In the contemporary West, the prospect of integrity evokes a unique mixture of admiration and queasiness, the latter sometimes shading into censure. Doubtless it is thought desirable not to surrender one’s convictions to the fat blandishments of comfort and ease, either by way of ingratiatingly exploitative commerce, or by flattering one’s way into diverse circles of influence and power. Yet our historical moment is also prone to find in integrity a source of danger and wrenching discord, even of violence. If the person of integrity is the person who climbs atop the barricades or endures the rack to fight monstrous injustice without compromise, she is also the one whose uncompromising commitments may belong to and perhaps produce the world of monstrous barricades and racks. This is a world that a postmodern order devoted to tolerance, global markets and integrative sociability understandably prefers to encounter virtually — on the various screens that display our collective fantasies of moral heroism, for example — rather than in reality.
At such a moment, what is the purpose and role — if any — of integrity? Is it possible that the saint and the monster are indistinguishable from one another? If they are distinguishable from one another, do they inevitably produce one another? These questions are of considerable importance for engaging with and confronting the dilemmas of our own time.
Matthew W. Maguire is an associate professor at DePaul University in Chicago (USA), and a scholar of European intellectual history. He received his doctorate from Harvard University and is the author of The Conversion of Imagination (Harvard), and is finishing a new book project entitled The Revolutions of Charles Péguy. He has also recently published an essay entitled “Pascal and Rousseau” in The Challenge of Rousseau (Cambridge).