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What is the Best Life for Men?

Value Pluralism

The core of Western political and philosophical thought since Socrates has been an attempt to answer this question through the application of reason. Socrates, Aristotle and Plato all believed that it was possible, by the use of reason, to discover what the perfect life or perfect society looked like. The idea of human and social perfection entailed a vision of harmonious values and actions, where conflict would only occur because of human fallibility. This view was also shared by Christianity. Thomas Aquinas integrated Aristotle’s view that there were fundamental, universal ethical principles common to all men, into a metaphysical vision, in which all moral and practical difficulties were soluble by reference to the will of God. Later, Enlightenment thinkers would stress the common humanity of all men and whether it would be the ethics of Kant, the utilitarianism of Bentham, the Leviathan of Hobbes, the liberalism of Mill, or the communism of Marx, all believed that given the right premises, the correct moral conclusions would inevitably follow.

There had, of course been intimations that all was not well with this view of universal human harmony. “Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?” Job had cried, pleading to God for answers as to why He had abandoned the righteous and was now favoring the wicked. Doubts about the logic of the perfect society also crept into the works of Montaigne, Machiavelli, Leibniz and Rousseau and seemed to lie at the heart of the tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides and Shakespeare. Finally, in 1953 Isaiah Berlin published a remarkable essay in which he claimed that Machiavelli’s originality lay in the fact that he had demonstrated the impossibility of even the idea of constructing a perfect society:

“For if his [Machiavelli’s] position is valid then it is impossible to construct even the notion of such a perfect society, for there exists at least two sets of virtues – let us call them the Christian and the pagan – which are not merely in practice, but in principle incompatible.”

Paraphrasing Machiavelli, Berlin says that:

“it is in fact impossible to combine Christian virtues, for example meekness or the search for spiritual salvation, with a satisfactory, stable, vigorous, strong society on earth. Consequently a man must choose. To choose to lead a Christian life is to condemn oneself to political impotence: to being used and crushed by powerful, ambitious, clever, unscrupulous men; if one wishes to build a glorious community like those of Athens or Rome at their best, then one must abandon Christian education and substitute one better suited to the purpose.”

Ignoring his obvious animosity towards Christianity, Machiavelli is arguing that there is no rational way to combine or compare the pagan, republican way of life with that of Christianity. For example, consider the drama of Sophocles and of Shakespeare. In what sense are the plays of Shakespeare better or worse than those of Sophocles? Just as it seems absurd to try to rank them on any single scale of excellence it is equally absurd to try and rank the way of life of a 16th century Florentine republican with  a Christian emulating the code of  behavior outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. Reason is impotent when it comes to fundamental values. The implications of this value pluralism for moral and political thought, is that the very idea of perfection is incoherent so there is no possibility of a perfect society or a perfect human life.

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“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”  Isaiah Berlin

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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61 Comments on “What is the Best Life for Men?”

  1. cindy knoke Says:

    You see the huge problem with all of these dudes was they never anticipated the rise of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. 😉
    I love reading your stuff. You would be awesome to hang out with.
    I hate doing this, and I never do. But I did, gently correct a blogger for misquoting Hobbes. Hobbes was a clever cookie. He would not be surprised by the teaparty, or ISIS or anything humans cooperation screws up.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Cindy, thank you. You brought a smile to my face trying to imagine Plato and Aristotle as “dudes”. Socrates maybe, but not the others. Hobbes was indeed a clever cookie and since he survived the English Civil War and lived to the (then) amazing age of 91 I’m also sure that nothing would have surprised him 🙂

      Reply

  2. insanitybytes22 Says:

    Hmm, fascinating. The very idea of a perfect human life or a perfect society actually scares me. That is one of my worst nightmares. The horror of perfection and who decided to play God.

    That conflict between Christian values versus the way the world actually is, has plagued Christians, especially men, for a long time. I think the problem lies within men however, and the challenge of trying to reconcile strength with weakness, power with gentleness. People have the hardest time understanding exactly where our power lies and how that all plays out morally.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you IB. It’s not so much a conflict between Christian values and something called reality, but rather a conflict between different forms of life of which Christianity is just one. These forms of life are made up of different values and moralities. Even within Christianity itself there are conflicts between the values that constitute Christian morality. For example, the values of wisdom, kindness, charity and justice often collide in practice and there is no single standard by which to arbitrate the different claims.

      Reply

  3. nicciattfield Says:

    Such a lot to think about. I wonder what a perfect society would be or look like? There could be no one answer, and particularly because people who have tried to impose their ideas have been very dangerous.

    I wonder if Christian and Pagan values are really so incompatible though. I grew up in North East England, where I think there were still some old pagan spectres lingering. We used to go with the church to distribute food to the elderly on the harvest festival. Easter was about the awakening of life in spring, and the trinity had the Father, the son and the Holy Ghost, who was explained as the cosmos or world as it exists, creation really, which stays with us and within us.

    I felt as though this was a part of my being/seeing the world that was (and is) united. To lose any part of that would feel devastating.

    This is an interesting and thought provoking post though. Thank you.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Nicci. No need to wonder about a perfect society, it doesn’t and cannot exist. However, you raise a very good point about how dangerous people are who try to bring this about. Clearly there are belief systems which have fused together elements of both paganism and Christianity but the result is neither paganism nor Christianity. For Christians, Easter is more than “life awakening in spring” and surely pagans want nothing to do with the holy trinity.

      Reply

      • nicciattfield Says:

        I’m still thinking…my wondering is about how we might find space for both the spirit/faith in something more than us, and the appreciation of wildness? I read your post on mother earth, both nurturing and yet with rhythms of power or death…and I liked it. The earth has beauty, life, death, the butterfly who emerges during a storm. The Savage Garden. And yet there is wonder, awe, intelligence of a creator. James HIllman says that we are like an acorn, growing up into the sky (or spirit) as we root ourselves into the ground. How is there both?

        I think it fits in with thoughts on living well rather than living rich, which you were sharing in another post as well. Is it the lost wonder at the beauty around us? Or is beauty just my definition of wealth? Ecopsychology is my passion, and so your posts are inspiring.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Nicci, please know that I find your thoughtful responses inspiring too. I had to look up ‘Ecopsychology’,but I liked what I found: “Ecopsychology explores how to develop emotional bonds with nature.” Have you read the poems of Robinson Jeffers? If not I am confident you will like them as Jeffers explores our relationship with nature in depth and attempts to provide real, not just poetic answers. I’ve had James Hillman’s book, ‘The Soul’s Code’ on my desk for almost a year. I must find time to read it.

        • nicciattfield Says:

          Thanks for the recommendation, I haven’t read that poetry, but I would like to. Soul Code is so interesting. But City and Soul is really interesting as well! Thank you, Malcolm. I enjoy the discussions with you very much.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          This post was a very brief introduction to Jeffers.

  4. Bonnie Marshall Says:

    …and then there’s Zen…

    Reply

  5. john flanagan Says:

    Some will say the thinking of the great thinkers of the past was all in vain and they’ll point to where we are now and say ‘look what we are, look at our wars, disputes, falsehoods’..but i hope too at least one or two will say there are those who love and care, who make an effort for others.

    Thank you, Malcolm, for this fine offering.

    My best to You

    john

    Reply

  6. jhanajian Says:

    These guys need to smell the roses of the here and now instead of spinning theories about the “perfect” society. This is what our greatest thinkers spend their time and energy on? We can’t even define what a perfect “one-size-fits-all” society would be, much less figure out how to possibly bring such a thing about. And finally, even if it were possible, who would want to live there? Perfection is a dead-end street. Perfection means the ultimate has been achieved – there is no more room for growth. And that’s not a good place to be, existence does not stand still, ever. We either grow or we decline – we die.

    So,my God, these guys need to get a job or something.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “So,my God, these guys need to get a job or something.”

      Well, most of them had a job teaching in some way. Also, you are somewhat harsh in that the Greek philosophers at least, were not standing on anyone’s shoulders. They were starting from scratch, self-consciously trying to understand what had never even been thought about before. In retrospect it is always easy to see the dead-ends of particular lines of inquiry but, at the time, it’s not so simple.

      Reply

      • jhanajian Says:

        Yes, I was a bit harsh, and I apologize for that. Sometimes my feelings get the better of me; and off I go, saying things in not the best way. I guess I was just astounded that so many people would spend so much time and energy deliberating on something that, as far as I was concerned, had no value. Perhaps I’m wrong about that. Perhaps there is value in just the contemplation alone, even if there is so solution. I don’t know.

        I have heard the philosopher described as “a blind man, on a dark night, in an unlit room, searching for a black cat which is not there. This inquiry about the “perfect society” struck me as much the same kind of exercise. In any case, your post is, as always, interesting. It has certainly got me thinking about whether or not there is value in philosophy, and what that value might be.

        Again, I apologize for my insensitive outburst.

        Reply

  7. chr1 Says:

    Nice post, sir. I don’t think you’d fit ‘dude,’ but rather a thoughtful, introspective gentleman-type.

    Reply

  8. NicoLite Великий Says:

    Perfect is one of those words… once something is perfect, it can’t be improved. Also, that there is no more optimizing to do, because there are no leaks or friction. In our thermodynamic universe, the notion of perfect makes no sense. But we can always aim to improve our lives and our society.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Very good points but these thinkers did allow for ‘friction’ in terms of human fallibility. Berlin’s point, of course, was that we all have different conceptions of what it means to “improve” our lives.

      Reply

  9. Cindy Bruchman Says:

    Interesting post, Malcolm. Utopians are fine in theory, but lose their fervor after a few decades. Mennonites and Quakers seem better able to balance to life of duty to God and the goodness of communal living. My mother’s philosophy is “humbly take care of your little corner of the world” and if we all adopted that, a fine society we would have.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “humbly take care of your little corner of the world”

      I like your mother’s philosophy very much. It’s similar to Voltaire’s famous aphorism, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” You raise a good point about utopians losing their fervor. Maybe that's because they gradually come to see that utopia means different things to different people?

      Reply

  10. Middlemay Farm Says:

    Came across this today on Wikipedia and it reminded me of your piece:

    “Not so very long ago our nation tolerated slavery in our colonies. Philanthropists endeavored to destroy slavery; but when was it utterly abolished? It was when Wilberforce roused the church of God, and when the church of God addressed herself to the conflict, then she tore the evil thing to pieces. I have been amused with what Wilberforce said the day after they passed the Act of Emancipation. He merrily said to a friend when it was all done, “Is there not something else we can abolish?” That was said playfully, but it shows the spirit of the church of God. She lives in conflict and victory; her mission is to destroy everything that is bad in the land.”

    The Best Warcry, March 4th, 1883 Charles Spurgeon

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Yes, and the same vision motivated William Lloyd Garrison in the United States. He believed that emancipation had to be the work of Christianity and the churches: “Nothing but extensive revivals of pure religion can save our country”.

      Reply

      • Middlemay Farm Says:

        There was no soft life for the prophets or for JC. When reading the gospels (and not just the sweet parts often quoted) you see that a Christian life takes courage and strength. Most churches today prefer to soothe their congregations asleep. The Bible is a hard book.

        Reply

  11. L. Marie Says:

    A very thought-provoking post, Malcolm. It’s the age-old conflict between two conflicting worldviews. As always, people have to make a choice.

    Reply

  12. aFrankAngle Says:

    The perfect society and the perfect human don’t exist because humans have too much room to fail … it’s our nature. Instead of in the light of Christian ideals, I see the values as human ideas because I think it is within all of us … plus, across many religions.

    Reply

  13. aaforringer Says:

    I have worked for churches and local theater organizations in production of shows or events, and people always said that wanted the behind the scenes work to go perfectly. I discovered what the actually wanted was things to be or seem seamless. A flowing between changes, so that the changes were not obvious or disruptive to the message, play, or show.

    Since perfection cannot really be quantified could you replace it with seamless or without interruption or disruption. Would that apply to a perfect society as well?

    Just somewhere my mind wandered to while reading your wonderful article my electronic friend.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I like this analogy and it does sound rather Machiavellian, doesn’t it? I agree with you that most people just want to see everything running smoothly even if behind the scenes it is obvious that things are a mess. Every day of the play something different or unexpected happens and the people behind the scenes have to work hard to make it all seem normal. Yes, I think this is a very good analogy of the idea of perfection and its limitations.

      Reply

  14. Aquileana Says:

    Hi there dear Malcolm!… A great post…
    I liked the way you brought into the spotlight many great philosophers here.
    I second you statement at the end when speak about Machiavelli and how he argued that there is no rational way to compare the pagan, republican way of life with that of Christianity. He was such a clever man…
    A to the question regarding what is the best life for men, I think that Aristotle was right when he stated that Happiness was the main aim… Maybe the fact of avoiding pain is good enough…

    https://aquileana.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/ari1.png?w=500&h=358

    All the very best to you! Aquileana 😀

    Reply

  15. Michele Seminara Says:

    The comments on your blog posts are invariably as interesting and well thought out as the posts themselves, Malcolm! You attract, and engage, such thoughtful and intelligent readers – which is a credit to you. All I can add is that as the years pass I get less and less interested in any kind of perfection – it’s such an artificial goal, which we often use to beat ourselves up with. So much striving and stess! Acceptance is coming easier these days; I must be getting old.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Michele. I think the stress of perfection is often tied up with our ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’. If we must do something then inevitably we are going to get stressed out if we don’t accomplish it (the perfect mother, the perfect spouse etc.) Best to tell ourselves, as fallible human beings, that it would be preferable to do something but not a terrible thing if we don’t. That way we eliminate the stress of failure. It’s a very Stoic technique 🙂

      Reply

      • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

        Well said, Malcolm!

        Even though attaining perfection is impossible, striving for it can be a motivator and incentive to work hard with passion, as long as it’s done without demanding success. Most bloggers here seem to miss the benefits and throw out the baby with the bathwater.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Michael, you raise a very important point. It is certainly true that, if one is acquiring a skill or performing a task, striving for perfection can be a great motivator. However, in the post I was talking about fundamental values and pointing out the incoherence of the idea that reason can be used to choose between them. Accepting the idea that perfection does not apply to fundamental values is accepting the objective reality of value pluralism. I would argue that this inevitably leads to tolerance of other moralities and forms of life. So, I see no harm in striving for perfection when it comes to instrumental values, but great harm when it is applied to fundamental values.

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          Although I can’t prove my morality is the right morality, I would not be tolerant of those fundamental moralities responsible for wholesale death and destruction.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Excellent point Michael. We can’t help but fight for our own moral turf but I think the argument for value pluralism also requires a moral minimum, a recognition that there are certain conditions without which no worthwhile human flourishing can take place.

  16. Daniela Says:

    Another great post Malcolm! Since the beginning of time humans have been and continue to be preoccupied with, what essentially is question of purpose and meaning in order to first deconstruct existence and then reconstruct it in some form of what was, at various times though of as a ‘perfect’ society of ‘higher meaning’. Within advancements of technology and science only environments have changed as have their reach. Courtesy of those, so called ‘imperfections’ became understood as inherent and inseparable from human condition. The challenge is to leverage of those ‘imperfections’ in order to construct not perfect but tolerant, inclusive human habitats. To that end – we are still long way off.

    Reply

  17. Kate Loveton Says:

    Your posts always stretch my mind. Ah, Malcolm… I am by the ocean on a gray dismal day, and just had a glass of wine to warm the late afternoon while praying for a ray of sunshine. I fear the brain is unable to contemplate whether a perfect society is ever possible, given man’s penchant for self-aggrandizement. I doubt it.

    I greatly enjoy reading your blog. You make me think! 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Kate, I laughed out loud on reading this. You inadvertently pose the challenge of whether philosophy is nothing but a tiresome distraction from the much more noble activity of sipping wine by the ocean contemplating infinity. Like you I think I prefer the latter course 🙂

      Reply

    • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

      Kate, be sure to enjoy a glass for me next time. How I wish I tolerated alcohol. 😉 And I don’t think I could’ve put it better myself: whether a perfect society is ever possible, given man’s penchant for self-aggrandizement. You – to borrow MG’s word – inadvertently put your finger on the small matter of hubris that in all the pursuit of greatness and glory will inevitably lay us low.

      Reply

  18. Dalo 2013 Says:

    I love how the concept of “reasoning” put forth by the ancient Greeks is followed by some truly great minds (the utilitarianism of Bentham and the existentialism of Rousseau were favorites in college), but in the end this they are all damned to eternity due to the incompatibility with “human logic” that feeds off of chaos.

    A bottle of wine, accompanied by a pair of beautiful eyes while watching the sun fading over the Pacific…that gets my vote. It may be inefficient, but I’d push for us not to take everything so seriously. Of course then I realize, I love working long hours and have a pretty strong sense of what I think is right…so here’s to hypocrisy and the understanding that I am part of the problem 🙂

    Loved this post ~ such great minds you have listed and referred to so well.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Dalo. It’s quite clear from you, Kate, Diana and other readers of this blog that wine (carrot juice for Diana) has contributed more to the human spirit than all the philosopher’s discussions about a perfect society. It’s difficult to argue with that position and I suspect that after a few centuries of Greek philosophy even the Romans began to tire of it, preferring to celebrate the festival of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine 🙂

      Reply

      • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

        LOL. Touché, MG (on the Roman surrender to drink in revelry, not the drink you thought you saw in my hand. Juiced carrot is a straight shot of sugar. My kombucha with a fraction of alcohol will have to be enough to warm my throat and hands. =)

        And Randall, “I have a pretty strong sense of what I think is right…so here’s to hypocrisy and the understanding that I am part of the problem”. You’ve given us the hope of sanity and salvation as we erect altars small and great to glorious communities like Rome as well as Self. I think you, Kate, MG, and I now have a shot at running the world. *grin*

        Reply

  19. authorbengarrido Says:

    Do you accept this bifurcation of values? Ie, would you vote for politicians with pagan value systems?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Ben, thank you. I certainly accept the objective fact of value pluralism, if that is what you are asking. As to whether I would “vote for politicians with pagan value systems”, I was under the impression that they are all a bunch of heathens anyway, whatever faith they pay nominal homage to 🙂

      Reply

      • authorbengarrido Says:

        I see.

        I’ve said a couple times that I think the ideal leader of a democracy is a skilled and shameless liar who wants a legacy.

        The liar part being necessary because manipulating one’s followers is the best way to maintain your support while wanting a legacy is the best way to motivate someone to behave in the public’s interests.

        I think it’s why Clinton was effective, I think it’s also why Nixon was a good foreign policy president. Similarly, if Romney had been a good rather than simply prolific liar, I would have voted for him.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Interesting perspective Ben, but most politicians eventually learn to be accomplished liars and personally, I’ve had enough of them. Also, what a politician thinks is the best legacy for him or her (e.g. the pyramids) is not necessarily in the public interest (whatever that means).

        • authorbengarrido Says:

          I don’t know if they have a choice. Voters don’t typically tolerate hard truths.

          “We’re turning our focus east because we want hegemony against China” isn’t nearly as palatable to voters as “yes we can! mission accomplished! vague and meaningless reference to freedom!”

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Thanks Ben. I think we can both agree that democracy doesn’t work as it’s intended and it frequently produces dysfunctional results. I wonder whether you saw an old post of mine about “Why the Worst Get On Top”. Friedrich Hayek wrote on this subject long ago.

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