Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Three Visions of the Good Life

Today, in a very strange conjunction of circumstances, I was exposed to three radically different visions of the good life. It was too strange, and too moving, not to share.

It started with my class at the UW, on Aristotle's Ethics. The topic for the last couple of classes has been the nature of the good life, specifically, Aristotle's claim that the appropriate human end is happiness. Aristotle takes this in two roughly common-sense directions. On the one hand, he says, happiness typically requires certain external goods, such as wealth, family, and friends:

[Happiness] needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment. In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments; and there are some things the lack of which takes the luster from happiness – good birth, goodly children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy, and perhaps a man would be still less likely if he had thoroughly bad children or friends or had lost good children or friends by death.

But on the other hand, Aristotle is quite clear that happiness does not consist of external goods. On the contrary, he defines happiness in quite a different direction, as "an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue". We are only truly happy, in other words, when we are doing something worth doing. Wealth and other external goods can help us to accomplish those worthwhile things, but they have a purely instrumental value. The life of virtue, performing acts of moral and intellectual excellence, is the appropriate goal of human existence, and is what makes for a truly happy person.

I think you could do a great deal worse than this, and independent of God's revelation in Christ, I don't know that you can get much better. But of course, Paul is clear that human beings generally choose to remain willfully ignorant of the nature of the world, and I don't think you could find a much more clear example of this than the second vision of the good life to cross my path.

Last night, I was reading Joel Stein's column in the latest Time about his evening with Flo Rida's "posse". I'd never heard of Flo Rida before, but apparently he's a flash-in-the-pan rapper who made some money last summer off a typically misogynistic hip-hop song called Low. I thought the column was entertaining enough to read it to my wife, who said, "You know, I think our ten-year-old niece was doing a dance to that song last summer." That got me interested enough to look up the lyrics. Apparently the song is about a stripper that Flo Rida (with some expectation of success) would like to, umm, sleep with. A selection of the poetic gifts in question:

So sexual She was flexible,  Professional,  Drinking X&O Hold up wait a minute, do I see what I think I whoa Did I think I seen shawty get low Ain't the same when it's up that close Make it rain, I'm making it snow Work the pole I gotta bank role I'ma say that I prefer her no clothes I'm in to that I love women exposed She threw it back at me I gave her mo' Cash ain't a problem I know where it go

That's when I threw her legs on my shoulders I knew it was over That Heny and Cola got me like a soldier She ready for Rover, I couldn't control her So lucky, oh me, I was just like clover Shawty was hot like a toaster Sorry but I had to fold her Like a pornography poster

Of course, apart from the fact that my 10-year-old niece was doing a dance to this song, there's nothing here to shock us anymore, nothing that we haven't learned to expect from our culture generally, and hip-hop more specifically.

Still, it was thrown into dramatic light by an email I received a little later in the day. The last time I was in Israel, I had the opportunity to visit Dr. Hanna Massad, the once and future pastor of Gaza Baptist Church. As I mentioned in my blog posting, he and his family were at the time living in the West Bank, having fled Gaza for their safety. Just a few months before, Rami Ayyad, a friend and employee, had been kidnapped by Islamic extremists for being a Christian. He was tortured and eventually killed, and his assailants dumped his body in a field.

Today was the one-year anniversary of Rami's death, and Dr. Massad sent me a link to a website which had been established in his memory. Especially moving was this message, written by Rami's mother:

I write about my son while my heart weeps. I will weep all my life. My pain grew deeper when four months after his death, his daughter Sama was born. What wrong has this baby committed not to be able to feel the warmth of her father? What crime have his wife and two boys done to live without a dad? What crime has Rami done? His only crime is that he had faith in Christ Jesus. We trust the Lord that he will not leave his wife and children because the blood of the martyr is not given in vain. Rami defended the word of God. He has made us all proud, all the Ayyad family. We are proud of his martyrdom because he died while defending his faith and refused to deny Christ.

As plausible, reasonable, and perhaps even as persuasive as Aristotle's account of the good life is, an event like this throws it into some relief against the New Testament. It's true, as Aristotle says, that no one can be happy on the rack: no one could say that Rami ended his life "happy", by any definition. But the question is whether Rami's life was a good life. "I am crucified with Christ," Paul said, and it's clear that this moves substantially beyond metaphor. "No man can be blessed [μακαριος] if he meet with fortunes like those of Priam," Aristotle says; and yet Jesus very specifically contradicts him: "Blessed [μακαριοι] are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

Of course, there's a great deal of overlap between Aristotle's ethics, and the moral vision of the New Testament: Aristotle also knew that courage, and perhaps even death in battle, could be a part of the good life. But where Aristotle looks to the edge of the world and sees a final horizon, Christians look to an empty tomb; and in the darkness of this tomb they see beyond the horizons of this world.


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