Book Review -

Published on Thu, 28 May 2020 20:28
News

I recently finished Jonathan Sack's latest book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. Jonathan Sacks is a former Chief Rabbi and probably one of the UK's leading public intellectuals over the past 30 years. He is a trained philosopher and was a graduate student of one of England's greatest analytic philosophers, the late Bernard Williams. Allied to his philosophical acumen is (as one would expect) a deep immersion in the thought, language and culture of the Hebrew Bible and its rabbinic interpreters in the Mishnah and the Talmud. He combines a deep feel for the storytelling power of the Jewish tradition and a capacity for clear thought and arresting exposition, exemplified in many of his contributions to BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day. He has written over 30 books on topics ranging from the relationship between science and religion, the problem of religious violence and the challenge of religious difference. He was the BBC's Reith lecturer in 1990, which launched him into wider public prominence.

This book addresses a number of pressing contemporary concerns, viz. loneliness, the fragility of family life, the depredations of untrammelled market forces, the degeneration of democratic discourse, the economics of truthfulness, the rise of identity politics, the growth of the victim culture, the cultivation of a 'shame' culture, especially on social media and the death of civility to name but a few, arguing that these are symptoms of a rampant individualism that has historic roots, but which has accelerated at an exponential rate over the past hundred years. This denial of human sociality is having catastrophic personal, social, political and spiritual consequences because human beings are constitutively social, homo sapiens sapiens not homo economicus. His fundamental contention is that if we are to build the common moral foundation on which the future of Western civilization depends, then society will need to move from 'I' to 'We', from a preoccupation with 'self-interest' to concern with the impact our thought and behaviour has on others, from typically 'contractual' styles of thinking about every dimension of life, to a society bound by moral commitments sustained by loyalty and sacrifice, in other words, covenantal thinking and relationships.

It is difficult to do justice to this substantial book in a few lines, but I want to draw attention to a number of its strengths.

Firstly, the Chief Rabbi is conversant with a wide range of literature: anthropological, economic, political, philosophical, sociological and religious. He is conversant with many of the leading intellectuals in this field, e.g. Robert Putnam, Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, Frans de Waal etc and the classical sources, Hobbes, Locke Rousseau, Newton, Descartes etc, and able to distil their contributions with great clarity and force. This is perhaps what distinguishes him from that other great religious public intellectual, Rowan Williams. The pages of this book disclosure a rhetorical gift which compels in a way that the former ABC's more deliberative style didn't achieve to quite the same extent.

Secondly, he is culturally attuned to a fine degree and able to bring the resources of the Judeo-Christian tradition to bear on contemporary challenges. For example, he points out how the 'echo chamber' of social media has led to the development of a 'shame' culture, in which anybody expressing dissident or contrary opinions is subjected to excoriation from which there is no recovery or forgiveness. This, he observes, differs diametrically from the 'guilt' cultures of Judaism and Christianity, which always admit of forgiveness if there has been appropriate repentance and trust. The rise of identity politics threatens to contract the deliberative space in which ideas are tested, rejected or refined and thus the free speech on which liberal democracy depends. This is an example of the dangers of emphasising the 'We' at the expense of the 'I'.

Thirdly, he offers a coherent vision of the future of Western civilization based on a proper balance between the 'I' and the 'We'. An overemphasis on the 'I' has led to the disintegration of those bonds of trust that tie us ineluctably to family, community and the environment with such devastating consequences for all individuals. Rampant individualism has resulted in both cultural as well as moral climate change. An overemphasis on the 'We' however, leads to the atrophying of individual responsibility and self-regard that is the basis of human dignity, which in Judeo-Christian religious perspective, reflects the God-imagedness of all human creatures.

Does the book have any weaknesses? Only in the sense that weaknesses are usually the obverse of strengths. This book does not advance a new thesis even if it has a coherent thesis. It is not a book that will change the mood of a culture. Nevertheless, it is learned and a fine piece of advocacy for a perspective which is compelling because of its humane-ness and spirit of hope.

The Rector

Image credits: