Friday, March 2, 2012

Integritas Seminar VII

Last night the Integritas program held its seventh seminar of the year, on 'Virtue and the Good Life,' led by Prof. Brad Gregory of the History Department. The texts for the seminar included excerpts from the first book of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, Wendell Berry's essay "Feminism, the Body and the Machine" and also his poem "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front."

Through these readings, we explored Aristotle's and Berry's shared conception that the good life for humankind is one that achieves happiness through pursuing the good, cultivating virtue, and living as fully integrated individuals, led by reason and respecting our physical limits. They also both believe individual good to be inseparable from the common good: since humans are social animals, the good life is to be understood as one in which an individual fulfills one's responsibilities to other community members and also benefits from their companionship.

Aristotle examines these ideas principally in the context of a city-state, but Berry sees the family economy as the fundamental context for developing virtue and attaining happiness. Berry identifies many ills of our industrial age, in which quantity and efficiency are the ultimate values and materialistic concerns have crowded out all other values. Work, food production, education, and even sex have become industrialized. As a consequence, marriage has become not the commitment to mutual care and help for the bringing up of healthy children, but rather a tenuous relationship that "has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided." Consumption, not self-sufficient production, characterizes industrial households, and very few choose to live in a radically different way that could truly call into question the values unconsciously adopted in our quest for convenience, consumption, and ease.

The students engaged in an extended conversation about the role of technology in all of this, fully aware that their lives especially have been inextricably intertwined with more technological gadgets than in any previous age. One student observed that Berry's attitude to technology is that it is to be considered "guilty until proven innocent" because of its tendency to make our work more unconscious, cerebral, and effortless, thus contributing to greater disembodiment and disintegration of ourselves as individuals.

Everyone liked Berry's poem and its command to "everyday, do something that won't compute," and its call to upend the materialistic values of our age. Like Aristotle, Berry recognizes that their is intrinsic value to the actions that our age dismisses as "whimsical," since the goal of life is not productivity or efficiency, but rather happiness.

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