Duty & Desire

As I’ve already mentioned, one of the books I am currently working through is Peter Leithart’s book, Against Christianity. It truly is an intriguing read. Leithart’s critical eye to the current variation of Biblical faith we deem “Christianity” is one that is unfortunately very rare in our day. It should come as no surprise that Leithart offers many examples of where our society and the Church have turned from the path of Biblical instruction and instead accepted a more modern and liberal approach to things.

One such area where Leithart sees this occurring is in the source from which a people derive their “oughts”. By “oughts” Leithart means a feeling of obligation to do something; what is the grounds for being obliged to do something? Before the modern age obligation was derived from the way things actually were: Because you are a child, you ought to honor your parents. Modernism’s exaltation of subjectivity and individualism resents the concept that anything is a certain way and therefore obligations are approached from an entirely different perspective. Leithart explains that instead of “is” leading to “ought”, as used to be the case, things now flow from “feels” to “ought”. The way things actually are no longer leads to obligation but now the way a person feels is grounds for their felt obligation: I have strong feelings toward someone so I ought to marry them. As Leithart does a better job explaining than myself, I’ll turn it over to him:

If the tension between duty and desire has lost its existential edge in the twenty-first century, it is not because desire has become more vigorous. Instead, the tension has eased because duty has been collapsed into desire. Since Hume, moderns have been forbidden to derive an “ought” from an “is,” but it has become second nature to derive and “ought” from a “feels.” The consequences lie strewn on the surface of today’s social landscape, too obvious to require enumeration. (pg. 129, emphasis mine)

Duty has given way to desire, Leithart says, the result has been a mix-up in the origins for obligations and enumerable social consequences.

In all honesty, this reminds me in many ways of another book I just finished, Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen. One of the things that Austen has a remarkable knack for is displaying the glory of duty. In Sense & Sensibility the protagonist, Elinor, is constantly thinking of her duty to others, rather than herself, in any given situation. Her “duty-centeredness” is something that can easily be looked down upon as void of feeling or empty. In fact, her sister, Marianne, takes such a view of Elinor throughout the story. Yet Austen does a wonderful job of displaying that duty, taken upon by a proper attitude, can be much more glorious than the fleeting fizzle of feelings that are so often glorified in modern thought and literature (i.e. – The Twilight Saga).

Food for thought.

Michael

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