What does it mean to live a good life in a broken world? Some post-pandemic thoughts on Charles Taylor’s philosophy

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the existential challenges created by a world which is cascading towards systems failure. My assumption is that, as Charles Taylor puts it in A Secular Age, “Every person, and ever society, lives with or by some conception(s) of what human flourishing is” involving questions such as what makes life worth living, what do we admire people for and what constitutes a fulfilled life (pg 16). In answering these questions we inevitably postulate ideas about society, sometimes explicitly but often inchoately, with the relationship between the two being a key axis upon which long term political struggle takes place. For example it is difficult to sustain a sense of a ‘good life’ which is inaccessible to the majority of the population, as we’ll perhaps see with the unwinding of neoliberalism and its associated promisees of consumerist fulfilment given their reliance on cheap food, cheap energy and cheap credit. If the lived experience of a majority of the population becomes one in which compensatory consumerism recedes then this drives an explication of what were previously often tacit images of a good life as one built upon living well with nice things. In this sense social and political crisis can encourage a reevaluation of existential questions, as could be seen in the life changes which Covid-19 demonstrably generated in many people, even if there was a deeply classed character to the media discourse surrounding it.

If I’m correct that the current crisis is one which will last, in the sense of involving a long term change in the coordinates of social life, it raises the question of how we might deliberately respond to this rather than simply be carried along with it. The invocation of the ‘we’ here is clearly classed but I hope you will forgive this for a self-interrogative blog post which makes no claim to be robust sociological analysis. It is classed in the sense of someone with enough inherited and embodied privilege to have entered adult life with an unspoken aspiration to float freely in my own bubble but without the privilege necessary to do this under current circumstances, as this becomes an aspiration to which only a tiny minority of the population can meaningfully aspire.

If the lifestyles grounded in this aspiration are going to be literally unsustainable across a range of registers from the socioeconomic to the ecological then it poses the question of what we replace them with. What I’ve gone back to Taylor to think about is the question of how we think about this as a meta-question grounded in a sense of what makes life meaningful and what doesn’t. In The Secular Age he talks about the experience of “a fullness, a richness” in which “life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worth while, more admirable, more what it should be”. This can be something “we just catch glimpses of from afar off” such that “we have the powerful intuition of what fulness would be, were we to be in that condition”. But we sometimes experience it more directly, such that “the sense of fullness came in an experience which unsettles and breaks through our ordinary sense of being int he world, with its familiar objects, activities and points of reference”. On these occasions “the deep divisions, distractions, worries, sadnesses that seem to drag us down are something dissolved, or brought into alignment, so that we feel united, moving forward, suddenly capable and full of energy” in which “[o]ur highest aspirations and our life energies are somehow lined up rather than producing psychic gridlock” (pg 5-6).

These are the occasions where we come alive. We feel congruent, whole and purposeful but in a relaxed way infused with kindness towards other. That is my experience at least when I feel this way. Certain people can incline us towards this state, often leading us to come away feeling seen, as if something in how they relate to us recognises this potential for fullness within us. To formulate these experiences can lead to “a release, as though the power of the experience was increased by having been focused, articulated , and hence let fully be”. There’s a parallel story which Taylor tells here of a “negative slop; where we experience above all a distance, an absence, an exile, a seemingly irremediable incapacity ever to reach this place; an absence of power; a confusion, or worse, the condition often described in the tradition as melancholy, ennui” (pg 6). This is something which I might take up in a subsequent post but my intention here is to focus on the more positive aspect of this philosophical anthropology and what it means for our present conjuncture.

I’d suggest that it’s more difficult to examine feelings of fullness from a distance. These are more likely to involve inchoate images we’ve appropriated from social life, possessing a charge we occasionally access through moments of resonance with the possibilities encoded within them. But there’s a time lag involved in these images, as possibilities of a good life which circulated for a past generation might not have relevance for a rising generation. In fact, if we take acceleration theory seriously, these changes are likely to operate intra-generationally. This means we need to subject the assumptions loaded into them to scrutiny in order to question whether they can be applied to our present circumstances. It also means searching for newer images of a good life, testing them out in our experience to see if we can feel a flicker of resonance that would encourage us to find ways to embed more of a lived relation to them.

This work of existential experimentation becomes much less significant with the second category of experience which Taylor opens up in which the resonance lifts us out of ourselves while making us more fully ourselves. These moments are more fully rooted in the reality of our present conjuncture, representing opportunities to learn about how we might flourish in the conditions available to us. They provide opportunities to establish a new mode of relating to the world, if we make the effort to understand and explicate them, ideally with those who our orientation towards them.

There’s a sense in which I’m suggesting that socialisation becomes a continuous and self-directed process under these conditions, under at least it should be. This raises in turn the question of the machinery which underpins socialisation that now incorporates the vast socio-technical apparatus of platform capitalism. This can hinder the meta-reflexivity I’ve outlined here (e.g. by subtracting from the time available for internal dialogue, by overwhelming us with mutually exclusive images of the good life) but it can also support it through the dialogical possibilities it opens up. There’s much more I’m trying to say here, as different strands of my research gradually fall into connection with each other.

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