A beautiful soul in a beautiful world: Toward a better understanding of sustainability

On my run yesterday, I dreamed up the title of the informal talk I’ll be giving at the Future Perfect Festival to be held in Stockholm at the end of August. It is: “A Beautiful Soul in the Beautiful World: Toward a Better Understanding of Sustainability.”

It may seem a non-starter for a festival on sustainability, one attended by urban designers, architects, business leaders, and economists, to insist that beauty be the point of departure for a discussion of sustainability, but so be it. So be it.

How might this talk go? To begin with, I may be examining whether speaking about sustainability in terms of measurable quantities–natural resources to be depleted or maintained–or in terms of the ‘health’ of the planet–a healthy ecosystem, a ‘sick’ planet–is leading us astray. In addition, I may be wondering whether the concepts of an ‘issue’ (to be addressed), an ‘agenda’ (items to be put on and then checked off), a ‘problem’ (to be solved or fixed) are the right concepts for a sustainable collective way of life. I doubt whether these general conceptual frameworks are the right ones and I will be urging that beauty is a better one.

Here I turn to my hobby horse: the virtues. Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, in After Virtue, that we moderns are living “after the virtues.” He means “after the loss of the Aristotelian virtues.” This seems right yet partial. I think I want to argue that each epoch valorizes a particular set of virtues. The Homeric warrior ethic valorized manly virtue and a life of glory. The Christian medieval ethic held that the good life was lived according to humility, chastity, and fidelity. An aristocratic ethic, evident still in a novel like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, exonerated nobility, honor, and gentility. And so on.

It seems reasonable to claim that the modern world upholds the virtues of the market: prudence, resolution, industry, discipline, among others. Now, if we are indeed inculcated in the virtues of the market, then perhaps our conceptions of sustainability (scarce resources on the one hand, health or sickness on the other) are already ‘infected’ by our admiration of these virtues. Perhaps this is right.

So I want to say that all this–the whole thing, I mean–is a non-starter for talking about sustainability. And I want to return us to a far simpler understanding in which we seek to live according to nature. “Living according to nature” was a formula that Epicureans, Daoists, Stoics, Cynics, and others all subscribed to.

Well, and now I want to introduce the beautiful soul as a being who lives according to nature. Specifically, a beautiful soul is a person who has achieved a harmony of the salient virtues. This definition needs to be analyzed.

First, I’ll be exploring what these salient virtues are. They may include openness, compassion, courage, patience, humility, and impartiality. (I’m not sure, as of yet, about the precise list of the salient virtues.)

Second, I’ll want to say something about what it means to exercise these salient virtues, as opposed, say, to the Homeric virtues or market virtues or whatever. What kind of life is this anyway? I’ll try to make this way of being perspicuous.

Third, I’ll want to show that a beautiful soul has achieved a harmony of these virtues and I suppose I owe the listener a few words about the concept of harmony.

I’m hoping that what will ‘fall out’ of this account of the beautiful soul is a novel conception of sustainability. Am I warranted in concluding that a beautiful soul just is someone who lives a sustainable life as a matter of course? I don’t know.

Enough first musings for now.