Saturday, January 31, 2009

On an Aristotelian Question - How should I live?

How to speak for Indian Traditions - An Agenda For the Future - S.N. Balagangadhara

Let me begin with the following question: ‘how should I live?’ Depending upon who is raising this question, whether a teenager or a middle-aged man, it is susceptible to at least two interpretations and, as a consequence, allows of at least two possible answers. To the teenager, it would be an answer to say, ‘live as an ethical being’. At this stage, it is irrelevant what force the word ‘ethics’ carries – whether ‘normative’ or ‘non-normative’. The same answer would probably infuriate the middle-aged person: his question lies ‘beyond’ the ethical. Probably, he is saying something like this: “To the extent possible, I have tried to lead an ethical life. I have undergone many experiences in life. I am now struggling to ‘make sense’ of these experiences. I am increasingly at a loss to cope with all my projects, ambitions, dreams, desires, success and frustrations. How should I live from now so that I may reconcile these forces, passions, attitudes etc. with each other?”

As a matter of fact, the real Aristotelian question is the one the middle-aged man asks. For Aristotle, the answer to this question constitutes the ‘ethical domain’. A search of eudaimonia (loosely translated as ‘happiness’) is undertaken only after undergoing some experiences in life. That is why, to Aristotle, a moral agent is an ‘experienced’ person:

… (A) young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend upon time, but on his living and pursuing each successive object as passion directs. For such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.

There are three of points worth noting in the above citation. The opposition is not between ‘reason’ and ‘passion’: one can pursue any passion (fame, wealth, power, etc.) in a ‘rational’ way. After all, modern-day industries use market research, advertising campaigns, and theories of management to pursue their goal of making profit in a ‘rational’ way. So can an individual. Rather, it is a contrast between directing all one’s abilities in order to acquire an object and ‘thoughtfully acting’ or ‘thinkingly-doing-something’, where action is brought under the scope of thoughtful considerations. The second point is that even those ‘who are old in years, but young in spirit’ (a compliment these days, which has the status of a norm about how one ought to grow old!) are not considered ‘fit’ to receive instructions in ethics. Their ‘defect’ is that they too pursue objects as ‘passion’ dictates. That is to say, they too cannot pose (or understand) the question of Aristotle, viz., how one should live. The third point is that ethical discussions begin with ‘actions in life’; they are reflections about these actions; the goal lies in the acquisition of an ability to act (thoughtfully). Modern philosophers have attributed the notion of ‘contemplative life’ to such a conception that has action as the end product! ‘Living a life thoughtfully’ glosses such a notion more accurately than ‘vita contemplativa’.

Our middle-aged man is, thus, raising the question of Aristotle. “I have pursued many things in life. I have acquired wealth and status, and aimed with varying degrees of success to become powerful and famous. I have been successful in some of my endeavours, while failing in yet others. I thought these things would make me happy, but I discover that, apart from moments when I felt ‘good’, these projects have only made me unhappy. What should I do? How should I live?” Today, these questions are not a part of ethical enquiry, any more than a quest for eudaimonia is: at best, these are the ‘esoteric’ questions and quests of ‘exotic’ religions; at worst, one raises them with one’s psychoanalyst during a ‘mid-life crisis’. This situation should already indicate the distance between what is called an ‘ethical enquiry’ today, and what Aristotle thought was the subject of all such enquiries. But that is not the focus of this piece now. However, there is no need to confuse matters by continually drawing the distinction between ‘modern’ ethics and ‘Aristotelian’ ethics. So, let us follow the contemporary consensus and call the quest of our middle-aged man ‘spiritual’ (from now on without scare quotes). Seeking spirituality, and not having found it in those objects that he once so passionately pursued, he is now raising a spiritual question: in fact, he is undergoing a spiritual crisis.

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