How Do We Know How To Live? ... How Adulting Schools Arose

Storied skills and a musical analogy might help us update the logic of "virtue ethics." In life, as in jazz, freedom without skills results in a lot foolish noise. 


1. How do we know how to live? What to aim for in life? Ways of life vary, but all need storied skills (and their life-structuring logic).

2. Each culture’s “storytelling resources… are of great political and moral importance,” says Alasdair MacIntyre (they’re a “chief means of moral education”; morals = co-living norms; politics = public morality).

3. The “moral of” a story retains an older sense of “practical lesson” taught, from Latin moralis, translating Greek ethikos, “pertaining to character” (neither language had “a word correctly translated by our word moral”).

4. Prior character-forming stories (e.g., from religions or philosophies) face newer story-making agendas e.g., lifestyle vendors, or art-serving and self-serving artists (sometimes oblivious to art’s life-structuring effects).

5. Shifting story-practices caused “something like a mutation in human nature” ~400 years ago. Lionel Trilling says that‘s how once socio-centric, role-and-relationship driven Westerners “became individuals."

6. Harold Bloom amplifies Trilling (over-dramatically)—“Shakespeare… invented the human” (characters narrating inner lives in “modern” ways).

7. Novels spread this “mutation” (they’re a “sophisticated technology of selfhood"—Vikram Chandra). Novelists became “engineers of the soul” (Stalin), transmitting the “big stuff” (Obama).

8. Philosophy once explicitly shaped novels. D. H. Lawrence called Plato’s Dialogues “queer little novels,” lamenting that “philosophy and fiction got split.” Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein notes that Middlemarch and Moby-Dick were, like her novels, philosophy-fueled. Likewise for Atlas Shrugged (once reportedly 2nd in influence to the Bible).

9. However unfashionable it seems to some artists (e.g., Nabokov didn’t “give a damn about public morals”), stories and art embody and enact moralities, philosophies, and psychologies (often folk not formal, naive not schooled, often tacitly/unwittingly). 

10. But “the only art that escapes social, or ethical, or political effects is art with no audience. Part of what art does is preach… intentionally or not.” Its glorying power often focuses now on what’s prestigious or fun in art (but can be ruinous in life).

11. Soul-engineering is shifting again; MacIntyre notices “new kinds of storyteller and story.”

12. Text-centric “Gutenberg minds” are waning. Ambient ads spread consumerism’s glamorizing how-to-live stories ad-nauseum (with “hidden brain” learning effects). Video game patterns separate players “from their humanity” (Ian Bogost).

13. Economists also preach life-and-world-structuring stories that sometimes increase selfishness (+ untrustworthiness, + see Fiction vs. Economics on Human Nature; + short history of individualism).

14. MacIntyre prefers life-structuring stories leveraging Aristotelian virtues—seeking rationally educated desires, above non-rational appetites/emotions (see, feelings = fast thinking, + Plato’s Pastry).

15. MacIntyre’s “virtue ethics” needs an updated vocabulary. Virtues are logical life skills, and virtue ethics teaches practical ways to avoid low-skill living (some need “adulting school,” or The Marines to teach successful adult" skills—JD. Vance).

16. A musical analogy might resonate—in life, as in jazz, freedom without skills, is just foolish noise. How could unskilled freedom be desirable?

 

 --

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.

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