The Good Samaritan as Antidote to the Entrapment of the West in Rights and the Ethic of Rules – Charles Taylor on Ivan Illich

Is the West trapped in a Greek secular ethic of rules and regulations or can it develop into Christian ethic of personal freedom and personal responsibility?i

Taylor writes in his foreword to an  interview with Ivan Illich:[1]“In Latin Christendom, the attempt was made to impose on everyone a more individually committed and Christocentric religion of devotion and action, and to suppress or even abolish older, supposedly ‘magical’ or ‘superstitious’ forms of collective ritual practice.

               “Allied with a neo-Stoic outlook, this became the charter for a series of attempts to establish new forms of social order. These helped to reduce violence and disorder and to create populations of relatively pacific and productive artisans and peasants who were more and more induced/forced into the new forms of devotional practice and moral behavior, be this in Protestant England, Holland, or later the American colonies, or in Counter-Reformation France, or in the Germany of thePolizeistaat.

               “This creation of a new, civilized, ‘polite’ order succeeded beyond what its first originators could have hoped for, and this in turn led to a new reading of what a Christian order might be, one which was seen more and more in ‘immanent’ terms. (The polite, civilized order is the Christian order.) This version of Christianity was shorn of much of its ‘transcendent’ content, and was thus open to a new departure, in which the understanding of good order – could be embraced outside of the original theological, Providential framework, and in certain cases even against it (as by Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and in another way David Hume).

               “The secularization of Western culture and, indeed, widespread disbelief in God have arisen in close symbiosis with this belief in a moral order of rights’ bearing individuals who are destined (by God or Nature ) to act for mutual benefit. Such an order thus rejects the earlier honor ethic which exalted the warrior, just as the new order also tends to occlude any transcendent horizon. (We see one good formulation of this notion of order in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, in which he argued for a human origina of the authority to rule.) This understanding or order has profoundly shaped the modern West’s dominant forms of social imaginary: the market economy, the public sphere, the sovereign ‘people.’

               “This, in bare outline, is my account of secularization, one in which I think Illich basically concurs. But he describes it as the corrupting of Christianity. To illustrate he draws, again and again, on the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ story about an outsider who helps a wounded Jew. For Illich this story represents the possibility of mutual belonging between two strangers. Jesus points to a new kind of fittingness, belonging together, between the Samaritan and the wounded man. They are fitted together in a proportionality which comes from God, which is that of agape, and which became possible because God became flesh. The enfleshment of God extends outward, through such new links as the Samaritan makes with the Jew, into a network which we call the Church. But this is a network ,not a categorical grouping; that is, it is a skein of relations which link particular, unique, enfleshed people to each other, rather than a grouping of people together on the grounds of their sharing some important  property. Corruption occurs when the Church begins to respond to the failure and inadequacy of a motivation grounded in a sense of mutual belonging by erecting a system. This system incorporates a code or set of rules, a set of disciplines to make us internalize these rules, and a system of rationally constructed organizations – private and public bureaucracies, universities, schools – to make sure we carry out what the rules demand. All these become second nature to us. We grow accustomed to decentering ourselves from our lived, embodied experience in order to become disciplined, rational, disengaged subjects. From within this perspective, the significance of the Good Samaritan story appears obvious; it is a stage on the road to a universal morality of rules.

“Modern ethics illustrates this fetishism of rules and norms… Not just law but ethics is seen in terms of rules    – as by Immanuel Kant, for example. The spirit of the law is important, where it is so, because it too expresses some general principle. For Kant the principle is that we should put regulation by reason, or humanity as rational agency, first. In contrast, we have seen, the network of agape puts first the gut-driven response to a particular person. This response cannot be reduced to a general rule. Because we cannot live up to this – ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts’ – we need rules. It is not that we could just abolish them, but modern liberal civilization fetishizes them. We think we have to find the right system of rules, of norms, and then follow them through unfailingly. We cannot see any more the awkward way these rules fit enfleshed human beings, we fail to notice the dilemmas they have to sweep under the carpet: for instance, justice versus mercy; or justice versus a renewed relation, as we saw in South Africawith its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a shining attempt to get beyond the existing codes of retribution.       

With this perspective, something crucial in the Good Samaritan story gets lost. A world ordered by this system of rules, disciplines, and organizations can only see contingency as an obstacle, even en enemy and a threat. The ideal is to master it, to extend the web of control so that contingency is reduced to a minimum. By contrast, contingency is an essential feature of the story of the Good Samaritan as an answer to the question that prompted it. Who is my neighbor? The one you happen across, stumble across, who is wounded there in the road. Sheer accident also has a hand in shaping the proportionate, the appropriate response. It is telling us something, answering our deepest questions: this is your neighbor. But in order to hear this, we have to escape from the monomaniacal perspective in which contingency can only be an adversary requiring control. Illich develops this theme profoundly…

“This is why Illich’s work is so important to us today. I have found it more than useful, even inspiring, because I have been working over many years to find a nuanced understanding of Western modernity. This would be one which would  both give a convincing account of how modernity arose and allow for a balanced account of what is good, even great I, in it, and of what is less good, even dangerous and destructive. Illich’s understanding of our modern condition as a spinoff from a ‘corrupted’ Christianity captures one of the important historical vectors that brought about the modern age and allows us to see how good and bad are closely interwoven in it. Ours is a civilization concerned to relieve suffering and enhance human well-being, on a universal scale unprecedented in history, and which at the same time threatens to imprison us in forms that can turn alien and dehumanizing. This should take us beyond the facile and noisy debate between the boosters and knockers of modernity for the ‘Enlightenment project.’

Illich, in his overall vision and in the penetrating historical detail of his arguments, offers a new road map, a way of coming to understand what has been jeopardized in our decentered, objectifying, discarnate way of remaking ourselves, and he does so withoutsimply falling into the clichés of anti-modernism.

Codes, even the best codes, can become idolatrous traps that tempt us to complicity in violence. [I immediately think of the “code” of capitalism that (with all its good emphasis on the person, freedom, industriousness, etc.]. Illich reminds us not to become totally invested in the code – even the best code of peace-loving, egalitarian variety – of liberalism. We should find the center of our spiritual lives beyond the code deeper than the code, in networks of living concern, which are not to be sacrificed to the code, which must even from to time subvert it. This message comes out of a certain theology, but it should be heard by everybody. This rich book assembles countless reminders of our humanity, which w can all hear and gain from, regardless of our ultimate metaphysical perspective.               Charles Taylor[2]

[1] “The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich As Told to David Cayley,” House of Anansi Press (2005) x-xiv.


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