‘Beauty of soul, according to nature’: A short course at Schumacher College

I have been invited by Schumacher College, which offers “transformative courses for sustainable living,” to teach a short course in November 2013. The following is my first attempt to make out what the course will be about.

Philosophical Background

Ancient philosophers held that a good life was one lived according to nature. Notably, ‘according to’ carries a stronger sense than legal compliance or behavioral conformity; a more intimate sense than logical consistency or pure rational assent. It involves living one’s life in such a way as to be in harmony with or generally attuned to nature; to bring one’s life into complete agreement with nature’s ways; perhaps, in some cases, to yearn to restore a sense of unity that has been lost between human beings and the natural world. As my friend David E. Cooper has argued in Convergence With Nature: A Daoist Perspective (2012), the key to the Daoists’ account of a good life is that a person cultivate a set of virtues or excellences (de) that accord with nature’s course (dao).

Throughout the week, I wish to make clearer the relationship between a particular kind of admirable person (namely, a beautiful soul) and a metaphysical picture of reality (a course, a Way).

Course Description

In this course, ‘Beauty of Soul, According to Nature,’ our subject matter is beauty of soul, a subject introduced by Plato and famously discussed by Plotinus. Our manner of proceeding throughout the week will be through philosophical inquiry. Our aim, however, is not to become better informed about a certain conception known as beauty of soul (or whatever) but rather how, through practicing the art of inquiry, we can be put on the path to becoming beautiful souls ourselves.

The term, ‘beauty of soul,’ is intended to highlight the split between the good and the beautiful evident in the modern world as well as to bring the two back together. Quite recently in ‘Beauty of Soul: A Conversation’ (forthcoming, 2013), my friend David and I spoke about this connection. A beautiful soul, we said, is an individual who has achieved a harmony of virtues such as humility, patience, and openness, and who exhibits beauty in his or her appreciation of beauty. In this week-long course, I would like to explore further how cultivating beauty of soul requires a certain convergence with nature. How might a greater and more sensitive understanding of our various conceptions of nature–as source of all that exists, as the name for transient beings that come into and go out of existence, as the world that knits together transient beings, and so forth–be necessary for a person who longs to achieve harmony and tranquility of mind and effortless, graceful action?

The Nature of Philosophical Inquiry

We will need to understand more fully what is this mode of inquiry that I call philosophical. Each philosophical inquiry is about some subject matter but is also ‘of’ itself. That is, an inquiry about courage must also and at the same time be an embodiment of, or performance in, courage–perhaps the courage to follow a dangerous line of thought through to the end in spite of one’s uncertainty concerning what could come next or this might mean. Similarly, an inquiry about attentiveness must also be an exercise in being attentive (e.g., to the tenor of the other’s voice, to the hues of the birdsong). In which case, learning how to inquire, in a philosophical manner, about something you care about invokes the virtues that make undertaking this inquiry possible in the first place and that sustain it along its course.

In this course, we will thus have to inquire into what virtues make a beautiful soul beautiful. Some candidates could include openness, compassion, courage, patience, and humility. These may or may not be the right ones, and there may or may not be others in need of elucidation.

Excursus: Gracefulness and Aggression

I want to say that gracefulness–or maybe gracefulness together with a light sense of humor–is the demeanor of a beautiful soul. The beautiful soul acts gracefully and cultivates gracefulness. However, one question that has emerged in various conversations with philosophical friends has been whether my understanding of beauty of soul (or, what is the same thing, radiance) can allow for moments of disruption and cases in which aggression may be warranted. If beauty showing forth in goodness is the main orientation for this person’s life, then where might one put the sublime, the disruptive force of confusion, the times of struggle and despair? And isn’t the right emotional response to be angry when one is faced with injustice, to be properly aggressive with one’s lover when one is sexually aroused?

This is a good question we may consider at some length this week.

Spiritual Exercises

How might the week go? It should consist of spiritual exercises. Pierre Hadot writes that spiritual exercises are modalities whose end is to transform our perception of the world. I provide examples of spiritual exercises in this post. I take it that philosophical inquiries consist of any number of spiritual exercises.

During the five days we spend together, I anticipate undertaking inquiries in the following ways: going on nature walks, performing sitting and walking meditations, writing love letters, reading short passages from the Daodejing and from Plato’s Symposium, undertaking individual inquiries in front of the group, learning to speak directly and earnestly, learning to eat mindfully and contemplatively. And yet, even if there needs to be some idea of what we might do before the week begins, I tend toward the unrehearsed, the unrecited, the improvised for reasons I give here.

(For me, this post is a meditation, a spiritual exercise in ‘what it is like to…’)