Two boo’s for ‘living in order to work’


Call me puzzled. I can’t help but recall a wealthy man I used to tutor while I was living in New York City. He was an heir to a famous American dynasty and was doubtless so wealthy that none of his grandchildren would ever need to work. Despite this, he worked very long hours, founding and co-founding companies, some of which would be very familiar to you. Why would someone who doesn’t have to work long, hunger to work–and to do scarcely anything else?

I’ve only begun reading Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, which was originally published in 1899. On the opening pages, Veblen makes plain that barbarian cultures initiated a class distinction between laborers and elites (who were engaged, variously, in politics, warfare, religion, and sport). Until very recently in human history, it simply appeared self-evident that, provided that an economic order had advanced to the point at which not everyone needed to work (there could be slaves, women, and a class of male laborers, say), leisure was regarded as obviously preferable to working, that one worked (if one did, if one had to) for the sake of leisure, and that whatever we mean by ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ or ‘significance’ must needs be sought in non-work. Furthermore, leisure was the honorable, dignified, laudatory term and the second term–whatever is not leisure, i.e., work–would be derived from the leisure concept.

It is therefore surprising (a) that the wealthy, early 50-something man I used to tutor should choose to spend most of his life working and (b) that someone who is out of work would, even if financially secure, find his life boring because he is not working. What is going on? It is a question I cannot yet answer.

Continue reading “Two boo’s for ‘living in order to work’”

Humble elitism: Making the vertical ascent

One who sets foot on the philosophical path may become bewildered when he begins to consider how it is possible not to be arrogant yet also how to ascend beyond the bounds of the ordinary. I have recently come to a better understanding  of how this is possible. More: of how this is necessary.

1. From Charles Taylor in A Secular Age and Peter Sloterdijk in You Must Change Your Life, I accept the thesis that one of the chief features of modernity is the creation of horizontality. Without theism, there is no idea (or at least there is deep suspicion) of the vertical or transcendent (not, in any case, not after 1945 when various forms of quasi-transcendent options begin to appear). In other respects too, egalitarianism is espoused, if not always adopted. And then there is the ‘affirmation of ordinary life,’ which insists that the good life is now identical with the spheres of production (work) and reproduction (family). In very different ways and coming from quite different traditions, Taylor and Sloterdijk both want to ask, ‘What is higher? From what source does it spring?’

Continue reading “Humble elitism: Making the vertical ascent”

Mythos, logos, and modernity

It is said that philosophy is born just when, for instance, the Homeric myths give way to the cosmological views espoused by the Presocratics. So John Burnet: ‘With Thales and his successors [i.e., the Presocratics] a new thing came into the world.’ This new thing was logos. Rational explanations–such as Thales’ that life is water or Empedocles’ that there is life and strife or Parmenides’ on being–begin to account for what there is and how we come to understand reality.

We know, then, that mythos unto itself is insufficient for human understanding for it fails to raise us into conceptual thinking. On their own, stories do little to enhance human understanding. Yet we may also find that in the context of self-understanding a strict analysis of concepts (what is free will, say?) will prove insufficient also inasmuch as it fails to come to grips with how free will bears on my coming to be just the kind of person that I am.

The puzzle is how to reconcile mythos with logos.

In two tour de forces, Sources of the Self (1989) and A Secular Age (2007), the contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor wants to tell a philosophical story. The first is a philosophical story of the emergence of the modern self (or selves); the second is the birth of secularism. In both works, Taylor thinks it necessary to perform conceptual analysis (for instance, how does the picture of the medieval cosmos differ from that of the modern universe?) as well as to show how these concepts came into being. Conceptual thinking is aided by an investigation into their genesis; lived experience is brought into focus by the changing meanings of being.

Let us say that Taylor solves the puzzle by

  • showing how mythos can be put in the service of logos: that is to say, how to track the coming into being not of concrete particulars but of the concepts that make sense (e.g.) of modern human experience.

I believe this is the route we also must follow in order to understand ourselves in connection with the modern world.

On nomads and settlers (but mostly on nomads)

Honest to God, I’m not cherry picking my examples, at least I don’t think so. I’m looking at the profiles of my conversation partners, past and present, of the individuals I’ve spoken with during the past year over Skype, of the exchanges I’ve had over email, and some common characteristics almost immediately jump out at you. (This post will be full of cliches. Please excuse.)

  • Age: late-20s to early-40s.
  • Education: college-educated, bachelor’s degree to Ph.D.
  • Orientation: creative type.
  • Location: US, Canada, northern Europe.
  • Patterns of movement: very peripatetic.
  • Intellectual acumen: very, very, very high, like the dong sound that the bell makes when the man with the large hammer hits the thing that causes the other thing to go up and say dong.

Regarding the penultimate, I’ve had so many conversations about packing things up, moving on, leaving it all behind; about flight and wilderness and wildness; about traveling to other countries; so many, in fact, that I can barely keep up.

It’s probably no coincidence that humanities departments have specialists now in “exilic literature” (whatever that means), that sociology arose near the beginning of industrial Revolution, or that our great cultural figures, like Rushdie and Dyer, are card-carrying nomads. Probably no coincidence, either, that a friend recently tweeted that he was a grown-up now that he’d purchased some new luggage (wheels for ease, I’m sure). Probably nothing new that people feel “aimless” and “restless” and “unsettled” now more than ever. Perhaps unmistakable that that really muddled psychologistic pseudoconcept, “anxiety,” would be diagnosed so frequently nowadays. (Not long ago, NPR ran a program called the Age of Anxiety. Maybe I had it once, didn’t know it, only to lose it before I knew it. Meno? Hello?)

Things suck, I get it. And when your life sucks, you think often and intently about moving to Boulder or to Paris or to Istanbul or to a solar-paneled hut on a sliver of land where you can grow your own dandelions and eat your fair share of sea beetles. Because life has to be better out there, over there, you suppose. Better than this sucky one right here. And because that’s freedom, freedom from harm, from your past, from everyone and everything. You go there, and it all gets better. (Except that now you’re there, you’d better go somewhere else and so on, because once desire is construed as that which you don’t have, you’ve got an indefinite regress problem on your… tongues.)

As someone who’s moved something like 14 times over the course of 10-plus years, as someone who’s lived for a time in the desert (literally and figuratively) and now on a tiny island next to a chunky park, I get it. But, my friends, it’s not going to work. Because the error lies with the very idea that freedom = flight. And that’s a very old idea and not a very good one.

The poet Wendell Berry taught me that settling in doesn’t have to mean settling for or settling down. And he’s 77 and chipper, that fellow. Part of that last statement is no doubt true.

Where to begin? You can read anything I’ve written as just another rumination on the question of what it means to lead a good life in the modern world. Is this possible? If so, how is it possible? And what is modernity?

And so, my usual point of departure is with the birth of modernity. By modernity (and I’m pulling this from an email I wrote one conversation partner of late), I mean minimally, following Max Weber, the disenchantment of the human-natural-divine cosmos. Here, for the first time in history, we’ll find the ontological separation of humans from nature (Cartesianism), humans from each other (atomism), and humans from God (secularism). In this disenchanted picture, we begin to see lots of stories unfold at once. Among others: a metaphysical story according to which humans just are individuals existing apart from or standing over and against a set of social roles (Thatcher’s fatuous but telling line: “society does not exist”); another according to which nature becomes instrumentalized mainly into free-standing objects and resources (some of the worst consequences of industrial capitalism); another in which nature is construed mechanistically according to the laws of nature (materialism, reductivism, naturalism, eliminative materialism, physicalism…); and another according to which God is no longer a part of the fabric of being (deist, unnecessary as a scientific hypothesis, agnostic, Dead for Good, etc.).

What you begin to see, as you track this story a good ways forward, is this incredible uprooting of people from the communities into which they were born. Not always a bad thing, to be sure (see my parable about being a small town boy), but a new thing at any rate (see Karl Polanki’s The Great Transformation–I’ve included an Appendix below). This uprooting speeds up over time as industrial capitalism moves ‘individuals’ from the country to the city; as the concept of ‘professionalism’ (particularly during the 19th C. and then throughout the 20th C.) arises, replaces ‘amateurism,’ and begins to hold sway throughout the developed world; as the concepts of ‘social ambition’ and ‘upward social mobility’ become the final end (the telos) of a life (it’s here that the concept of the career becomes intelligible as a key organizing principle of a life well-lived); and so on.

I’ll tack a bit here onto the email I wrote her: there’s a passage in Polanki’s book about how hard it was to get rural folk in England off the land and into the factories. By the 19th C., of course, we’ve got lots of novels and treatises going on about how awful factory work is. To get a taste of how awful it was, you can read Gaskell’s North and South, Gissing’s The Odd Women, or just about any of Dickens’ novels. We’re now seeing this, of course, in China, where Foxconn factory is the driving force behind the production of iPhones and such. It’s not pretty, but this is how the manufacturing phase of industrial capitalism unfolds. We’ll have to look at India to see how manufacturing, service, and IT come together.

Obviously, along with social uprooting comes a profound social problem: rootlessness, drift, waywardness, in short, lack of any social ties. The uprooting from family and home brings about social alienation. As the developed world moved away from manufacturing and then into service and now into information technology, social life has become only more “frictionless.” The Internet has made it possible for super-smart IT people to live just about anywhere–and that arbitrariness is actually quite scary. The flip side of globalization, even for the super-smart, highly employable winners, is the horror of waywardness. Where is ‘here,’ and what is ‘conviction’?

In any case, however we tell the story, many feel as if they don’t ‘see themselves’ in the modern world, can’t ‘identify’ with social institutions, don’t see how they ‘fit into’ the order of things, feel that ‘something’s missing,’ and so on. There’s a deeper problem I’ve glossed over: namely, that metaphysical estrangement from the natural world. I’m going to jump over that problem here and press on a bit further with the social alienation story.

Social alienation leads, in turn, to nihilism. If P just is a father, then P knows what it means to live a good life: to care for his children well, etc. P is not sitting around, mired in metaphysical doubt. The thought would not occur to him. Qua father, P is totally in his life. Well, we don’t know today (or don’t have many exempla or models) of what good fathering looks or feels like, and there aren’t many P’s out there who are entirely in their fathering lives. Many look and feel clumsy and out of sorts. Not unrelatedly, few think that being a father is necessary and sufficient for leading a good and fulfilling life.

There’s a further problem, and that is that we don’t trust any good authority, so we’ve no idea how to “get back on track.” We’ve no idea what good guidance would look like, and we don’t even believe that good guidance exists. So, we think that freedom as flight is the greatest good because we’re away from all that ails us and because no one can coerce us or make us move this way or that. (In a figurative sense, we’re all firm believers in the 2nd Amendment.) This is the freedom of being fucking left alone.

That said, this overly excited talk about freedom = flight is kind of paradoxical, if my story is roughly correct, kind of strange because flight got us into this mess in the first place and flight, we seem to think, is what’s going to get us out of it. So flight is both problem and solution, both cause and comfort. I don’t think this is going to work. Freedom as flight may move us about, may make us relieved that we’re not stuck, but in actuality we’re not getting anywhere and we’re really really stuck. Flight is a way of going in circles.

This post is already running long, so I’ll only say a few things about getting out of nomadism. Over the past year, what’s been so illuminating for me has been the lived experience of having gotten settled with life. And the more settled I’ve become, the more I’ve been able to go on quests, undertake pilgrimages, follow inquiries, and embrace life. This struck home (the 100th cliche of the post! huzzah!) when I was reading St. Benedict’s Rule this past summer. He was just so completely spot on. If you belong to a settled way of life, he says, then, among friends and guides, you can learn more about yourself. But, first of all, you have to be committed to the right people and stay with them. (Good judgment: knowing that they’re the right people.) And you have to be humble because being humble makes possible the idea of making progress and of working with a guide. And, lastly, you have to put your hands into those of wise guides.

Benedict is right. The more I’ve surrounded myself with kindred spirits and gotten my feet on the ground and looked up to others, the more I’ve been able to be giddy and adventurous and fun-loving and, well, whole. Because, in the end, it’s about wholeness, isn’t it?, wholeness within, without, and throughout. You’ll know it when you feel it throughout yourself, in your life, and in all things.

Our focus amid unsettled times should be on getting into a settled, flourishing, radiant way of life. Trust me. There’s no other way. I’m putting out my hand.


I opened Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation almost at random and began to read. This paragraph falls on p. 43.

We submit that an avalanche of social dislocation, surpassing by far that of the enclosure period [the key acts were passed between 1750 and 1860], came down upon England; that this catastrophe was the accompaniment of a vast movement of economic improvement; that an entirely new institutional mechanism was starting to act on Western society; that its dangers, which cut to the quick when they first appeared, were never really overcome; and that the history of the nineteenth-century civilization consisted largely in attempts to protect society [read: common life of a people] against the ravages of such a mechanism. The Industrial Revolution was merely the beginning of a revolution as extreme and radical as ever inflamed the minds of sectarians, but the new creed was utterly materialistic and believed that all human problems could be resolved given an unlimited amount of material commodities.

‘Or some contrivance awkwardly suitable for the unpleasantly awkward occasion’

Sometimes it goes: once lips to cheek. Sometimes it goes: twice, back and forth, slowly or swiftly. Occasionally, it goes three times. The pressure is also important. So is the touch. Firm or light. Moist or dry. Cheek or air or half-both. As intimacy grows, the lips may get closer or the kisses, on cheeks, a touch or more than a touch firmer yet softer.

I have left out the hugs which can come before, after, not at all, or as a substitute for the one, two, or three kisses. The hugs being light, firm, distant, close, restrained, or not so in nature.

Unless, of course, one nixes the kisses on lips or cheek or cheeks, the hugs together with or separate from or as a substitute for the kisses on lips or cheek or cheeks altogether and goes instead with the handshake (being firm, light, or goopy) or the handshake concomitant with a hug or the handshake followed by the hug and so forth.

Contingencies should also be factored in, those being where the greetings and farewells are taking place in locales such as: on front door steps, in the pouring rain, under a sagging awning, during rush hour, in the midst of a crowded subway car, on a go cart at the local fair, within a dimly lit bathroom, near the stable yard, beside a moving van or a traffic stop. Then one might feel inclined to opt, as is one’s wont, for the wave (choices here innumerable) or the sympathetic head turn (one of my favorites, actually) or some contrivance awkwardly suitable for the unpleasantly awkward occasion. I have not yet mentioned the time, the location, the angle of the sun or moon, the time of the day, the turn of the seasons, the nature of the celebration or its contrary, the number of sheets tussled about on the floor in close proximity to the vacant stairwell. Nor have I taken account of the nationality, gender, culture, customs, local colors (whatever these be), species and genera, linguistic barriers, and diplomatic interests of all the parties present.

In a word, it seems we are in an incredible muddle about greetings, farewells, and all that. It seems our unnative skin and our deracinated mores are to be blamed. One hopes, doubtless without warrant but one can dare to hope, that the saving grace will be whatever occurs after the hello and before the good-bye.

Educational Note 1

There seem to be two stories that one could read out of the history of manners. One is that manners, however conventional, are the actualization of (at least some) morals. When I open the door for you, I am showing deference toward you. The other is that manners run contrary to morals. On this view, they uphold the status quo and stuffy social distinctions and are meant to exclude and remove those from the wrong backgrounds. My general sense is that when morals and manners are in harmony, it reminds us that the world is in harmony. We are drawn together in this fashion, drawn together in grace and gratitude. However, when morals and manners are discordant, it shows us how far apart we have come, how severed we are, how great the distance is between us.

Educational Note 2

In a settled way of life, you would begin to see, over time, the “codification” of certain gestures in the form of abiding manners. An outstretched hand, say, would be both a sign that there is no enmity between us (no weapon in the open hand) and a sign that there is only amity resounding (an open hand is meant to be held and clasped). This “codification” would also put an end to the very thought of the “burden of choosing.” (On the paradox of choice, see Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk.) The thought that we are free to choose however we would like to greet each other and, hence, that we can be mired, endlessly, in a sea of doubt would simply never arise.