Probably the most significant moment in my reading year was when I first caught sight of ‘Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists’ by Susan Neiman, and decided to read it. It’s a large and wide-ranging book which seeks to show how politics can be a properly moral endeavour. It speaks to a debate which is not quite yet raging, but is beginning to break out: a debate about meaning, purpose and priorities in the face of consumerism and the unreflective economics of ‘growth’. It was conceived in a coffee shop in Boston the day after George W. Bush was elected for second term when Neiman and her brother realised that the left had lost its connection with idealism, and ethical clarity.
I learnt a huge amount from the book and was challenged to think through many issues more deeply. It got me started on the pragmatism – idealism distinction/continuum which I have blogged about in connection with the money and God debate. And I am very grateful for that.
I am even more grateful, however, that Neiman introduced me to some other really excellent books, which I have since read, among them her own ‘Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy’.
It’s ‘Moral Clarity’, however, that most excited me. The book begins in Sodom and Gomorrah (inspiring me to preach my first ever sermon on ‘The Sins of Gomorrah’ to an unsuspecting congregation at Matins at Durham Cathedral). It ends with reflections on the book of Job. In the middle there is an excursus on the Odyssey.
This book is an education, and is full of insights old and new. On Job I particularly liked the suggestion that Satan would have been better advised to have given Job great wealth if his plan was to undermine his faith in God. I also loved Nieman’s own question: ‘Did Walt Disney write the ending to the book of Job?’
One chapter I found particularly thought-provoking was entitled ‘Enlightenment Heroes’ in which she seeks to rehabilitate the idea of ‘hero’ in left-of-centre thinking. I have been as guilty of anti-hero assumptions as anyone else, but realise now that there are both practical and idealistic reasons to value heroes – or at least to give the possibility of heroic action credibility.
We don’t need to be naive – everything can be manipulated – but we do need to recognise that sometimes responsiblity is exercised way beyond the call of duty, with courageous sacrifice, and leading to transformative results. Heros are real. You shouldn’t make a fetish of heroics, but you shouldn’t simply knock it or look down on those who admire it either.
The other chapter that got me going was one simply entitled ‘Reverence’, an unlikely subject for reflection to be sure. In fact, Neiman tells us that there is only one book-length study of ‘reverence’ avaiable today. And – good for her – she got me to read it. I will blog about it next in this series.