As it has for many others, Jedediah’s Purdy’s book For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today (New York: Vintage Books, 2000) resonates with me as an intellectually and emotionally stimulating social commentary. By turning our attention toward a need to reinvigorate a sense of public responsibility, it encourages a multifaceted stewardship that embraces educational, environmental, cultural, and legal/political issues and concerns. It does this by highlighting certain values and practices that are deemed necessary for the common good but have been neglected in recent history because of an overheated obsession with the pursuit of self-interest.
Near the end of the book there is a summary of these neglected values and practices that situates them in the contexts of three “interrelated ecologies.” The first is an interpersonal, moral ecology, which is fostered by people who exemplify qualities such as generosity, thoughtfulness, commitment, and diligence (p.186). The second is the institutional, social ecology of politics and civic life, which is guided by an informed and passionate engagement with ideas and practices that have a profound effect on public life, such as those surrounding energy production, or matters of genetic engineering. The third ecology pertains to what is normally associated with the word: our natural environment, which is nurtured by interacting with it in ways that are mutually beneficial for all forms of planetary life.
In commenting on these three ecologies, Purdy emphasizes that they all “belong to one another,” and that given this interconnectivity, our private and public lives are inescapably intertwined. Hence the necessity of embracing some form of public responsibility. He urges that “we live our personal lives with an eye to the maintenance of public concerns” in a way that “permits us to move beyond ourselves and back again” so that we can participate as fully as possible in “the necessary work of common things” (p. 189).
To reinforce his call for our ongoing support of “common things,” Purdy explores a number of ethically-charged political issues, ranging from strip mining (coal production) in West Virginia to the use of biotechnologies. He also invokes eminent political philosophers—in particular, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)—as well as notable political activists and intellectuals in recent years, such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Adam Michnik and Czeslaw Milosz in Poland. In short, he presents his ideas as part of a longstanding public dialogue about the importance of understanding the inseparable nature of our individual and social lives.
Purdy suggests that our current neglect of “common things” can be seen in two major aspects of contemporary life. The first of these is a predilection for irony as a way of avoiding or distancing ourselves from the demands and challenges of living in genuinely interdependent ways. The basic premise of irony is that the surface meaning of what is said is significantly different from what the actual meaning is. For instance, it is ironic to say to a group of silent people, “don’t everyone speak at once,” or to walk out into a storm and say, “nice weather we’re having.” As a rhetorical device, irony can be used effectively in the service of projecting strongly held opinions, but when it is adopted as a kind of persona (personal façade) it can also be used as a kind of defense mechanism, which is the kind of irony Purdy refers to when he describes it as “a quiet refusal to believe in the depth of relationships, the sincerity of motivation, or the truth of speech—especially earnest speech” (p. 10). In the context of the individualistic attitudes so prevalent in contemporary lifestyles, it is not surprising that this type of defensive (protective) irony has been widely adopted as a way of avoiding the often messy and difficult ramifications of becoming “too involved” in something.
Purdy refers to a second significant way we neglect the nurturing of what we hold in common as a “reckless credulity,” which he describes as “the embrace of illusions bound together by untested hope.” And the most significant of these illusions is that “life’s best things can be had in solitude” (p. 185). Although I would prefer using a different word than “solitude” (such as “alone”) when speaking about illusory experiences, I think Purdy’s intention is to suggest that life is most meaningful when it is in tune with what is most basic about our existence: our universal interdependence. Indeed, when discussing the work of Michel de Montaigne (a philosopher he obviously admires greatly), he writes, “the interdependence of public and private is so great that speaking of them as separate is often misleading” (p.75). Montaigne’s insight, and Purdy’s elaboration of its substance throughout For Common Things, is clearly one that we need to be reminded of and reflect on. Given the individualistic, intensely “doing-oriented” tenor of contemporary techno-cultures, we are far too prone to seek our own comfort and advantage at the expense of what is reasonably good for others.
“After centuries of identifying triumph with the development of technology,
from the steam engine to the lunar module, our greatest challenge now is
the decision not to do what it is in our power to do. We will have to do so
against our present convenience, for those to whom our comfort could deed
great and uncompensated unhappiness. We will have to do so for common
Jedediah Purdy, For Common Things, p. 184.
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Living in the middle of things involves a willingness