We know what it means for a painting to be beautiful. But what about a life? Like great works of art, great people exhibit style, originality, and creativity.
Some philosophers, including the guest on this week's program, Lanier Anderson, his teacher Alexander Nehamas, and their hero Nietzsche, are of the opinion think that we should think of our lives as works of art. I think Ken is sympathetic to this idea, at least. I"m a bit skeptical, but ready to learn.
First off, it seems that lots of lives are literally works of art, or parts of works of art. Captain Ahab’s life is part of Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, for example. But my life isn’t a work of art in this sense, and I don't suppose anyone thinks I should regard myself as part of a novel written by someone else. The idea is rather that real lives, like yours and mine, can be, and maybe ought to be, regarded as works of art.
I'm afraid that if someone were to write a novel based on my life, it would be a comic novel about an absent-minded Philosophy professor. If it were artfully written, it might be a work of art, but that wouldn’t make me a work of art.
But my life, is shaped by my decisions, and so those decision would shape a novel or biography based on it. So I might try to live my life with the thought of making a pretend biography written about it a good read. Like a good novelist, I may make something beautiful, or intriguing, or suspenseful, or at any rate somewhat meaningful, out of my life. What these philosophers recommend is that I should purposely shape my life into something with coherence, beauty, meaning, style, and grace ---- that’s what it is to LIVE one's life as a work of art.
That may not be easy. If I’m writing a novel, I can make the hero anything I want to. Maybe a great quarterback who studies physics for fun and makes a lot of money in the stock market. But sadly, life is not like that. I can't just decide how my life is going to turn out. I am constrained by my physical and mental equipment, and many other things that are out of my control. Still, there is room left to make many important decisions about my life, so aesthetic/artistic values can at least guide those decisions.
But would that be a good idea? It seems the aesthetic decision may not be the wise decision; it may even be immoral. Suppose I’m at a bar and an obnoxious guy gives me a hard time, and finally hits me. The wise thing to do is to leave. One might imagine that given my considerable prowess as a fighter, the moral thing to do is leave without hurting another human being --- to turn the other cheek. But those decisions make for a boring life. You’d never get a good movie out of that sort of life. If my life is a work of art, don't I need to do something exciting, like busting a bottle of Bourbon over his head.
Maybe not. Great characters in real fiction aren't always violent thugs. Think Jane Eyre. Don’t I at least want to live my life so that it is aesthetically coherent? Don’t I want to live with a sense of style? Don’t I want certain themes to emerge?
Well, not really. I mean I suppose if I could just push a button that would give me a little more style. I would do so, but I wouldn't invest a lot of time searching for the button. The whole project sounds a bit self-absorbed or even narcissistic --- like Beau Brummel, or Oscar Wilde, or Johnny Depp. But maybe I am taking it all a bit too seriously.
Basically, it sounds like I should draft something that might be read at my funeral, and paints me as an interesting character, maybe flawed but virtuous, gruff but kind, inept but determined, and so on. Then I should try to live my life, so that in fact that would be an accurate eulogy.
Maybe I could do that without being especially narcissistic or self-absorbed? Could be. I’m still pretty skeptical of the whole idea.