We have heard many opinions about Queen Elizabeth II, ranging from fawning admirers to resentful critics. For me, this range of commentary, coming out of ideological commitment is of little interest.
Ideological thinking is inherently unreasoned, therefore of little value if we wish to speak of any profound human truth. Ideological thinking is a reductive mapping of a simplified grid onto the complicated chiaroscuro of human reality. Ideology as a way of capturing human motivation is useful for the construction of economic or sociological models investigating very thinly-sliced phenomena, but ideological models are useless when trying to understand the depth of human motivations or culture.
Humans are kaleidoscopic creatures made up of every-shifting light and shadow, whereas models are cut and dry. That’s why ideological models about society, culture or politics are so brittle, for example, the twin models of neoliberal ideology or its critical marxist sibling.
For me, trying to understand a legacy is to attempt to understand how the person acted within the human context of their life, not how they fit into an ideological system or how they were a symbol within an ideology. These are brittle considerations that do not get at much human truth or understanding.
One of the ways the Queen was remarkable is that she was driven by consistent adherence to a principle of duty. Duty to family, country, humankind, God.
Duty is somewhat of an alien concept in contemporary life. So much of what motivates us is gratification or self-regard. Both of these concepts can be positive when linked to a sense of duty — one can feel gratified that one has done one’s duty; or feel an increase in one’s self-esteem when one has accomplished one’s duty. However, when pursued as individual goals, gratification and self-regard lead to inexorably to nihilism.
Thus our contemporary quandary. If one has accepted a sort of navel-gazing, self-gratifying nihilism that doesn’t hold anything sacred or in reverence, then to what can feel a sense of duty? Put another way, if everything is relative, then to what do we owe the call of duty?
This is not a trivial problem.
The Queen presents an interesting case study because she served God, family and country. She felt a Christian duty to live her life interpreting a certain set of moral principles, motivated by the doctrine of love and forgiveness, which underly Christian wisdom and faith. Personally, I am motivated by a similar faith and wisdom, although I belong to a different Christian grouping, Roman Catholicism.
However, let’s say you aren’t religious. To whom or to what do you owe a feeling of duty? You can feel a sense of duty to country, to tradition or to family. Importantly, duty should be to something to which you have a deep emotional connection, a human connection, a profound intuitive understanding. You feel a sense of duty because you feel a human sense of closeness.
That feeling of duty transcends petty personal grievance or minor personal discomfort. It should take a lot to break your feeling of duty, because duty involves a lot of forgiveness – if your brother does something stupid or petty, do you immediately stop feeling a sense of duty toward him? No. It is your duty as a family member to protect him, despite his poor choices. Why? Because as humans, we feel a strong sense of duty to our kin. Let’s say your sister chooses a political ideology that you disagree with. Do you forsake her? Unlikely. You will likely still feel a sense of duty that transcends your political differences, however wide.
This is an interesting concept, worthy of more thought, but this post is getting long.
So there you have it, duty is a useful concept that more of us should dust off and start applying.
We’d probably be much happier and more content if we did. Having a sense of duty provides structure and meaning to life. In that, the Queen set a great example for us all.