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The characters who define our society

Daniel Sportiello | Thursday, February 16, 2012

Consider for a moment the characters of Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth, Jane, Darcy, Bingley, Lady Catherine, Bennett and the rest. They are about as different as they could be almost caricatures.

Nonetheless, they are characters who represent their time and place. They all are, despite their diversity, committed to British society in its absolute commitment to politeness, specifically to honorable marriage in the context of a hierarchical agrarian order. The climax of the novel comes when Lydia nearly destroys her family by absconding to London; she enters into a romantic relationship with Wickham with neither the permission of her father nor the consecration of a clergyman and, scandalously, earns neither money nor power from the transaction.

Darcy’s commitment to the moral order of honorable marriage is such that he is willing to reestablish order at great personal cost to himself — thereby becoming a hero to the lovely Elizabeth.

The point is worth repeating: Darcy is, for Austen and her audience, a moral exemplar precisely because he has the will to defend the institution of marriage — and the money to pull it off. Gentlemen, take note.

It may be you are not a fan of “Pride and Prejudice.” If so, then you should read it again. In the meantime, though, realize it is not only novels characters who reveal the moral orders which define them. A character is, in a certain sense, a caricature — a somewhat idealized expression of something profound about his social context. And whether that social context is actual or fictional, those within it understand and define themselves in relation to those characters, whether that relationship is one of opposition or affirmation.

It’s obvious different societies understand themselves in relation to different characters, especially since Cervantes created his Don Quixote. The knight, a character defined by his perfect fusion of courage and piety, is as noble in one age as he is absurd in the next. Moreover, ours is no longer a moral order defined by its commitment to honorable marriage in the context of a hierarchical agrarian order.

Who, then, are the characters who define our society — one that lacks any agreement upon the meaning of life, in which talk about right and wrong is therefore unjustified?

According to Alasdair MacIntyre, who, in his “After Virtue,” calls characters “the masks worn by moral philosophies.” The Manager, the Therapist, the Aesthete and the Conservative Moralist are prominent among them. Such characters are not the inventions of MacIntyre; they are idealized versions of the men and women whom he sees every day.

Consider as examples Mitt Romney, Doctor Phil, Paris Hilton and Glenn Beck, respectively. Some of these characters inhabit the political right while others are rather further left. Some are respected public figures while others are media darlings known largely for their nuttiness. Despite their great diversity, however, they are manifestations of the same spirit, a refusal to ask about right and wrong, about the point of life, beyond what people happen to want or what they themselves happen to decide.

Mitt Romney, for instance, drones endlessly about how, if elected, he will make the national economy run better and about how he is an expert in making things run better. What we should do with all of the extra money, of course, he would not presume to say — we would not begin to listen.

Doctor Phil, for his part, talks people through the deviancy within their lives, helping them to conform to what is considered normal in our society. Although, he would never think to ask whether what is considered normal should be so considered.

Paris Hilton is good at spending her family’s money to make herself constantly, deliriously happy in the most public, grotesque way possible. What things should make her happy, of course, is not something she bothers to ask herself.

Glenn Beck, finally, screams endlessly about how liberals, minorities or those intelligent enough to read this essay are destroying America. Whether or not America should be a place of liberals, minorities and those intelligent enough to read this essay is not something he bothers to ask his viewers — or himself.

I have no particularly strong feelings toward any of these individuals. If I criticize anything, it is the moral order they presuppose in their words and deeds. Even in this criticism, though, I still define myself in relation to (albeit in opposition to) these characters.

For we are narrative animals: each of us makes himself what he is. He tells the story of his life only in the context of the stories, the characters and the people confronting him.

I wonder if it is not time to start telling better stories.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his fourth year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. He can be reached at dsportie@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.