We’re better now.
Yes, we’re far from perfect.
And in some parts of the world we’re even worse.
But the progress we’ve made since the Enlightenment is remarkable.
In my effort to broaden myself beyond just science and Shakespeare, I read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a book that drives home for me just how far we’ve come, how far we still have to go, and how writers like Hardy, in fits and starts, and maybe despite what they think they’re doing, help us get there.
Briefly, Tess Durbeyfield is a young peasant girl in late 19th century England. Her parents are poor, as are her prospects. Through some convoluted storytelling Tess finds herself involved with one Alec d’Urberville, who proceeds to harrass, bully, and finally rape our heroine.
OK, there’s some controversy, purposely engendered by Hardy, about whether Tess was truly raped. Hardy’s Victorian prose is so fastidiously non-sexual that you’re never quite sure what happened between Tess and her assailant – only that Tess got away from Alec as quickly as she could afterwards, and that their time together resulted in a pregnancy.
Tess never communicates her news to Alec, and soon after the baby is born he dies. Yet that isn’t close to the most tragic event of the book.
All the later tragedy spews forth from one Angel Clare, a non-believing son of a minister. Angel falls in love with Tess and, despite her protestations that she’s not good enough for him, essentially browbeats her into finally marrying him. Then, on their wedding night (after Angel divulges his own checkered sexual past) in a fit of conscience Tess reveals all. Angel is repulsed, declaring that Tess isn’t who he thought she was, and immediately runs off to Brazil. Really.
The rest of the story doesn’t bear repeating, though I have to say the final chapters surprised me as much as if our protagonists had been abducted by space aliens and whisked across the Milky Way (that’s not what happens, but almost as crazy).
Here’s my point. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a book about an immoral society. I’m not talking about a society that allows rape. In fact, for my argument it doesn’t even matter if Tess was actually raped or not (by the way, she was. So stop arguing).
No, I’m talking about a society that condemns Tess for losing her virginity and giving birth to a baby out of wedlock. Of course, many people through history, and sadly even some today, remain confused about what morality is. They think morality is all about controlling behavior based on some ancient book or set of norms. That’s not morality. As Steven Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature:
The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me . . . I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special because I’m me and you’re not.
Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives . . .
If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, there is nothing banal or obvious about it.
TBAoON, pp 230-231
Through the skill of the storyteller, we can all see ourselves as Tess. We can see how we can be thrust by circumstances into unhappy situations, how we can struggle with conflicting pressures, emotions, loyalties, and desires. We can develop empathy. And we can, via this empathy and via our own ability to reason, see that a society that punishes young women so harshly and so unfairly is by its very nature immoral.
Well, any lunkhead can see that. (Though, as Pinker points out, plenty of lunkheads in the past didn’t see it. And as my links above show, plenty of lunkheads who are not children of the Enlightenment still don’t see it today.)
What I find more interesting are the contradictions we see in Hardy’s book – contradictions that bring us closer to the question I’m most interested in – how did we get better?
First, let’s consider Angel Clare. It’s saying something that most readers of Tess of the d’Urbervilles hate Angel, mild-mannered and (mostly) peaceful suitor of Tess, at least as much as they hate the rapist Alec. Angel, the child of a preacher and his devout and devoted wife, is probably about as close to an atheist as Hardy could get away with writing in late 19th century Victorian England. While it’s never clear that Angel’s lack of belief is the cause of his immoral treatment of Tess, Hardy makes the point that Angel’s parents, because of their faith-based willingness to forgive sinners, would have advocated for Tess if only they’d known the truth.
I don’t know much about Hardy’s views on religion, though his references to pagan and natural spirituality throughout Tess are suggestive. But I think here Hardy is falling back on old fear and superstition. As religion gradually fell out of favor (a fall that continues to this day), many feared the consequences. I think Hardy is writing Angel’s character as a cautionary tale – without our religious mercy, we are in danger of becoming cold to the messiness of real life. Angel’s lack of belief doesn’t free him – rather, it traps him in a worldview devoid of forgiveness.
(Not that Tess needed forgiven; she was raped! Also, even if she wasn’t, Angel, you just admitted his own infidelity, you hypocrite – so get over yourself! OK, rant over.)
This is hogwash. One of the primary tenets of Enlightenment humanism is that people are fallible. No knowledge is absolute, and therefore no person’s actions are perfect. We all need to forgive one another because we’re all capable of error (again, not that Tess made an error!) If Angel didn’t absorb this lesson, it’s in spite of Enlightenment values, not because of them.
Second, consider the world Tess inhabited. It’s pretty clear that Hardy has strong views about the “old” ways and the “new” ones. Reading about Tess’s experience as a humble milkmaid on a simple dairy farm, one hears the word “bucolic” echoing around as if a thesaurus threw up all over the page. It’s ideal. It’s simple. It’s non-mechanistic. It’s human.
On the other hand, when Tess is forced by Angel’s rejection to take work on a mechanized farm, the images Hardy paints are straight from Hell – fiery furnaces, dangerous, dehumanizing, and exhausting tasks that seem never to end, a heartless supervisor who cares only for profits.
Well, fine. While I suspect that pre-industrial farm life was hardly a walk in the park (the word bucolic always makes me think of catching horrible diseases from animal poop, so maybe I’m biased), there’s no doubt that modernization pressed many workers into harsh and dangerous employment. But what else did it bring?
One technology that did show a precocious increase in productivity before the Industrial Revolution was book production.
-TBAoON, page 219
Pinker then goes on to describe how increased availability of books, due to mechanical and industrial methods of production, let to greater literacy, which in turn led to greater demand for books, which led to more and more reading. And what were we reading? Novels! Novels that put us in the minds of people different from us. Aristocrats read about the lives of the peasants they’d never known. Whites read about the experiences of black slaves. And men found out what it might be like to be a teenage girl in a society that would shame her for being raped and condemn her for bearing the child of her rapist.
Hardy seems to be saying that our modern world, dehumanizing and merciless, is making us less and less moral. I say he’s got it exactly backwards. We were always immoral – judgmental, short on empathy, more interested in codes and obedience than in rights and freedom. It was the values of the Enlightenment, and the advances in wealth and prosperity that it brought, that allowed us our first tentative escapes from the immoral world of our ancestors. No, that world is not perfect. Yes, modernization can feel dehumanizing. But we can make that better. We can reason with our bosses, and with the government, that better working conditions make for more efficient workers. We can argue that, because you = me, we all deserve safe factories, safe food, better health care, universal education, and free public libraries full of books that expand our reason and our empathy. We are getting better, and it’s because of the Enlightenment and the values it engendered, not in spite of them.
I also say that Tess of the d’Urbervilles would have been better with some space aliens.
Next I’ll be reading Shakespeare’s Othello, another tale about the complications of female purity. That will lead me on to a re-visiting of Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem I faked my way through some 30 years ago. This time, for real.