If you discovered that it was your destiny to fight demons, wouldn’t you feel a little bit put out, to say the least? Particularly when your friends don’t appear to have any such unpleasant and pre-destined fates and are able to just go about, like any other Modern person, making choices about their lives.
Recently, I read a light-hearted book on philosophy, written for the layperson, or, as the author, Mark Rowlands, blatantly states, for the “couch potato”. Aptly, it’s called Everything I Know, I Learned from TV.
Each chapter of the book uses a well known TV show (from 1990s – first decade of the 2000s) to illustrate some philosophical principles. For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is used to illustrate the notion of obligation. The Simpsons is used to explore the idea of being happy with your lot in life, Seinfeld is used to illustrate the idea of individualism, etc. I am the ideal demographic for this book, as a generation-X reader who had seen multiple episodes of every show featured except 24, which I’ve never watched.
It was an interesting read even though I didn’t always appreciate Rowlands’ overly-jocular style, but the device of utilising modern TV to illustrate philosophical arguments has helped me gain a general, if very superficial, understanding of some of these ideas.
The basic premise Rowlands puts forward is that there is a divide between “pre-Modern” and “Modern” thought, which all hinges on our sense of our identity and our fundamental role in the world. The Pre-Modern view was that these two things, our identities and our role in the world, were inseparable. Each of us was part of a greater chain of being, with a role to play. The relationship we held to others, for example, as servant, parent, or king, were God-given roles that constituted our very identity, and our primary obligation was to fulfil that role.
A Pre-Modern Knight and Lady, fulfilling their roles. Pic: Wikimedia Commons
In Modern thought, says Rowlands, identity is not fixed by any external structures. Our understanding of identity is that we are free to be whoever we want to be, so our primary obligation is to ourselves, to be the best person that we can be.
Sound simple? Wrong! Things were simple back in Pre-Modern times. You got up in the morning and went about your day, without ever having a crisis about what you “should” be spending your time doing. If you were a servant, you went outside and emptied the slops bucket, milked the cow, and strangled and plucked the chicken for lunch. If you were a king, you declared war on a smaller country, married your daughter off to her second cousin, the King of Bulgaria, and commissioned poet to write an ode to your noble deeds. Ah, for the the good old days when things were straightforward.
The Modern way of thinking opens up a whole can of worms – for example: if our primary obligation is to be the best person that we can be, how do we know what sort of person it is best to be? What sort of values are the best values to live by? If there is no intrinsically “right” way to be, this means all choices are equally valid so how can any choice be “better” than any other choice? These, apparently, are just some of the questions we all grapple with in the Modern Age.
No wonder the Modern Age subsequently developed Psychotherapy.
To illustrate this fundamental distinction, Rowlands beings by presenting the character of Buffy Summers, who is apparently a Pre-Modern gal stuck in a Modern age. Destined to be The Slayer, whose primary obligation is to fight demons and save humanity, Buffy could theoretically choose to ignore her duty, but she would still be The Slayer. She would be bothered by the fact that she was not fulfilling her primary obligation, particularly as she would be constantly reminded of her failure, as evidenced by all the death and destruction around her in Sunnydale.
In the meantime, however, Buffy’s friends don’t have any pesky pre-destined roles, and can choose to do and be whatever they want to be, their primary obligation being self-fulfilment, or, to be the best person that they can be.
The test that Rowlands sets, which reveals how Buffy is caught in a Pre-Modern time-warp, is whether a role is identity-consituting, or identity-reflecting. In Modern thought, says Rowlands, there is no such thing as an identity-constituting role, ie, a role that if taken away from us, would destroy our sense of ourselves and our place in the world. Any role that we Moderns take on can only reflect our identity. So, if Buffy was told that she could no longer be The Slayer, (as I think did happen in one episode), her identity would be in crisis, because she IS The Slayer. Whereas if Xander was barred from being Buffy’s wise-cracking friend, this wouldn’t affect his sense of identity, only his sense of injustice.
Notably, Rowlands does not give a specific range of dates, for his models of Pre-Modern and Modern thought. Rowlands acknowledges, as had already occurred to me while reading this book, that “Modern” references a current mode of thought that is dominant but not universal, and is more commonly associated with Westernised cultures. I could certainly think of exceptions, even within Western cultures, for example, religious people believe that there is a greater being that they answer to, and that there is a right way to do things and a wrong, or sinful, way. They may also be able to subsume their need for self-fulfilment within this life, through their belief in a greater reward that awaits in another life. Therefore, theoretically at least, they are not beset with the same dilemmas about what choices to make, or what is the best way to live.
There is another very common exception I can see to Rowlands’ theory of Modern thought. That is, me.
I was not born into a pre-destined role that was handed down to me – I’m not the son of a baker, or daughter of a candlestick maker – but I am a parent. Rowlands touches on how parenthood is an exception to his theory, without going into any detail, probably because the role of parent is a spanner in the works. Or perhaps, as he briefly suggests, being a parent steps us back into a Pre-Modern model of identity, but one that we can’t avoid.
It did not seem pre-destined, nor inevitable that I would become a mother – until I was about 29 I fully expected that I would never take on that role. In that sense, it fits with the Modern notion of identity, because there was a choice involved – I chose to have a child and therefore to become a parent. However, once that choice is made, being a parent does become an indelible part of one’s identity, that can’t be taken away by a quick change of roles. If my child was taken away, or died, I would still be a mother. If I was, for some reason, not allowed to fulfil my role as a mother, I would have a traumatic crisis in identity to deal with, probably with life-long consequences. If I, for some reason, was unable to deal with the difficulties of the role, and walked away from it, it is also likely that I would experience emotional and psychological ramifications with life-long consequences. Like Buffy, I can’t turn my back on my role without severe consequences to my identity.
However, perhaps in contrast to the purely Pre-Modern, I don’t see being a parent as my only identity, or even, in a social sense, as my primary identity. On a conscious level, I get more of my sense of identity from my work and social relationships. I know that this differs for others, in fact it was another surprise to me in the early days when I was home with a baby, to find that I was dying to get back to work. I found that I desperately wanted to feel as though I was doing something “of value” – even though I knew, of course, that what I was doing was of more value, however you measured it, than any job I’d be employed in.
That is probably why I could relate to, and give credibility to, Rowlands theories about Modern thought, because I know that for myself the idea of self-fulfilment, and trying to be the best person that I can be, is a driving force, that wasn’t satisfied by “just” being a mother.
Today it’s a public holiday, so I’ve spent some of it reading, and drafting this post, and pondering these ideas. This ensures that by bed time I’ll be highly annoyed at myself for not doing something more useful, like cleaning the fridge or spending more quality time with my daughter. It’s a frustratingly common phenomenon for me – intense frustration at the end of a holiday period, because I didn’t spend my time in the best way possible.
Today, I pause to wonder why that is. Is it because I suspect that a different choice of how to spend my time would make me a better person?