The Underlying Theme

In a comment on my recent post about Aristotle on ways of life, my friend Kurt Keefner wondered if, according to Aristotle, the best life must have a single purpose (in Greek, a telos). I would say so: at the very beginning of the Eudemian Ethics, he says that it is a sign of great folly to not organize your life around some telos. Yet I think this can be interpreted in several different ways.

Consider, for instance, Johann Sebastian Bach (whose Cello Suites I’m transcribing for the electric bass). Perhaps no one in history has pursued as deeply as Bach what we might call “music as a way of life” (indeed, Wilfred Mellers used exactly this phrase in his book Bach and the Dance of God). Bach was steeped in music almost from birth within the extended Bach family of musicians, he studied music with extraordinary intensity throughout his life, he was a master of numerous keyboard instruments, he absorbed and integrated and extended every previous style of Western art music, he composed prolifically and originally in every musical genre except opera, when he wasn’t performing music or composing music he was teaching music, and on and on. To borrow a term from literary theory, the plot of his life was music, music, and more music. Yet what was the theme? I’d say it was religious devotion; as one small sign of this, consider that at the end of every one of his compositions he wrote the following phrase: Soli Deo Gloria (“to God alone the glory”).

When Aristotle talks about the life of “politics” (active engagement in your community) or of “theoria” (active inquiry into the nature of things), he doesn’t mean that your every waking moment is spent in political or theoretical pursuits, even if that were possible for a human being. Instead he means, I think, that those chosen values provide the primary purpose or overall orientation or animating principle or deepest meaning of all aspects of your life – its underlying theme (queue “Limelight” by Rush). It’s not that, say, your relationships with those you love completely lack independent value or are merely means to an end – you still value them on their own terms, but you also tend to view them in the light of that theme. Your life still has a varied portfolio of activities and values, but they all fit together thematically.

This seems clearest under religious conceptions of life. In part what Pierre Hadot was getting at in his conception of philosophy as a way of life is that here, too, one can experience the kind of commitment that religions inspire. For instance, the famous first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics reads: “all human beings by nature reach out for knowledge”, which perhaps reveals more about his own psychology than that of people in general; to put it another way, John Herman Randall once said that Aristotle’s life was guided by “the passionate search for passionless truth”. That search illuminated everything he did; even if it was not his only value, it was the overriding one, the underlying theme of his existence.

This interaction between theme and plot is not limited to philosophers: although a great entrepreneur might make a lot of money or a great artist might become famous, if the money and fame don’t corrupt them they’re primarily dedicated to building great companies or creating great art (similarly for those in the professions or the trades, or even a low-status orderly in a hospital – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses this example in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience).

Here as always it’s not necessarily straightforward to find a beautifully right balance between what Aristotle might call the “material” of your life and its form or purpose – after all, if it were easy everyone would do it! But I do think such a balance is worth aspiring to.

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