Monday, September 05, 2005

A Philosopher Novelist

What a delight to find a detective novelist who ponders philosophy in modern settings. This summer, I devoured Alexander McCall Smith’s series, beginning with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, where he follows the adventures of Precious Ramotswe in Botswana, Africa. It was a charming series and I throughly enjoyed McCall Smith's gentle viewpoint.

This week, I’ve discovered another of McCall Smith’s heroine’s, Isabel Dalhousie. In The Sunday Philosophy Club, we follow his philosopher amateur detective in Edinburgh as she tries to understand the death of a young man who fell from a balcony in a concert hall. In the midst of her adventure, Isabel has time to ponder such things as good manners and truth:

Good manners depended upon paying moral attention to others; it required one to treat them with complete moral seriousness, to understand their feelings and their needs. Some people, the selfish, had no inclination to do this, and it always showed. They were impatient with those whom they thought did not count: the old, the inarticulate, the disadvantaged. The person with good manners, however, would always listen to such people and treat them with respect.

How utterly shortsighted we had been to listen to those who thought that manners were a bourgeois affection, an irrelevance, which need no longer be valued. A moral disaster had ensued, (140) because manners were the basic building block of civil society. They were the method of transmitting the message of moral consideration. In this way an entire generation had lost a vital piece of the moral jigsaw, and now we saw the results: a society in which nobody would help, nobody would feel for others; a society in which aggressive language and insensitivity were the norm. (141)

The world, it seemed, was based on lies and half-truths of one sort or another, and one of the tasks of morality was to help us negotiate our way round these. Yes, there were so many lies, and yet the sheer power of truth was in no sense dimmed. Had Alexksandr Solzhenitsyn not said, in his Nobel address, “One word of truth will conquer the whole world.” Was this wishful thinking on the part of one who had lived in an entanglement of Orwellian state-sponsored lies, or was it a justifiable faith in the ability of truth to shine through the darkness? It had to be the latter; if it was the former, then life would be too bleak to continue. (164)

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