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Being Something vs. Doing Something

For all it flaws, the ancient world understood the importance of commitment

In his book, A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor describes a grand social transition that took place over the course of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance which ultimately, he argues, gave birth to our modern (Western, secular) age. At the risk of gross oversimplification, the transition goes something like this: in Ancient and Early Medieval times, humans saw themselves as part of an inherently organized social world. That is, organized by the internal natures that people possessed. People are naturally some way, just like everything else in nature. So for example, dogs chase cats because it is in their nature to do so, just as cats (naturally) toy with mice and beavers (naturally) build dams and so forth. Humans are no different. Some humans are by nature leaders, others laborers, others soldiers, and so forth. So it was that Aristotle could argue (to the horror of our modern sentiments) that some people were ‘naturally’ slaves.

While this natural organization routed people into prescribed, usually life-long unequal roles, those roles were inter-dependent and complementary. The master was greater than his or her servant, but nonetheless, dependent upon the servant. The peasant was subordinate to the king, but both needed and complemented one another. In many respects, society was family writ large: hierarchically organized, mutually inter-dependent, with roles presumably naturally and divinely assigned. Father, mother, sister, brother, son – these were not ‘occupations’ one ‘trained for’, consciously chose, or could opt out of. They were states of being; what you were (by nature), not what you did (by choice). Similarly, with king, peasant, solider, and monk.

By the Late Middle Ages, however, this view was changing. With the rise of cities, skilled crafts, universities, and increased trade and commerce, we increasingly saw ourselves as participants in freely-chosen, mutually-beneficial instrumental interactions, rather than conscripts to pre-fabricated roles. We traded skills, goods, information, and other useable commodities in an open marketplace where relationships depended on mutual satisfaction. In this new environment, inequality was product-based, not nature-based. A ‘better’ artisan, teacher, or cabbage-grower was ‘better’ because he or she produced a superior product, not (necessarily) because of a better ‘nature.’ Since no one was born into these instrumental roles, they were, more and more, understood as something that one did (by virtue of training, apprenticeship, education), not something that one was (by nature).

In short, professional lives began to separate themselves from personal lives. Family life is intimate, highly personal. The roles seem thrust upon us from larger forces we don’t entirely control or understand. We’re stuck for life. In the past, this was the model for all relationships. Today, the scales have dipped steeply in the opposite direction. If the ancient world was over-personalized, then today, personal and family life face the threat of becoming ‘professionalized.’ That is, contingent upon on-going mutual satisfaction. The intimate roles we play – mother, brother, lover, friend – become something we do, rather than something we are. In an open marketplace brimming with numerous, variously skilled service-providers, another might portend a superior product. Thus, intimate relations become ever more unstable. They fracture, re-form and fracture again.

I doubt that any of us would want to go back to ancient ways of social living. However, treating personal relationships as market-based exchanges takes a toll. If we never commit to ‘being’ something rather merely ‘doing’ something, then we may never develop the endurance and perseverance necessary for truly profound relational growth. Perfecting personal life depends critically on accepting, managing, and even appreciating human imperfections, both our own and those of our loved ones.

More from Matthew J Rossano Ph.D.
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