From time to time, a wave of elitism sweeps through me. I know when it’s coming, as I begin to become hyper-critical of other people. Words like ‘ignorant’ and ‘stupid’ pop into my mind. Once triggered, the process races on. Just a few hours ago, I watched a security person move a barrier that blocked access to a pathway that had been created close to a building site (most days it is closed off, forcing pedestrians to walk on the road!). Carefully, she pulled it round, so that now the alleyway that ran down the side of the building site was blocked, just at this one end, rather than swing the barrier the other way. Unconcerned over what she had done, she went back to chatting to a colleague. Meanwhile, half-way along the pathway (now accessible) another person (a ‘Spotter’) stepped forward with a sign: ‘Stop’. I knew the routine: he was ensuring a truck could back in safely, except I couldn’t see a truck. I moved forward and could see the truck was stopped by a parked fire engine and wouldn’t be coming for some time. I walked on. Nothing was said. Two stupid people, I thought. It was like … look, I know I am being outrageous, but I can’t seem to stop myself.
Stupid and ignorant. Linda was in a hardware store recently, to buy a tube of plastic wood, a very ingenious Australian invention, which fills cracks or damaged areas, dries to the colour of the chosen wood variety, and can then be treated as if it was wood, into which you can hammer nails, insert screws and so on. “Do you sell plastic wood?” “No. Never heard of it. We don’t stock it”, the young and bored assistant replied. Linda checked the store website, and saw it was indeed a store item. She eventually found another store worker who showed her where it could be found. As she checked out, the same bored assistant didn’t even make a comment. Had she even noticed she was charging for a tube of plastic wood?
Once started, I can’t be stopped. I think about gullible voters. I watch careless car drivers. I hear the shouts and screams of drunks at the pub. I notice the vacant looks of people on the tram as they play a mindless game on their mobile ’phones. Everywhere I look I can see individuals motivated by nothing more than self-centred consumerism and trivial pursuits. Now I’ve reached the peak of the cycle: at this point, I hate most of humanity!
What is this about? While I can trace my attitude back to an elitist education, going to one of the better British grammar schools and then to Cambridge, it became far worse when I confronted the terrible trio of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In Plato’s Apology, his account of Socrates trial for corrupting youth, Socrates remarked “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Well, that quote is according to Plato, which leaves us with a minor puzzle, since we have no idea what Socrates said: all the records of his words are through the medium of his student. Perhaps I should have called the group the terrible duo – Socrates/Plato (SP) and Aristotle. SP believed that philosophy and the pursuit of wisdom through logical argument, questioning and thinking, comprised the highest calling to which we can aspire.
Since that time, I have subscribed to the ideal of the examined life. How could I not. It is an encouragement to be fully human, to use our ability to think, to raise our existence above that of the rest of the animal world. For if we don’t think, we are no more than all those other animals, simply eating, sleeping, working and procreating. Plato got stuck into that with a wonderful passage in The Republic with the nickname of ‘The City of Pigs’ puncturing our predisposition to want more and more things, rather aspiring to live an examined life.
However, as one philosopher wrote recently, while it is likely most people do occasionally think about their lives and where they are heading, “The bulk of humankind, today and in history, has been far too busy struggling for survival to engage in lengthy philosophical analyses. So, if an examined life is one in which more than just a little investigation takes place, by implication, huge swathes of humanity are ignorant beasts.” This implies that “only elites have worthwhile lives, while the great unwashed merely exist. To praise this noble ideal is thus to deny the value of millions of your fellow humans’ lives.” [i] When I’ve climbed off the mountain of uncontrolled elitism, I think ‘oops, that’s me’!
Wait a minute, surely the most important issues in life are seeking to understand ourselves and the world around us? To give up on the quest for greater understanding, to accept the nostrums of prophets or self-help gurus, is to abandon the very thing that makes us human.
When I turn to Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, I find there is another perspective on this. Aristotle was far more pragmatic than SP and added to the agenda of activities, in addition to the exercise of analytical skills. One of these was the pursuit of happiness, which he claimed went beyond acquiring health, wealth, knowledge, friends, etc. More important is to seek ‘the perfection of human nature’, while also taking account of the importance of balance, avoiding extremes (moderation in all things, as my mother constantly reminded me). Happiness is about character, and our willingness to make what may often prove to be difficult choices. Often ‘the lesser good’ promises immediate pleasure and is more tempting, while pursuing the greater good can be painful and require some sort of sacrifice. While it might be easier and more enjoyable to take the evening off from work and spend the night watching a thriller on television, you know you will be better off if you complete the project report you had promised for the following morning (or clean the house, or repair a leaking tap you had promised your partner). Aristotle believed developing a good character requires a strong effort of will to do the right thing, even in difficult situations.
Aristotle would be strongly critical of the culture of “instant gratification” which seems to predominate in society today. In order to achieve the life of complete virtue, we need to make the right choices, and this involves keeping our eye on the future, on the ultimate result we want for our lives as a whole. We will not achieve happiness simply by enjoying the pleasures of the moment: perfection of our human nature takes time. Unfortunately, he suggested the desire for immediate gratification is a tendency most people are unable to overcome by themselves. Suddenly we are back in familiar territory: Aristotle suggests most people are weak willed, and “the mass of mankind is evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts”. [ii]
I’m lost again to the elitist world. Aristotle was a pragmatist in many ways and argued that the tendency to go for short-term immediate satisfactions can be addressed by education, acquiring the constant desire to enhance one’s ‘virtue’. Since our nature is to be rational, the ultimate perfection in our life is rational reflection. This means sustaining an intellectual curiosity which perpetuates our natural desire to know, a curiosity which begins in childhood but seems to be stamped out early on by rote learning. For Aristotle, education should be about the cultivation of character, and this involves a practical and a theoretical component. The practical component is the acquisition of a moral character; the theoretical component is the making of a philosopher. Here there is no tangible reward, but the critical questioning of things raises our minds above the realm of nature, taking us closer to ‘perfection’.
Got it. The clerk in the store, the security guard, the problem with these two is they were poorly educated. I’ve been down this track before. Start with the assumption that we are all born the same, with a natural curiosity, a natural desire to learn, to be creative. What happens is that the educational system fails many people, crushing their natural abilities through dumbed down education, with classes taught at the same pace the slowest learner in the group can follow. Oops, gone and done it again. Some people are slower than others. In other words, where we are different is in the skills we possess, learning skills, language skills, and in those SP and Aristotle see as critical, the philosophical skills of being logical, analytical, of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. Some have what is needed, and (many) others don’t.
In the world in which I live (I doubt it was different back in the times of Athens’s ascendancy), I have dealt with many people, students, staff, colleagues and friends and I can’t get around my observation that some turned out to be pretty dumb, and some are clearly not good at certain things. I can’t ignore the reality many people have poor retentive memories. Several are unable to carry out even basic mathematical operations. The rigours of logic are beyond many others. I nearly wrote that they are stupid, but I managed to stop myself: they are not as ‘smart’ as I think they should be (weasel words, if ever I wrote them).
When I climb back down from the elitist mountain, I don’t escape from the grip of those Greek philosophers. I do appreciate that we are all different, that one person has skills another doesn’t, and each has a distinctive and different character. Diversity is good. Despite this catholic view of people, my prejudices remain: some are dumb!
Back to the beginning: is the security guard or the shop clerk leading a life worth living? Is his or her approach to happiness any less valuable than that sought by the person who pursues Aristotle’s virtuous life? Is there another way to look at this, to stop me swinging between the highs and lows of elitism? Here’s an idea: what about meaning and purpose?
Meaning and purpose. What is the meaning of life? It’s hard not to resort to humour at this point, especially if you can remember the end of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. The announcer at the end reveals the meaning of life: “Well, it’s nothing very special. Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” [iii] If that sounds like a recipe for leading a good life, it certainly doesn’t seem to be offering much on the meaning of life. As is so often the case, this bit of anarchic humour does what humour so often does, it nudges us away from asking hard questions about how we should live.
For lives to have meaning and purpose, they must be about more than just surviving. If the elitist approach is to talk about an examined life, or a life seeking perfection and virtue and avoiding extremes, are there other alternatives? Abraham Maslow came up with a hierarchy of needs, a pyramid, each successive need resting on the fulfilment on the one below. At the bottom of the hierarchy sits physiological needs (saying alive); next safety; and above those love and belonging. The next need is esteem, and at the top is self-actualisation, which refers to “the realization of one’s full potential”. Maslow described this as “the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be”.[iv] Meaning and purpose?
If that sounds a little elitist, Maslow wasn’t satisfied, and in a later book added yet another level, which he termed ‘transcendence’, in which one finds the fullest realisation in giving oneself to something beyond oneself—for example, in altruism or spirituality. He suggested “transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos”. [v] I wonder how many can aspire to that level? And to think I considered myself an elitist!
Perhaps Maslow foresaw the importance of the 20th Century’s alternative to leading an examined life, and this is the drive towards realising one’s ‘human potential’. Emerging out of the counter-culture movements of the 1960’s, no venture is more illustrative of the new thinking of that time than Esalen (The Esalen Institute) at Slates Hot Springs, Big Sur, California. After opening in 1962, the institute continues to draw participants through its core offering of workshops on humanistic psychology, physical wellbeing and spiritual awareness. These have grown to include others on permaculture, ecological sustainability, spiritual and religious studies, ecopsychology, wilderness experience and meditation, among many others. The Institute describes its business as humanistic alternative education.
It would be hard to find anything more unlike the SP model of the examined life, or Aristotle’s desire that people should pursue moral character and philosophical enquiry. As a recent report noted: “Esalen helped bring once-alien concepts and practices, including personal growth, yoga and organic food, to the American mainstream while celebrating the oneness of mind and body in its workshops and clothing-optional hot springs”. [vi] All this is about the individual, the “seeker and the spiritual path”. The concern fifty years after its heady beginning is that Esalen has become an expensive luxury resort, an example of a new kind of selfish elitism. [vii] But perhaps it always was.
Is purpose and meaning in life a personal quest? I prefer Aristotle’s model, not the simple-minded pursuit of happiness, but, as he explained the desire to perfect (improve) on who we are and what we do, as members of a community, constantly avoiding immediate gain at the expense of longer term benefits, the things we should be seeking to improve. Then he decided the ultimate perfection of our natures is rational reflection, as he saw humans as rational creatures. Echoes of SP. Surely he was right on emphasising we are social beings, and the importance of the community, but we are essentially rational? That’s a harder one to accept. We are rational creatures, but we are also emotional, and spiritual ones, too. Only an elitist would assume rationality represents the pinnacle of what it is to be human!
I can’t imagine anything more important than having meaning and purpose in life. The part I find so difficult is that I suspect many see this as a personal quest, but it must be more than that, given we are part of a community, a broader society. Some elements of purpose and meaning must transcend my personal preferences but represent universal goals and understanding. Like that nice old elitist ‘examined life’? Oh no, off I go again, back up the elitist mountain!
[ii] Nicomachean Ethics, 1095b 20
[iii] Those of you with good memories will recall the announcer continues “And, finally, here are some completely gratuitous pictures of penises to annoy the censors and to hopefully spark some sort of controversy, which it seems is the only way these days to get the jaded, video-sated public off their fucking arses and back in the sodding cinema. Family entertainment? Bollocks. What they want is filth: people doing things to each other with chainsaws during tupperware parties, babysitters being stabbed with knitting needles by gay presidential candidates, vigilante groups strangling chickens, armed bands of theatre critics exterminating mutant goats. Where’s the fun in pictures? Oh, well, there we are. Here’s the theme music. Goodnight.”
[iv] In his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality, Harper: New York, page 92
[v] Farther Reaches of Human Nurture, New York: Viking, 1971
[vii] Op cit