There’s a humorous meme that’s been making the rounds recently that goes something like this: “there any many things in life that you and I do not choose: parents, nationality, appearance…and the Queen of England”.
Chuckles aside, this meme gets at something rather profound about life and our response as late-moderns to it. I’m talking about the givenness of much of human experience. As this joke expresses, we do not choose how we look or who our parents might be. Rather, they are given to us.
Bound up with this givenness is particularity. Each of us is given, which is to say born into, a particular place and a particular family. The particular aspects that make me “me” and you “you” are very often things that you and I do not choose.
I have a hunch that in the West, we are slowly but surely turning our backs on the givenness and particularity of certain aspects of life. We are increasingly suspicious of “particular” attachments to place and kin, which we view as parochial, burdensome, even oppressive. Conversely, we increasingly seek attachments to groups with universal causes and values.
I also have a hunch as to why this is happening. I think our growing love of the universal and growing suspicion towards the particular is tightly wrapped up with our obsession with freedom.
Or, rather, with a specific type of freedom. The Western individual seeks to be free from all obligation or duty. If freedom exists, then it is a freedom from obligation, not a freedom that binds me to my neighbours. Our attitude towards freedom is a little bit like those who (myself included) have food intolerances. If we are free, then, we are always “free from” (or “free to”), and never “free for”. We are like the scoffing kings in Psalm 2 who exclaim, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”
This is a fairly new development among conservatives, for whom liberty was customarily infused with, or seen as a means to the end of, duty. Liberty was precisely witnessed in those who gave it up in self-sacrifice. Now, though, it is more often expressed in concerns about freedom of speech and, among the Thatcherite and libertarian right, economic freedom. Contemporary conservatives contentedly share the definition of freedom shared by the progressive left—an emphasis on social freedoms, expressed as the right to do what I want as long as it harms no one else.
There are vestiges of particularity that still exist, to be sure. Flying an English flag might be off limits (except, perhaps, at sports games), but one can happily say, “I love London”. Rootedness to local places (“the local park”, “our primary school”, “my city”, “where I grew up”) is matched by a sense of attachment to family, though the rise of online communities and the constant demands on our attention from addictive technologies mean that the quality of family life is under serious threat. We even read of one individual who sued his parents for giving birth to him without his consent.
Some might even point to the examples of group identity that exist today as strong examples of particularity. Environmentalism, for instance, can take the form of a concern with the effects of climate change on the poor in the Global South which is expressed at the local farmer’s market. Is this not an instance where people demonstrate a love for a particular cause?
Absolutely. The point, though, is that we choose these communities. In late-modern society, I select those groups that I want to be a part of. It is often pretty easy to be dutiful to those we feel a strong attachment to when that emanates from a shared passion and cause.
But particularity is different—it contains an inherent givenness that is usually, or at least in large part, free from choice. Family. Childhood street. Local neighbourhood. Nation. Most of us do not choose these things. And it is partly for this reason that it is so difficult to love the particular. As anyone who is in a long-term relationship such as a marriage can tell you, it takes hard work and much self-sacrifice to make that relationship flourish. I continually return to the quote of Dostoevsky because it describes so well the inclinations of my own heart—“the more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular”.
I want to be careful here—there is such a thing as a tyranny of the particular. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, I immediately think of Hitler’s conviction that his particular people were to rule the world. Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazony has recently stated that Hitler wasn’t guilty of nationalism (a particular love for his nation) but of universalism (an imperialism that sought to rule the galaxy). I think he overstates the case—Hitler sought to export and conquer, yes. But he sought to do so in the name of his particular nation. He was guilty of both an extreme and pernicious form of particularity—ethnic nationalism—and an imperialism that would see every other nation wiped out and made the slaves of his people.
This is an extreme example, but a pertinent one that makes our case. But there are everyday examples as well. Do we want a world where parents choose or the state decides the occupations of our sons and daughters, without their say? There is a reason our ancestors fought for the freedoms we take for granted today, freedoms which are still under threat and which we should defend vigilantly. We should celebrate the right and freedom to choose those groups that align with the passions and callings we have been given. So do not hear what I am not saying—I don’t want to lose the universal and I think it has a crucial role to play in our world. I have written here about the need for the particular and the universal in the Church and here about the need for post-Brexit Britain to maintain a universal outlook.
My simple point, though, is that I think the pendulum is very much swinging away from the particular and towards the universal. This is true in Anglophone politics today and it is also true in the Church. I hope at some point to be able to provide evidence of this at greater length. But a very brief word on each. On the ecclesial side, we see this in the vacuous use of terms like love or justice, which are defined as universal values applied everywhere the same and in the same way. Yet used in this way, these terms are stripped of their meaning, their particularity. Many Christians use these terms in precisely this way. Yet the Christian faith has every reason to define love in particular and specific ways, that is, in view of a specific set of actions taken by God towards his covenant people. On the political side, we can explain Brexit and the election of Trump, in large part, as reactions against the reign of the universal (or global). Both, in large part, seek to diagnose the problems that have arisen from a way of life that has prioritised the globally mobile, those who proudly prioritise transnational links and sneer at their fellow citizens. We might doubt the solutions Brexit or Trump offer—and well we might—but we must acknowledge that they are in large part understandable as backlashes against the triumph of the global.
But put more positively, the concept of particularity or particularism can teach us that form of freedom which we have almost entirely abandoned. It is in this particular community, this family that I am called to love and give of myself. The particular is the theatre in which I can practice the virtues of love, care, peace and patience, precisely because there is skin in the game. I grow in virtue in the particular so that I can then grow to love those around me. When it comes to duty, as with so much else, the particular is the gateway to the universal.
- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Unherd’s Confessions Podcast (with Giles Fraser)
- Samuel Moyn, “Reclaiming the Language of Duty in an Age of Human Rights”, ABC Religion and Ethics
- Yoram Hazony on Unherd’s Confessions Podcast (with Giles Fraser)