Today, I came across these words attributed to Sir Thomas Moore in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. They took me back and I found myself thinking about modern identity. The quote, while not directly from Moore, embodies very closely a Thomist attitude on identity predicted on virtue and honesty. It’s a perspective very alien to modernity but also one that, I believe, should be reexamined in the digital age.
In the modern world we are materialists and, as such, person-hood is the body. Moreover, identity is comprised of the groups to which we belong: Gay, straight, black, white, Asian, Democrat, or Republican. Opinions, as well as principles, are malleable. Even ethical systems serve more to identify the groups to which we belong rather than define an explicit code of conduct. Our reputations (and subsequently information collected about us) is, in this sense, almost ancillary to who we really are. It is a by-product, not the arbiter, of our identities.
There is much to be said for the modern perspective. It certainly has given us a more easy-going attitude towards minor indiscretions. But has it made us better people? I remember homilies about gossip. Perhaps these embodied an old-fashioned perspective, but it seemed that destroying another’s reputation was worse than theft; possibly even worse than murder. Such a notions certainly seems quaint now. Even politicians discovered breaking their vows are able to quickly rehabilitate their careers and I certainly can’t imagine anyone in our modern era going to death over the wording of an oath. Modernity perhaps offers a more tolerant perspective, but there is something that seems truer about Moore’s attitude.
In the Thomist view a man is the sum of their actions. They are their word. They are their reputation. In a modern sense, we might say that a person is his own data. If contemporary individuals took the same perspective as Moore, they might be much less cavalier about their relationship to Facebook and Google mail. I shudder to think what would happen if we viewed modern social data the same way Moore viewed taking an oath. But there something aspirational in thinking that, in the future, individuals might take responsibility for their data the same way gentlemen in the past took ownership of his word and reputation.