Monday, May 07, 2007

Kekes's Art of Life I

The Art of Life is about the meaning of life. Kekes even leaves nihilistic suicide on the table as an option for a short passage in the preface. But the thesis he explains is that there is an art to upholding the two components of a good life: satisfaction and moral acceptability. Satisfaction is the having of both the right ideals and the habitual dispositions to achieve them, as well as particular projects to which one is well suited (careers, in the broad sense of that term.) The art lies in selecting a good way amongst reasonable alternative ways of life, and that depends upon one's particular character and situation, creativity and imagination. There are only a few rules and not complete guidance from them. Yet, the art isn't the same as randomness or arbitrariness. There are bad reasons for selecting a way of life, as well as good reasons, and the latter evaluate well the promptings of creativity and imagination, whereas the former do not.

Thus does the book begin well: with what is only slightly controversial at most, and rather seemingly on target, as well as interesting. Good philosophy begins with the trivial and moves toward the interestingly true. Also, good lives are supposed to be morally acceptable. As a younger man I might have questioned that; why couldn't Stalin's life count as good? The answer is that it is possible in theory, though whether an evil sociopath has ever had a good life in fact, I doubt. But it is the exception that proves the rule: you have to be an odd specimen of human nature to achieve such a thing. Moreover, even thought it is possible for a man's psychology to be devoid of moral components, it is unlikely that what remains will function well enough because what remains is of such a nature that it functions well only with the moral component on board. Could there be a monster so malformed that by chance his amoral nature can function and thrive in a sort of happiness? Perhaps, but it is nothing for the rest of us to contemplate, for whom happiness is not a separate endeavor from morality.

We'll see what role morality plays in the good life for Kekes as we move through the book. For today, let's finish with a look at the first chapter. It treats of unconditional commitments. The good life requires these. They include career, family, religion, etc. and may in principle be whatever is appropriate for you, but you must have them. I suppose morality is the one that trumps the others, as if morality requires that you sacrifice all of your other commitments, I suppose that you are obliged to do so. But, that trump aside, Kekes speaks of the others as "unconditional." Putatively unconditional commitments may conflict, at which time one determines which is the actually unconditional one. Here Kekes gives the examples of Montaigne and Thomas More. Montaigne sacrificed clean hands to do what he could for his community as an eminent lawyer. More sacrificed his life (and by that the father of his young child, as well) rather than break his commitment to moral and religious sanctions against divorce. These men exemplify self-direction, a self-control one needs if one is to recognize and adhere to an array of values in their order of importance (a hierarchy the levels of which Kekes calls "unconditional," "defeasible" and, lastly, "loose" commitments.) One must know when to peel off and let go of the important in favor of the more important.

By the way, most of us never experience tests of such our self-direction as severe as those of Montaigne and More. But I will say that the test comes with a blessing: it lets you know that you are self-directed, a fact which may remain uncovered for most of us. Untested metal is lies shrouded in mystery. One doesn't know what one is made of. To discover it by trial results in a profoundly gratifying experience, which, as we have seen, and as Kekes quotes, Wharton's Countess Olenska describes in this way:

I WAS lonely; I WAS afraid. But the emptiness and the darkness are gone; when I turn back into myself now I'm like a child going at night into a room where there's always a light.

This is where you can see that you are a person of moral depth. It is a relief. You could always have supposed as much, but never known it without the test.

Kekes also explains that tradition offers a selection of formats in which we may compose our lives. It is not that traditional lives are the opposite of self-directed ones. On the contrary, tradition is a body of discoveries of ways of life that are fulfilling to people of various sorts of character. The self-directed life uses this body and creates a life best suited to a particular person: the one who lives it. It enables one to find desirable unconditional, defeasible and loose commitments and array one's life suitably with them. As an achievement of a cultural heritage, self-direction is distinct from liberal autonomy, existentialist authenticity, or other new philosophies, all of which are either not achievements or not cultural.