Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Best Way of Life


The Best Way of Life

Peter Schultz


                  In his Politics, Aristotle raises the question which is the best way of life and presents two alternatives, the active, political life and the philosophic life which is thought by some to “be divorced from all external things.” And, as has been pointed out, most commentators argue that Aristotle opts for the philosophic way of life as the best.


                  In order to peruse this question, I want to recast it in the following terms: Which is the best of life, the active life, a political life that is, or a life of leisure, with Aristotle coming down in favor of the life of leisure.


                  An active life, a political life is one that consists of acting, of acting upon society, of exercising power over things and people, of being politically engaged. Now, it would not be unfair to characterize such people as characterized by thumos, by a desire to control things, to order things, even to achieve mastery or dominance. And, characteristically, such people are distinguished by what might be called “spiritedness.” And, often, when their spiritedness is interfered with, they become angry.


                  On the other hand, a life of leisure might be best described as one of dwelling within different things, like music, poetry, friendships, or other relationships that embody or reflect beauty. It is a life not about controlling things but a life of enjoying things. In that sense, it is hedonistic. Such a life may be described as “contemplative” insofar as contemplating seems accurately described as a kind of dwelling within phenomena, thinking about things in that sense. Such people may best be described as erotic, as led by their eros to dwell within the beautiful however it might manifest itself in human affairs.


                  It should be emphasized that insofar as Aristotle is favorably disposed to the philosophic life, the contemplative life, he does not understand the philosophical life as “divorced from all external things,” as “some” do. Rather, the philosophical life is contemplative in the sense that it dwells within, say, music, friendship, art, and other forms of the beautiful. It is hardly “divorced from all external things;” in fact, it may be said to embrace external things in order to enjoy them.


                  Music, which forms a large part of Aristotle’s recommended education for what he calls the best regime, seems to require a dwelling within it. It’s as if music beckons humans to dwell within it, as do some other human phenomena as well. But music seems particularly geared to draw humans into its realm, into its beauty.


                  It is even possible enter into, to dwell within politics via “theory” or contemplation, which is what Aristotle seems to be doing in his Politics. And while this might have political implications, such “theorizing” need not result in an endorsement of any particular political agenda or any particular political regime. Such theorizing is not done in the service of any particular political agenda, but it is meant to illuminate “the political” as a universal, a ”natural” human activity, for better and worse. And it might just be that when illuminated via such theorizing, the political has the appearance of comedy or of irony. And, so, it might be best for humans not to take politics too seriously, best for humans to be aware of the limits of politics, best for humans not to affirm the political as capable of transforming by redeeming the human condition. Political reform is the best thing available to humans. New modes and orders or “new world orders” are pipe dreams fraught with the dangers of despotism and a deadly imperialism.

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