The best alternative I have read to my philosophy of living takes a contemporary and secular turn which stimulates us to think anew. I believe I serve you best here by simply setting forth the position rather than by adding my replies. John Kekes, in The Art of Life (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2002), writes about the good life and gives several overlapping reasons why it is to be regarded as an art. Most of the reasons point to our lack of rational rules to determine decision when confronted with a legitimate plurality of alternatives. After setting forth these reasons, I offer a detailed summary of this important book.
- There are many forms of the good life, not just one, and there is no rule that obliges to follow any one of them.
- There are plural centers of value, where no general resolution is prescribed to legislate regarding the conflicts that may arise between them.
- One must go beyond rules on account of one’s own character and circumstances. It takes imaginative effort, self-knowledge, and realistic appraisal of one’s own context. One must select and combine personal excellences, projects, prevailing rules, and aspects of oneself. It is a creative, imaginative, individual endeavor to make something good. “The art of life requires people to take an active role in shaping their characters, circumstances, and ideals.” (245)
- Since there are innumerable ways to go wrong, the art of life is needed to develop the skill of avoiding them.
- Among the cognitive, emotional, and motivational components in an attitude, there is no legitimate way to make one component regularly dominant over others. To do so would distort life into moralism, sentimentalism, or romanticism, the triumph of the will over reason. In the face of shifting circumstances and personal differences, only reasons, not rules, can determine in particular cases which consideration should dominate.
- In the tension between morality and personal excellences, pluralism is sustained: neither always wins, and there is no general rule about how to referee conflicts.
- In a pluralistic society, a moral authority would have to be acquainted with a variety of traditions. Only then could he give counsel adapting the accepted “universal” principles of each tradition to circumstances. Authorities’ discernment is thus limited to a particular specialty, offering “truths but no truth.” (52)
- “According to the old model, a moral authority may be a lawgiver, like Moses or Solon; or a charismatic moral teacher, like the Buddha or Jesus; or a prophet who rails against our evil ways, like Jeremiah, Savanarola, or Luther; or those willing to die for what they believe is right, like Socrates, many Christian saints, or Simone Weil. We distrust them one and all because we do not share their amazing certainty that they have privileged access to the truth. We respect and perhaps admire the strength of their convictions, but we believe, in our pluralistic age, that there are many moral truths, many fine moral traditions, and many reasonable ideals of a good life. As a result, we do not accept the pronouncements of moral authorities that aim to transcend time, place, and context and speak universal truths that hold good for everyone. We do not want to have the law laid down for us, we do not want to be sheep in a flock, we do not want to be shown The Way, we do not want to be railed at, and we have a healthy skepticism of martyrdom.
The concept of art unifies what Aristotle, Thomas, and other philosophers have described as intuition or perception of particulars, good sense, cleverness in execution, and practical wisdom.
Now a detailed summary. Kekes gives a clear, well-argued, sustained, and plausible argument that there is not just one form of a good life, but many—hence the need for an art of living. In a pluralistic society, a moral authority would have to be acquainted with the variety of traditions in order to adapt accepted “universal” principles to circumstances. Authorities’ discernment is thus limited to a particular specialty, offering “truths but no truth.” (52). Many today are lost and in need of a moral authority, but the old paradigms no longer suit, with their “amazing certainty that they have privileged access to the truth” (59). He steers a course between a benumbing moralism and a relativistic individualism (129). Because of plural centers of value, Kekes does not prescribe any resolution to the conflicts that arise between them, though a degree of morality protects basic human needs and individual flourishing, and reasonableness protects from an unwise irrationalism. In addition, we may have aesthetic and personal goals or ideals. He considers it an error to make cognitive, emotional, or moral considerations overriding in any conflict. Since rules cannot determine the proper solution, we need an art of living. Kekes’s pluralistic and humanistic stand may appear more different from my own proposal than it really is. I do not posit a single ideal, but some level of responsiveness to the values implicit in the practices set forth as scientific, philosophic, spiritual, natural, artistic, and moral. With the exception of spiritual living, I doubt that Kekes would find that I constrain the reader toward an unreasonable level of attainment (in this life) in any of these domains. One difference is that my notion of the moral is and all-things-considered notion, which takes cognitive and aesthetic values into consideration, thus removing the tension between cognitive or aesthetic values and more narrowly construed moral values. For example, I am willing to consider that Bach may have been justified in extending from a couple weeks to four months his leave of absence from his employed post to travel to study with Buxtehude.
Avoids extremes that make an easy aestheticist target.
Introduction. There is a continued struggle with the everyday. Why? For most, it is not on account of religion. Maybe answers only corrode life. Many ignore the question. But it is not reasonable to avoid the question. Some do live a good life.
Personal satisfaction requires one to aim at a reasonable ideal and have good reasons to think one has done tolerably well at it. Personal excellence pertains to how (not what) activities are done; one must be in a certain way. The good life requires one to engage in personally satisfying projects in a manner that exemplifies one’s ideal of personal excellence. In addition, one needs basic morality; there are universal, social, and individual requirements. This is one reasonable way to answer the question of how to life a good life. This unitary answer embraces a variety of possibilities.
Life is art because one must go beyond rules on account of one’s own character and circumstances; it takes imaginative effort, self-knowledge, and realistic appraisal of one’s own context. One must select and combine personal excellences, projects, prevailing rules, and aspects of oneself. It is creative, imaginative, individual endeavor to make something good. Life is not a separate art work (unlike a dance, for example). It is possible to teach this art. Study exemplary lives, not to imitate them, but to realize that there are some rules, and one can learn from example. This is a limited boon, but this book will show how such decisions can be reasonable without being rule-governed. The considerations in favor of a decision are given not by reasons but by creativity and imagination.
There are reasons that challenge these proposals. There is a traditional search to specify one form of good life (in spite of disagreement). There are as well many forms of good lives, as many philosophers have recognized. Some generalizations are possible, but not a unitary account, though it is possible reasonably to judge a life (as will be argued).
Part One: Some Forms of Good Lives
Chapter 1. Self-Direction. Montaigne was outstanding at compromise in a corrupt world, and he knew not to compromise his very core. Thomas More (1478-1535) shows that it is necessary to “distinguish among our unconditional, defeasible, and loose commitments” and “form a pattern of beliefs, emotions, and motives that reflects the structure of our commitments” (25). Neither self-direction nor self-transformation are confused with self-assertion; and neither is necessary nor sufficient for a good life (36).
Chapter 2. Moral Authority. The sophron (“wise person” in ancient, religious Greece) was wise in adapting universal principles to circumstance. Authority is necessary in many relationships and systems. Moral authority is needed when important conventions decay. Consider Confucius, for example; or consider marriage. Few have the devotion which leads to the capacity to think well regarding such situations. It’s not a matter of issuing commands or making decisions, but if asked they will share how they think. A pluralistic society is less likely to find someone acquainted with the variety of acceptable traditions, so authority is limited to one’s sphere of competence—aesthetic, scientific, religious. There is an ideal of discernement. There are “truths but no truth.” It is necessary to choose one tradition. Often insight is communicated with an image; metaphors make important things manifest. Pluralism requires moral authority to validate itself in the person’s the quality of living. This does not involve imparting something to others, and is independent of rhetorical attractiveness. It involves knowledge, commitment, reflectiveness, articulateness, exemplary conduct—all of which are a matter of degree. What justification is available for a moral authority? It’s an objective matter how one conforms to the particular ideal. Many are lost and need such a moral authority. Such justification is fallible, since the authority may try to heal a traditions defects. The old paradigms of moral authorities are not for us. They are respected, but we do not agree with their “amazing certainty that they have privileged access to the truth,” especially if universal claims are given to the sheep about the Way, leading to martyrdom. Those we know whom we recognize to be [more mature or ahead of us] in something we care about are our moral authorities.
Chapter 3. Decency (again, neither necessary nor sufficient for a good life). Examples are Aristotle’s concept of civic virtue, Hume’s concept of sympathy, Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence –all show the importance of society for character.
Chapter 4. Depth. The [evils] of the human condition indicate an indifferent order which religion can’t handle. Understanding is the key to depth—a connection with truth, a possible way of understanding what is important, with cognitive, emotive, and motivational aspects. Humans are part of the natural order. Oedipus tried to control and ended up developing more depth: at Oedipus at Colonus he shows a peaceful acceptance of contingency. All is at risk. In the effort to balance the general and the particular (the first is not to be overemphasized lest it become irrelevant to the second). One must “appreciate the significance of these quite familiar facts” (not a matter of science or aesthetics), which may give some control over one’s attitude. Four of the most typical inappropriate attitudes are disengagement (impersonalism is fine for science, but lacks the evaluative dimensions of the human being), denial, exaggeration, and resignation. To avoid bitterness, embrace the one, genuine, realistic hope: to “pick up damaged pieces if possible, and go on” (106). Thus one copes as well as possible.
Chapter 5. Honor (in one’s own and others’ eyes). This is based on personal integrity. Honor is a dominant feature in the life of an honorable person, though it is neither necessary nor sufficient for a good life. For honor, loyalty is necessary. This is one of the ennabling goods for a good life (rather than a constituent good. Self-esteem for honorable people is unequal and often involves great effort, trials, and much hardship (119). Self-respect according to John Rawls involves a sense of one’s own value, the conviction that one’s conception of the good is defensible and one’s plan of life is worth carrying out—along with confidence that one can carry it out, as being within one’s own power. It engages one’s “beliefs, emotions, and motives.” [For a person who values honor greatly], betrayal leads to shattered self-esteem and moral disintegration. Universal moral laws, regardless of personal differences, are nonetheless important in many situations. Impartiality is not a virtue.
But how could I adapt these models to my life?
Lives of personal excellence may be good without having to be moral. To live a morally acceptable life is not sufficient for goodness. In a pluralistic society, there are multiple ideals, which may conflict.
What makes the successful practice of a good life possible? Some pursue an ideal and engage in projects that reflect the ideal. Some cultivate a harmony of their cognitive, emotional, and motivational sides. There are mistakes to be avoided. The conclusion? Adopt an ideal, formulate dominant attitudes, avoid errors, and satisfy a threshold of morality in universal, social, and individual terms. (This paragraph indicates the themes of the coming chapters.)
Part Two: Making Life Good
Chapter 6. The art of life. The moral vs. the aesthetic approaches—both must be combined while rejecting the extremes of benumbing moralism and relativistic individualism. Conflict arises, as Mill saw, between the right, the expedient, and the beautiful. On the one hand, there is moralism; on the other hand, one is to develop a superb individuality. Pace Kant, there are doubts about practical reason. What is the alternative to [a distorting critique of a legalistic Kant).
The case for self-creation. Aesthetics presents us with objects admirable in themselves. There are heroes, persons of honor, protesters, regardless of attendant goods. There are diverse achievements in sports, science, connoisseurship, sages. Such achievements have two attributes: (1) there are spectators who appreciate them; and (2) there is an orientation of the “artist toward the master from whom they want to learn.” There are “contingently variable individual potentialities of the people so that they could become what they want to be. According to the aesthetic approach, the art of life aims to effect this transformation. It is barely a metaphor to describe people who are thus engaged as artists who work in the medium of their own lives.” Kant and Mill show “grotesque indifference to human psychology,” for impartial, universal moral reason trumps everything that may conflict with it.
Plato’s “quarrel between philosophy and poetry” enters 18th- and 19th-century German Romanticism. For example, Nietzsche’s “God is dead” means that there is no objective truth regarding values. We are free, autonomous, and must decide—which is, at bottom, an aesthetic question. To affirm “the creating, willing, evaluating Ego,” become who you are; give style to your character.
But there are doubts about self-creation. Nietzsche exaggerates and is unsteady. Morality matters, not in the way that Kant or Plato thought, but to protect some requirements that all good lives have.” Nietzsche esteemed moral monsters (Cesare Borgia, a cruel murderer, and Napoleon, who orchestrated the slaughter of hundreds of thousands). Nietzsche: the will is the sole motivation—but what of reason, ambition, love, need, and shame?
In the tension between morality and personal excellences, neither always wins; there is no general rule. There is something universal to morality, since basic human needs are shared. There are rules to protect these needs. There is a social side to morality, which gives rules against murder; societies decide differently about other forms of killing. Societies protect some possibilities that conduce to individual flourishing. And morality has an individual side, since there are pursuits according to diverse choices with minimal interference with positive moral rules which are variably chosen and which coordinate with universal and social rules.
There is no general resolution in the art of living, but “the essential claim on behalf of the art of life is that these three conflicts [between moral and aesthetic/personal ideals] have a reasonable resolution, but what it is depends on the details of the conflicting public and private reasons” (152). In On Liberty Mill advocates a defeasible presumption in favor of letting private reasons prevail. Kant and Nietzsche are both right and both wrong (see p. 157 for the adjudication).
Chapter 7. Individual Ideals and Projects. There are diverse forms of personal excellence, none of which is prescribed by reason. One may advance toward an ideal even through failure in a cherished project. The relation of action and ideal is not that of means to end, for the action is constitutive of the ideal, and the most successful at realizing the ideals are not consciously so, and their attention is focused on projects. A cardinal moral virtue is one that is required by all good lives.
A life can be good without excellence. For personal excellence, it is not necessary to focus on the choice of an action, nor to have it based on reason, nor to control strong emotion in it (pace Aristotle). There is a specific type of object with respect to which moral virtues (but not personal excellences) respond. Personal excellence leads one to respond in a certain way, and it is more pervasive than a manner (“pedestrian, routine, imitative, common, significant, exceptional, original, ingenious; lethargically, dutifully, predictably, boringly, energetically, emotionally, provocatively, surprisingly.”) “Style” carries evaluation. One must maintain it. Self-direction, moral authority, being decent, deep, honorable: some acquire ideals by acquaintance with outstanding people (or disasters), many by literature, history, religion, philosophy, ethnography (there is no need to dismiss the West as one discovers others). Many adapt to the present by moral imagination and practical wisdom. Personal excellence is needed for psychological identity and self-esteem and for ideals and projects.
Chapter 8. The Integration of Life. The grace and triumph of an integrated life is to be evaluated according to the standards implicit in one’s ideals and projects (more outward- and future-oriented than backward- and inward-looking). An absolutist sets forth conditions that all good lives must meet.
Attitudes are bound up with evaluations and have cognitive, emotional, and motivational components. The cognitive component is based on beliefs (most of which are, one may hope, true). The art of living includes feeling well. Some emotions are wrong, but they are not to be distrusted without special reason. We have indirect control on attitudes by adjusting our beliefs. Psychoanalytically oriented views are wrong to require the examined life, consciously evaluated (rather than spontaneous) agency and responsibility.
Dominant attitudes emerge in viewing one’s life and one’s personal ideal and supreme values. Style expresses dominant attitudes, which govern one’s response to a crisis. People evaluate others according to their own ideals. Dominant attitudes may so thoroughly pervade one’s life that choice plays little role. “Living according to an ideal can be completed only by dying” (195).
Integration for lives aiming at personal excellence need more than merely compatible components. The self can be disjointed. One needs an extensive overlap of beliefs, emotions, and motives. We see fragmentation in Mill, in the rich young man with Jesus, in André Gide’s picture of the U.S.S.R. That there are forms of good life implies that there can be others and they must be filled in with detail (a job for literature, not philosophy). Projects are about what ideals we hold and how we do them. The results? A few masterpieces, much kitsch, and a great many earnest but middling products” (204).
Chapter 9. Aberrations. Moralism, sentimentalism, and romanticism err by making rationalist cognitive, universal moral reason, or emotion, or motivation overriding in any conflict. There are no rules, but there are reasons. Sentimentalism, positing the essential goodness of humans, asserts an overriding duty of equal benevolence to all in the face of “factual, practical, psychological, and moral reasons” (222). Romanticism asserts the triumph of the will over reason. Any belief, emotion, or motive can become distorting. There is no formula or blueprint for excellence. Thus one needs the art of life.
Chapter 10. Good Lives. They are moral. They have an aesthetic quality, since there is a need for creativity. One way to make life good is to practice the art of life well, and one way of doing that is to try to achieve personal excellence” (235). Nietzsche’s test for a good life was: do you want to repeat this forever? Karel Capek’s fantasy, The Makropulos Case (see the analysis by Bernard Williams) gives this reply. “Lives committed to the pursuit of some personal excellence only appear to be good because their shortness prevents us from discovering their meaninglessness” (241). They require and impossible constancy of character and aim. But the same ideal could be pursued through different projects (Capek’s protagonist collapsed the two). “The riches of an endless life could only be enjoyed by persons who have a securely established character” (244). “The art of life requires people to take an active role in shaping their characters, circumstances, and ideals” (245). There are requirements of moral acceptability and personal satisfaction. “Ideals are adopted not invented” (246). Due to the effects of genetics and upbringing, it would not be correct to say that character is something created by the individual. Circumstances are interpreted. Platonic cognitivism, Humean [emotionalism], and Kantian [voluntarism] all err. There are universal needs, but social and individual requirements are particular. “Reason requires being logically consistent, taking account of the relevant facts, trying to find the most feasible solution to the problem at hand, and remaining open to criticism” (250). In favorable conditions a reasonable life will be good. What does “reasonable” imply? “Generalizations fall short of a general account” (251). Paradigms do not define the virtue. Someone else would select another one. This is not a weakness requiring apology “but a consequence of the subject matter” (252). “It follows that there is at least one form of good life that is open-ended and hospitable to new and untried experiments in living, thus permitting the modest hope that the contingencies of life may present in the future not just dangers but also valuable possibilities” (252).
The tendency is to focus on the art of living precisely where the aspiration to gain knowledge to guide one’s life is frustrated. Where knowledge is not available to provide guidance, how shall we manage? The question tends to arise for those who lean toward skepticism. But even for those who are ready to affirm that guiding knowledge is available, and it also arises for those who are more ready to speak of knowledge or cosmic truth.