New York Encounter, Day 2: The Core of Our Humanity
by Madeleine Wicker
What is requisite for the flourishing of the individual and the world vis-à-vis the nexus of community? This question was the focus of an online conversation "The Core of Our Humanity" between Paolo Carozza professor of Law and Director of Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame and Charles Taylor, philosopher and professor emeritus at McGill University on Day 2 of The New York Encounter.
The answer, as the title of the event suggests, is that we dive into our core. As a starting premise, Charles Taylor insisted that there is a “moral illusion going on in history.” He indicated different moments in the twentieth century when humanity has declared that it has, in a sense, "made it." At those moments, we have triumphantly emerged from the struggle and breathed a sigh of relief, declaring that we’ve reached a “plateau” and the good has definitively been achieved. Taylor dismissed this as humanity's “moral illusion” -- such an easy “triumphalism” must be denied. Rather, we must commit ourselves to climbing onwards, today and always.
Despite --or perhaps because of--almost a century of experience in humanity, Charles Taylor, born in 1931, exudes optimism regarding this upward climb. While humanity cannot rest in its climb, he insists that it has been upward. By way of example, he indicated the abolition of slavery, which is “part of a total pattern of change.”
There are no plateaus, Taylor insisted. Rather we climb on together, always ascending into the light. That does not mean, however, that we climb the same path. Taylor and Carozza concurred: There is no syncretism, no “potpourri” of the best from each faith. Taylor laughed outright at such an idea, asserting that we must each choose and vigorously pursue our own way, while we are necessarily aided by like-minded others whom we have sought out. We nevertheless do need to remain open to working with others on separate paths.
Carozza asked Taylor to connect the individual’s choice of path to his claim that human beings are self-interpreting animals within an increasingly individualistic world: doesn’t this lead to subjectivity and isolation? No, said Taylor. Instead, in community and in touch with reality, you discover your vocation, what you can truly do for all. Simply put, “people that are successful never did it all themselves.”
So, what is the prerequisite for beginning, for stepping onto your path? Not steely commitment but “another kind of reason.” Narrow rationality is inadequate, Taylor explained, because we have "a range of intuition and feelings that we must draw on to be real, fulfilled proper human beings.” Such feelings must be embraced because we are incarnated beings. We have deep desires that cannot be externalized and placed on iPhones, a reduction of desire, or nationalism, a corruption of desire.
Taylor asked, "How do you defeat divisive goals? You overcome it by appealing to something else in people (talking about John Lewis and Martin Luther King), by appealing to what is crying to come out in them. The power to create something really great and beautiful with other people because you’re working together, realizing real common needs. There’s a kind of wonderful liberation there from the earlier cramping forms of exclusion. . . . To move beyond even that, you have to discover these deep potentialities in human beings that reveal themselves first and foremost in these really very deep gut feelings and which then need to be interpreted and brought out, criticized maybe. The whole work of the intellect has to go on here. But that is where the deepest ambitions of humanity reside, are being discovered."
Society’s current focus is skewed away from these deepest ambitions and centered on production. Material goods are not, however, what we need in order to build stairs up to the ideal future. Nor can the stairs be built with nostalgia for past expressions of faith. We “can’t get back to what existed before” but, in conjunction with our chosen community, we do need to return to the sources. Taylor himself has returned to the Gospels anew and been struck by the openness of Christ, unconstrained by society’s filter.
Taylor was realistic about the divisions in society and the difficulty of joining hands across the divide, political and otherwise. Speaking about his own, personal political beliefs he said that the challenge is “to understand the human side of their life and understand what is really going on.”
The social bonds that bring us together beyond interests and parties are what shore up democracy. We must strive to come together over our common interests: as the American politician John Lewis urged, put down “the burden of hatred”-- or you will be crushing yourself.
Taylor indicated figures such as Gandhi and King who shucked it off and lived in freedom. Not only did they live in freedom but, once liberated from hatred and narrow self-interests, a font of creativity sprang up and they became powerful forces for the common good. They did not simply choose a path to ascend by: they raced up it. Let us race!