HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 12, 2007
From Liberty Street

The Nature of Nobility

John Turner


As we glide along the stream of time, says the philosopher Imlac in Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, the objects we leave behind are always lessening. This is certainly true for most people and it tends to induce a certain sense of guilt. A man loses the love of his life and pledges to her memory that he will always to care about her as intensely as he did on the day of her passing. But, then, day follows after day and new objects have to be dealt with somehow. The mind is pulled away from the first love by new troubles, new cares, new loves. Does this constitute a loss of faith?

The answer to this question may offer us an insight into the struggle that is now using up more newsprint than any other, the conflict between the West (is it the post-Christian West?) and Islam. When we in the West see hundreds of pilgrims lashed into grief in Karbala because of the death of Husayn ibn Ali there in 680, we tend to ask, "What's wrong with these people?"
What's wrong with them is continuing, intense grief and anger over an injustice. They haven't moved on, which is the driving requirement of Western life. They haven't given to time the power to take away the wrongness of something.

Years ago when I was a college teacher I showed my students a grave marker from ancient Rome  on which parents had expressed their agony over the death of their four-year old daughter. I asked my students to write for five minutes about whether they felt any emotion, or sympathy, for that two thousand year old grief. About half said they did and the other half said no, that it was too long ago to matter any more. As I thought about which half said what, I couldn't help noticing on which side intelligence had congregated.

The world is, of course, to some degree an arena of practicality. We can't spend all of our time trying to right ancient wrongs. But does that mean we need to forget about them? And, if we choose not to forget, what do we then do?

This leads us to the question of time and how we deal with it. The eminent scholar Bernard Lewis has emphasized that in the West clocks define life far more completely than they are allowed to do in the lands of Islam. In America, almost everyone is concerned with the exact time because no matter where a person is, he or she is likely to have to be somewhere else very shortly. Almost every conversation is limited by someone's saying, "I've got to go." Television announcers will cut off even the most distinguished guest in mid-sentence because as they say, "We're out of time." They are not actually out of time, of course. But they are driven by the clock to do something else in the next minute or two, and often they cannot vary that requirement by even twenty seconds.

What are the psychological effects of being dominated by ticking clocks in this way? They are obviously legion, but surely one of the most potent is to fasten the mind on the next minute or the next hour to the exclusion of any event from the past. When the only thing that counts is the next minute, then the past counts not at all And anyone who spends a lot of time reflecting on events from the past are dismissed as being out of date. The most common denigrative term applied to Muslims lately has been that they are medieval. This is taken to mean that they behave in ways that we find cruel and intolerant, and certainly some of the practices of the Middle East are not ones I find agreeable. But we shouldn't lose sight of the truth that "medieval" basically means backward, slow, not up to the minute and, consequently, not in line with the way ambitious people are required to behave.

It's not hard to imagine that when Middle Easterners observe Western officials in action they find them frenetic to the point of insanity. And that view can translate pretty quickly into dismissive scorn and determined hostility.

It ought to be clear by now that in this so-called war on terror each side thinks the other is crazy. And each side is determined not to be drawn into the craziness of the other. This is what's meant by defending one's way of life.

In drawn out conflicts, the side that prevails is most often the one that learns best from the other. At the moment, the flow of learning is not moving in our direction, one reason being that we continue to proclaim, frenetically, that we have nothing to learn.

The advantage the other side has is a kind of patience we can no longer comprehend, focused as we are in getting to the next minute as precisely as possible. That focus does not allow us to draw on the emotional power of the past.  Nor does it allow us to be faithful to who we have been, or to evolve out of it graciously. We want the stream of time always to flow more swiftly. We want to tear down everything we have built today so we can make money rebuilding everything tomorrow. We want every candidate to fall in the polls so he can later rise in the polls and, thereby, make news.  There may be short term advantages in that stance, but they are unlikely to serve us well over the long run.

Time does move and change does happen. Sensible people are obliged to be aware of transformation. But nobility involves struggling with the nature of time, perceiving both its transience and its coherence. And the essential feature of that perception is reflection, a practice we have had almost no time for lately.


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