear there was no necessity in or to this.  Precisely because our contemporary society understands itself as historical, and therefore contingent, each moment of the investigation in to the answer to the question for the massive change from a sectarian to a secular society needs to be looked at as one among a number of possibilities.  That this answer involved so much of our history of the past half-millennia creates much work both for the investigator as well as those who read the results of that investigation.

This takes time, both because the chapters are long as well as dense.  Thus, with some additional matter of a personal nature, it has taken me a bit longer to work my way through the second chapter than the first.  All the same, it is a rewarding experience, to say the least, and I look forward to the next chapter, “The Great Disembedding”.