on the moral peril of cliché and what to do about it

1. It’s likely that the moral beliefs and precepts that should guide us are unoriginal. Billions of people have already thought about the same matters; it’s unlikely that any of us will hit a new theme that has merit.

2. To shun moral ideas that are clichés would mean putting oneself above duty and justice for aesthetic reasons. That is immoral. It is a form of aesthetic immoralism common in modernism and post-modernism.

3. But clichés have moral drawbacks. Because they are well-known and well-worn, they lose their psychological force; we can ignore them. (Think of a phrase like “war is hell,” and how little it influences us.) Because they sound right and are easily portable, we can apply them where they do not belong, committing Whitehead’s Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. We are especially likely to misuse them to excuse and justify ourselves, because we are fierce advocates for own cause. As George Eliot’s narrator remarks in Middlemarch, “the use of wide phrases for narrow motives” is a common human frailty. Eliot adds, “There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.”

4. The solution, I think, is to regard one’s own moral worldview not as a list of precepts (each of which will be a cliché), but as an intricate network of ideas and implications, some general and some concrete, many in tension with each other. Only the most concrete and particular elements will be original–coming directly from your own experience. The general ones will be, for the most part, clichés. But the overall structure will be unique to you and should demand your attention.

(I treat these issues at probably excessive length in Reforming the Humanities and in a longer post “on the moral dangers of cliché.”)

About Peter

Director of CIRCLE and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Rick Livingston

    Thanks for your reflections on the power of clichés and the tasks of thinking. I wonder whether the “aesthetic immoralism” you allude to isn’t the product of regarding the cliché as a matter of (literary) style, something that originality has to rise above (or look down on, in the case of Flaubert).

    In traditional contexts, the counterpart to the cliché is the proverb, and thoughtful engagement with proverbs is a practice of wisdom. I’m thinking here of how Achebe describes the use of proverbs in Things Fall Apart, as an agonistic process, a form of wrestling with words. From this perspective, the challenge becomes, how to turn the cliché to avoid falling flat.

    I’m wondering, too, about the fate of clichés in the age of Twitter.

    • PeterLevine

      I’m with you 100%.
      FWIW, my thoughts on Flaubert: http://peterlevine.ws/?p=13078
      I finally read Achebe this winter and plan to write about him. I hadn’t thought of the way proverbs function in Things Fall Apart, but it’s a great point.
      As to Twitter: I guess 140 characters can accommodate an aphorism. But cliches are a lot more common. (On the other hand, I like Twitter mainly as a source of references to longer pieces.)