A Moral Crisis

Dante and Virgil
Gustave Doré’s illustration for The Divine Comedy, 1866

A Moral Crisis

In A Good Look at Evil, I portray a moral crisis as a time when one’s story comes to a stop.  The halt isn’t called because of an external obstacle.  It comes from within.

What causes this Full Stop?  It occurs when one can make no sense of one’s life story.

What’s a life story?

We land here, born with certain propensities, talents and vulnerabilities.  The place where, at birth, we arrive, is not a vacuum.  It’s full of physical and behavioral requirements.  Those who raise and care for us have their own trajectories, rhythms and beliefs.   They are also the filters through which we first meet the currents and views held within the wider culture.  More pressures and perspectives arrive with the other people and things we meet as we go along.  We absorb delights, shocks and threats, see vistas and project possibilities.

We have to navigate our way through all this, trying our best to preserve our felt sense of who we were at the start — while we learn the ropes.  Reality has many dimensions, so we have to keep correcting course as we search for the path that suits us best and can be achieved in real time.  With increasing maturity, we can articulate our purposes, share common tasks, and honor the reciprocities by which we live.

What all this adds up to is

our story.

Though it’s something like living a novel, our story can’t be called a fiction.  If (as is sometimes fashionably maintained nowadays) what we’re living were really a fiction, then we’d be nuts.  Since we’re not nuts, our real lives are nonfiction stories.

What can bring us to Full Stop is meeting something or someone that critically undercuts the story we’ve been living.  It can be an enemy who sees what we’re about and figures out where our vulnerabilities lie.  (Yes, there are such people.  It’s not all sugar and spice.  Sorry!)  Or it can be some mischance that upsets the delicate balance of our projects.  Or a loss of trust, or self-trust, or honor, that we didn’t even realize we needed.  Like as not, the people who stand nearby do not perceive how dark – for us — is the shadow that has fallen across our path.

Perhaps because I know that the scripts we actually follow might be invisible to others, I could talk two women friends out of committing suicide.  Though I heard them out patiently, I did not take at face value the reasons they gave for their despair.  Instead I looked for the invisible script behind their stated reasons.  The invisible script is not generic.  It’s different for each one of us.

In my life, right now,

I’m passing through a moral crisis.

As I wrote in last week’s column, I’d believed that my book had at last found its ideal publisher.  The signs and signals all seemed to promote this expectation.  My manuscript was submitted with an unusual degree of well-thought-out support from quarters this editor could not casually ignore.  The reasons she set down in her rejection letter were oddly inconclusive.  They were unlikely to have been her real reasons.

Meanwhile, during that very week, I was getting emails from people responding to the excerpts from Confessions of a Young Philosopher that I’d read at the Voegelin Society.  Academics don’t normally send high praise to relative strangers.  Yet here were eloquent emails, unsolicited.  To my mind, it was as if the puzzle pieces of protracted effort were coming together, after persistent waiting and working — and retaining intelligent hope.

A word about Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  It’s not a book about my life.  It’s not an anemic young girl’s private diary.

It’s more like

a life about a book.

The hills and valleys of the life described in Confessions can only be understood as calling forth the book that now deciphers them.  What I lived makes sense only in terms of the lessons I drew and can in turn show others.  I was utterly resolved on drawing this sense out of two youthful episodes of my life’s story.  And I have no doubt that the book succeeds in doing what it set out to do.

Prior to the rejection letter, the favorable portents that appeared to surround this manuscript submission were quite striking.  Though I did not speak about it, I could scarcely help believing that Providence had waited for a moment that was exactly right before taking a hand.  My trust in the Unseen was being vindicated in a way better than anything I could have imagined.

As I described to Jerry the kind of blow this was, I realized that … the setback I was describing was precisely what A Good Look at Evil says that “evil” does: it finds the invisible script that supports the visible one.  It knocks that down.  It knows its target.  It controls its aim.

Confessions draws out the inner sense of the hills and valleys I’ve traversed.  It caters to nobody and to nothing.

How could I imagine that —

 in trying to make this book known — 

I could escape blows?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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