The Aesthetic Life

A World Without Work

Posted in Uncategorized by jonflynn on September 30, 2009

Over the course of the last century and a half, living standards have risen dramatically, time worked per week has dropped, and the average person has access to items that not even the richest kings could obtain. Technology, both material and logistical, has been the driving force behind this change. And technology is only getting better. One can imagine a world where every person has access to machines that can construct whatever they can imagine from the base materials that surround them. Supposing such a world were to exist, where everyone can have all of their worldly desires satisfied, what would you do with your life?

I think we already see examples of this in the modern world. Many people in first world societies don’t have to work at all, and most work very little compared to their counterparts in history. What we have is an unprecedented amount of leisure time, and the only way to even attempt to answer the question above is to explore what it is we do “for fun”. I think how we entertain ourselves can be separated into doing nothing and hobbies.

Doing nothing is actually the harder of the two to define, but I think it involves a sort of destruction of the self. Zoning out, sleeping, and drug/alcohol use for the purpose of simply not being conscious are all examples. This isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds. We often use these techniques to recuperate from a long day of work, a tough exam, or a bad break up. Recuperation is the key word here though. If we have no work to do, what is the point of recuperation? Doing nothing on summer break is awesome for the first week or month, depending on how bad your exams were, but it gets dull quickly. Retirees often look forward to retirement, but find that they miss having things to do relatively quickly. Those that simply stay at home and mindlessly watch TV have been shown to die much quicker than those that engage the world. I think that we actually need to do something mindful to live well, although moments of respite are not innately bad.

When leisure is plentiful, hobbies are necessary for a good life. Humans seem to have a need for something to overcome. A hobby is a self created struggle. There often is no logical reason for a person to pursue a hobby. For example, I practiced Tae Kwon Do for a dozen years, but have never gotten into a fight. In terms of utility, it has been a complete failure. Yet I still (attempt to) practice martial arts for the pleasure it gives me. Another example is a home beer brewer – it is not economical to make beer on your own, and specialty shops can sell you whatever weird flavor you hanker for. Still, people brew simply for the joy of having a hobby.

Hobbies tend to have the convenient quality of never being quite solvable. A martial artist can never have perfect form. A home brewer can never make the perfect beer. Some hobbies are about collecting experiences. Film buffs and wine tasters are always on the hunt for something new and good – there is never an end for this pursuit.

Let me make an observation about video games, something that has taken up much of the leisure time of my generation. They are challenging. It is trivial to make an easy video game, one where there is no obstacles between Mario and the Princess. In the extreme case, we could simply have a “You Win” flashing on the screen, but this doesn’t satisfy people. There needs to be a struggle to make that “You Win” worth something. Games are an artificial construction of rules – anything is possible, yet we choose to limit ourselves to gain satisfaction from the overcoming. As technology progresses and gives us more and more control over the world, I think we will simply choose where to limit ourselves rather than having nature imposing her limits on us.

Side note: In a conversation with a friend who read the paper, I used another analogy to explain the last sentence that she like a lot better. Imagine two poets – one is a traditionalist, creating poems based on rules about meter and stresses (e.g. Haiku, Sonnets). The other is an avant-garde poet, who rejects all restrictions and doesn’t limit himself with any of these trifling things. Which poet is going to have a more beautiful set of works? Who is going to have a more beautiful life – those who limit themselves or those that have no rhyme or reason?


My Hero is Dead

Posted in Uncategorized by jonflynn on September 14, 2009

Norman Borlaug is dead. I find myself holding back tears, hoping in vain to write a eulogy that he deserves. You have not heard of him, but he was the greatest human being to ever walk this Earth. Through his work, he directly saved at least a billion lives. That’s not a typo. Billion. With a B.  What did he do?

Norman Borlaug was a scientist, a biologist to be exact. The man was the father of the Green Revolution. He was one of the first to apply modern science to agriculture. He bred high yield disease resistance crops and brought those, along with better farming techniques, to every country in the world. His crops produced 4 times as much food on the same amount of land. Not only did he feed people, but his creations saved an estimated billion hectares of land from agricultural development. Again, billion. With a B. To put that in perspective, that’s larger than Canada. That’s 6.7% of the land area in the world, or about 20% of currently forested, arable land. Imagine the innumerable species that Borlaug has saved.

And he did this for free.  He worked for the Rockefeller Foundation, and rather than sell the seeds to these wonder crops at what would be considerable profit, he gave them away. Borlaug worked in third world countries all his life, in the field, and sometimes even under fire. During the Indian/Pakistani civil war, he planted seeds close enough to a battlefield to see artillery flashes.

It is difficult to imagine the state of a world without Borlaug. Before his improvements in crops, a Malthusian catastrophe was thought to be inevitable. There simply would not have been enough food for all the people in the world. Indirectly, I am certain he has stopped wars, famines, plagues, and countless deaths. He faced down the four horsemen, and won.

What does this have to do with the art of living? This was a beautiful life.

The Epicureans

Posted in Uncategorized by jonflynn on September 8, 2009

So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it.

– Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

According to Epicurus, a good life is one of pleasure, where one followed a form of rational self interest. To get around the typical problems of egoism, he developed a complex set of ideas on what true pleasure was. He defined pleasure as the absence of pain. To achieve this, Epicurus advised a moderate life of seeking wisdom and having no attachments. Wisdom is knowing that all things are temporary, and to lament their loss is foolish.

Epicureans yearn for freedom. Freedom cannot be found in trying to control the external world. Trying to change anything other than our reaction to it is futile. Thus, the only freedom we can have is control of our own actions and thoughts. We are made slaves by our desires and by our fears. Virtue is learning to control those, as that is the way to attain true pleasure.

Controlling our desires is necessary to achieve a pleasant life. They can be separated into three categories. The first is natural desires, which can be further subdivided into the necessary and unnecessary. Necessary desires, like food, water, and shelter, are easy to attain. Unnecessary desires, like sex, are usually only pleasant for a while, and in the end yields more pain than pleasure. The last category of pleasures are the unnatural. These are groundless desires, and should be ignored. If one only attempts to satisfy the natural and necessary desires, then life will be easy and pleasant. Everything else is in vain.

Our fears can also control us. Wisdom is knowing that there is truly nothing to be afraid of. Wisdom can even make us fearless of death. In death, the cessation of thinking, we will perceive nothing and care not that we are dead. Thus, fearing death is illogical. Fearing loss is also illogical. No longer having what we did not once have will simply be a return to normality. Everything is temporary. Thus, expecting anything else is foolish.