David Brooks’s recent NY Times article is rather eloquent on our first president’s attempts to shape his inner man through adherence to a rigid code for outward behavior. I personally in general inclined to interpret moralities most fundamentally as codes of discipline, whether they be culturally enforced or personally adopted as a deliberate tool for self-formation, so I must admit this account hit the heroicizing bone in my body pretty squarely.
For the most part I am a real fan of Ockham’s Razor and pragmatism when it comes to how strictly we should enforce legal strictures on others—unless there is significant, measurable net social gain or loss at stake in being harsher on someone, I would prefer we not be unnecessarily severe and rather let people find their own way with greater latitude. And I’m suspicious of moralizing attitudes on the social level as well—especially when they are bound up in infantilized or hypocrtical attitudes towards pleasure and victimless behavior.
But despite those libertarian and libertine inclinations towards others’ prerogatives, I idealize personal subjugation to a life-orienting ideal or practice of self-formation, freely adopted and devotedly followed out. And one of the delightful aspects of such personalized code formation and self-formation is the renunciation of some of the indifferent things in life—the foreswearing of little privileges which should never be restricted generally (since they are of no pragmatic social or personal harm) but which become occasions for a particular person’s idiosyncratically stylized discipline.
And it’s not just the renunciations that fascinate me but the codes for doing particular things in particular ways which express commitment to the discipline of a chosen style where such style both expresses and reinforces one’s inner-self according to one’s own innermost ideal.
Personal rituals, personally created demands of politeness or benevolence or hospitality or honor or courage or rigor or creativity, etc. through which a particular person sets her own arbitrary obstacle course for cultivating a virtue which is anything but arbitrary and no less powerful for being honed through a code which itself, in its particulars, could have been different in any particular part.
I find it fascinating we can hone any of the virtues or even fashion new hybrid virtues or reimagine older virtues through practices which themselves are only contingently connected to virtue and could be ignored altogether but which when infused with meaning and committed to as a matter of rigorous obedience and habit can be turned into the molds in which the most unique and aesthetically and ethically beautiful characters are cast.
When George Washington was a young man, he copied out a list of 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Some of the rules in his list dealt with the niceties of going to a dinner party or meeting somebody on the street.
“Lean not upon anyone,” was one of the rules. “Read no letter, books or papers in company,” was another. “If any one come to speak to you while you are sitting, stand up,” was a third.
But, as the biographer Richard Brookhiser has noted, these rules, which Washington derived from a 16th-century guidebook, were not just etiquette tips. They were designed to improve inner morals by shaping the outward man. Washington took them very seriously. He worked hard to follow them. Throughout his life, he remained acutely conscious of his own rectitude.
In so doing, he turned himself into a new kind of hero. He wasn’t primarily a military hero or a political hero. As the historian Gordon Wood has written, “Washington became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”
Washington absorbed, and later came to personify what you might call the dignity code. The code was based on the same premise as the nation’s Constitution — that human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions. Artificial systems have to be created to balance and restrain their desires.
The rest of the article focuses on the collapse of such admirable, character shaping restraint in contemporary life and politics, as symbolized by a series of internally chaotic, undisciplined public figures (from Mark Sanford to Michael Jackson to Sarah Palin).
But he ends his article with fitting reference to one admirable figure still left standing, reviving dignity in public life through his example:
But it’s not right to end on a note of cultural pessimism because there is the fact of President Obama. Whatever policy differences people may have with him, we can all agree that he exemplifies reticence, dispassion and the other traits associated with dignity. The cultural effects of his presidency are not yet clear, but they may surpass his policy impact. He may revitalize the concept of dignity for a new generation and embody a new set of rules for self-mastery.