Friday, October 12, 2007

Habits of the Heart - Robert Bellah pt. 2

For Americans, freedom is likely the most deeply resonant and shared value of American society. Yet this freedom, is conceived in the libertarian sense (as we have commented often this semester) as freedom from others values, ideas, lifestyles in both private and public life. Commonality is shared only in the right of the individual to pursue ones own ideals. Justice, based individual rights, becomes the only means to effect and ensure such equal opportunity. In so far as success, justice, and freedom all are common American themes, they provide little help in talking about anything beyond the individual.

The authors suggest that cultural traditions are conversations or arguments about the meaning of the groups shared destiny.[1] Americans have often used a biblical and/or republican mode of discourse to speak of the country’s shared destiny and meaning. The Puritans become the prime exemplar in their desire to create a community where one could live a truly spiritual life. A libertarian sense of freedom is rejected in favor of a “moral” freedom of what is “good, just, and honest” in the context of the covenant between God and humanity.[2] In contrast, the republican ideal casts Thomas Jefferson as the exemplar of public participation for the larger good of society. Equality is conceived as a universal principle defined in primarily political terms to allow equal citizen participation in a self-governing society.[3]

The authors describe individualism in two particular forms: utilitarian and expressive. Benjamin Franklin is the epitome of the utilitarian expression of individualism where the individual rises to success through hard work and personal initiative. Many believed that if each individual vigorously pursued his or her own interest, the social good would also automatically emerge.[4] Societal participation becomes contractual where individuals enter merely to advance ones self-interests.

Expressive individualism, a form of Romanticism and best exemplified by Walt Whitman, arose in reaction to the materialistic pursuits of utilitarian individualism. Expressive individualism sought to cultivate the self and self-expression where each person has a “unique core of feeling and intuition that must unfold if individuality is to be expressed.”[5] These sentiments are easily identifiable in Whitman’s writings, as well as, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and others. For the expressivists, “the ultimate use of the American’s independence was to cultivate and express the self and explore its vast social and cosmic identities.”[6]

[1] Ibid., 27. See Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 206-207.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 30-31,
[4] Ibid., 33.
[5] Ibid., 333-4.
[6] Ibid., 35.