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It will also appear in Jonathan Lear’s forthcoming book Imagining the End: Mourning and the Enigmatic Good, from Harvard University Press.
I would like to take a look at a particular call of conscience that marks us as human. The example may at first look trivial, but the fact that a call can arise even here shows us something important about ourselves. In her famous interview, Oprah Winfrey asked Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, “What are you most excited about in the new life?” To which Meghan answered, “I think just being able to live authentically.” She gave as her prime example her wedding. “I was thinking about it—even at our wedding, you know, three days before our wedding, we got married…”
Meghan: No one knows that. But we called the Archbishop, and we just said, “Look, this thing, this spectacle is for the world, but we want our union between us.” So, like, the vows that we have framed in our room are just the two of us in our backyard with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and that was the piece that…
Harry: Just the three of us.
Harry: Just the three of us.
Meghan: Just the three of us.
Although she is a legendary interviewer, Oprah does not pick up on what she has just been told. She responds: “The wedding was the most perfect picture, you know, anybody’s ever seen.” But that was precisely what Meghan was calling into question, whether that “most perfect picture” really was a wedding.
Let us try to make Meghan’s point of view more explicit. As a social category (meaning the type of event or practice the social sciences study) it seemed obvious that a wedding was about to take place. But something troubled Meghan about that wedding—the public occasion—being her wedding. As she told the Archbishop of Canterbury: that event was a “spectacle … for the world,” and here she added the crucial but: “We want our union between us.” That is, the planned spectacle was not going to be the occasion in which their union took place.
What we see here is a protest against the idea that the official event was adequate to the seriousness of getting married. Where does this niggle come from? It seems to come from the very idea of marriage itself, at least as that idea is alive in Meghan’s thought and imagination. (Let me say at the beginning: I have no interest in probing Meghan’s individual psychology, her inner world or deeper motivations. Nor will I discuss issues related to her character or the criticisms made of her in the media. I am only trying to elaborate her self-conscious point of view.) Meghan wanted to have a real wedding, not a sham. Her sense of her life as having meaning nudged her in the direction of doing something different than the planned public event. Looking back on it, she takes her doings to have been efficacious. She brought about a scene in the garden with Harry and the Archbishop of Canterbury which both she and Harry thought was adequate to their conception of marriage. She takes pleasure in their success. She called it living authentically and said that was what she was most excited about in her new life.
The official event on its own did not fit well into Meghan’s conception of a meaningful life. Note the special sense of “meaningful” here. If Meghan had simply resigned herself to the demands of social custom, gone through the rituals with her heart in despairing fury, that would have been meaningful in some sense, but not in the sense Meghan sought and that we are tracking. In her actions she expressed her conception of what it is to live a human life well. And here is the point: we have a conception of the human by which Meghan manifests her humanity precisely in striving to achieve her conception of what matters about living a human life. This conception of the human does not coincide with the biological understanding of human beings as a species (though of course the mode of our embodiment does matter tremendously to us). It also eludes the human as an easily available category of social-science research. By contrast, the conception of the human we are concerned to isolate is essentially first-personal (both singular and plural) in that it shows up in our living, imagining and thinking, and in our emotional lives. It is essentially normative, too, in the sense that being human in this manner includes striving to live up to certain aspirations and ideals that characterize us as being good at being human; and being human in this sense as being good. The human in this sense is humane.
It is this sense of the human that the humanities tries to bring to light—both as theoretical inquiry and as encouragement. It aims to clarify a certain mode of self-consciousness that we, as humans, share. This special sense of meaningfulness is one we learn, first of all, through being impressed by exemplars—by other people who seem to be shining forth in their own attempts to live a distinctively human life—and then through our own attempts in imagination, thought, conversation and action to emulate and aspire to such lives ourselves. The humanities, when they are vibrant, form a family of communities that develop understandings of what it is to be human in this peculiar sense. Indeed, the activity of developing our understandings partially constitutes our humanity—so understood.
With all of this in mind, let us again consider the question: When did Meghan and Harry marry? To some, this question might seem silly or even unintelligible, and that too is an important fact. It shows that to such a person the category of marriage has ceased to matter in the special sense of mattering we are trying to understand. It might continue to matter in other ways. For example, we can imagine a sociologist who believes that while marriage is an important social and historical institution—worthy of serious study—it is an institution that was formed in a religious context that has faded, and thus the question of when Meghan and Harry got married is no longer one which is particularly meaningful. Still, the sociologist might carry out rigorous empirical research about marriage, the social institution. Her research may have significant impact on, say, child health care policy. But then what shows up as mattering to her in the special sense we are trying to track is her sense of this sociological form of inquiry being important to living a meaningful life (in this case, her own). Of course, these two senses in which marriage might be important—as something in which I might engage as part of my efforts to live a significant life; and as serious matter of theoretical inquiry—are not mutually exclusive in that they both may matter to a single person. But they are different manners of mattering.
It might seem clear that at least as a social fact Meghan and Harry got married on the public occasion (the event of May 19, 2018). That is what has gone down in the official records; that is the date on the marriage certificate; it is what all the newspapers tell us; and we have it on no less an authority than the Archbishop of Canterbury, who says:
The legal wedding was on the Saturday. I signed the wedding certificate, which is a legal document, and I would have committed a serious criminal offence if I signed it knowing it was false.
One might think that that puts paid to any question of when the marriage as a social fact occurred. I am skeptical. Even in its public form, it is constitutive of marriage that to get married both parties have to be in their right minds, understand that they are participating in a marriage and take themselves to be agreeing to enter a marriage. (They may well be ambivalent or even think they are making a mistake, but they do think they are getting married.) But suppose two actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company were outside Lambeth Palace rehearsing a marriage scene that they planned to act on stage that evening. The Archbishop walking by misunderstood and—well-meaning fellow that he is—joined in. The actors mistook him for an actor who would be playing the priest. No matter what piece of paper the Archbishop signed as part of this misunderstanding, it would not turn the scene into a wedding. It would turn it into a farce.
Now imagine the public occasion from Meghan and Harry’s point of view. From their point of view, they could not possibly get married on their official wedding day, because they already were married. They married three days previously, facilitated by the Archbishop. A written document of those vows hangs on their wall. On the public occasion, they were only actors going through the motions, and the Archbishop was in on the act. The entire spectacle was a performance. But in that case, how could there possibly have been any kind of wedding—“legal” or not—if neither party thought they were getting married? The Archbishop gives casuistry a bad name. He says he cannot discuss confidential conversations he had with the couple. But the question is not about their private chatter. It is about whether he, three days before the public event, married them or not. In this context, his talk about the “legal” wedding sounds weaselly. So does his remark about committing a serious criminal offense if he knowingly signed a false document. How about all the intermediate cases, such as signing it without thinking all that much about it? Archbishop! I want to ask, in the eyes of God as best you understand it, when, if at all, did Meghan and Harry get married? Was the “legal” wedding the wedding or did it occur three days before? In the Christian tradition, the answer to this question matters.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that in life we are all seeking, and we all take ourselves to be seeking, happiness, though we may be unclear or confused about what it is. This striving shows up in what we do and how we live. Aristotle’s conception of happiness (or eudaimonia) is complex, but it certainly includes achieving the kind of significance Meghan was striving for in her own efforts to have a real marriage. What kind of significance is that?
For Aristotle, happiness requires a self-conscious capacity to appreciate and participate in what he calls the kalon. This term is translated as “noble,” “beautiful” or “fine” (and I shall suggest later that this variability reflects conceptual unease). For now, I want to use kalon as a signifier for a concept we may not yet fully understand, though we grasp some of its important features. There is something about the fine, the noble, the beautiful that grabs our attention. The key to our happiness, according to Aristotle, lies in precisely this: the active exercise of our ability to recognize and delight in those exemplars of the kalon that we experience in our lives, and to be motivated to emulate them. Through practice, we can come to internalize and identify with the kalon ourselves. In the optimal case, having acquired human virtue or excellence, we, in our life-activities, will shine forth in the same manner. Aristotle acknowledges that a certain amount of external goods and good fortune are required for human well-being. But these are merely the preconditions of happiness. What our flourishing truly consists in is an appropriate responsiveness to, internalization of and active participation in the kalon.
Hence our flourishing, unlike the flourishing of other animals, consists in a special form of self-conscious understanding. It is essentially first-personal and a good deal of it is practical. This is why Aristotle teaches the conditions of human flourishing not in his zoological works, but in his ethics. Knowing what it is to be human (in this special sense of knowing) is a condition of our being human (in the sense of our flourishing).
We can see Meghan striving for something correspondingly special in her efforts to have a real marriage. The reality of the marriage, in her opinion, depended on it conforming to her idea of what makes marriage meaningful. In this context, I think we should consider the interview with Oprah not so much a retrospective report of an earlier event but a self-conscious elaboration of the event itself. Part of what it is to be kalon is to shine forth as such. In the very act of having this interview, Meghan manifests her belief that the whole world is capable of appreciating the specialness, the rightness, of her marrying as she chose to do. Of course, Aristotle thought that only a restricted elite would be able to appreciate the kalon, while Meghan insisted on a more egalitarian outlook. But the point about the importance of recognition remains. It is a way of building community.
Her act—that is, private ceremony plus public declaration on Oprah—was also intended as a critique. For thousands of years a certain social sect in Europe has insisted that their conception of nobility (which non-accidentally included themselves) was the truth about what nobility is. The official marriage between Meghan and Harry was meant to show how this form of nobility can adapt to the exigencies of modernity. In effect, Meghan insisted that there was something phony about this attempt at nobility. It had degenerated into spectacle. The real marriage—the true nobility—was the private event and its showing forth on Oprah.
At this point we arrive at an important question about the availability of conceptual resources. In the case of Meghan, she clearly has the concepts of marriage and authenticity with which she wants to understand herself and have others understand her. It is with these in mind that she sought to break free of oppressive cultural norms and expectations. The question is whether she gets caught one level up by trying to escape on the basis of clichéd or distorted concepts. This is a problem that confronts us all, and here I shall only mention two aspects, one as old as philosophy itself, the other distinctly modern.
In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates encounters Euthyphro when the latter is on his way to court to sue his father for impiety. This act will have a potentially devastating impact on his family, and yet in conversation it emerges that Euthyphro is living with a clichéd and confused conception of piety. At one level, Euthyphro is free to live according to his conception of what is pious; but one level up he is a prisoner of his conception. Meghan with authenticity and marriage is in a similar position to Euthyphro just before he met Socrates. In Meghan’s case, she earned celebrity, wealth and personal prestige on her own; she was able along with her husband to structure a marriage as she saw fit. But what resources did she have to question what marriage and authenticity should mean for her? What freedom did she have with the concepts themselves? I ask this not just about her but because it is a problem that pervades our culture, and, more generally, it is a problem that haunts human social being as such. This brings us back to the importance and value of the humanities.
There is, as I said, also a distinctly modern challenge to our aspiration to think and live freely. In her essay “Losing Your Concepts” the philosopher Cora Diamond has argued that one aspect of growing up in unjust conditions is that people often lack the concepts with which to understand their situations and themselves. Indeed, injustice is regularly sustained with concepts that distort and disfigure our understanding of what it is to live well. What reason do we have to trust (for example) our inherited idea of authenticity? And what to do if we take ourselves to be living in conditions of injustice? In modernity the very concepts by which we organize our lives have become open to skeptical worry, we are no longer sure how to ground our ideas about how to live together, and there seems to be no Archimedean point.
This may at first seem wildly counterintuitive, but I suggest as a way forward we return to the kalon. My reason for doing so will become clear by the end.
It helps to distinguish three levels of the kalon. The distinction is for heuristic purposes only; in reality there are interminglings and overlaps. At the first level there are people striving in their lives for significance. They are trying to live happy lives in the deep, eudaimonistic sense of happy. Then, second, there are those whose first-level strivings take a peculiar turn: they survey the human scene and try to give it back to us in poetry and fiction, philosophy, art and other narrative forms. Sometimes they give us accounts of the kalon as exemplified in heroes and heroines; but that is not all. Sometimes they portray humanity as a mixed bag of foibles, failings and even evil, with perhaps a few moments of generosity and clarity. Nonetheless, there is something kalon about helping us understand ourselves better—whatever the truth brings. And then, third, there emerges this historical institution, the humanities, that is, of its own nature, dedicated to conserving (in some sense of “conserve”) these special attempts to understand ourselves as human. It is a disciplined account of what we take to be our best first-personal attempts to understand the human.
What is it about this form of studying the human—both the kalon and its failures—that makes it kalon? I want to say that the humanities, properly understood, is a special form of mourning. And, perhaps surprisingly, mourning is a realm in which humans can achieve excellence. When we mourn well it is a peculiarly human way of flourishing. I will stick with Aristotle not because I want to promote him above others, but because with him I can speak from personal experience. Aristotle lived; while he lived he tried to make sense of life; then he died. That would be it, completely it—as far as we can tell, in this world—but for the relentless activities to keep him alive in thought, imagination and emulation by generations of scholars, teachers and students, each passing on not only the teaching but the love of the learning from one generation to the next. In that sense, it is a matter of life and death. It is only because of all this activity that I am able to speak to you today about the kalon and why it might continue to matter to us.
Freud said that mourning is a “great riddle,” and its greatness partially consists in its not being the kind of riddle that gets solved. Mourning, he says, is “one of those phenomena which cannot themselves be explained but to which other obscurities can be traced back.” In essence, mourning is one of the ways we exercise our capacity for love. We get attached to people and ideals, thoughts and projects that are themselves vulnerable. And we respond to that vulnerability by becoming active ourselves in making sense of what it all meant or will continue to mean. Other animals suffer loss; other animals grieve in complex ways. If we want, we can call that mourning. But our form of mourning is an attempt to turn loss into a reanimated gain—in imagination, thought, emotion and, importantly, symbolic expression. We make human meanings, and when we can share these meanings publicly it is constitutive of the formation of culture. Aristotle lived; Aristotle died: it is only our activity that transforms this change into loss and into a certain kind of gain.
It is via these types of activities that we develop ourselves as historical beings. We are historical beings because we have pasts that matter to us—that is, pasts that partially constitute our present by shaping our sense of what is important. Thus mourning, when done well, is a special manner of our distinctive form of flourishing: it helps us come to clarity about what matters—in that special sense of mattering we are tracking. It is kalon to keep alive in thought and imagination the best attempts to understand the human from a first-personal, human point of view. The humanities are a family of historical and cultural attempts to keep this form of mourning alive in a shared public arena. It is therefore a mistake to try to justify the humanities in instrumental terms by saying, for example, that if we study Aristotle it will improve our critical thinking, and if we are better at critical thinking we will do better in our careers. That may be true. But it misses what the humanities are about and what they ought to be about in our lives. As a form of mourning, the humanities enrich us with a lively sense of the finest attempts to understand what matters about living a human life; overcoming, while in another way maintaining, boundaries of space and time.
Mourning is a manner of taking up the dead, the departed, the lost—in memory and imagination—and coming to life oneself in efforts to make sense of these losses. Sometimes evaluations of good and bad are employed. It is often emotion-laden; sometimes it is imagistic and dreamlike. But in all of it we ourselves are engaged. It is essentially first-personal activity. In the case of the humanities (and to stick with the examples we have been using) it is not just that we get opened up to thousands of years of extraordinary thinking and artistic expression about what marriage and authenticity might mean in human life. When things are going well we develop a capacity for critical playfulness, for recreation and change of the very concepts with which we are thinking. We are freed up for a poetic reinterpretation of authenticity as well as opened to the possibility of giving up the concept altogether and living according to different concepts. This is the manner of returning from preoccupation with loss (the past) to life (in the present). The point of the humanities then is not some goal external to it. The point of the humanities is that it itself is a mode of our flourishing.
So, to come back to Meghan, the issue is not that the humanities would have helped her instrumentally to make a more critically informed decision, as though she were solving a problem in Clue (“in the garden with the Archbishop” or “at the Palace, with the Queen”?). The question is not which is the right place (as though there were a correct answer existing independently of her deliberation) but what inner resources and cultural opportunities she was able to draw upon so as to turn the choice-making activity itself into a deep understanding of who she is, what her freedom and flourishing consists in and, correlatively, what the world she lives in means.
To some this may appear a trivial example centered on a shallow person. But I think such a perspective ignores something important. And this also bears on the question that frames our concern with the humanities: What is worth conserving? There are different ways one might understand this question and some of them are, in my opinion, quite problematic. But to begin with a positive construal: one of the most important aspects of the humanities that needs conserving is the capacity to transmit a sense of its own importance, a sense of the joy and meaningfulness internal to it, from one generation to the next. The question of conservation here is not so much about what to teach but about how. Meghan is not unlike many students in our humanities courses. She is already struggling with issues about what would make her life meaningful, and she has not yet internalized the riches of the humanities. Whatever the conceptual resources or limitations of our students, these stirrings for significance should be seen, not as grounds for skepticism, but as an opportunity for us as teachers.
So, what is above all worth conserving in the humanities are teachers—proper teachers in the humanities. In my experience, teachers do not emerge from classes on pedagogy (though they might be able to survive them). There are, I think, three overlapping features that make for an excellent teacher. First, that they themselves are exemplars of the love of their subject. Many of the teachers who influenced me were not interested in me at all. But in their teaching they put on display their fascination with and dedication to the area of study. There was something marvelous in their efforts to study and teach something they found marvelous. In a way, humanities professors ought to be first responders to students’ hunger for the kalon—not just by giving them large-scale cultural exemplars but by being exemplary in their manner of doing so. Linda Zagzebski has pointed out that with large-scale cultural exemplars we can be struck by their beauty or nobility or specialness before we understand what it is about them that is grabbing us. Here I am less concerned with these alleged examples of supreme excellence, but rather want to focus instead on often very flawed characters we encounter in everyday life—our teachers—who, for all their foibles and sometimes bad behavior, do have a spark about them. Of course, that opens room for show-offs and seducers. But right now I want to concentrate not on how things go wrong, but how they go right when they do. Part of what it is for things to go right is for students to see right before their eyes a manifestation of something special shining forth, not that far off, as something they could imagine partaking in, perhaps in a different form.
Second, as I said, the humanities are a manner of overcoming while maintaining boundaries of space and time. One of the important reasons for teaching the humanities in an undergraduate curriculum is that by and large it is not the sort of thing one can pick up on one’s own. One needs to be taught skills of reading and writing, thinking and imagining, so as to be able to enter distant worlds and—in some remarkable and unusual way—inhabit them from a distance; as a mode of animating and deepening one’s own life.
The third feature is really an elaboration of the second: one needs to teach students how to play. To return to Aristotle for a moment: it was important for me to learn how to read the Aristotelian texts, to struggle with getting it right, to immerse myself in ancient Greek conceptions of psyche, eudaimonia and the kalon, and so on. But I was also encouraged into a certain kind of imaginary activity. What might Aristotle have thought about this? What if a new manuscript were discovered? How might we go on in an Aristotelian spirit with a contemporary challenge? This imaginary activity is at once mournful and playful: the question of who it is we are keeping alive in our imaginations goes into an enlivening abeyance. (As Donald Winnicott taught us: we often do not need to answer the question, “Where, precisely, is Aristotle located?”)
These three features of teaching provide a clue to the intrinsic value of learning the humanities. The point is not: if you study the humanities you will learn to think better and then it is more likely you will get promoted in your job, you will then become rich and famous and then you can do what you want! It is that for human life to flourish, it requires more than instrumentality.
None of these considerations are conservative in the familiar political sense of advocating a fixed canon of “the greats.” As I said above, there are ways of understanding the question “What is worth conserving?” that are problematic. I want to highlight one which—following Kierkegaard—I shall call an aesthetic reading. In this version, we in the humanities conceive of ourselves along the lines of Curators at a great museum, or Librarians at a great library, or Professors at a great university. There are so many artworks already in our basement, but there is not enough wall space for the exhibition; or there are too many books for our shelves; or there is too much learning to fit into a curriculum, and we must make choices. But on the aesthetic reading there are two unquestioned assumptions. First, it is left unquestioned what it is any longer going to mean to conserve. We assume we already know what conserving is: the only issue is which items to choose. Second, it is assumed that the basis of choice will be educated judgment, but the question of what educated judgment consists in is left largely to the side. It is as though the question were about the worth of the various “objects” of the humanities as opposed to the worth of what we are doing in raising the question in this manner. It is that kind of questioning that is integral to the humanities, and it gets left out in what I have called the aesthetic reading.
By way of contrast, I have tried to provide an ethical reading of the question. In this vein, let me conclude with a word about my continued use of the term “kalon.” My point is not nostalgic. I have no interest in “going back to ancient Greece,” whatever that means. Rather, I want to use the term to signal a gap: an intuition that, for reasons we may not comprehend, we may not have the concepts we need to understand our condition well. Each of the possible translations of kalon into English seems to me problematic. “Noble” carries connotations of thousands of years of European exploiters, thugs and dissolutes giving meaning to the term by putting on furs and shiny rocks, making others bow down and call them “King” and “Queen.” Good riddance to them! (And go Meghan!) “Beauty” carries with it the sense of an aesthetic beauty detached from the ethical. “Fine” signifies something good but is vague and thus does not pack the right aspirational punch. The point of my continuing to use the Greek word kalon is that it signals that we do have a hunch but that we do not yet know in sufficient detail what it is that we are looking for.
The aim here is not to recover Aristotle’s conception in the hope of returning to it. The society Aristotle inhabited was also unjust; therefore one should suspect that his concept of the kalon was itself disfigured, with its connotation of “nobility” in particular legitimizing an unjust social hierarchy in which he partook. My own stance is Platonic in spirit: we should assume that both we and those from whom we might learn have been living in conditions of injustice which disfigure our attempts to understand what is good (in effect, we are all in the Cave). Still, we can get glimpses of a good direction to follow. Using the kalon self-consciously as a signifier, not a fully developed concept, is a useful direction to proceed. We thereby signal to ourselves that we have a hunch that both they and we are onto something important about being human, but we are also in the midst of life and thus in the midst of confusions, contradictions and unclarities. What seems to me worth conserving is the spirit of making our best efforts (according to our best reflective understandings of what we mean by “best”) to travel all over the world—across space, time and cultures—in study and imagination to discover and conserve what we take to be the deepest attempts of other humans to understand and express the human condition. It is a spirit of rigorous hope that, I believe, is itself a manifestation of our flourishing.