to unprotect ourselves for the sake of bigness and of love

Summoning up a whirlwind of illogic, Margaret Thatcher once said, “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”  That was the beginning of the end of the idea of society in contemporary western life.  This new idea has run its course for the better part of two generations.  It has had enormous impact on our lives and our politics.  There are evidences of it in everything from personal attitudes to public policies.

I can think of numerous examples of how the idea that society, or a commitment to the public good, is essential to having a good life has ebbed away.  On a personal level, the incidence of competition and lack of empathy among friends and colleagues is higher and harsher than it used to – and needs to – be.  Professional jealousy and character assassination at work particularly, as people angle to get ahead, are commonly accepted, where I don’t think they used to be as much.  On a macro, political level, perhaps the greatest current impacts of the anti society philosophy is the resultant chaos of pulling government oversight (society) out of the business of regulating private sector banking.

What has caused us to stray so far from the idea that society can in fact be an enobling and essential structure around which to organize and to improve our lives?  In the essay excerpted below, professor Roberto Unger claims that it is by the apprehension of death that we accept and embrace society, and that, corollarily, it is in our denial of our mortality that we beggar the idea and work of shared social goals.

In Unger’s view, recognizing our mortality nurtures an alarming set of very human and very attractive qualities:  to desire change, to become more equal, to strive to be more like God, to become vulnerable, to become restless and curious, to turn from our idols and to one another.  In a sense this list is a very good start toward a proper definition of what ‘society’ is.

For me, the word idols sticks out.  What are our idols?  I think Thatcher named two: individual men and women (individualism) and families.  If no man is an island, is to hold up the individual idolatrous?  What else?  Idols could be the techniques and tools we invent to allow us to live our lives outside of society.  Ideas that dehumanize us, turn us into machines, isolate us and make us relenting and competitive and harsh.  Tools we worship like money, business technique, consumption and acquisition, status, and market efficiency.

Look unflinchingly into the face of your mortality, put away your idols, unprotect yourself, succumb to the lives of others,  trust and embrace them, and live your life.  That is how society is built.

Here is the excerpt from Unger’s lecture:

We shall soon die and waste away and be forgotten, although we feel that we should not. We shall die without having understood what this strange world, and our brief time within it, are really about.

Our religion should begin in the recognition of these terrifying facts rather than in their denial, as religion traditionally has. It should arouse us to change society, culture, and ourselves so that we become – all of us, not just a happy few – bigger as well as more equal, and take for ourselves a larger part of the qualities we have attributed to God. It should therefore, as well, make us more willing to unprotect ourselves for the sake of bigness and of love. It should convince us to exchange serenity for searching.

Then, so long as we live we shall have a greater life, and draw further away from the idols but closer to one another, and be deathless, temporarily.

— Roberto Unger, Tanner Lecture: The Religion of the Future


2 Comments so far
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Sharing this on a couple of other blogs. I am not sure I agree with Unger that religion has “traditionally” shied away from doing what he calls for. But I will do the whole lecture and see if I am just not getting his broader point. Thanks for posting this.

Comment by Keith Wayne Brown

There are religious movements that deny mortality. I think of health wealth which focuses away from what they may call morbidity, for example. But you’re right ‘traditional’ religion may be better at confronting frailty. Enjoy getting into Unger, I think it will be worth it. He also writes a lot about public life. Thanks for the share.

Comment by Peter Rudd

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