If I were to ask you to outline your narrative for living, how would you respond? Social critic Neil…
As I hold my baby daughter at four in the morning, feeling the softness of her cheek against my own cheek, waiting for her breathing to settle into the regular rise and fall of sleep, the rightness of this scene feels self-evident. How could my life be any other way?
Yet, less than 12 months ago, I knew frighteningly little about children, let alone babies. I didn’t know how to hold one, nor how to change a nappy, nor how loud a cry can be in the dead of the night. I certainly didn’t know about the heady mixture of love, responsibility and not-knowing-what-to-do that can strike at any time: watching her picking up slices of banana to shove by the fistful in her mouth, settling her down after a delivery man with facial hair knocks on our door, letting her hold my little finger with her tiny hand in the maternity ward.
And 12 months before that – when we were seriously talking about having a baby – I didn’t even know how little I knew.
But could it really have been any other way? Of course, I might have known more about the details of what having a baby would be like. All the same, those details are only incidental to the real decision under consideration, and for the purposes of that decision, I knew about as much as one needs to know: that what we were embarking on was something fundamentally life-altering, with its attendant joys and sorrows – and, most importantly, that there was no going back. Once our baby had come into the world, we knew that our lives would never be the same again.
This seems so obvious as to verge on cliché. What is perhaps less obvious is that this truth holds not only for the decision to have a child, but for all of our major life decisions. Why? Because of the fundamentally limited nature of human experience: we are limited in both time and resources. We have limited attention to give, we are limited in the life goals we can pursue, and there is a limit to the number of close bonds we can form. In other words, every commitment is a giving up of other possibilities.
For some, this truth is paralysing. We can call these people ‘the potentialists’. For them, the good life is one that is full of potential. We can see that this view has some intuitive appeal. Who wouldn’t prefer to have more options, and more opportunities, rather than fewer? In a way, the potentialists are right. Whatever your idea is of the good life – a satisfying career, health and financial security, a happy family environment, or a combination of these things and many others – potential is a necessary condition for you to live that good life. Where potentialists get it wrong is that they forget that potential is only a condition for achieving an end – it isn’t an end in itself, something to be desired for its own sake.
The potentialist’s error typically plays out like this: if every commitment closes down other possible commitments, thereby limiting our potential, and the having of potential is a good thing in and of itself, then committing to any life decision will be a poor choice unless we know that the decision will be a success. And because it’s impossible to tell the future, the potentialist decides to defer deciding: they wait for life to give them a sign that they’re on to a sure thing.
The extreme potentialist ends up wasting away, convinced that by doing nothing, they are at least leaving the door open for the perfect opportunity that’s just around the corner. Even as they draw their last breath, they can think to themselves, “I might still become a concert pianist, you know…” Clearly, most of us aren’t so extreme. But we do often behave like potentialists – whenever, for example, we hedge our bets, and fail to fully commit to projects that we think might interfere in our pursuit of something better.
One way of avoiding the potentialist pitfall is to think of the good life not so much as an end, but as an activity. This can be an easy point to forget, not least because philosophers are sometimes less than clear about the difference. Aristotle, for example, famously said that happiness is the ultimate end of human life. That sounds a lot like he’s saying that happiness is the goal that all our striving seeks to achieve – that happiness is something we can get and possess. But we have to pay closer attention to what Aristotle actually means by happiness: it is, he says, the excellent performance of the proper function of humanity. What is that function? It’s “a kind of life”, “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue”. In the more modern language of contemporary philosophers, we must all have a rational plan of life – to be human is to ask, “What should I do?”
Now, Aristotle had in mind a set list of virtues which should orient the “activity” of our souls (virtues like courage, temperance, patience, and truthfulness) but the precise content of Aristotlean virtues need not concern us here. Instead, Aristotle’s crucial insight for present purposes is that happiness – the ultimate human end – is a kind of activity, a way of living one’s life. So our end goal isn’t really something that can be achieved, in the way we might achieve a finished outcome at the end of a particular project, like a good mark on an exam, but rather something in which we participate without ever fully realising – except, perhaps, at the end of our lives. Happiness, as Aristotle reminds us, is subject to a further qualification: “one swallow does not make a summer… neither can one day, or a brief space of time, make a [person] blessed and happy.”
Once we realise that the good life is not a state of being but an activity, we can see how wrongheaded the potentialists really are. By waiting and doing nothing, they only guarantee one thing – that they are not living the good life. Another way of thinking of this is to look at the existentialists. Though an existentialist is likely to disagree with Aristotle’s list of objective virtues, they would at least agree that to be human is to have to choose what to do. Indeed, we can say that this is one of existentialism’s key insights: that we are free and responsible insofar as we are at liberty to choose how to live our lives, and burdened by having to do so ourselves. Although other people can either enhance your opportunities or limit your choices, in the final analysis, no one can choose for you. Indeed, as the potentialists show us, no one can make you choose at all. But if you don’t choose – if you don’t commit – then you are passing up the sometimes terrible, but ultimately liberating responsibility that comes with realising that your life is your own, and no one else’s.