An Ordinary Life and the Pitfalls of Greatness


I will confess that when J. Arthur Bloom announced he was joining Front Porch Republic’s editorial team, I had not heard of it. So I went and took a look, and from a few basic summaries of what it was all about I concluded “Ah, I see — they are crusaders against telescopic morality.” Sure enough, it was not long before he invited me to write a piece here on that subject.

I happen to believe that our way of life is for the most part quite good, that the American model of flourishing is largely a healthy and laudable one. We cherish hard work, family, making a home, public mindedness, personal growth, and, yes, career success. We enjoy our toys, tools, and many sources of entertainment. The way we approach each of these things is open to criticism, for there are many ways to arrive at unhealthy imbalances — overworking, neglecting your family, becoming the proverbial couch potato — but I think we get the basic elements right. Striking the right balance in a particular life is a matter of wisdom — your wisdom and, possibly more importantly, the wisdom of the people in your life — and luck.

There are many people who are hostile to our way of life. I not referring to terrorists or totalitarians, but the do-gooder and crusader. Those who see the ugliness in the world and reject everything connected with it, whole cloth. Those with unbridled contempt for anything short of total purity and universal salvation. How can you think of your career when there are still people struggling to feed themselves in the world? How can you sit around watching Netflix when so much of the world is still governed by mass murderers? And what about the blood on our hands, as a nation?

It is this feeling that the only accomplishments that matter are the ones on a world-historic scale, and that the day to day concerns of an ordinary life are utterly trivial, that I have called telescopic morality.

An Ordinary, Flourishing Life

When I speak of the American model, I don’t mean to imply that it is unique or an original creation. I mean instead that we Americans have long made it our own, made it a central part of what it means to be an American. Entangled as it is with our democratic religion, it is a model of flourishing that centers on the ordinary life.

The ideal of the ordinary life is not simply some average of how people actually live. It is something that is strived for, a goal implied by our very way of life. You might think of it as “ordinary, but more so.” Set next to an action movie or a thriller, or to the cosmic aspirations of telescopic moralists, the ideal itself seems quite boring.

All it boils down to is finding people to love and share your life with, and treating them decently. Being respectful even — especially — when you are in a position of authority over someone. Fulfilling your responsibilities, being generous with your time and resources.

As Daniel Russell put it:

“[T]he person with the best chance for a happy life is the one who can cope with change, finds people to love, and then loves them as if his happiness, his very identity, depended on them. On my view, doing all of that wisely is just what happiness is.”

And as Martin Gurri put it:

“My moral sphere is a small world, a limited space.  The necessary virtues aren’t complex:  humility with my family, integrity at work, neighborliness in my community – add loyalty to friends, and one has the basic package.”

This is not Earth-shattering stuff, nor particle physics. We all understand this, though imperfectly. It is such a given to our way of life that it is often left implied and unsaid. However, unsaid means undefended — and it is my contention that it has too long lacked a voice in public discussions of what matters, where critics of the ordinary life are overrepresented.

The Big Picture Matters

Most of the critics of my anti-telescopic morality screeds are fairly moderate, reasonable people who simply want me to tone down my rhetoric. I often assert something to the tune of “only the family, the local, the neighborhood, the community, matter; far away concerns do not.” The unsurprising and legitimate response is simply “come on, the only thing that matters? Not just the appropriate priority for most people most of the time? PTA meetings and a guy who volunteers to clear his neighbors’ driveways matter more than starving people in Africa?”

I concede that the big things matter. I’ll go further and say that a flourishing, ordinary life is entirely dependent on big picture concerns. We have what we have in America because of an extreme break with history some 200 or 300 years ago in terms of our average material conditions, among many other historical contingencies. By way of contrast, Russia’s longstanding lack of respect for property and other pillars of liberty paved the way for one of history’s great tyrannies; even after its collapse, flourishing is not the norm.

But we should care about the big picture precisely because of where it stands in relation to an ordinary life. Any decent person with a generous heart wishes that the world’s poorest had the means to improve their lives. Any prudent person wants to avoid political leadership that is either completely inept at statecraft or outright hostile to liberty. Any hopeful person imagines that we can continue to do better in science, medicine, and technology; that we can continue to create great works of art and leave behind a legacy that our descendants will thank us rather than curse us for. But all of it ought to be directed at supporting and extending the ordinary life.

And we could use a great deal more humility when it comes to just what we can accomplish. A great deal of my critics are proponents of so-called effective altruism; the idea that if we could just be efficient in how we donate our money, and we all gave 10-20 percent of our income, we could eradicate global poverty practically overnight. While I think the movement is highly admirable in itself, the naming as well as the spectacular claims leave me highly skeptical. I am reminded of something Scott Alexander recently wrote (ironically, because he himself is an effective altruism proponent):

“A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer.” You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.”

I hope the parallel is clear. Charitable giving has a long history, but the idea that these new entrants will succeed on a scale that previous endeavors did not because this time it’s effective altruism does not persuade.

I do want to emphasize that I am not criticizing charitable giving, nor do I think organizations such as GiveWell or GiveDirectly are anything other than completely admirable attempts at innovating the means of generosity. Charity is one small way we are generous in our ordinary lives that adds up. Alexander and many others argue that it should add up to more, and could go further than it has in the past. I have no problems with that line of argument.

All I ask is that the calls for generosity respect our ideal of living an ordinary life, rather than demanding that it be sacrificed on behalf of a great cause. Ideally, our generosity should help serve to spread flourishing to people in difficult situations, rather than simply serving as an instrument for puritans to guilt us over our own flourishing.

Greatness of Soul and Fallenness

From Aristotle, who has among the best early accounts of the good life, we also get the idea of megalopsuchia; what is often translated as greatness of soul. This is not a virtue of ordinary people leading ordinary lives, but of the aristocrat in the original sense; great wealth, great success in battle, and a generosity or magnanimity on a similar scale.

The modern crusader against cosmic injustices stands in a similar relation to our ordinary life as the great souled man stood to Aristotle’s understanding of the good life. So too, the Christian saint and the Stoic sage; these are larger than life figures in every sense, not exactly exemplars for how to shape our own lives.

After charitable giving, the other big sore spot among the criticisms I’ve received has been my contention that we’re not capable of accomplishing much outside the scale of our small lives. Plenty of people have, I am told. And to an extent, this cannot be denied. In our own country we need only think of towering figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln, and the founding fathers. They are not remembered as ordinary individuals and their main contributions were not to the people in their lives, but to their nation, and to posterity. To the extent that we lionize such individuals, we endorse a version of greatness of soul for our own times.

A good friend pointed out that many big changes were made possible by deeply flawed people who threw away their chance at ordinary lives. It put me in mind of the Christian concept of fallenness; of the ineradicable flaws that human beings harbor. Fallenness shares more in common with the Greeks before Aristotle, whose poets had an understanding of the tragic nature of things without any of the Christian hope for salvation.

What I’m getting at is this: I wish I could say that all that is ever needed is for us to focus on living our ordinary lives as best as we are able. I wish I could guarantee that we mostly succeed when we try to, or that doing big, important things like those great souled Americans listed above readily fits into having an otherwise good and ordinary life. But — depending on your theology — we live in a tragic or a fallen world, where things are rarely that convenient.

But the same holds true for those seeking an ideal of greatness of soul. The bigger your ambitions, the worse the consequences for your flaws — the Greeks understood that better than anyone. All of their greatest heroes were the authors of their own destruction. In modern times, when the standard of greatness of soul is aimed at the complete perfection of our world, the flaws bring catastrophe on a much larger scale. For every Gandhi and Lincoln there are many more Pol Pots and Stalins. To paraphrase Scott Alexander, if we listened to the telescopic moralists of the early 20th century, we would have replicated Stalin’s USSR here and also widely embraced eugenics.

If I have, in previous pieces, allowed myself to be tempted by the desire to write off the ideal of greatness of soul entirely, I apologize. But we are all too ready to hold the ordinary life in contempt on its behalf; to let the illusion of solving all of the problems of mankind cast a shadow over simply devoting ourselves to doing our best to live decently among decent people. We trivialize the ordinary, but it is not trivial. It deserves to be defended.

And I do think the telescopic moralists underestimate the impact that such ordinary people have had and continue to have, in concert. The Great Enrichment which swept out from Great Britain two or more centuries ago certainly had its fill of great souled individuals, but they were swamped by the ordinary workers, tinkerers, and entrepreneurs, the rank and file whose cumulative efforts created the world we now live in.

But our defense of the ordinary life does not rest on that particular interpretation of history. It rests on an understanding of what a good life looks like, what it means to flourish as a human being. We should never allow ourselves to take this vision for granted.

(Image source)

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