Narrative and Identity

A few weeks ago, I believe I mentioned that I had started rereading Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, a collection of readings in ethics edited by Fred and Christina Sommers (Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1997). I have been finding almost every single article to be useful to some degree or another.

It seems that a commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita taking into account all the various moral philosophers would make an interesting text. After all, the essential question of all ethics is, like Arjuna asked, "What should I do?" Arjuna's situation is meant to illustrate a most fundamental ethical quandary and a particular solution is offered, one that would be interesting to examine, verse by verse, in the light of developments in philosophical ethics. No doubt, someone has done it.

The latest article I have gone through is an excerpt from Alasdair Macintyre's After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984). The article comes in chapter four, titled "Virtue." The topic being debated by the different authors anthologized here is "Is it more important to be virtuous or to follow one's duty?"

The premise is that the ancients, from Aristotle to Augustine, viewed being virtuous as the sine qua non of happiness. It is what you are rather than what you do that is primary, because you may act morally without being a genuinely virtuous person, but if you are virtuous, you will act appropriately according to time and circumstance. Kantianism, which stresses duty, is seen as inadequate by those who see the logic in this position. There is of course a counter-position: Virtue may ultimately be definable only in terms of universal ethical principles.

Anyway, what I liked in Macintyre's argument was how he tied his moral arguments in with a literary critical approach much like that of Northrop Frye and, nowadays, Margaret Atwood. It is also very Jungian and as such something that has influenced me before. Macintyre gives some fresh insight into this perspective.

Basically, his argument goes like this: The Aristotelian approach to ethics, in which the culture of virtue or character takes precedence over legalistic approach to universal ethical rules, can be legitimated only if we have a certain unity of character. Modern society tends to fragment us, compartmentalize our lives: We are, literally, different people when at work, in our leisure moments, or in various other specific life-circumstances. When Harvey Cox argues for "the secular city," for instance, he is taking the position that such fragmentation is only superficial and ultimately facilitates a deeper personal integration.

Macintyre says that "narrative" is the way that we integrate our personalities. You are, in effect, your story. There has to be some connection between all those different "individuals" that we are in the moment to moment circumstances of our lives (work, play, family, etc., as well as what we are socially, historically, etc.). Macintyre uses the example of the "Prisoner of the Chateau If" and the "Count of Monte Cristo," as a single person in need of a narrative connection to join such widely disparate characters and situation. In my own life, to make it personal, I could say the person who is sitting in this office, stealing work time to write this blog, and the Babaji in India more than 20 years ago, are in similar need of a connecting narrative--How? Why? Whither?

Macintyre uses the concept of telos, or goal, to name the controlling element in a narrative, the place to which it all is moving. In other words, each of us has a particular unifying concept of ourselves based on an all-encompassing narrative that is meant to go somewhere. The teleological argument for the existence of God assumes that the metanarrative encompassing the creation, maintenance and destruction of the universe itself has some ultimate telos. Like the Sanskrit word artha, it is what gives it all meaning. Our individual lives, as narrative, must fit somewhere into the metanarrative in order to be imbued with meaning.

Most people obviously don't think like this, or at least, not with any great profundity. Even so, these two narratives, consciously or unconsciously, are operational in everyone's life. The anomie or alienation that we suffer in life comes when there is a disconnect in our personal narrative. What is the story of my life? ke āmi ? kene āmāya jāre tāpa-traya ? ("Who am I? And why am I suffering?") Though materialistic goals like wealth, glory and sense enjoyment may not always be realistic, the goals of wisdom and virtue are available to all, whatever the specifics of one's life narrative. In fact, the worldly goals are ultimately trivial, and only those of wisdom and virtue worthy. In other words, by making those our goals, that is the way our story truly fits into the divine one, the individual and the cosmic telos are harmonized.

In Krishna consciousness, we learned to answer the question "Who am I?", "I am the eternal servant of Krishna." But what does that mean? For the kanishtha bhakta, dressing up in a certain way and engaging in certain ritual practices is primary. Such things are, of course, helpful even if they are only externals. They are not without importance, because you have to frame yourself somehow. But the underlying meta-narrative here is this: "God is not here. This world is false. I must separate myself from this world in order to find God."


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