Taylor’s book The Ethics of Authenticity is a wonderful short account of why our young people today attach such a high value to such things as “sincerity” and “self-fulfillment.” Somehow Polonius’ advice to Laertes—“To thine own self be true”—has become a kind of contemporary gospel. Taylor describes it this way: “There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way and not in imitation of anyone else’s. This gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me.” Taylor traces the intellectual lineage of this way of thinking, and shows why some of the most enthusiastic backers of modernity fail to appreciate the deeper moral sources that modernity draws and indeed depends on.
I first encountered Taylor in the mid-1990s through his book Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Accustomed as I was to having my own critique of political correctness challenged by academics educated beyond their intelligence, I was astounded to find in Taylor a much more profound account of the rise of identity politics than anything I had encountered. Basically Taylor makes the case for the universal application of fundamental liberal principles while at the same time making room for recognizing group identity and group claims where only secondary liberal values are concerned. I apply some of Taylor’s insights to the Muslims in my most recent book The Enemy at Home.
Taylor’s work has become more explicitly religious in recent years. His most recent book, published in 2003, was a new interpretation of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. Taylor shows why James is still relevant and that even though some forms of the old-time religion don’t make much sense today, in other ways religion is more germane than ever to make practical sense of our lives. I don’t consider this book Taylor’s best effort, but that still makes it very good.
I wish I could read Taylor’s forthcoming book on secularism now, since I am in the process of finishing my new book What’s So Great About Christianity, out from Regnery in October. But Taylor’s A Secular Age is not out until September. This is Taylor’s eagerly-awaited study of how we came to live in a secular age. At one time virtually all of the orbit of life in the West was shaped by religion and specifically Christianity. But now we live in a time and place where our political, economic, scientific and cultural activities are largely removed from the sphere of religion. I want to learn from Taylor what we have gained and what we have lost, and whether it is possible to retrieve some things that have been hastily left behind.
Taylor’s Templeton award will, I am sure, free him to be even more productive in the future. This is one of the best things that philanthropy can do: find a man of genius like Taylor and then liberate him to focus completely on his work. Don’t even let the man make his own bed or clear his dishes. This is how the dukes and earls of old got so much work out of the artists they patronized. The Templeton foundation is in this great tradition. Eventually I think this prize will come to be seen as more important than the Nobel. Charles Taylor is one of the reasons why.
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