Monday, January 6, 2014

Truth, Beauty, Goodness

Welcome to a new year! If you’re still breathing, you got here. It doesn’t seem like that much of an accomplishment, just surviving. But if you got here healthy and happy, with abundant joy in your life—now that’s an accomplishment. And it’s something that isn’t likely to have happened if all you do is breathe and survive. You need to live life a certain way to bring about that kind of happy result.
Sometimes we use the beginning of a new year to reflect, and to plan. To see how we’ve been doing and resolve to do something even better. We live, at least while we’re thinking about it, with more purpose.
Aristotle, image found here
So, in order to get more goodness in our lives, we need to focus on some pure, basic principles of goodness. These are the principles we try to identify in separating civilization from savagery, in Spherical Model terms. It’s simply better to face inevitable adversities while living in the abundant, fulfilling, loving and happy civilized society, rather than in the mean, dark, bitter, unfair, and chaotic misery of a savage society. We might be trying to identify what Aristotle referred to as “eudaimonia,” or “human flourishing.” You get to that state, hexis, or disposition to act excellently, by learning and adopting virtues.
I listened this past weekend to an interview between Bill Whittle, at PJTV, and Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College. I’ve quoted Dr. Arnn a number of times [here and here], and I think I’m seeing a theme. He often talks about the basic idea of nature: the goodness of a thing residing it its “being” the thing it is meant to be. The “cupness” of a cup is what determines whether it is good. And similarly, the “humanness” of a human being is what determines goodness. So, from that comes the question: what is a good human? Or, put more directly (and more religiously), what does it mean to be a good person? What should we do, think, and be to live a good life?

Here's the whole interview, which I recommend. But I have taken just a segment to talk about below.

Dr. Arnn says they teach the classics at Hillsdale College, and also at the charter schools developed by Hillsdale. The reason for studying classics is that these very questions about how to live have been asked, with attempted answers, for a very long time. Hillsdale is a liberal arts college, so this exchange is in response to a question about the value of such an education in today’s world. But, again, it’s the answer to that “how to be” question.
[at 11:50 in] Bill Whittle: You said earlier that a liberal arts education prepares people basically on how to live. Basically, a student who’s completed a liberal arts education at a college like yours that really understands the meaning of the term, is somebody that not only has a storehouse of information, but they also come out with some kind of a value system, some sort of  a moral code—some sort of an intellectual and moral ability to look at changing circumstances in the world, make sense out of them, put them together in a way that’s reasonable, and then proceed down the pathway of history. What do you say to people who claim that a liberal arts education doesn’t prepare students for a specific career?
[at 12:20 in] Larry Arnn: Well, the first thing to know is, what are you? We all love to say now that students are trying to find their identity. Well, their identity would be located in what kind of thing they are.
Around here I teach Aristotle’s Ethics every other year or so, and it’s a glorious thing. It’s one of the greatest books ever written; it’s a very beautiful book. And that word beauty is a very important word. The Greek word is “kalos” in Aristotle. And he thinks that everything tends toward the good and the beautiful. And the good is really the thing in inside each thing that makes it what it is. So, we are humans, and we’re full of contradictions and potentials. Contradictions, because, for example, we depend on our families a lot. All you’ve got to do is come to college on opening day in September, and you’ll see lots of weeping mothers and fathers leaving off their beloved children, who are 18 years old. And if they were some other kind of creature, the parents wouldn’t even know who the children are.
That word nature—that comes from the Latin word for birth. And the idea is that family, like human rights, is a natural phenomenon. And you can see that played out all the time.
Well, that’s one part of human nature, but another part is, we have discretion over stuff like that. We don’t really have to get married. We can abandon our children, if we want to. Whereas other animals obey instinct.
So the first thing is, Aristotle’s question in the Ethics is, What makes a human being happy? And his answer is, in short, being good. That is, learning how to be a good one of this kind of thing. And he lists the virtues. And they start with courage, which is the right disposition toward pain and danger. And then the second one is moderation, which is the right disposition toward pleasure.
And when you study that book, you become acquainted, in one of the greatest books ever written, with the obstacles with which we are confronted in our attempt to be good human beings. And there’s just nothing but nobility, in learning what that book says. And there are profound questions in the book that you will end up thinking about the rest of your life, if you think seriously. And it will make you a more serious person. And, in response to your direct question, better equipped to be a working and functioning citizen and worker and member of society.

You could say that learning to live a virtuous life makes you a better contributor to civilization than learning computer programming or civil engineering. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn those other things and contribute in those ways so you can earn your keep; it means that learning to make a living, absent learning how to live a good life, is not enough. In a full life, do both. But start with learning how to live; then add learning how to do something useful. Because once you learn how to live a good life, you will be capable of learning any number of contributing skills.
There’s an object lesson I’ve seen many times. You have a pile of rocks and a pile of sand that must fit in a jar. If you put the sand in first, the rocks don’t fit. But if you place the rocks in first, then the sand sifts into all the open places and fits in the jar as well. First things first, is the principle. Live a good life, whatever you do. The rest of living will find room.
I pray this is a year in which more of us find a way to live a beautiful life, in harmony with the our true nature, as God intended for us, with the happiness God is ready to grant if we will live in obedience to the principles of civilization.

John Keats, quote from "Ode on a Grecian Urn,"
image found here

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