Tag Archives: eudaimonia

On Being Cultured

21 Mar

Most anyone with any interest in a public life these days dedicates themselves to the pursuit of justice or freedom or equity. These things, while valuable, are fraught with questions over how to achieve them or how they look in practice, and it’s not uncommon to find them in contradiction. The less publicly minded may aspire to something like happiness, if not something even more crass like fame or riches, and while happiness is lovely, it runs the risk of being a short-term, vapid interest that neglects a longer view of life, and what yields a sense of fulfillment. For that more measured perspective, I often find myself turning to some fairly highbrow traditionalist, if not straight-up conservative, publications: this is where one finds much more originality of thought—or, rather, a revival of thought that doesn’t get nearly enough mainstream airing today. Perhaps it’s because this tradition, at its best, aspires to knowledge for its own sake, not merely in convenient pursuit of some agenda.

Enter Joseph Epstein, an American man of letters, who, in last week’s Weekly Standard, helps explain why this is an intellectual tradition where I feel like I’m at home. The man is an absolute quote machine, so I’m going to pull from it at length, but I recommend the whole thing.

Epsetin’s piece is an unabashed defense of elitism. This doesn’t mean aristocratic snobbery, necessarily; instead, it means the pursuit of excellence, tracking down the best of everything that the world has produced to date, and placing some faith in the other insightful people down the ages as fellow travelers. The goal, he says, is to become “cultured.” This doesn’t quite mean reading all of a certain group of writers or collecting a certain litany of facts, but instead means coming to embrace a certain pursuit of knowledge within a historical context, seeing how it all fits together and thereby creates meaning. At the same time, this pursuit requires the humility to acknowledge that there is always more to learn, always more to explore, and that learning more only opens up more unknowns beyond. Socrates was the wisest man on earth because he knew how much he didn’t know.

When properly undertaken, the pursuit of excellence doesn’t inflame the ego, but instead knocks down certainties or claims of ownership. Epstein quotes Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, in which one man comments on the soup another has made: “I am not deprecating your talent, Joseph, but, when one thinks of it, a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.” Culture acknowledges the debts we incur over history, and how it all feeds into a long-lasting tradition.

Culture means complexity. It means answers don’t always present themselves readily, and a willingness to admit that one may not have all the answers. Epstein again:

I have never quite been able to shake the capping remark made by V. S. Naipaul on a character in his novel Guerrillas: “She had a great many opinions, but taken together they did not add up to a point of view.” Culture, true culture, helps form complex points of view.

Some years ago, the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott was asked what he thought of England’s entering the European Union. “I don’t see,” he answered, “why I should be required to have an opinion about that.” An extraordinary thing for a contemporary political philosopher to say, or so I thought at the time. But later, reading Oakeshott’s Notebooks, I came across two interesting passages that made clear the grounds on which he said it: First, “To be educated is to know how much one wishes to know & to have the courage not to be tempted beyond this limit.” And second, that culture “teaches that there is much one does not want to know.” I wonder if, in the current age, our so-called Information Age, recognizing “what one doesn’t want to know” isn’t among the greatest gifts that the acquisition of culture can bestow.

This is a real struggle: it’s so easy to consume information to no apparent end, and I’m also someone who feels shortchanged, perhaps even somewhat betrayed, if I don’t have the full story behind some things. Drawing limits like this is no easy task. I’m also not one of the cultural vegans that Epstein describes; I have my fondness for certain types of culture that no one would really define as highbrow, and would defend that staunchly. But even then, I can usually fit it in to a vision for a rounded sense of self, even for developing that sense of complexity that comes with culture.

Through it all, though, we can’t forget to step back and look toward the higher goal that drives day-to-day tasks, large and small. Epstein quotes Matthew Arnold:

[T]here are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity about their best self, with a bent for seeing things as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery…for the pursuit, in a word, of perfection…And this bent always tends…to take them out of their class, and to make their distinguishing characteristic not their [social origins, wealth, or status], but their humanity.

We won’t necessarily make it, but it’s still worth trying. In this world, at least, I can’t think of anything greater to aim for.

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Memories on the Moraine

26 Dec

I’ve made my annual Christmas road trip across Wisconsin, to the rolling hills on Milwaukee’s exurban fringe. Here, I spend time with my grandmother, who soldiers on in a decaying old house, and my uncle, who now has eight cats living with him in the garage. (They’ve got nothing on their neighbors, who burn sticks and toss rocks about to learn what the spirits are telling them.) We peck at the vats of food as we stomach and exchange basic pleasantries, and I go for long runs up and down the Kettle Moraine, off to an old stone church in Saint Lawrence, resolute as this little crossroads of a town fades away. My dad and I retreat to a hotel before we get too deep into the sentimental goo of It’s a Wonderful Life, and I’m left clattering away on this keyboard in the dark when the internet fails yet again.

The life I live day-to-day is distant from rural Wisconsin, but I have roots here. I also have roots in a city with Rust Belt memories, even if my own childhood was fairly isolated from them; not far to the north of Duluth lie towns where the mines are once again in dire straits. This isn’t really my story, but it’s always been peripheral to it. I grew up on an island of relative comfort, surrounded by an America that looks nothing like the yuppie cities or affluent suburbs that were homes to most of my current friends, and could well define my own future. But I can’t avert my eyes from these places, which come to define more and more of the American experience. There are stories here, stories worth telling and passing down, and a tale of decline has its own tragic bent with real psychological implications. As I sit in a slumped chair coated in cat hair and delve into George Packer’s The Unwinding, it’s not hard to draw connections between foreclosures and dying industrial cities and the story of a family on a little Wisconsin farm.

Philosophically, I’m a child of reluctant modernists, from Hannah Arendt to Octavio Paz; people who never ceased to see flaws in modernity, but recognized that they had little other choice. They see all the flaws in placing faith in rationality, whether it purports to run an efficient economic market or benevolent government work. At the end of a year that was a rousing success personally, it’s hard not to look at the tumult about and feel justified in this pessimism about national or global solutions. Despite an ego the size of a small state, this is why I’ve never felt comfortable chasing a traditional road to status. I may yet find my way there, but it won’t be without reservations and escape routes. I lack the necessary trust.

There’s a certain fatalism here; an intimacy with death, and an appreciation for how fleeting our windows of joy may be. I can appreciate aesthetics and revel in certain creature comforts; I eat well and drink well and value few things as much as a journey to some exotic locale. But while they refresh and inspire, they are forever in the shadow of something more profound. An appreciation for loss makes one realize how valuable it is to keep ties going, how much we cannot whitewash the past. This is why I go back to Wisconsin at least once a year. Memory runs too deep, and I cannot swear off a part of who I am.

It is just one part, though, and I’m no slave to memory. I must channel it, and even if I can’t make it all right, I can at least draw inspiration. Perhaps the whole premise of these cozy middle class lives missed something. No, comfort alone won’t quite do: I need more. I’m still working out what this fresh channel for ambition means, and naturally, it will never abandon its roots. But there’s a newfound energy in these runs up and down these hills, one that wasn’t here when I wrote my first sad elegy in this same bland hotel four years ago. The project born that night is starting to come full circle.

So this Christmas season, I’ll offer up something other than a clichéd wish for peace: a wish for continued pursuit of excellence, in all that we do. We don’t have much time; before long, it’ll all be memory. Time to get to work.

Where My Demons Hide

16 Nov

“If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

—Rilke

During my series on Dead Greek People, I tried to avoid using Greek words or an overload of philosophical jargon. That’s usually a good way to get people to ignore what you’re saying. There is one word, however, that I think deserves a little exploration. That word is eudaimonia.

This is Aristotle’s word for…something good. No one has ever really found a satisfactory translation. It means “happiness” or “welfare” or “human flourishing,” or something along those lines. It’s hard to know exactly what it is, but it sure sounds like something that would be nice to have, though. It makes sense that Aristotle would make this thing the end goal of all human life; the state to which we all aspire.

But let’s take an even closer look at the word. Take a look at the word sandwiched in between the two vowels on either end of it. Daimon. That’s right: demon. At the center of Aristotle’s good life, one finds demons.

To be sure, these aren’t demons the sort of demons we normally hear about today, with the possible exception of the “daemons” in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. They’re not horned creatures running around causing mischief, and they aren’t necessarily evil. A better translation of “daimonic” into modern English would be “spiritedness,” or something like that.

Still, the daimon is dangerous. There’s no room for apathy in it. It has the power to take over people and consume them. It is an urge that rebels against any form of submission, and seeks to assert and perpetuate itself at every turn.

Our old friends Socrates and Plato and Aristotle saw the dangers in that drive, but they never advocated its repression. Plato called it a form of “divine madness,” a natural force that went beyond good and evil that was at the center of each person’s individuality—both the good and the bad.

To frame these daimons in modern terms, we turn not to a Dead Greek Person, but to a Dead American Person who knew a lot about them. His name is Rollo May, and he has the rather grandiose title of “existential psychoanalyst.”

May’s seminal work is entitled Love and Will, and it is one of the more compelling attempts ever made to make sense of the malaises of modernity. Rather than pretending these drives don’t exist or trying to cover them up, he advocates confronting them head-on, and trying to live in accordance with them. This isn’t easy, of course, and requires a lot of support. But they can be harnessed, and that is exactly what May calls for. And while there are probably many demons, named and unnamed, May focuses on one: Eros.

Eros, mind you, is not straight-up eroticism—though it can certainly entail it. It’s a bit more complicated. It’s a force that pulls people outward, animates them, keeps them dreaming and aspiring for more. In the ancient Greek myths, Eros was the child of Ares and Aphrodite, both warlike and beautiful, but willing to assert itself. Erotic love can consume people, but it’s also a force that makes life worth living, its risks always worth taking.

Since incredibly good sex doesn’t come around every day, it can be tough to find outlets for one’s Eros. May looks to art as an obvious means; he also says that writing “comes from maladjustment to life,” and while this raises some awkward questions for those of us who like to write, I think there’s something to that. Some of us just cannot stop thinking and always have to sit about trying to understand things, often getting lost in the mire. If you’re not one of those people, I envy you, though at the same time, I can’t imagine things being any other way. May doesn’t mention this, but I would argue that sports and physical activity can also be a very good channel for that inner spiritedness. They allow for controlled aggression and set off all sorts of hormones that satisfy some of the more primal human urges without causing great harm to other people.

Whichever form it takes, the important thing is that Eros not be repressed. This, May insists, only causes lots of problems later on, as the demon comes to control people, exploding in sudden, ugly fits. The opposite of love, he writes in his most famous line, is not hate: it is apathy. People who suppress their urges do not learn how to harness their will, and are in turn compulsive and neurotic, perhaps even to the point of self-destruction.

On this blog, I’ve made a big deal out of detachment. There is, however, a danger of detachment drifting over into apathy. The key, then, is in placing that detachment into the service of Eros. I stay detached not because I don’t care—quite the contrary. It’s very important to me that I get things right, and I think every possibility has to be explored to get there. That, I suppose, is how the patient cycle is supposed to work.

Image of Rollo May from http://www.listal.com/viewimage/3006433h.