As I write this post, I, probably along with most of my readers, face severe restrictions on normal human social activity, in order to limit the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus. Electronic communications have made it possible to continue a social life despite these restrictions – but much of this conversation tends to focus on the virus and the limitations of life under it. I find myself yearning for more conversations about other things, and you may be as well. I also do not think I have anything particularly profound to say about the virus so far. For these reasons, I am not going to write here about the virus, at least for now. Instead, for the next little while I’m going to write about other topics that I’d been planning to write about anyway, but on an increased frequency to suit my and others’ changed schedules: every Sunday rather than every alternate Sunday. This is the first such post. I was not thinking about the virus when I originally wrote it, but perhaps it takes on a different resonance now.
A good human life, in general, requires living with other human beings. Some would take this claim as a truism, but I think it’s important to establish it. The ideal of the autonomous, independent individual is not merely a modern Western conceit, as is usually thought; this ideal is held up as a high ideal by monastic traditions in ancient India, perhaps most prominently in the Yoga Sūtras and Jain Tattvārtha Sūtra which describe their highest ideal as kaivalya, aloneness.
Overall, it seems to me, those Indian traditions (which I’ve called integrity ascent are better able to achieve an ideal of independence than are modern Western traditions of integrity descent, which perhaps reach their extreme in Ayn Rand. Rand’s independent autonomous individual is something of a lie; her presumed ideal man, after all, is an architect. He would have accomplished nothing without all the construction workers and shop foremen and others who made his building actually happen.
The Indian renouncers, however, developed the ideal of the forest monk, who lives only on what he can personally scrounge. Dedicated Jains may move past even the forest monk’s dependence on food by practising sallekhanā, voluntary death by slow starvation. Such people depend on no one else. They are not wholly independent in that they needed material support in their early lives to get to that point, and they typically needed others’ teachings to get to their realization, but independence is something they can achieve.
Yet we must remain aware that these are extreme cases – extreme even within their traditions. Sallekhanā only comes at the end of a long life spent with other people. And those of us human beings who are not forest monks – which is almost all of us – do need to live with other people. Even monks normally live in a settled community with other monks rather than the forest (“cenobitic” rather than “eremitic” monks, to use the technical English vocabulary), and could not continue living without food from householders.
The ideal, typically, is that a cenobitic monk still maintains at least mental detachment from those gifts of food. But even if we assume that such a monk is able to stand properly aloof from the given gifts and be at peace with the possibility of dying of starvation, that monk still needs to deal with other monks in the monastic community. Monks must make decisions for other monks: who sleeps in which cell, what teachings are given when, what to do when someone seems not to be living as a monk is supposed to live. Monastic rules (vinaya), like any other rules, cannot anticipate all contingencies; someone must make the decision of how they apply. So for the majority of monks and renouncers, other people are still important for achieving their transcendent goals.
And monks and renouncers, I would argue, are still the ones most successful at living a life independent of others – as part of a life devoted purely to dukkhanirodha, the prevention of suffering. For the rest of us, who seek additional goods beyond dukkhanirodha, it’s not even a contest. As MacIntyre notes in Dependent Rational Animals (140-1), most of the goods that we humans seek are shared goods; they involve other people, often constitutively.
MacIntyre’s point is obviously true of love and companionship, but it is true of other goods as well. One can take pleasure or enjoyment on one’s own, but it is typically enhanced when shared – the delights of a delicious meal are more delightful in the company of others partaking in the joy. (This point might be all too painfully clear in the current moment that makes it so difficult to do so.) And so too the creative self-actualization so central to qualitative individualism. I mentioned above how Ayn Rand’s architect depends on others to build his buildings. Not all creative works depend on others to the same degree; Rand could write her works by herself. But even her written works would hardly be an achievement if nobody read them! In words made famous by Brandi Carlile, these stories don’t mean anything if you’ve got no one to tell them to. Rand’s own success is not possible without a readership.
So we need others to live well – and I think this need is the best starting point for political philosophy and theory. But more on that next time.