Friday, July 9, 2010

An Aristotelian Life (Part 2)

This post continues my run through Marcia Homiak's article "An Aristotelian Life", which appears in the collection Philosophers without Gods.

In part one, I outlined the major landmarks in the Aristotelian vision of the well-lived life. They were:
  • You should develop and utilise your rational and cognitive powers.
  • You should bring these powers to bear across a broad range of activities (work and hobbies).
  • To fully realise your rational powers, you should engage in cooperative and communal activity, this activity will give rise to friendship: a deep and lasting concerning for the welfare of others.
  • You should participate in a governmental system that helps to cultivate and sustain human rationality.
Having sketched the broad contours of the Aristotelian ideal, Homiak proceeds to detail how she puts the ideal into practice in her own life. I will skip over this section since it is relatively uninteresting to learn how an academic uses rational and cognitive powers in their work.

Her one interesting observation may come when she suggests that life in a representative democracy and consumer capitalistic society may not correspond to the Aristotelian ideal. She is not overbearing when making this claim -- she thinks there are still opportunities to exercise one's cognitive powers -- but she is alert to the possibility of becoming too passive. That is, of simply consuming and being a legal and political subject without creating and participating.

At the end of her essay she compares the Aristotelian life with the religious life. I want to focus the remainder of the post on this comparison.

1. The Benefits of the Religious Life
Homiak begins with some observations about her religious friends and family. She notes that they are kind, decent, hard-working, charitable and intelligent people. Their professed love of God and commitment to religious ideals seems to provide them with meaning and direction.

Specifically, religious belief seems to provide her friends and family with five benefits.

  • First, it provides guidance for how to live one's life, how to identify what is important, valuable and worthwhile.
  • Second, it provides the motivation for acts of human decency, generosity and beneficence.
  • Third, it can provide them with the psychological strength to do what is right even when the odds are stacked against them or they are in great peril.
  • Fourth, it ties them together and creates deep social bonds of love, friendship and affection.
  • And fifth, it can provide comfort in times of hardship and distress.

Homiak argues that the Aristotelian vision can provide the exact same benefits albeit dressed in secular clothing. Let's see how she supports this claim.

2. The Benefits of the Aristotelian Life
It is easy to see that the Aristotelian life provides the first benefit. Indeed, Aristotle developed his account in order to answer the question "What is the good life?". The vision -- the relentless development and utilisation of our rational and cognitive powers -- allows us to see what is important and worthwhile, and pursue policies that help ourselves and others to pursue these ends.

In pursuing the Aristotelian ideal, we must also act with decency and generosity toward our fellow human beings. This is because the flourishing of our rational and cognitive powers is stunted if we do not cooperate with others for mutually beneficial ends.

Can the Aristotelian vision provide the psychological strength to do what is right in difficult circumstances? Homiak thinks it can. She argues that the Aristotelian political system is one that provides the education essential to developing our rational and cognitive powers. If this system is threatened, the citizenry will do anything they can to preserve it.

Finally, because the Aristotelian life reaches its zenith when it communes with others in rational and cognitive congregations, it creates and sustains social networks bound together by love and friendship. It is these networks that can provide comfort and sustenance in times of hardship.

In these ways, the Aristotelian life is at least the equal of the religious life.

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