Monday, April 11, 2011

Integritas Seminar VI

Integritas met for its sixth seminar last week to explore Aristotelian conceptions of virtue and the good life, led by Prof. Brad Gregory of Notre Dame's History Department. We read the Ergon Argument from the Nichomachean Ethics, along with Wendell Berry's great essay, "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine," and his poem "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front." Through these readings and our discussion, we sought to address the questions: Given human nature, what constitutes human happiness? What is the role of virtue in achieving happiness? How does the integration of the mental, spiritual, and physical contribute to happiness? How does the integration of family life, communities, and political society contribute to happiness? What does such an integration look like?

We began by examining Aristotle's conception of human nature and what our lives should be ordered towards. Aristotle describes how all action is ordered to an end, otherwise action is unintelligible and incoherent. All human action is undertaken because it seems to us to advance our happiness in some way. But people have different conceptions of happiness: some think that it is an emotional state, while others view it as material success. Aristotle's conception of happiness is very different from those; he believes that happiness is a kind of flourishing, a life of sustained virtuous action to make us into people who achieve our potential as rational, social animals. It involves practices, both individual and communal, and contemplation, since contemplation is the highest form of human activity; it also involves emotional ups and downs and good and bad fortune, times when it might not be obvious that we are happy in any emotional or material way.

One student, who is a member of Notre Dame's men's crew team, offered an analogy to illustrate this conception of happiness: He said that sometimes when you're rowing a boat, you're rowing through choppy waters and there is a turbulent side-to-side swaying motion even as you continue to travel forward. At those times, your life might be directed toward a good end, but it feels like a rough journey and like you're not making a lot of progress. At other times, your boat cuts smoothly through the water, with no energy wasted, and it's clear that you're proceeding quickly towards the goal of your journey. But in both cases, you can be rightly directed and relentlessly progressing towards your goal.

Aristotle compares living the virtues to becoming a good lyre player: it requires practice and repetition, it gives benefit to others and is a social activity, its achievement is observable and measurable, there are defined criteria by which to judge whether one is a good or bad lyre player, and it is a skill that must be learned by imitating others who are already successful lyre players. Since a life of virtue is a life of disciplined action, it also involves all of these components. The good life, the happy life for Man requires dedicated, consistent action, involving ingrained moral responses. As Will Durrant once said, summarizing Aristotle's conception of virtue, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

Prof. Gregory emphasized that Aristotle's ethics are different from most systems of ethics because for Aristotle, ethics cannot be expressed by a list of prohibitions and demands; prudential judgment is the foundation of virtuous action. He asked the students later whether Wendell Berry's "Manifesto" poem was a list of practices that must be undertaken for one to have a happy life, but the students concluded that Berry largely shares Aristotle's conception of ethics, and that his recommendations such as "plant sequioas" and "denounce the government and embrace the flag" are simply one embodiment of a happy life in our contemporary situation. The same convictions could generate many such lists, none of which would adequately express the full range of possibilities for human happiness.

Berry's essay on "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine" spoke to many of the themes from our last seminar, including the encroaching dualism he sees that dismisses the activity of the body and dehumanizes all the we undertake. As Aristotle pointed out, happiness is an activity of virtue, and all activity, even contemplation, involves the body. There is no such thing as a mental state that is not also a bodily state. Body and mind are always integrated: we are not something separate from our bodies.

Yet, as Berry points out, our culture treats the body like an instrument or possession, which disintegrates the human person and human work. Technology, especially computers, are increasingly erasing our physical involvement in our own activities. Speed, ease, and quantity have become the goal of our actions. As Berry wryly suggests, this reaches down even to the level of that human activity that should most deeply integrate the body and mind: "It is odd that simply because of its 'sexual freedom' our time should be considered extraordinarily physical. In fact, our 'sexual revolution' is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine 'freeing' natural pleasure from natural consequence...Industrial sex, characteristically, establishes its freeness and goodness by an industrial accounting, dutifully toting up numbers of 'sexual partners,' orgasms, and so on, with the inevitable industrial implication that the body is somehow a limit on the idea of sex, which will be a great deal more abundant as soon as it can be done by robots."

Berry can criticize the undertakings of industrial war, industrial agriculture, industrial workmanship, and industrial education because he does not share their goals of speed, ease, and quantity. As he says: "Do I wish to keep up with the times? No. My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work, and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed." Like Aristotle, he is seeking to be fully human, to fulfill his potential as a rational, social animal. He explores the implications that this direction has for his life in many realms: human work, the economy of the family, and his own pursuits as a writer and farmer.

For example, retirement is not an Aristotelian notion. We don't work all our lives away to ensure a future without work, as if work is something that limits human life.Work is the living of human life. It is the way we live our vocation to be good stewards of creation, good tenders of God's garden. He criticizes a feminism that expects women to enter the dehumanizing modern work force that men have already enslaved themselves to: "It is easy enough to see why women came to object to the role of Blondie, a mostly decorative custodian of a degraded, consumptive modern household, preoccupied with clothes, shopping, gossip, and outwitting her husband. But are we to assume that one may fittingly cease to be Blondie by becoming Dagwood? Is the life of a corporate underling--even acknowledging that corporate underlings are well paid--an acceptable end to our quest for human dignity and worth...How, I am asking, can women improve themselves by submitting to the same specialization, degradation, trivialization, and tyrannization of work that men have submitted to? And that question is made legitimate by another: How have men improved themselves by submitting to it?"

Berry instead holds a conception of human work as a school of virtue, an undertaking the involves us in social activity and bears fruit for our communities and ourselves personally. To that end, certain kinds of work are better suited for cultivating the virtues: work that involves the human faculties of imagination, creativity, compassion, and prudential judgment. Assembly lines and computer processors involve none of those things.

Instead, Berry calls upon us to do things that force us to draw on all of our resources of hope, faith, authenticity, selflessness, and mindfulness. He challenges us to recognize that the goal of our lives lies beyond what we can immediately see, to "Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts." He challenges us to have the courage to plan the seed of a tree under whose shade we will never sit. He challenges us to "Practice Resurrection."

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