Prefab lives? Prefab’s lost question

After the housing crisis, prefab homes have been making a reappearance. ‘Prefab lives!,’ Allison Arieff proclaims jubilantly. For green builders, the venture is to see whether the best of industrial design and manufacturing can be put in service of a sustainable mission. Questions soon turn technical: how to cut costs; how to use green materials; how to lessen the carbon footprint; how to scale; and so on. In all of this talk of sustainability, however, I believe the ‘first question’ of philosophy–Is such a thing good and beautiful? Does it conform to a good and beautiful life? What, to begin with, is a home for?–has been lost. Not long ago, I wrote as much to a friend.


Dear Friend,

Few have observed that hummingbirds are so very loud; they are, and startling so. While taking my tea after having a conversation with a conversation partner hours earlier, I could not help but pay close attention to their terrific fluttering wings and, as is natural, to their intricate, frantic beauty. Yet I could not have paid attention to this hummingbird alighting before me had it not also been the case that my desert house was a home, a place in which a good man could dwell in tune with the slow twining of the day.

My initial aesthetic response to viewing the slideshow of the Joshua Tree prefab house was that it was especially ugly. I have had no reason since to call that aesthetic judgment into question; it stands still after further consideration. To say that the house is ugly is not to say that it lacks in formal symmetry (millennia ago, Plotinus ruled out the formalist conception of beauty) but rather to say, at first blush, that it is not a dwelling that is, or could possibly be, in conformity with the life of an excellent man and also with the fecund life of the natural environment. No hummingbirds would sound loudly or gaily, not least and not just because no small gardens would flourish in such a vacation house. Surely one could live in that place, but why would a reasonable person want to?

In Book III of the Republic, Plato has Socrates say, ‘Now, one cares for what one loves.’ Socrates sets us off in the right direction concerning what it is possible for us to care for. But, when one cares for something one loves, what is it that one loves? I say it is only that which is good and beautiful (kalon). Hence, one can only ever care for what it is that is good and beautiful.

Sustainability talk has, therefore, always seemed to me to beg the question. For sustainability (along with other questions of teche: craft, know-how, etc.) is only an instrumental good (i.e., that which at best is good for the sake of some intrinsic good), not an intrinsic good itself. When I hear designers, builders, and others sing the praises of sustainability (or resilience or systems or whatever), I thus want to ask: what for? Who cares? When did we lose sight of the fact that we all shall die? And if we all shall die just as surely as our children and if the earth shall undoubtedly perish sooner or later (climate change or no climate change), then it behooves us to ask again what could make this world well worth it, what could make human life worth leading. And the only answer we could possibly find, I submit after many inquiries with myself, is that the world qua world just is good and beautiful, provided we do the lifelong philosophical work of learning to perceive it rightly and provided also that we learn how to put ourselves in tune with its goodness and beauty. No easy thing yet of vital importance. To be sure, we can find a rightful place in our vocabulary for sustainability and the like, but only after we have found reason to believe that whatever is good and beautiful is worth sustaining. We are lost in the dark night of the soul, however, so long as we put the cart in front of the horse.

This house–to return to the case at hand–is ugly, conforms only to the life of the kind of man who seeks respite from the diurnal churning of the bustling city, and thereby has no good reason for existing. Plopped down in the middle of the desert, it does a disservice to this desert here. But what goes for this house goes also for much else that is made, designed, refashioned, and repurposed today. It is time to start thinking slowly again, time to starting taking our time so that we can avoid disaster.

One hopes that certain social enterprise students–by which I mean: those who are good, earnest, direct, decent sorts–will come to see such an account in all its pregnant fullness. I have spoken with a number of these young aspirants, and I believe some to be on the path of reason: the path upon which we try to see how things hang together in the broadest possible sense of ‘things hanging together’; the path that Aquinas followed when he sought, as elegantly as ever, to synthesize Aristotelian metaphysics with Christian cosmology; the path Kant took, centuries later, when he sought to reconcile fideism, rationalism, and empiricism; and–could one be so sanguine–the path that any mature social entrepreneur would have to set foot on were he to be able to bring into the utmost, clearest, scintillating harmony art, nature, business, and human flourishing. My intuition, though I mean not to beg the question as others have before me, is that he would arrive, in the end, at goodness and beauty again.

Take care,