Philosophy and Literature 28.2 (2004) 393-405
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Decency and Its Discontents
In The Beginning of the Journey, Diana Trilling makes this rather shocking claim about her husband, Lionel: "In the dark recesses of his heart where unhappiness was so often his companion, he was contemptuous of everything in his life that was dedicated to seriousness and responsibility."1 Lionel had been dead almost 20 years when a near blind Diana dictated this comment in her controversial auto/biography in the early 1990s. Of course he was revered for—among other things—precisely his qualities of intellectual "seriousness and responsibility." But Diana argued that Lionel had in effect settled for such sober virtues because for temperamental and other reasons he could not live the life he really craved—the life of a swashbuckling novelist, with all its recklessness, its refusal of compromise, even its moral waywardness. When Hemingway died Lionel wrote in his notebook: "who would suppose how much he haunted me? How much he existed in my mind—as a reproach? He was the only writer of our time I envied" (Beginning, p. 371). Lionel's critical discussions of Hemingway's fiction are judicious and qualified.2 He admired the uncompromising short story writer who was "passionately and aggressively concerned with truth" (SLS, p. 127), but found the work of the self-conscious "legend" (p. 125), writing in the first-person, ponderous and disappointing. It was not the prose that Lionel so wanted to emulate. It was the life; in particular, its power to release and nurture creativity. Diana continues: "It was to decency that Lionel felt he had sacrificed his hope of being a writer of fiction—conscience had not made a coward of him, it had made him a critic" (Beginning, p. 372). [End Page 393]
Decency—how often we use the word. How seldom we ask what we mean by it. Usually it functions as a sort of guarantor term, like the caged canary in the coal mine. If the canary lives, the miners are judged to have fair air to breathe; if a person possesses certain qualities, or a society provides certain requisite conditions, we say the person is "decent," or that this is a "decent society." Yet remarkably few virtue ethicists have countenanced the possibility that decency might be counted among the virtues; that it might be the subject of substantive intellectual reflection; that we might investigate its relation to other virtues, its internal structure, its characteristic patterns and possibilities of existential investment. As John Kekes, one of the very few philosophers to have paid the notion serious philosophical attention, says: "Decency is generally admitted to be a good thing, but is not generally supposed to be particularly important."3
In this short essay I attempt two linked undertakings: first, to offer a characterization of Decency—the term henceforth accorded a capital "D" to indicate its status as a moral virtue; second, to read aspects of Lionel Trilling's life and work, and Diana's late assessment of him, in the light of Decency, as I understand the term.
"Decent" seems to refer to a "state," a sort of moral condition a person is "in," and to a resultant orientation towards others. The "state" is one of modesty, even humility. The ego doesn't loom large or get in the way. The orientation is one of solicitude towards others. Decent people of this kind genuinely care about, feel for others. Unless they are given good reason to behave otherwise, their disposition towards others tends to be respectful; they bring to most situations an assumption that the other person is worthy, deserves to be taken seriously. Decency of this kind tends to be associated with receptiveness, relatedness, a patient openness to others, though it need not be passive.
The word "decent" derives from the Latin, deceré—to become, to be fitting. It's been used in English since about the 1530s. From that period to the early twentieth century "decent" has generally indicated that something is fitting, appropriate, with respect to social rank...