Sustaining life is not the good life

I write this post after spending time this morning contemplating the nature of things. This post is not a ‘product’ of that contemplation.


In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor has some remarkable things to say about the disappearance of the higher forms of the good life during the passage to modernity. He argues that the life of contemplation as well as that of civic participation were replaced, for the most part, by the ‘affirmation of ordinary life.’ What is distinctive about modernity is not just that for the first time in human history individuals have come to affirm the spheres of production (work) and reproduction (family) but also that ‘the good’ has come to be regarded as manifesting itself fully through work and family. Once we are alerted to this strangeness, we cannot but feel bewildered.

I do not think this move toward the affirmation of ordinary life is warranted, and the reason is that it seems to me a form of ‘passive nihilism’: it can answer the question, ‘How to go on living?,’ yet it cannot possibly furnish an answer, let alone acknowledge the question, ‘What is a reason for living?’ Sustaining life is not identical with leading a good life.

My negative thesis is that the affirmation of ordinary life amounts to passive nihilism. My positive thesis is that a philosophical version of a gift economy recuperates the proper relationship between life and the good life, the lower and the higher, the material and the intelligible.

Let us see how this two-part argument unfolds.


I cite Taylor first:

‘Ordinary life’ [he writes] is a term of art I introduce to designate those aspects of human life concerned with production and reproduction, that is, labour, the making of the things needed for life, and our life as sexual beings, including marriage and the family. When Aristotle spoke of the ends of political association being “life and the good life” (zen kai euzen), this was the range of things he wanted to encompass in the first of these terms; basically they englobe what we need to do to continue and renew life.

For Aristotle the maintenance of these activities was to be distinguished from the pursuit of the good life. They are, of course, necessary to the good life, but they play an infrastructural role in relation to it. You can’t pursue the good life without pursuing life. But an existence dedicated to this latter goal alone is not a fully human one…. The proper life for humans builds on this infrastructure a series of activities which are concerned with the good life: men deliberate about moral excellence, they contemplate the order of things; of supreme importance for politics, they deliberate together about the common good, and decide how to shape and apply the laws. (Sources of the Self, pp. 211-12)

So, the classic account of the good life identifies the latter either with contemplation, civic participation, or some mixture of both.

(In what follows, I do no consider civic participation in the polis or the republic. On some days, I lean toward revolutionary Aristotelianism (political community, existing on the local and small-scale, is actualized through citizens’ furthering the common good); on other days, toward a certain laissez-faire Daoism (political society existing chiefly for the purpose of making possible, as well as maintaining the pursuit of, the contemplative life).)

What happens once the good life, formerly identified with contemplation of the order of things, is lost sight of? How, if at all, is it improperly reintroduced?


Negating. When the contemplative life is negated, then what emerges in the modern world are forms of hedonism, utilitarianism, and bourgeois accommodation. Some will seek to maximize the pleasures of the senses (food, drink, travel, sex0, others will advocate that we all pursue the most pleasant and least pain overall (government bureaucrats, so to speak), while others will relish the moderate pleasures of having a comfortable home, a convenient job, and a well-behaved family (the bourgeois dispensation).

All three are reducible to passive nihilism, however, for none can supply one with a reason for living, only a means of sustaining life. To this extent, we are speaking of conatus, as it were, only–the maintenance and continuation of life for the sake of life. (Sustainability studies builds this error into its self-understanding.)

Divorcing. The second strategy is to reintroduce the contemplative in the narrow version of the meditative and then to posit the meditative in the ‘place’ of the ‘spiritual retreat.’ One spends a week at a spa or spiritual retreat, a time in silence, only to return to life–that is, to production and reproduction–after the week is over.

Problematically, once the relationship between good life and life are thus severed and separated, hived off into different spheres, then the person is also and cannot but be severed and separated. Unable to connection life with the good life, this person will always be self-divided and overcome by vacillation. Hence, no possibility of self-integration.

Instrumentalizing. According to this strategy, one reintroduces the contemplative for the sake of life. Bizarrely, one meditates because one thinks it will bring about or restore health, because it promises to make him more productive, or because it holds out the hope of making her into a better parent. So, the ‘meditation consultant’ goes into the office and teaches employees how to use mindfulness meditation to communicate more effectively in order to (ultimately) be more productive. So, the father reads up about positive visualization techniques in order to be a better father. And so on.

Properly understood, the contemplative life cannot be put into the hands of instrumental control. It is not the servant of life. This is because it is sui generis.

Thus, the good life cannot be removed from human life without doing away with having a reason for living; it cannot be divorced from ordinary life without leaving us self-divided; and it cannot be made into an instrument without ‘gutting’ it of its spirit, its very essence.


How, then, can life and the good life be properly reintroduced to each other? In this final section, I make a case for my positive thesis.

A philosophical version of a gift economy seeks, to begin with, to recuperate ‘levels of reality’: the lower and the higher, the less real and the more real. A philosophical conversation participates in the higher whereas a gift contribution that helps to meet my material needs participates in the lower. And life is only, yet importantly, ‘infrastructurally’ related to the good life.

One could picture a schema with the gift economy in the lower region (the lower plane), philosophical life in the upper region (the higher plane), and an arrow pointing from lower to higher. First of all, gifts circulating in the gift economy do nothing more than satisfy the material needs for living. But, second of all, they also make possible having philosophical conversations, thinking contemplatively, and the rest that constitute the contemplative version of the good life. Thirdly, the kinds of philosophical conversations I have with conversation partners and philosophical friends are sui generis. That is, they are unto themselves, and they go beyond the bounds of the measurable or calcuble. Here, we seek to be put ourselves in touch with the good and the beautiful. Afterward, a conversation partner or philosophical friend offers a gift contribution out of gratitude in order to continue life in order to continue to make possible philosophical life. He does not mistake the lower for the higher.

True, then, no philosophical life without life. Yet life is not structured to advance life per se, only to further (in an auxiliary sort of way) philosophical life in which the good and the beautiful shine forth clearly.