St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
“Questions of Value, Session 4”
An In-Depth Discussion Led by Wayne Harper
Sunday, October 10, 2010
* NOTE: The materials offered were borrowed and adapted for our use from two primary sources: ‘Questions of Value’ taught by Patrick Grim and ‘The Quest for Meaning: Value, Ethics, and the Modern Experience’ taught by Robert Kane. Both are courses produced by The Teaching Company.
Questions of Value*
The Good Life
What make a life a good life? Theories of the good life traditionally advanced by the most influential philosophers can be boiled down to four.
· Contemplative Life. Aristotle, in his conception of the contemplative life, takes a page from the Socratic maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living. A contemplative life assigns a high priority to introspection and deep reflection.
· Active Life. The same Aristotle – along with numerous subsequent philosophers, some Stoic, some medieval – will offer the active life, which is lived, not just thought about, as the right sort of life.
> Fundamental to both the contemplative life and active life is Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia. Often translated as ‘happiness’, eudaimonia is best understood as ‘flourishing’.
> According to Aristotle a flourishing life is ‘perfectionist’; referring to a lifelong striving to improve oneself in essentially moral ways.
· Fatalistic Life. To live the good life is to be extremely lucky. Resignation is an essential property in the good life. The good life is just coming to grips with inevitabilities and being realistic about one’s chances. Life owes us nothing. Enjoy the highs, endure the lows. Existentialism anyone?
· Hedonistic Life. The true hedonist is not out for any and all pleasure. Too much pleasure can be painful. The goal of a hedonistic life is tranquility.
o Thomas Hobbes was in this camp. Hobbes held that we move toward what we want and away from what we fear or dislike. It is the fear of a violent death that moves us to enter civil society.
Question: Any other ‘forms of life’ come to mind?
Question: Suppose you possessed a magic ring. Turn the ring one direction and you disappear, turn it back and you reappear. Describe your invisible life. Different?
Lives to Envy, Lives to Admire
Most of us want to live a good life. Many strive; some claim to succeed. OK, what constitutes such a life? A good life may be enviable; that is to say, good ‘from the inside’ or ‘good for its bearer’. An enviable life is the life we might wish for ourselves or our children. Alternatively, a good life may be admirable in the sense of being a life of value beyond the individual. We can see examples of both every day, all around us.
Admit it; there are lives we envy. One kind of enviable life might be a life of adventure, accomplishment and recognition. Consider the lives of Peyton Manning, Oprah Winfrey, Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, or the late composer Leonard Bernstein. An enviable life would include abundant measures of freedom, love, health, wealth, and wisdom. And let’s not forget ‘happiness’. The enviable life – a life to be prized – just might be a very good life.
There are also lives we admire – lives of self-sacrifice and dedication, lives well spent. The lives of Lincoln, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King come to mind. The life of Jesus would top the list. Though admirable, we seldom envy the living of such lives. Why? Well, typically they endure hardships and often end poorly. The distinction is clear. The admirable life – a life to be praised – is also a very good life, albeit radically different.
Question: ‘It gives me joy’ says the saint. ‘It’s just my job’ says the hero. So, what sort of life do the saints and heroes choose?
Our pursuit of a good life would appear to come down to making a choice between an enviable or admirable life. But it’s not that simple. The enviable life includes genuinely good things. The admirable life is a ‘life of virtue’ worthy of clear recognition with praise. Furthermore, a life without elements of the admirable – for example, a life devoted solely to sensory pleasure – could not be fully enviable. Such a life would be merely the life of a supreme spectator. So it is not unreasonable to conclude that a good life must be a ‘mixed life’: it must contain both enviable and admirable elements.
Question: Who’s pulled it off? Who in your opinion has lived (or is living) a good life; a life to be both envied and admired?
Consider the life of Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) – German charitative worker, Nobel Peace Prize laureate (1952), theologian, philosopher, organist, musicologist. A good candidate to be sure, but note that fame or noteriety does not always attend a good life. Many good lives never make the headlines. Many qualify as ‘role models’. Any examples come to mind?
Question: OK. Where does Tiger Woods fit?
We may want it both ways, but can we have it both ways? The pretty picture of a ‘mixed life’ may be too good to be true. Imagine such a mixed life with the admirable at its core and the enviable at its periphery. At the outset, this arrangement leads to conflict as to where to draw the line between each. Suppose you decide to allocate weekdays pursuing the admirable life, and weekends and holidays in pursuit of the enviable life. Why draw the line there? Suppose your neighbor needs help. Do you check the calendar?
There’s a tension. The spirit that drives the admirable life will be compelled to draw the line farther and farther out towards the periphery. This is because the admirable life demands and usually deserves priority over the enviable life. The mixed life is therefore unstable. We want the enviable life because it’s good, we like it, and we earned it. At the same time (our own basic needs sufficiently met) we want to give back; help others perhaps less fortunate, or make a difference in the world. We are pulled in different directions. Paradoxically, the ‘best’ life to live – in pursuit of a good life – will be one of continual struggle. Perhaps not what you wanted to hear.
We come to realize an admirable life may flourish, but only at the expense of the enviable life. Moreover, the pressure to heed the ‘call’ of the admirable life never ceases. Like the saint and hero, must we go above and beyond the call of duty? This tension, this pressure often leads a thoughtful person to guilt and despair.
Question: Is there a remedy available to ease such guilt and despair? How might Jesus respond?