Character and Identity - Vol. 2

Character and Identity - Vol. 2

Character and Identity - Vol. 2

Character and Identity - Vol. 2

Excerpt

One of the hardest of lessons to learn in the contemporary climate of opinion is that we are not free to choose our identities. An equally hard lesson to learn is that our identities are not a prison that we need to escape. That philosophy, now identified with Foucault, would imply that American society and that of Nazi Germany are equally prisons. In the end, it would make nonsense of the concept of freedom, for unless we can distinguish between the types of freedoms and duties the two societies produced—and understand why we are more humanly free in one than the other—we have no ground for resistance other than momentary preference.

"The Right to be Left Alone is the Right to be No One," which was reprinted in Volume One, shows how meaningless is the right to make completely independent autonomous choices. That project carried to completion would dissolve the self which, without a definite character, would no longer be present to guide choice.

As transitions occur in society, tragedies are produced by changing and failed expectations. The poems of Hesiod in the eighth century reflect the anguish produced by a shift from an extended to a nuclear family. The Gleisthenian reforms of 509, which replaced tribal organization with the territorial organization of the deme, was the fount of the conflict in Antigone, who had to choose between family loyalty and civic duty.

Although I am more comfortable with civic duty than family loyalty, the choice is not between an unadulterated good and an unmitigated evil. The marvelous little book on a South Italian town by Edward and Laura Banfield made clear how the family as the focus of obligation undermined civic virtue. Yet it was this cultural backdrop that made Italian Communists less dogmatic than the French, with their Cartesian rationality, and that reinforced their refusal to ship Togliatti to Moscow as Stalin had ordered in 1948. It is also what turned the top leadership of the CPI into genuine democrats by the early 1970s despite the refusal of the West to understand this.

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