A voice for the weak and needy

The Needs of Strangers, by Michael Ignatieff. New York: Elisabeth Sifton Books/Viking. 154 pp. $16.95. What does society as a whole owe its individual members? Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian scholar who lives in London, begins by considering his relationship to the old-age pensioners he observes on his street:

They are dependent on the state, not upon me, and we are both glad of it. Yet . . . this mediation walls us off from each other. We are responsible for each other, but we are not responsible to each other.

Author of ``A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850'' and co-editor of ``Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Classical Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment,'' Ignatieff is among the select and increasingly rare breed of academically trained social thinkers who approach their subject from a humanist's rather than a social scientist's perspective.

Ignatieff frames his questions with a passion and a precision that lead us to expect a more definitive answer than he will eventually provide. But as we follow his searching and beautifully written meditation on human needs, from the figure of Lear on the heath, emblem of poor ``forked'' humanity, through St. Augustine's insistence upon placing spiritual needs before material ones, to the debates sparked by the rise of capitalism in a secular society, we begin to understand why Ignatieff's goal is not to answer questions, but to discover which questions to ask.

The sense of solidarity that makes members of a society feel obliged to attend to the basic needs of the less fortunate among them is also a limitation on the absolute freedom of each individual -- just as laws limit absolute freedom.

For, indeed, absolute freedom would be absolute savagery, a return to the pitiable, unaccommodated status of Lear on the heath, a world where the weak have no recourse against the more powerful. As Ignatieff observes, with typical eloquence:

The pathos of need, like the pathos of all purely verbal claims to the justice or mercy of another, is that need is powerless to enforce its right. It justifies an entitlement only if the powerful understand themselves to be obliged by it.

But solidarity alone (like equality and fraternity without liberty) entails the denial or at least the minimalization of individual differences, and individual differences are bound up with a need as deep as the need for bread: the need to be loved, valued, and respected for one's special qualities as a unique individual.

As Lear learns from bitter experience, love demanded as a duty or entitlement is not worth having: It must be freely given.

Modern secular society accords us the freedom to choose, but does not grant us the certainty of knowing whether or not we have chosen rightly. Such certainty abides, in the words of St. Augustine, not in the city of man but in the city of God.

Can we live without this certainty? Ignatieff's moving chapter on St. Augustine and man's desire for transcendental faith is followed by an equally moving chapter on David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher and skeptic, whose life and death seemed to demonstrate that a man might live and die virtuously without the assurances of revealed religion. When Adam Smith published an admiring account of the serenity and cheerfulness of his unswervingly agnostic friend's last days, his pamphlet on Hume's death generated more controversy than his now more famous treatise on ``The Wealth of Nations.''

With Smith and Rousseau, subjects of Ignatieff's penultimate chapter, we come to the modern world of the secular state.

For even those of us who believe, with Augustine, in the primacy of religious needs would neither wish nor expect those needs to be fulfilled by the state or in the marketplace. (The only states that promise to satisfy all needs, Ignatieff reminds us, are those that have turned out to be totalitarian dystopias.)

Between Smith's vision of a free global marketplace, where the selfish desires of the few help produce benefits for all, and Rousseau's dream of the small, self-regulating republic, which safeguards freedom by attempting to moderate the extremes of inequality, modern political thought continues to pick its way.

Ignatieff's purpose is not to choose between Augustine and Hume or to map out the best pathway between the often-conflicting counsels of Smith and Rousseau. He urges, instead, that we become aware of the language in which we talk about these things. In order for needs to be articulated, understood, and met, we must strive to find a common language for talking about them.

In this book, Ignatieff has invoked the understanding, the wisdom, and the eloquence of some of the seminal thinkers in Western tradition to help revive a sense of what we are or should be talking about when we talk about the needs of strangers.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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