Monday, April 27, 2009

J.S. Mill and William Shakespeare: Not the Same Guy

There is some dispute over whether Shakespeare was a real individual by that name or a pseudonym for someone else. If only because Shakespeare's works appeared a few centuries before John Stuart Mill was born, I have never heard Mill advanced as a candidate as the "real" Shakespeare. Surely Terry Eagleton, Englishman and lettered scholar of literature, is aware of this? And yet:

Liberals are supposed to value nuanced analysis and moral complexity, neither of which are apparent in the slanderous reduction of Islam to a barbarous blood cult. They are noted for their judicious discriminations, rather than the airy dismissal of all religion as so much garbage. There is also an honorable legacy of qualifying too-absolute judgments with an awareness of context: the genuine liberal is appalled by Islamist terrorism, but conscious of the national injury and humiliation that underlie it. None of the writers I have mentioned is remarkable for such balance. On the whole, they are more preoccupied with freedom of expression than freedom from imperial rule.
Eagleton's notion of liberalism gets fuzzier with closer inspection. It seems odd to say so, but this passage sounds as though he is confusing liberalism with art.

Under at least a few schools of aesthetics, good art is that which values and achieves "nuanced analysis and moral complexity;" it makes "judicious discriminations;" it suspends or qualifies "too-absolute judgements" by suffusing what it portrays with "an awareness of context."

This sounds a lot like the most revered works of Shakespeare; its resemblance to the works of John Stuart Mill is considerably less straightforward. There is a neutrality at the heart of liberalism, but Eagleton's is a crude bastardization of it: to the extent that liberalism cherishes neutrality, it is the neutrality of the state vis-a-vis questions impinging on individual conscience, not the neutrality of individual conscience.

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