Last week’s post explored how my views have begun moving from integrity toward intimacy. To me the key appeal of the intimacy approach, as I discussed there, is the way it can lead to satisficing over maximizing. Last week I focused on the implications of this distinction for happiness.
But there’s an additional appeal to intimacy’s satisficing, one which I have also begun to explore only recently. I have often been curious about the tendency for philosophies to be either supernatural or political (or both) in orientation, and as an explanation I have repeatedly returned to Simone Weil’s quote: “Atheist materialism is necessarily revolutionary, because to orient oneself toward an absolute good down here, one must place it in the future.” The question then is: why do we need to orient ourselves to an absolute good, in the future or up there? Why not just set our eyes lower?
Readers have pointed to key problems with the lower-aim approach, on more than one occasion. I suggested something like it at the end of my diagnosis-prognosis post: “there’s no straightforward solution in sight. All we can do is keep stumbling through the evils of life – we can pursue the difficult, but worthy and surmountable, task of finding enough joy, truth and interest in life to make it well worth living.” Commenters found the post “life-sapping”, something I might need to be saved from. When I suggested that we could view the Buddhist path as reducing suffering rather than ending it, Justin Whitaker noted that that sounded “a bit dour” and added, “I have to laugh, thinking of the Buddha as a ‘mostly-suffering-free’ spiritual ideal instead of the traditional ‘fully awakened one.’” My reply conceded that this seemed less exciting, and that for that reason, if it seemed like the best way, the only way to get others to adopt it might be through morally questionable “noble lies”.
But must it be so? I have come to think that in many respects the intimacy descent approach (though probably not the intimacy ascent approach) gives us another angle, in a worldview closely connected to literal conservatism. This worldview, which I see exemplified in Confucianism as well as the likes of Front Porch Republic, is clearly political, but it is a kind of politics far removed from “revolutionary atheist materialism”. What’s more, Confucianism, unlike Epicureanism, lasted thousands of years – and it did so without Weil’s “absolute good”, the final human end that Eric Voegelin would call an “eschaton”.
Confucianism is not completely conservative. Mencius, for example, allows that one may overthrow an unjust ruler; the Confucians wrote in a time of chaos and war, hoping to reform the system to create order. But the political system he envisions is modest in its scope and ambition – one in which people’s basic needs are provided for, the rulers do not provoke offensive wars, and the people in turn respect their rulers and want to keep the system in place. One could plausibly argue that such a system has existed at many times in human history; it doesn’t seem like an “absolute” good at all, but if it were, it could be found in the present and the past, neither in the future nor up above.
I see connections between Confucianism and literal conservatism in that disavowal of an absolute good or eschaton: the present may be decent and worth preserving, but even if it isn’t, what’s called for is not a radical utopian transformation. Politically, the approach satisfices and does not maximize. The quest for an absolute good gets in the way of a more modest good. Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien, as a very unconservative philosopher once said.
So why do people continue to aim for an absolute good, a transcendent world above us or in front of us? The answer I had proposed before is: death. Bruce Cockburn once sang: “Without the could-be and the might-have-been, all you’ve got left is your fragile skin, and that ain’t worth much down where the death squad lives.”
In discussing the problem of death, I had previously raised an objection to an intimacy approach. I had previously classified intimacy descent views as “traditionalist”, integrity ascent as “ascetic” and integrity descent as “libertine”. I have since decided that the two axes of integrity-intimacy and ascent-descent provide a better classification and terminology. But I raised significant concerns about death under the old rubric, and those concerns remain worthy of consideration.
I noted then that the “ascetic”, “libertine” and “traditionalist” ways of life each proposed their own ways of dealing with death, and I found the “traditionalist” view wanting. The libertine addresses death with Lucretius’s view that it is nothing to us because we won’t feel it; the ascetic with various options, but most prominently through the identification with a larger whole that preexisted our life and will continue after our death; and the traditionalist through identification with work and children, which will outlast us. My question was: by how much will it outlast us? Our descendants may not have descendants of their own; our work may fade into obscurity or be lost forever. The ascetic’s and the libertine’s approaches – the integrity approaches – seem a surer path.
But does the follower of the intimacy approach need to deal with death through work and family? Perhaps a synthesis is possible here. I noted a while ago how difficult it can be to follow Lucretius’ advice and avoid the fear of death, because death ends all of our experience. But I noted also that death looks less frightening to the extent we avoid egotism – to the extent that we can get over ourselves. And a key feature of the intimacy approach as I understand it is diminished individualism. One is a person-in-community. If one stops focusing on one’s own happiness and subjectivity, and looks a little wider to the flourishing of some group of people however defined, perhaps it’s easier to say, as the Epicureans do, that death is nothing to us. The paradoxes of hedonism seem in full force here.