In the previous chapter, Taylor outlined some of the main “bulwarks” of enchanted belief that had to give way for exclusive humanism to eventually emerge. In Chapter 2, the “Rise of the Disciplinary Society,” Taylor examines some of the new construals of self and society that would help make that shift possible: the development of a “disciplined, disengaged stance to self and society” (136). In doing so, Taylor continually reminds us of the “zigzag” nature of this trajectory; instead of an inevitable subtraction of enchanted beliefs or transcendent references that culminated in a purely immanent humanism—secularism’s irresistible march– new imaginaries were generated by initially religious motives. For example, the early modern devotional effort to bring the Incarnation’s sanctifying force to all the ordinary contexts of life “led people to invest these contexts with a new significance and solidity” (144) ; a significance that would eventually become self-sufficient and severed from transcendent roots. Taylor continually emphasizes the “zigzag” trajectory to combat the guise of inevitability or “naturalness” that modern secular narratives employ to cloak their own contingency and religious origins.
So what were some of these new construals? In this post I’ll focus on the new construals of the self, and in the next post will look at those of the new social order (which Taylor explores in more detail in Chapter 4, “The Modern Social Imaginary”).
The emergence of a buffered, disengaged self arises through and alongside other conceptual changes. For one, the Aristotelian-Christian notion of nature shifts from one in which things have their own inherent nature and telos (what Taylor calls the “autonomization of nature”) into a “vast field of mutually affecting parts.” This shift results partly from nominalism, a theological reaction to what was perceived as the constraint of God’s ability to (re) determine the “good” or telos of things in light of this independent or “autonomous” nature. In other words, the move ensured that the good is whatever God wills; not God must will whatever is good as determined by nature. As a result, “God relates to things as freely to be disposed of according to his autonomous purposes,” and it is one short step from human beings “disengaging” from nature to take a similarly “instrumental” stance towards the world—initially for devotional purposes, but then for their own sakes as rational agents who can master nature rather than taking their cue from its normative patterns.
The modern self not only disengages from and instrumentalizes nature, but the very materials of selfhood. The ancient idea of the emerging Form of self, where virtue and goodness blossom with our will’s collaboration and harmonization with Form or Nature, gives way to a sense of total self-fashioning or self-reconstruction. The mechanism of this refashioning is God-given reason, and reason galvanizes the will, which dominates the passions and imposes discipline and form on the self. It is not Form at work, but our own self-action and will. The Christian element to this neo-Stoic revival is the belief that God is the source of reason, and we follow him by cultivating our own reason and judgment to fight God’s battles in the world—or to simply become excellent human beings, which is now seen as God’s will. Worship is rechanneled into efforts to cultivate reason; grace and agape are decentered by reason, will, and self-action. Our highest good is no longer agape, but rational control. Passions and desires carry no higher meaning but are “de facto solicitations” from which we can rationally distance ourselves and objectively evaluate them. Even our very desires for intimacy and human relationships are demoted to aspirations to sufficiency and transcending the need for recognition— a buffering of the self from others. We can see this in the new etiquette surrounding bodies and intimacy; whereas medieval etiquette books were primarily concerned with “unjustified presumptions of intimacy” across social ranks, the modern body applies this buffering to everyone but one’s closest emotional intimates. We create and deploy disgust and fastidiousness to control the self and establish boundaries against “bodily life and against each other”, and civilization becomes, “in a sense, a matter of feeling shame in the appropriate places” (143).
Ultimately, Taylor concludes, we see by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that “What moves us now is no longer a sense of being in tune with nature, our own and/or that in the cosmos. It is something more like the sense of our own intrinsic worth; something clearly self-referential.”
The shifts in conceptions of natural law follow suit; whereas Thomistic natural law and Spanish theorists like Francisco Suarez followed the Aristotelian-Platonic notion an “order… at work, striving for realization,” modern natural law theorists like Grotius, Pufendorf, and Locke defined natural law as what “suits” a being who is both rational and sociable, and is binding through reason alone, according to Grotius, or through God’s (autonomous) command, according to the more moderate Locke and Pufendorf. Locke’s theory of the tabula rasa reinforces the idea of a malleable self (constructed through proper education) and is one of the chief proponents of applying this new version of natural law in society; the “rational order” that is natural law serves as a crucial underpinning for a post-confessional public order and political life.
Thus by the Enlightenment, the modern disciplined, disengaged self is capable of participating in the universal reform to refashion society into a disciplined, civilized, homogenized order—a task Taylor describes in more detail in chapter 4.
Once again, we haven’t reached the arrival of Mormonism in our chronological trajectory, but I see elements in Mormonism of the Enlightenment heritage and departures from it. On the one hand, we are neither tabula rasa nor depraved matter, but uncreated, embryonic gods with our own particularity (thus, not quite the Platonic Form) that is cultivated and expanded by gospel living. Agency and will along with grace are crucial in that process. In the Brigham Young version of theosis, we will progress in mastery in laws and principles to one day organize their own worlds. He envisions that human beings are “made as independent in their sphere as the Lord is in His, to prove themselves, pursue which path they please, and choose the evil or the good” [JOD 1:49]. Yet we uncreated beings also occupy an autonomized cosmos of radical thinghood, of self-directing intelligences. But all our autonomy and agency are constrained by laws of existence (or wickedness and happiness) that predate God himself, and in which he is bound to recognize a good independent of himself. The buffered self is also checked by a soteriological communal vision in which we are metaphysically bound together as family or ultimately a universal network (depending on which version of sealings we look at), in which our fullest selves honor that profound relationality. Yet that relationality is disciplined and structured into dynasties, kingdoms, “perfect governments” [JOD] and other structures that will find their precedents in Taylor’s next chapter and post. These are just gestures towards Mormonism’s ever-interesting position in these trends, some of which will become much clearer and more fleshed out as we head into the following chapters about eighteenth and nineteenth-century developments.