The Good Life and Sustaining Life: An Inquiry into Our Great Vexation (An excerpt)

Preface: Our Great Vexation

There may be no greater vexation in our time than the question of how to make a living in a manner that accords with leading a good life. Laypersons may evade the question merely by closing their eyes and keeping their heads down; doing so involves the great effort of remaining blindly unthinking. For the thinking person, however, such is not an option. Yet if nearly every thinking person has faced this vexation at one time or another and doubtless throughout most of his adult life, virtually no one has ventured to think it through in a well-considered, systematic fashion.

Unlike those who despair of what they see or who sound the world weary note of caution that ‘life is full of burdens, compromises, and trade-offs,’ I assume that the question, though surely quite hard, is not so foreign that it cannot be addressed nor so enigmatic that it must go unanswered. This is why ‘thinking through things,’ which Aristotle regarded as the supreme undertaking of philosophy, becomes so timely and paramount today. We cannot go on with this great vexation, yet we do not know how to go on otherwise.

The dilemma catches most people off guard, ensnaring some for life. Over the past four years in my philosophy practice, for instance, I have listened to the nihilist wishing not to be one, to the creative person who is taken, all around, to be hopelessly impractical, and to the relatively wealthy individual who, amid the mental turmoil, lives with a ‘bad conscience’ (Nietzsche). Some, that is, are able to make a decent enough living but sniff out that what they are doing is just a lot of ‘bullshit work’ (David Graeber). Others pursue beauty or union yet have to elbow their way in and hustle to get gigs simply, and clumsily, in order to get by. And others are enmeshed in the kind of well-paying work–say, for a large oil corporation or an investment bank–that is so at odds with any  idea of social good or notion of distributive justice that they quickly fall victim to mental discord.

In short, the first manage to survive but cannot free themselves from the justified doubt that they are wasting their lives; the second seek to thrive yet can scarcely survive; and the last, despite their silent retreats, volunteer vacations, and well-meaning support for good causes, cannot overcome the discord concerning the emptiness of the life they can so easily sustain. This is our dilemma, yours and mine, and the reason it is ours is not just that we may become a life waster or a foolish, penniless artist, but also that we may vacillate without end between the first pole, the second, and the third. That vacillation too spells out the lives of our neighbors, fellow citizens, friends, and acquaintances.

The life waster, the starving artist (a perennial intern in life, so to speak), and the tortured soul–do not these pretty much cover the entire social, economic, and ethical terrain?

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Certain figures are entirely out of step with their time and thus appear ridiculous in the eyes of their contemporaries while others, as if by the doing of the Greek gods, are well-suited for their time. No one today could be a blind seer, a martyr, a colonialist, or a crusader without rightly being laughed at. Don Quixote showed us how to play the fool, and anyone believing that he can be the next version of Che Guevara in the United States had better read up on farce.

Yet the age in which we live also gives rise to figures who are fitted to their time. The philosopher, rather amusingly after all these epochs in which his existence proved unnecesary, turns out to be one of these. Indeed, so often out of step with the age (in heroic times, the highest exemplar is the warrior; in the medieval period, it is the saint; in the Renaissance, the artist; at the onset of the modern era, the scientist), the philosopher who has come on the scene in the early twenty-first century has just so happened to have lucked out.

But why has he lucked out? Why philosophy now? Because the basic questions concerning how best to live have returned in our time, now with greater force and added urgency. In our ‘unsettled time,’ a concept I unpacked in Cultivating Discipline Lightly, we cannot fail to observe that the value spheres of the modern world–the state, civil society, and the family–are all thrown into question with the result that how we are to live (the question of survival) and why we think it worth living (the question of the good life) cannot be put off for another day but must be examined. They must be examined because no one has all the answers, and so there is no other alternative apart from inquiring with a view to knowing. But ‘inquiring with a view to knowing’ just is philosophizing. Given a time not of great prosperity but of great precarity, the philosopher has, as it were, hit the intellectual jackpot.

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In retrospect, I can make out why I gave a course at Kaos Pilots on the art of philosophical inquiry in 2012, another on lighthearted discipline and community building in 2013, and the present one on the connection between sustaining life and the good life in 2014. Each was intended to answer a different, albeit related question.

The question that concerned me as I wrote The Art of Inquiry (2012) was that of education. As early as 2009, I found wanting both the view that the best education involved the teacher telling the student ‘how things were’ and the reactionary view that it entailed letting students discover things on their own. Whereas the former, noticeable in the lecturer who assumes he knows best, said far too much about what it is we already know from the outset, the latter–so evident in talk of facilitation, framing, hosting, holding space, appreciative listening, and process consulting–says far too little about what we might find out together. Philosophical inquiring was meant to cut a diagonal across the two, thereby revealing that guide and pupil may not know from the outset yet the guide can lead the pupil to find out by means of a well-structured inquiry.

Education was and is letting oneself be led forth toward the truth. However, this activity could not persist nor could it ever get underway unless a student built a ‘trellis,’ a small-scale community consisting of guides and pupils, and cultivated a personal discipline, a set of exercises that prepared him for inquiring with himself and with others. Hence, I wrote Cultivating Discipline Lightly (2013) in order to show how we could overcome the pervasive skeptical shadow cast over the very possibility of exercising legitimate authority today.

Education and legitimate authority together make each other possible, yet neither, on its own or together, says anything yet about the most basic questions, ‘What is it all for? Why bother learning anything? Why go along with any authority figure? Go to all the trouble to make a living–for the sake of what?’

The Good Life and Sustaining Life: An Inquiry into Our Great Vexation (2014) is addressed, out of danger and in good spirits, not to the foot-dragging skeptic but to the inquisitive aspirant who genuinely wants to set foot on a path in hopes of discovering what it is all about. To you, my friend, I have much to say.

The Questions

There are three interconnected questions into which I will be inquiring:

1. What conceptions of the good life are available to us in the modern age?

2. How is it possible to sustain a human life however that life might be?

  1. How can one sustain the good life in a way that is consonant with this way of life?
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