The Art of Life
by John Kekes
Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 2002
(267 pages; $29.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Graeme Hunter
During the early decades of the twentieth century philosophy became a specialized subject, pursued by professionals and preoccupied with technical problems and method. This change resulted in the elimination of much obscurity and dilettantism and raised the standard of clarity and precision demanded of philosophical works. It also resulted in the alienation of those who traditionally turned to philosophy for help with their reflections but who had no interest in technicalities. This book is addressed to them.”
So says the philosopher John Kekes in the preface of this profound reflection on the art of living. And he keeps his promise, spurning the dried husks that are frequently marketed as “ethics.” Not that this book is an easy read. Though not pretentious, it is still philosophy. Its merit is to be worth the effort needed to understand it.
Just as cities can be made beautiful by their elegant layout or through decorative monuments, so books can be rewarding through the new shape they give to our thoughts or through aphoristic insights strategically placed along the way. Kekes’s principal aim is to reshape our moral thinking—that is what makes his book a challenge—but some minor monuments enliven its progress. Here is a sampling:
On Rights: “A right is a claim against others. This claim may or may not be cashed in. People may have a right to commit suicide, have an abortion, and see pornographic movies. But that is not an invitation to engage in these activities. There is a question of when rights should be acted on.”
On Depth: “People lack depth if their minds are cluttered with accurate information about trivial facts, and someone may possess great depth on some subject and yet be mistaken about it.”
On Self-Respect versus Self-Esteem: “The essential moral difference that is obscured by using self-respect and self-esteem interchangeably is that people’s moral achievements may vary and those who have realized their reasonable potentialities are entitled to feel better about themselves than those who have failed.”
On Choice: “Choice becomes more important for people whose personal excellences are insecurely formed. . . . [It] becomes an indication of lack of excellence rather than a condition of it.”
Each of the aphorisms above says something significant and original about matters that concern most of us today, about which we recognize the need to reflect. But these lines do not occur in isolation. They are woven into the fabric of a sustained discussion about what it is that makes a good life and to what extent it lies in our power to lead one.
So what does account for the goodness of good lives? Kekes is too wise to think that he can exhaust the topic, but he offers a definition that applies to the broad range of good lives he intends to consider: “Good lives combine personal satisfactions, derived from engagements in projects in a manner that reflects one’s ideals of personal excellence, and moral acceptability, which depends on conformity to the universal, social and individual requirements of morality.” There is a lot packed into this definition, but it is not restrictive. In keeping with Kekes’s pluralism, it allows us the possibility of organizing good lives around excellences, ideals, and projects that other equally good people do not share. In the first part of his book, he illustrates his pluralism by examining a number of good lives organized around principles as different as decency, moral authority, and honor.
In the course of the book we learn to see why pluralism of this kind does not reduce to relativism. It is because good lives must take two matters into consideration, instead of only one. A liberating creativity, though important, is insufficient. Lives that pay attention to nothing else are relativistic, since they acknowledge no limit to the human will. But self-indulgent relativists ignore the moral dimension of life, which also exists. They try to deny even the “physiological, psychological, and social needs that must be satisfied if they are to lead good lives.” Morality, Kekes says, is at the very least “a system designed to protect” such requirements of good lives.
This book is embellished by brief descriptions of the lives of people who achieved personal excellences, following ideals they freely adopted and expressing them in projects they freely chose. Kekes helps the reader to see that their lives were good not just because of what they followed, adopted, and chose, but because they lived up to appropriate moral standards. The art of living consists in integrating these desirable things while avoiding such pitfalls as moralism, sentimentalism, and romanticism.
Because life is an art and not a science, one’s success in living is never certain until life ends. That is what is behind the ancient dictum: “Count no man happy until he is dead.” Greek tragedy tells and retells the tale of the limitations of human artfulness. It depicts how quickly and irretrievably the promise of goodness can be extinguished by unforeseeable contingencies.
Christian readers will find this book informative and challenging, but not, I predict, satisfying. The reason is that Kekes begins from a historical claim that is unfavorable to a Christian outlook, namely, that “there is no longer such a thing as the religious answer” to the question of how to live.
This point is not worthy of a philosopher—especially of such a good one. Surely if there ever was “the” religious answer, then there is such still. And if there is none now, there never was one.
But Kekes is no doubt just being polite. If asked, he would say that, in his estimation, there never was a unique religious answer. People only thought there was. Religion is a personal and vast thing and only figures in this book because it furnishes material for good lives of a sort, though clearly not of the sort in which its author is particularly interested.
Christians, however, cannot accept their practice being classified as one among many good lifestyles. They will therefore not be in favor of the pluralism of this book, however much they may learn from it. When Kekes is arguing that good lives must be both creative and morally acceptable, Christians will be agreeing. But they will be astonished that he can be satisfied with that. Must lives not first and foremost be acceptable to God?
While we may disagree with the foundations of Kekes’s view, no one is likely to quarrel with the flawless arguments he erects on them. But when an author argues honestly and well in a cause we think mistaken, we should always expect to find in his writing vindications of the truth, as well as traces of the wrong assumptions with which it began. Such can be found here, where Kekes considers the ever-present threat of contingency in the lives he calls good, the shadow of tragedy that grows darker the brighter life’s light. Like many pre-Christian thinkers, Kekes is forced to accept the bleak view that even the best men’s lives continue in goodness only with a substantial measure of luck, and that their goodness is all one with evil at death.
Kekes tells very well the story of a world that might have been ours: one in which there was no repentance, no conversion, no redemption, no Master who retrieved lost sheep, rejoicing over them more than over the ninety and nine who never went astray.
Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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