The active life: Ways of life available to us in modernity

More reflections on my fall course at Kaos Pilots


Given the distinction between the good life and sustaining life and given also that the former furnishes us with a reason for being while the latter, on its own, can only answer the question of how to go on, it follows that someone will be wasting his life if he seeks only to secure his material needs (food, water, shelter, clothing, warmth when cold, coolness when hot, etc.) without any consideration for why he would do so apart from mere persistence in his existence. In brief, sustaining life cannot be a reason for sustaining life: this is mere tautology.

This requirement that sustaining life be an infrastructural support to the good life calls us to examine which forms of life can be defensibly higher forms of life. We can rule out from the outset any claims about status, wealth, popularity, career progression–that is to say, all bourgeois claims–on the grounds that this is merely sustaining life for the sake of sustaining life. Also out is the hedonic view according to which one is to maximize pleasures and minimize pains. Finally out is the everyday pragmatist who seeks to find the utility in all things and persons, asking always in what ways this or that will benefit him.

Hence, only the higher will do. In the last post, I wrote about three higher ways of life that are forms of the contemplative life–these being the philosophical, the religious, and the contemplatively artistic (e.g., the Way of Tea, the Way of Flowers, calligraphy, etc.).

Today, I want to cast a cursory glance over the various higher ways of life that are defensible forms of the active life. These are:

1.) Politics. — Figures — Radical, Progressive, Conservative. — Path: Uprooting, Incrementally implementing, Restoring (respectively). — Exemplar: Freeman, Reasonable person, Reverent person. — Final Aim: Justice

2.) *War. — Figure: Warrior. — Path: Victory. — Exemplar: Hero. Final Aim: Nobleness

(* denotes my uncertainty about the viability of war. The reason I include it for now is that I believe Nietzsche is onto something when he inquires, ‘What would it mean to live nobly in the modern age?’ I do not know, but the question seems to me an excellent one.)

3.) Commerce. — Figures: Social entrepreneur, Craftsman. — Path: Innovation, apprenticeship (respectively). — Exemplar: Changemaker, Master (respectively). — Final Aim: Fine.

4.) Education. — Figure: Teacher. — Path: Study. — Exemplar: Excellent teacher. — Final Aim: Character (moral and intellectual).