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    PloughCast 69: Creating Our Identities

    Money, part 10

    By Tara Isabella Burton, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    September 27, 2023

    About This Episode

    Tara Isabella Burton comes on the pod to ask, How did we become a world of self-makers?

    Susannah, Pete and Tara discuss her new book, Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians. What were the intellectual and imaginative and social currents that led us from a world where the self was something given or discovered to one in which it was made?

    What is the role of America’s Gilded Age millionaires in this story, and how did their own vision of themselves as able to harness the energy of the economy and maybe of the Cosmos contribute to our current vision of the good life?

    Finally, via many other rabbit trails, they discuss why you should not eat a bat, and speculate about Albrecht Dürer’s hypothetical hair care videos.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. It’s time to podcast and I am delighted to be welcoming Dr. Tara Isabella Burton, novelist, essayist, polymath, and my dear friend, to talk about her latest nonfiction book, Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians.

    Tara is the author of the novels Social Creature, The World Cannot Give, and the forthcoming Here in Avalon, as well as another nonfiction book: Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. She’s written everywhere, and she and her husband also have a Substack called Line of Beauty, and much of this stuff will be linked in the show notes.

    For their part, millionaires were happy to take this new religion of prosperity as … well, gospel. Plenty of the Gilded Age’s Robber Barons spoke glowingly of this modern revelation. John D. Rockefeller, at one time the country’s richest man, was also a regular churchgoer and Sunday school teacher at the Erie Street Baptist Mission Church, where he frequently sought to justify his own wealth on religious grounds. In one Sunday school address, Rockefeller summarily informed his young and impressionable listeners that “the growth of a large business is merely the survival of the fittest and thus a fully appropriate subject to discuss before church.”

    The Christian squeamishness about the less fortunate had to be squashed. After all, he insisted, “the American beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance, which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it.” This wasn’t, he hastened to add, an evil tendency, but rather the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.

    That is a quote from Self-Made. Tara, do you want to give us the subtitle of that book and tell us what this book is and what it was that we just heard?

    Tara Isabella Burton: So Self-Made’s subtitle is “Creating our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians.” Although the subtitle that was rejected but I wanted to use was Self-Made: How We Became Gods, and both of those subtitles I think speak to the story of Self-Made, which is … it is an intellectual history of the idea of self-creation, looking at the “self-made man” historically, and the dandy who creates their life as a work of art, as counterintuitively two sides of the same coin. In telling that story, it explores how this idea of personal power, personal creativity and ultimately individual internal desire have become seen as constitutive of our authentic humanity.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, it is. It’s a fantastic book. It’s so very much a kind of companion to Tara’s first non-fiction book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless Age, I think was the subtitle of that one.

    Tara Isabella Burton: Godless World. Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Godless World, sorry. Yeah, so it’s very much a series of linked essays that take us on a kind of weird journey, starting from Albrecht Dürer who I guess was not kind as well … as much of a name check as Da Vinci, through to contemporary transhumanism and weird Silicon Valley people and Kim Kardashian.

    Peter Mommsen: We also end with OnlyFans, I think.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.


    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s right, Caroline Calloway, God bless her. Who you and I once actually saw in Brooklyn.

    Tara Isabella Burton: No, I wasn’t there.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You weren’t there?

    Tara Isabella Burton: I didn’t make it. I was waylaid by a crisis as you recall.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh my gosh, that was incredible. That was like, yeah, this is actually, this is linked. Well boy, OK, rabbit trails. I’m sorry. Let me get a hold of myself. Anyway, this is a very weird book because it is going to describe things, sort of a series of episodes of kind of, it’s a kind of series of trend pieces, but starting with the Renaissance, but it’s much, much more than that. It’s also weird in the sense that it is a popular level book, but it’s also original academic research.

    So this is not doing a Carl Trueman where you are summarizing Charles Taylor and Philip Rieff and other people’s work. You are actually doing a series of pretty in depth reported pieces. I cannot, I mean I know some of the reading that you did for this, you read a lot of weird stuff and you kind of pulled out of that reading a story about how we got some of the ideas that we currently have about what it means to be human or to live a good life and a lot of those stories that you tell along the way seem really alien to us and to each other. But they’re definitely all kind of getting at the same thing, which yeah. So do you want to just give us a little bit of a tour? What are some of those highlights?

    Peter Mommsen: How did we end up with Rockefeller, which is the quote we just begin.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, let’s go into that actually into that chapter in particular because …

    Peter Mommsen: I love this book.

    Susannah Black Roberts: This is excellent. That chapter in particular I think is really kind of helpful because it talks specifically about the role of money and the role of wealth and the kind of weird spirituality of wealth that was going on in say like 1890 America.

    Tara Isabella Burton: So Self-Made takes the reader on this kind of double journey looking at the dandy and the entrepreneur as these two manifestations of this belief in the self’s ability to chart its own destiny as being a kind of … a quality … sort of that all humans have, but really that certain special humans have, a legitimization of leapfrogging the social order. So it’s in a sense, I think self-making is often thought of as this very progressive, liberatory thing: we can all create ourselves.

    Actually I argue historically from the Renaissance onwards, the genius or any kind of self-made individual falls into this category of “aristocrat of spirit” or secret internal aristocrat. In the Renaissance, they’re often coded rhetorically as “bastard children” of God or nature, sort of like the demigods of the classical world. This sense that there’s some kind of aristocracy, some kind of specialness takes two forms, what I call the democratic and aristocratic strain.

    In Europe with Beau Brummell and a certain kind of dandy culture, self-making is often more explicitly reactionary.It’s about trying to combat the burgeoning middle class who can make money with a sense of internal personal power: wit, ton or taste in the Regency of England. Something that can set you up apart from the common herd. Now in America, the narrative, at least initially – caveat, these things start to converge in the twentieth century – is a little bit different. We have the Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass narrative of “work hard and you can become anyone,” the American dream narrative that probably everyone listening to this has heard in some form or another. But what becomes really interesting to me is that throughout this whole process, both in Europe and America, there’s a kind of spiritual, or even a cult perhaps is too scary a word, but mystical and non-traditional religious dimension, that there’s some kind of divine power or divine energy that the self-maker has and can harness.

    The self-maker is a kind of god, is not a normal human. In America, in the nineteenth century, particularly the late nineteenth century, that gets supercharged as it were by new scientific discoveries that are kind of translated into pseudoscience. A, electricity and B, evolution and these ideas that there’s some kind of force out there in the universe, some current, some magical vibey energy is hugely influential on the practice of New Thought. This kind of self-help early “manifesting,” “if you can dream it, you could have it” tradition and in particular helps to develop this very Gilded Age theology of wealth that the rich are simply the people who can harness this evolutionary energy, electrical, magnetic vibes thing and apply their internal psychic power to the creation of wealth. Importantly, the self-made man and the cult of the person who creates their own identity, until this time even in America, was not primarily focused on money.

    You look at early essays or sort of folk secular hagiographies of self-made men, someone called Charles C. Moore published one, Harriet Beecher Stowe published one. Emerson of course had Representative Men and they often focused on statesmen, on figures like Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass who came from nothing and worked their way up to modest or extreme success. But through virtue and doing something for the community. Money was not the thing anyone focused on. Cut to the Gilded Age, fifty years later and suddenly money is the thing that proves your worth. It’s the thing that proves your internal power. It is like a manifestation of magic and the people who make it are somehow at the top of this energy vibes totem pole.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s actually …

    Peter Mommsen: “Splendor and fragrance like that American rose” that Rockefeller was talking about.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, it also, I mean where this kind of eventually went was, I mean Norman Vincent Peale is the kind of ultimate new thoughty, Christiany crossover and he was obviously Donald Trump’s pastor at Marble Collegiate Church. So this kind of vision of very populist American millionaire or billionaire success as harvesting or harnessing the potentially sort of slightly Marianne Williamson vibes of the universe, it’s really striking and it’s really weird. I thought actually the Gilded Age chapter was kind of the one that was most of a crossover with Strange Rites and it was also the one that was creepiest to me almost. I mean obviously the transhumanism chapter is incredibly creepy, but just in terms of thinking about the way that, say there was for example, a demon of mammon that really wanted people to worship it and try to get it to possess them, you could do worse than having Andrew Carnegie talk about money this way. Yeah, so just a little thought.

    Tara Isabella Burton: Absolutely. I mean, the way that I would frame it, I mean this research, I won’t say it’s turned me into a conspiracy theorist that thinks that our elites are all demonic mammon worshiping devotees of a cult.

    Susannah Black Roberts: But it hasn’t not.

    Tara Isabella Burton: I am closer to that view than perhaps I was at the beginning of research. By which I mean that … I think that something that was sort of unexpected when I started Strange … so Strange Rites was originally supposed to be a book on cults and it was supposed to be a book on, it was actually, I was asked to write based on an essay I’d done for Aeon, one of those very short guides to cults. Somehow that turned into, with various negotiations and publishers, the book that Strange Rites became. In writing Strange Rites and then in writing Self-Made, I became conscious that what I was writing was not two stories, but rather two approaches to an intellectual commitment that I now hold very strongly, which is that we do have the internet saturated modern, post-modern, whatever you want to call it, like capitalist, you can choose your own sociological descriptor here West. We do have a growing, burgeoning, implicit civil religion.

    We have metaphysical assumptions that regardless of our stated religious identities and beliefs have made their way into our minds, our unspoken assumptions about energy and obligations and the self and what is good and what is bad, that would be, I think, incredibly alien to a medieval peasant or even perhaps a Renaissance artisan. That kind of pseudo religion or not pseudo religion, that’s not the word I want to use at all. This non-normative religious metaphysical tendency, I called it in a previous podcast. It’s sort of Frankenreligion because I think it’s growing as we watch it. It’s becoming burgeoning with every, it’s burgeoning at a faster rate because of the internet, is something that we cannot understand internet modernity without understanding the way in which the sacralization of desire that has been such a part of though not constitutive of modernity. The kind of sacralization of our own inner states has informed quite literally, practically and materially the world that we spend most of our time in. By which I mean the world of the internet.

    The internet is a manifestation of cultural tendencies that let’s say have been snowballing since the Renaissance. I don’t think we can understand politics, I don’t think we can understand the economy, I don’t think we can understand the culture wars without seeing them as downstream of the fact that there’s just a seismic shift in self-understanding that has a religious character, or at least it has a set of metaphysical, ethical, spiritual assumptions about who we are, who the world is and how we’re meant to interact with it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Who we are as the sort of end game here, which you get to in your conclusion is at the end of all of this process, at the beginning of which you might, this is a very kind of heavy-handed, ham-fisted way of doing it. But at the beginning of this, you have [the idea that] each of us is a creature who God made and had an idea about, that we are part of a kind, we share human nature. Each of us has a kind of self that is stable that we didn’t create, that God created and gave to us.

    Let’s put that at 1300 just because that’s around where William of Ockham is and he always needs to come in here. Then now what we have is … what we are is what we want to be or what we are is a sort of self that is unrelated to anything given. A self that you really kind of hammer home is unrelated to other selves, largely. So the turning away from nature and from the given is also turning away from other people. I thought that that was actually a really strong part of the book that you kept pointing out. The way that the idea of the self as this kind of artistic creation slash maybe discovery, but basically creation kind of requires at least psychologically or at least this keeps happening.

    So it seems like it requires a whole bunch of other people to be around, to be NPCs, to be non-player characters or to be people who look at you or to be people who you can look down on. It requires you to turn away from the kinds of commitments that … commitments to your parents, commitments to brothers and sisters who you didn’t choose, commitments to friends who might not be as cool as you are. It’s a very, very isolating self. Self-creation is a very isolating and fundamentally lonely thing to do. Am I representing that accurately?

    Tara Isabella Burton: Absolutely. I think that the way that I would frame it is that the narrative of self-creation means that things that you do not choose are not real or they’re not real in the way that your feelings are real. In my book, starting in the chapter on the Enlightenment on …, I try to describe what I’m trying to talk about as the disenchantment of custom. What I mean by that is that starting the Enlightenment onwards, we see this kind of growing desire to frame the social order as arbitrary and human action as kind of random and weird. You find this in Monteigne, you find this in Montesquieu. There’s a whole extra genre of these, sort of, travelers’ tales where there are purported descriptions of voyages to what was known as the New World or to Asia or Africa or Tahiti in one case.

    “Wow, they do things differently there. Guess that means that what we do here is weird too.” Often this has to do with sexual freedom, that sexual repression is sort of coded as this particularly kind of arbitrary thing. What all of this does together is to create a sense that where and how you are born, the way that your people do things – of course there’s this sort of triumph in this period of the cosmopolitan, the cosmopolitan ideal, I think it’s … who either is written to or writes this sort of praise of someone and says, would never ask a man to provide his baptismal register where he’s from because no one is from anywhere. The sort of upshot of this is that anything to which we are born becomes kind of coincidental like, “ah, sure, you’re from here, you’re from there, you speak this language, you have this position of society, this isn’t real. What is internal is real.”

    I want to be careful here because obviously in many respects this is a good thing. I don’t think this is unilaterally troubling. It is good. The history of Self-Made is full of examples of people who by virtue of the American dream, let’s say by virtue of increased (to most) social mobility, are able to overcome oppression, repression, of course, a great example is Frederick Douglass, born enslaved, who has this vision of what America could be, especially post abolition, where self-making becomes a way of saying you are not trapped by your blood.

    But what essentially seems to have happened is that the pendulum has gone so far the other way that the kind of sacralization of freedom and particularly freedom vis-a-vis money and these theology of energy as something that the individual can harness rather than must respond to or conform to.

    All of this creates a scenario where other people are kind of the enemy. I used to worry sometimes that I was … perhaps I was creating a straw man. I was like, is this, we talk a lot about people who are really into self-care and that means not bringing soup to their sick friends or what have you. Does this exist? Without going too much into my past week, it absolutely exists.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh please, it was such a good week.

    Tara Isabella Burton: This is an actual normative way of being in the world. I’d say probably most people don’t absorb it all the way. We absorb it a little bit and don’t know that we are and we’re kind of bombarded with these messages from advertising or the odd aside in the trend piece, it’s like, well obviously self-care is important. We kind of absorb it all culturally. But I do think that increasingly more and more of us are fully subscribed to this notion that our own boundaries, our own feelings, our own internal sense of ourselves have more ontological weight than the humanness that comes from our given state.

    Peter Mommsen: So at the beginning of the book you talk about a gym company that actually promises divinity through self-making in this case, literally making your own muscular self as you would like.

    Tara Isabella Burton: Absolutely. I think that this is, especially in the sort of post religious era anyway, this is super normal and this is just becoming a god or becoming god-like is incontrovertibly a desirable goal. There’s no sense of do we want this, what this mean? It’s like Stuart Brand puts it, “we are as gods, we better start acting like it.” Again, I don’t think this is 100 percent a bad thing. I think self-making can be powerfully liberatory. I think the human capacity for creation, including self-creation is part of who we are.

    We tell stories about ourselves. There is something internal and irreducible about ourselves that cannot be reduced to any category to which we might belong, be it of birth or society or what have you. We are not reducible to our gender or our race or our class. I think that the best version of this impulse, and obviously I’m biased here, the sort of Christian liberal tradition, I think, that says there is something irreducible and holy and good about the individual that is separate from any membership they might have in the obvious given, there is something that transcends the given, that is their themness.

    That is what I want to hold onto. I think even the kind of artistic vision of attempting to express that thisness externally can be at times a beautiful and a wondrous thing. For all that I criticize the dandies, the European dandies, the European dandy tradition, I think something that they hold onto that is valuable is in an era, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, of mechanical reproduction where everything is being mass-produced. The vision of the Dandy being like, “I am an original, I cannot be mass-produced. I am me and I am not like anyone else.” That is good actually, we should keep that.

    But where I think that this mentality troubles me is not the notion that individual people can’t choose who they are in the world or they can’t choose how to express themselves or outwardly express a vision of themselves that is closer to their self-understanding. All that is good as part of let’s say a holistic view of the self that also says, I am a neighbor, I am a sibling. In cases where there is not abuse or something horrific, I obviously want to set those cases aside, but in kind of roughly normal cases of being part of a polity that is flawed or troubling while not being violent or abusive, there’s this sort of sense that all of this can be discarded or I should not have to go through certain kinds of difficulty because this is annoying, my cringe boomer parents don’t agree with me on X, Y and Z and I don’t want to go and see them on Thanksgiving. It’s like self-care to not have these conversations.

    Again, every time I think, am I making a straw man about this – I think that actually this is something that is normal enough in my own experience that I hear it and I think that there can be goodness and beauty in the quiet act of acknowledging that we sometimes just have to deal with each other in all of our differences and that some of what we do not choose is our membership in a polity. That is something, that rootedness, that needs to be more robustly supported in a society that valorizes pure self-making.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. It’s very much, you’re not moralistic in the book and you’re very descriptive and that is going to lead to circumstances in which as with Strange Rites, people pick up the book and are like, “hey, I’m a self-maker. Let me invite Tara on a cruise for self-makers.”

    Tara Isabella Burton: Oh boy.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. So because you’re not moralistic, people are too possibly not going to pick up on the degree to which you find a lot of what you’re describing troubling. Also you do have this kind of countervailing, but not all of this is bad.

    To be fair, there is some of the kind of self-making thing that is in, well that is both sane and in the tradition. So the idea of second nature, we have first nature and that we have the nature that we’re given and then we do something. Custom gives us a second nature and then also we can kind of tweak custom and all of those weird layers of nature and custom and self and choice and artistic self presentation. Those are all good. We don’t have to throw out, we don’t have to only be nature or we don’t have to only be nature plus custom, but we’ve just turned up the volume, we’ve turned up with the gain on “what I am is what I will” to such an extent that it’s overwhelming.

    Tara Isabella Burton: Yeah. What troubles me about that is I feel like it has blinded us to the very complexity of human nature. I go back and I quote this in both my introduction and my conclusion, but what is among the most powerful pieces of literature in the English language is, “what a piece of work is a man” monologue by Hamlet, well by Shakespeare in Hamlet. It’s the wrestling with, “what a piece of work is a man! And how noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!” Fast forward, “and yet what to me, is this quintessence of dust?” Like we are gods and we are dust. That tension is such a part of the great tradition of wrestling with humanness.

    We have all this freedom and in some ways we’re gods and also we will die. Assuming the …, we will die and we will sicken and we are subject to gravity. All of that is so formative to who we are that I think that the kind of gospel of self-making forgets our humanity in an important way, not because being human means being unable to do anything other than what your small community says you should do or that you have to dress or comport yourself in a certain way because these are the obligations at hand. But that being human is a process of discerning among our creative powers and our facticity and finding, I’m an Episcopalian, so of course I’m going to say this, a middle ground, through all of that.

    I would certainly be annoyed if someone picked up my book and was like, “oh my God, isn’t this great? We’re gods now.” But for what it’s worth, I would also be very annoyed if someone picked up my book with maybe from a more conservative perspective and was like, “oh yes, this is a book about how all those teenagers with their new identities are crazy.” Because I think that that is also a misreading of what I’m calling for. What I’m calling for is not a criticism of the freedoms that self-making has afforded many people, especially those who have experienced marginalization. But rather the normalizing of self-creation in the culture such that we don’t see those people who don’t self create as fully human, that they must have something wrong with them. They must be, to return to the opening of this conversation, the blossoms that need to be cut off the humanity tree.

    I think that is what happens when you valorize self-creation at the expense of all else. When you valorize choice and desire at the expense of all else, the only way that you can apprehend another human being whose situation is less than ideal is that they have somehow evinced a failure of desire. They just don’t want to get well as New Thought had said.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. That’s something I’d like to get into, because it seems like one of the things that’s kind of poured gasoline on self-creation and kind of destroyed this creative tension between, I’ll say community and individuality is capitalism. You have this great phrase in your book, “internet saturated hyper capitalism,” and that really has taken an idea of self-creation that as you document has been around for a long time, at least since the Renaissance and given a dominance in our daily lives that really wouldn’t have been imaginable before it. Is that something you could talk a little bit about?

    Tara Isabella Burton: Yes. I think that the internet is both a manifestation of and a driver of this tendency. Which is to say in my chapter on the rise of the internet on Transhumanism and Stewart Brand and Buckminster Fuller and all of these architects of what is now known as the Californian ideology, we can see how the vision of the internet is kind of libertarian disembodied space, cyberspace came out of a fusion of technological capacities and the 1960s counterculture, the interests in authenticity and personal freedom in escaping again, custom the more is of society by creating the new disembodied, disengaged society. I think that that ideology has always been part of the internet. I think, was it Steve Jobs back who wrote it? There was a Time Magazine article in the ’90s about tech culture that said, we owe it all to the hippies.

    Maybe it was Stewart Brand, but it was the sense that the hippies have created the internet. I love the hippies. I have many friends who are hippies and they’re great. But I think that again, the belief in authenticity, in truth, in a lack of artifice, in resisting a society that is corrupt, all of these great, all these in the Christian tradition as well, for what it’s worth. We have a lot in common with the hippies and yet when the faith, the belief in certain kinds of authenticity or rejecting a corrupt society go so far into the self that they turn into the self as the arbitrator of what is good and pleasure and fulfillment and double for external moral strictures, that’s when you kind of create an ideology of pure disembodiment. That is what I think the internet came out of. I think it is, that is what the internet rewards a mix possible.

    Yeah, because we all have our avatars, we all have our public self presentation, which feeds back into our personal financial, professional, even erotic lives. When we think about dating sites, how more and more people meet our partners, that personal branding has now become a kind of requirement. I mean even I am a writer and I would like to sell my book and that means being funny on Twitter or trying to be funny on Twitter and getting my name out there in certain ways. There is something I think incredibly tragic about the fact that internet saturated culture means we’re this thing that was supposed to give us certain freedoms to have intimacy has actually just made us perform more for one another. I think of the contrast here between the internet I grew up with, where everyone was reaching into the ether and making friends and I was on Livejournal and a lot of us had … we didn’t use our real names.

    We were teenagers pouring out our hearts to other teenagers and fostering real human connection. I became close personal, real life friends with many people I met at that time. But I think that when the internet moved from this kind of anarchic anonymity to our real names, were associated with our pictures, were associated with our social media accounts, then suddenly the internet became about, not about finding connections on a one-on-one or small scale level where we could explore our “authentic selves” outside of the small towns that didn’t understand us. Oh, I’m from New York.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, I was going to say.

    Tara Isabella Burton: This is the stereotype of the weird kids, the weird theater kids who were bullied, who found other weird theater kids online. But I think that internet, I don’t even know if it can exist because, any longer, precisely because our social media identities, our online identities are so linked in with our social capital now. The best case scenario is you have an anonymous extra account, but then you’re always worried about it being linked back to your real account. So in a sense, maybe there was a version of this that was a freedom that was good and then it got, I don’t like saying polluted by capitalism because I think it’s just really easy to point at capitalism and be like that. That’s it. That’s the bad thing.

    I think that whatever, when a lot of people talk about capitalism in this, capitalism is a bad way, which I don’t not think is true. I actually think what people are talking about more or trying to get at is this kind of weird enchantment demonic-y worship of desire and money that the moral architecture of capitalism as a kind of engine of desire makes possible. I wish we had a word for it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I know.

    Tara Isabella Burton: Demon capitalism.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Demon capitalism I think is probably accurate. I also was kind of thinking what you were describing is the fusion of the dandy internet with the kind of James Allen bourgeois, John D. Rockefeller internet. Can we just have the dandy internet back, but there were ….

    Peter Mommsen: Instead of the small bud chopping internet

    Susannah Black Roberts: Instead of the small bud chopping internet. I do think, so one thing that I kept thinking about as you were describing, especially in the early chapters, the pressure against custom and the idea of custom being both arbitrary and constraining and bad. Again, that itself is not necessarily a new slash liberal slash bad idea. So Herodotus, I’ve been on a Greek kick lately for various reasons, but Herodotus has that bit where he imagined someone doing an experiment and bringing, I think it was Darius, he was imagining King Darius maybe bringing some Greek who burns their father when they die. That’s the way that you honor the body of the dead father and says, “how much money could I pay you to eat your father’s body instead?” The Greek says, “I would never do such a thing.” Then King Darius goes to another sort of, from his perspective, the Greek is one kind of barbarian.

    He goes to another barbarian, where their tradition is to eat the body of their father and says, “how much could I pay you to burn the body of your father instead?” That guy says, “you couldn’t pay me any amount of money to burn the body of my father. That would be incredibly disrespectful.” Herodotus is generally or often thought to be making a kind of anti-culture point there. He is doing a Margaret Mead, but not really because what he’s actually doing is he’s uncovering the idea of there’s a natural law of honoring parents that expresses itself in different ways.

    That actually I think is a kind of microcosm of the way, that we can think about what it means to do good self creation as opposed to bad. There are selves that we are and that are given to us, and there is a natural law and there is nature and there is custom as a kind of givenness and then both custom socially and then personally, our kind of artistic proclivities can kind of riff on that. But without rejecting the underlying givenness, both of nature and then of custom on top of that, is that a kind of happy ending? Does that make sense?

    Tara Isabella Burton: Yes, absolutely. Yep. I take the moderate position, I take the third way.

    Peter Mommsen: You are affirmed. You are and Herodotus both.

    Tara Isabella Burton: I am, we’re valid.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You and Herodotus are valid. We hold space for you.

    Tara Isabella Burton: Thank you. Yeah. I mean I sometimes feel like, I worry that I am not naturally a take haver or a contrarian. I think for a long time I’ve worried that I am too moderate in most of what I do, but I do think that there is a virtue, moderation is a deep, deep virtue. I think precisely because it is much sexier to be like, you know what’s amazing? Authoritarianism and not having freedom. It’s so “good guys.” It’s also amazing, it’s also very aesthetically exciting to be like, “you know what’s amazing? Doing whatever you want.” Eating the heads off of bats, writing 120 days of Sodom. Yeah. It’s not actually very sexy or exciting to be like, so you can have some dessert, but you should probably eat your vegetables and maybe not all of your vegetable-

    Susannah Black Roberts: And maybe not a bat.

    Tara Isabella Burton: Maybe don’t eat a bat. I think that the kind of slow and careful moderation that comes from the recognition that we are talking about two goods here. We are talking about the good of givenness and the good of freedom. We are not talking about freedom as a thing that gets us out of the bodily prison. We’re not talking about society as the only bulwark against humans turning into vicious animals. We’re talking about the fact that both our bodily facticity and our creative freedom are good. Discernment is often, I do think that the most political and philosophical debates at their best ought to be about the ordering of goods. You can’t have a question about the ordering of goods unless you are willing to accept that both of these are goods.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I don’t think you’re going to get much pushback against a just third way position here.

    Peter Mommsen: Not today.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Not today.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, it’s a wonderful book, Tara, and we recommend it to our listeners. I think I just found myself seeing a whole bunch of things that are in our culture today through a bit of a different lens through reading this book. I wouldn’t have connected Albrecht Dürer to OnlyFans before. Maybe that’s not fair.

    Susannah Black Roberts: He would’ve totally had an OnlyFans.

    Tara Isabella Burton: He would’ve a hundred percent had an OnlyFans, like, he practically did.

    Peter Mommsen: I had not thought of that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh man. Just imagine Albrecht Dürer during lockdown doing a special lockdown selfie project.

    Tara Isabella Burton: Oh man. All of his hair videos.

    Susannah Black Roberts: His hair … he would’ve had so many hair videos.

    Peter Mommsen: I love Albrecht Dürer. But the comment from his buddies that …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh yeah. He had great hair.

    Peter Mommsen: That he spends an incredible amount of time on his hair. How does he manage to do his normal human tasks? That was really funny.

    Tara Isabella Burton: It’s nice hair.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It was great hair. It was great. Yeah.

    Tara Isabella Burton: I mean, where’s the lie?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. So again, Tara, can you say the name of the book and tell people where they can get it?

    Tara Isabella Burton: I’m Tara Isabella Burton and my next book Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians will be published on June 27 by PublicAffairs. You can get it anywhere. Please don’t get it on Amazon, unless you’re not going to get it otherwise in which case just get it on Amazon.

    Peter Mommsen: Since we are not part of internet saturated hyper-capitalism, that was not an ad. That was just a strong recommendation from this pod.

    Contributed By taraisabellaburton Tara Isabella Burton

    Tara Isabella Burton is an author, a columnist for the Religion News Service and a contributing editor at the American Purpose.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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