The Book Club

Hard Choices

I do not know why Madonna has begun talking with an English accent. Unfortunately, Madonna has become one of these things about which it is impossible to make a satisfying joke.

In your strictures on moderation, did you have Aristotle in mind? If so, you’re being a little unfair. Aristotle’s attempt to characterize virtue as a mean between two extremes was an interesting intellectual project. It worked well for some virtues (courage lying between cowardice and rashness) and failed for others (like justice). It works quite well, as it happens, for the virtue of facial beauty, which, research shows, is a mean lying between many ugly extremes (huge chin–no chin, eyes far apart–eyes close together, etc.).

Your prescription for a good and happy life looks fine at first blush. It doesn’t seem to proceed from any philosophical convictions. It comes from Colin McGinn qua sensible fellow who has done some living, not Colin McGinn qua philosopher. But there is a philosophical defect lurking in it. If everyone followed your maxims–they are, after all, addressed to everyone–the world would be a dull place. Producing something of enduring value–achieving something–often means choosing a life that leaves out some goods. A saint committed to relieving the suffering of others may not have time for kayaking. Great statesmen cannot get a good night’s sleep. Even morality may have to go by the boards. Evelyn Waugh observed that “it is often pride, emulation, avarice, malice–all the odious qualities–which drive a man to compete, elaborate, refine, destroy, renew his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed. And in doing so he enriches the world more than the generous and good, though he may lose his soul in the process. That is the paradox of artistic achievement.” Nor need the good life be a happy one. For Proust, happy years were lost years: “On attend une souffrance pour travailler.”

So how is one to choose between a life of accomplishment and a life of tranquil day-to-day pleasures, between the contemplative life and the life of action, between a life lived for others and a life lived for oneself? Nehamas, in his book, makes much of giving one’s life the form of an interesting narrative. But what sort of narrative: epic, lyric, or tragedy?

For centuries philosophers argued that there was a single best life: the philosophical life. They don’t say that any more. Liberalism holds that the question of what constitutes the best life can’t be settled at the political level. Modernity might be defined as the idea that this same question can’t be settled on the personal level. Nehamas certainly goes for this idea. There are no rules for the good life, he says, not even “Get a good night’s sleep.” Nietzsche put it more bluntly: “The way–that does not exist!”

But this is just the typical Nietzschean rodomontade. Where is the argument? Are we supposed to accept it on faith that there is no rational way to make life choices? I think we can do better, but I’ll save that for the final installment.

Meanwhile, here’s something to ponder: Why do great philosophers rarely get married? Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Locke, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein–all were bachelors. And with the exception of Descartes, who had an illegitimate child by a servant girl, all failed to get their genes into the next generation. Does philosophy lead one to eschew the family life? Is it true, as Nietzsche said (and the happily wed Nehamas quotes with disapproval), that “the married philosopher belongs to comedy”?

P.S. Professor McGinn, were you by chance at one time the Mental Reader in Wilde Philosophy at Oxford?