The contemplative life: Three ways of life available to us in modernity

The title of my fall course at Kaos Pilots is ‘The Good Life and Sustaining Life.’ I want to think further about the sorts of things I’ll be teaching.

Five things can be said immediately about this relationship. First, each is sui generis: the good life is unto itself, sustaining life unto itself. Second, the good life is logically prior to sustaining life: the question of what it means to lead a flourishing life must come before that of what it means to sustain human life. Third, the good life is and must be higher than sustaining life in our table of values. Fourth, sustaining life provides ‘infrastructural support’ for the good life. That is, the good life is ontologically independent of bare life yet is also materially dependent on some viable model for making a living. And fifth, how one makes a living must be ‘consonant with’ or ‘in tune with’ how one seeks to live flourishingly.

Some obvious implications:

  • There is no sense in speaking of sustainability or of perdurance unless and until we have sufficient reason for doing so.
  • Most forms of life are instances of ‘passive nihilism’: a life that goes on and is supported in its going on yet without any higher reason for its existing.
  • Ruled out from any serious consideration are the gross acquisition of wealth, the desire for status or popularity, the securing of creaturely comforts, the maximization of efficiency, the desire for greater productivity. These–confusing the ‘two levels’–cannot count as possible candidates for the good life.
  • There is no sense to be made (e.g.) of being an investment banker on the weekday and going to a silent retreat on the weekend. That falls afoul of the five consideration above.

Now, there are two orientations of the good life: the contemplative life and the active life. Now, suppose we were to begin our inquiry into the good life with some basic considerations of the contemplative life. What ways of life are available to us? I count only three:

1.) Philosophy. —  Path of self-understanding. — Exemplary figure: the sage. — Final aim: Wisdom.

2.) Religion. — Apophatic or ascending path. — Exemplary figure: Holy man. — Final aim: Communion.

3.) Art (as a way of life). — Path of concentration. — Exemplary figure: Beautiful soul. — Final aim: Beauty.

In the next post, I shall have to consider viable candidates for the active life.