The Importance of Being Beautiful

Holt and McGinn

The Importance of Being Beautiful

Holt and McGinn

The Importance of Being Beautiful
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 18 1998 12:33 PM

Holt and McGinn

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I sometimes felt as if I was the Mental Reader in Wilde philosophy during my tenure at Oxford, but officially it was the reading that was Wilde and the philosophy that was mental. My theme song at the time was "Wild child" by Iggy Pop (my association with the Mysterians came later).

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No, I didn't have Aristotle in mind, but my father, who was innocent of Aristotle. When I started studying philosophy he would tell me his philosophy of life--"Moderation in all things, Colin."

My prescriptions for a good and happy life don't spring from any theoretical philosophical convictions, true, but I don't see why they can't be described as constituting a practical philosophy of life. There is, as Aristotle observed, a distinction between theoretical and practical reason; my prescriptions emanate from my practical reason. And of course I could embellish them in such a way as to make them sound more philosophical. I stated them in a universal form, but of course they have to be understood to include an "other things being equal" clause. In exceptional circumstances you have to let the kayaking go by the board or sacrifice that good night's rest, but generally speaking I would stick by my prescriptions. I used to sacrifice a lot more of my life to philosophy at one time, but the years taught me that I needed to allow room for other activities, even to improve the philosophical aspects.

There is one prescription for living that I have left to last. Nehamas makes much of the phrase "the art of living" in his book, but the aesthetic connotations of the phrase get little elaboration. This is odd because Plato believed that goodness is a kind of beauty. Why does Nehamas not speak of the "science of living," if the task is just to figure out what principles to live by? Plato's equation supplies an answer: because virtue is beauty of soul or character. The reason that fashioning one's life is an artistic project is that the soul one fashions is an object of aesthetic evaluation. Without this equation the phrase "the art of living" is hollow. Now, as it happens, I subscribe to Plato's equation; it is one of the main themes of my book Ethics, Evil and Fiction, to which I refer interested readers. My position is that achieving virtue is a kind of artistic accomplishment: It is the creation of a beautiful object--a soul or self. Accordingly, I wish to supplement my prescriptions for life with a meta-prescription: In all one's activities, from the sporting to the intellectual, from clothes to speech, always attend to the aesthetic dimensions of the activity. There is an aesthetic dimension to virtually anything, and it is vital, I believe, to keep this dimension in focus. A kayak paddle has its aesthetics, and so does a soul, given Plato's equation.

Why do philosophers, particularly great ones, not get married? Because they are so distracted by philosophy that they cannot be distracted by anything else. Because, like Diogenes, they are followers of Onan. Because they can't bear the unreason of domestic arguments. Because, despite their eccentricities, they are essentially sensible.

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Jim Holt writes about science and philosophy for
Lingua Franca and the Wall Street Journal. Colin McGinn is professor of philosophy at Rutgers University and author, most recently, of Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. This week they discuss...