Thursday, August 9, 2007

Does This Mean That A Society's Morals Can Improve?

In order to stay sane while doing the mindless portions of my job, I use my mp3 player to keep my mind occupied while my hands are busy on the keyboard. Sometimes I listen to shiurim but I like to put more intellectual attention into listening to a shiur than I am able to while working. Therefore, since I have always liked literature, I have listened to a couple of free mp3 books that I got for free online at I recently listened to Alexandre Dumas' books, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Three Musketeers. I had an observation, to be taken with a grain of salt since it assumes some similarity between the reality of the norms of French society and the picture of that society that the author portrays.

I noticed in The Count of Monte Cristo, which takes place in the first half of the nineteenth century, that ideas of religion and moral propriety were very deeply ingrained in French society in general at that time (which was current with the authorship of the book, which was in 1844). That atmosphere was in stark contrast with the moral environment portrayed in The Three Musketeers (which took place in the 1600s), which was much looser, much less formal, and things were done publicly in that world which would never have been acceptable in the world of The Count of Monte Criso.

It is apparent to me that Dumas expected his readers to be shocked by the conduct of the characters in the Musketeers book because he makes an off-hand comment to explain the difference between the readers' sensibilities and those of the characters he portrays in seventeenth century France. He briefly states that his readers should not be shocked at the behavior of some of the characters, as the morals in those days were not as strict as they were today (early 1800s)

If this general picture is somewhat reliable, then my impression is that the values and propriety improved markedly in France between the 1600s and the 1800s. Now, it seems that every year, the morals in today's society get worse. And each year, I think that we've hit the rock bottom. But things continue to get even worse. It seems like there is an inertia which makes the attainment or re-attainment of a moral society in America seem impossible. Perhaps there is hope for American society though. If the French people can do it between the 1600s and the 1800s, perhaps we in America can do it as well! (Any ideas on how this could realistically happen?)

-Dixie Yid

P.S. Here's another interesting quote from The Count of Monte Cristo.

"[T]he application of the axiom, 'Pretend to think well of yourself, and the world will think well of you,' [is] an axiom a hundred times more useful in society nowadays than that of the Greeks, 'Know thyself,' a knowledge for which, in our days, we have substituted the less difficult and more advantageous science of knowing others."

(The picture above is of Alexandre Dumas [Sr.])


Anonymous said...

It is simply a matter of the society having become more centralized in the intervening 200 years. The real lesson is how fast public morals can deteriorate. As in the USA, all it took for France was a few decades..

For the sin of the Amori has not be completed till now (Genesis 15:16)... it took Kanaanites four generations!.

Not sure that you are correct about France in 1800s. Don't read but consider Les Liaisons Dangereuses
by Pierre-Ambrois-Francois Choderlos de Laclos, 1782

DixieYid said...

I don't know if we need these books to teach us a lesson in how fast morals can deteriorate. That's something we can see every day before our eyes!

How does a more centralized society equal a more morally scrupulous society? I don't fully understanding that connection that you're making.

I'd neverheard that drasha on, "וְדוֹר רְבִיעִי, יָשׁוּבוּ הֵנָּה: כִּי לֹא-שָׁלֵם עֲו‍ֹן הָאֱמֹרִי, עַד-הֵנָּה" before.

And I certainly am not naive enough to think that France was the height of morality down to every individual in the early 1800s either. Of course, as in your example of "Dangerous Liasons," there was a lot of bad stuff going on in secret. But it wasn't openly and publicly accepted by society in general. There's something to be said when the society has the "right" values and sets the bar in the right place, even when many individuals (even royalty!) don't adhere to them.

-Dixie Yid

Neil Harris said...

Great post.