He climbs on high–him we should praise!
–Nietzsche, ‘Higher Men,’ Gay Science
Modernity is the time in which those humans who hear the call to change no longer know where they should start: with the world or with themselves–or with both at once.
–Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life
If I want to know that I’m not wasting my life, then I have to make a distinction between higher and lower ways of life. I have to do so in order to make apparent that some forms of life are wasted whereas others are not. This thought is in line with Nietzsche’s question: how can a human being lead an extraordinary life?
Sloterdijk cues us into our puzzlement about the sort of transformation one means to effect. In the schema below which contains the higher forms of life in modernity, I imply that it is usually the case that one plumbs for leading an active life or a contemplative life.
There are three considerations to apply when examining the question of what higher form of life to lead.
1.) Human variety is a fact of the matter. Given this, one cannot expect for there to be one final aim for all human beings.
2.) However, there is only a finite number of higher final aims available to us in a certain epoch (in our case, modernity).
3.) I have to operate on the postulate that there is a ‘secular calling’ for me. To have a ‘secular calling’ is to have found what is best for me. Otherwise, I fall into and cannot overcome doubt.
It is not so easy to draw a meaningful distinction between the active life and the contemplative life. Too strict and a way of life becomes suffocating. Too broad and it seems no difficult thing to shuttle back and forth between one and the other when, in reality, it seems rare that an individual can lead both ways of life and lead them well. Too much weighting and you beg the question that the active must be preferable to the contemplative or vice versa.
With these cautionary notes sounded, I will venture a provisional distinction. These are two non-overlapping orientations to ‘the world.’ One cannot both be active and contemplative in the same respect at one and the same time.
The contemplative life, I’ll say, is concerned with the question, ‘How do I transform my overall perception of the world so that I can accord myself with it?’ The active life is concerned with a very different question: ‘How do I engage with the world to change some aspect of the world so that it accords with some aim I have?’ Understanding something in the most basic sense differs categorially and absolutely from changing something in some basic sense.
To illustrate and test this distinction, I could imagine a philosopher and a craftsman looking at a tree. The first wonders, ‘What can be said about the significance of this tree in this environment?’ The second queries, ‘Could this tree, were it to be cut down, provide me with good wood out of which I could make a fine table?’
A note: I’m not at all sure that one can lead both an active life and a contemplative life well. It seems to me that most of us (excluding in this accounting the rarest of persons) can only hope to lead one way of life well.
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:
Continue reading “The contemplative life: Three ways of life available to us in modernity”
Final days in Appalachia. Reminder of Marx’s error, of ours since Francis Bacon.
Tao Te Ching 29 (Feng and English translation): ‘Do you think you can conquer the universe and improve it? / I do not believe this can be done.’ The second stanza unearths the source of our error. ‘The universe is sacred. / You cannot improve it. / If you try to change it, you will ruin it. / If you try to hold on to it, you will lose it.’ Sacred, in a deflationary sense, meaning: be gentle, follow along.
Continue reading “Marx’s error and our own”