In The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming An Individual In An Age of Distraction, the follow-up to his bestselling Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, the refreshing thinker Matthew Crawford makes the case that we are "living in a crisis of attention" - a sort of societal attention deficit disorder -- and responding in a way that makes it only worse, by embracing a kind of freedom that is all about having the greatest range of choices with the fewest outside-imposed limits. But far from liberating us, Crawford contends that the choices lead to a pervasive blandness and deadening of the human soul and spirit.
The remedy? To Crawford, we must push back against this "highly mediated existence" of modern times in which "we increasingly encounter the world through representations" by "attending to real objects" and cultivating "skilled practices"-- learning to play a musical instrument, or mastering some sort of hands-on skill that requires great devotion and concentration and effort -- that enable us to reclaim the real deal of individuality -- rather than the specious kind to which we pay lip service today -- and, as a result, flourishing of a far different and more redeeming sort.
Crawford's claim is that we have the Enlightenment in general, and (to me) the incredibly overrated German philosopher Immanuel Kant in particular, to blame for worshiping at the altar of the wrong kind of freedom.
Above and beyond the fact that, while provocative, Crawford's contention at best is squishy, one might argue that all the world is and always has been 'representational,' that there always has been, for the leisure class, a world of distractions to keep us amused and at bay from more meaningful endeavors, everything is relational, try as one might to divorce oneself from such 'restrictions,'
Right now, while Crawford's audience of individuals looking to find more meaning of the kind that he espouses and that resonates with them is quite large, how might we make it far larger? How do we make ours a world in which ever more people can enjoy the kinds of individual pursuits that Crawford limns?
Wealth and income inequality are on the upswing, a deep concern to most Americans, and poverty is on the rise in America in pockets where you'd least expect it, and where you'd most expect to find people who might have time to devote to the pursuits Crawford believes are the pathway to individual sculpting. And since Crawford intends for his message to be a universal one, then before it can be applied, one must address the tragic fact that half the world lives with restrictively low income, making it nearly impossible for these fellow humans enjoy the kind of leisure time needed for the skilled practices Crawford endorses and that he believes make us more richly human.
I must sound like a wet blanket or spoilsport, but while it may be an important intellectual exercise to note, as Crawford does, that corporate monoliths can be just as blameworthy as onerous government statutes as culprits for keeping the leisure class distracted and constricted, this actually can deflect us from asking: What can those of us fortunate enough to live in fairly privileged circumstances do to create a world in which all have time for creative and reflective and soul-kindling pursuits?
And can it be that the act of creating such conditions, of digging into the world in ways that make it possible for more people in all parts of the globe to discover and cultivate their passions and talents, is itself one of the most meaningful and creative and individual-affirming acts of all, that leads to greater self and societal flourishing at one and the same time?
Surely the kind of bland and guilt-assuaging mutual respect that Crawford seems to extol is not enough? Isn't compassion (a word that fails to make a single appearance in his book) what we need far more of, and can't it be at the core of individual blossoming of a kind that also leads to greater connectedness with other individuals and the world as a whole?
In the end, Crawford seems to me to extol a type of individualism that may seem sublime, but nonetheless is still 'all about me.' He's mostly proselytizing an exalted and glorified and elevated form of individualism that places insufficient stress on the inculcation of any keen sense of duty (a term mentioned once in his book, and in a negative light) to others -- and how this duty can redound to greater individual unfolding.
The fact is that human autonomy and social conscience go hand in glove. They drive one another - they are a tag team for impelling and inspiring a person to involve herself deeply as a civic or social entrepreneur, to undertake kinds of challenges that expand a person's imaginative, physical, existential bounds, and that do so for others in the world itself as well. These kinds of practiced skills do not in any way diminish the kinds that Crawford speaks so highly of, and in fact there should be plenty of room for both. The process of putting into practice Crawford's ideas for individual soulcraft, if undertaken by someone with social conscience, might be the ideal setting for the emergence of new ideas for how to dig into the world. Perhaps there wouldn't be the focus in books on extreme individualism if ordinary citizens weren't deliberately sidelined from playing the kind of hands-on role in governance that Jefferson envisioned.
What is required to revolutionize what can constitute getting our hands dirty, in the best way, in making ours a world more reflective of the ideals in our hearts is the development of a kind of philia, a special bond of affection, that goes far beyond individual friendships, as practiced by the Greeks of old, and leads as a matter of course to a sense of communal caring, even for those one might never meet.
The Greeks of old, in their halcyon days, knew all about this. The practiced such expansive philia because it was part and parcel of arête.
The classic Greek scholar H.D.F. Kitto writes in The Greeks that arête means that a person is "an excellent all-rounder." Someone with arete has "a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life" along with an understanding that achieving harmony "exists not in one department of life but in life itself."
This "wholeness" and "oneness" are equivalent to the holistic "balance" and "order" and "harmony" of the Navajo philosophy of hozho.
Kitto further writes, "What moves the Greek warrior to deeds of heroism is not a sense of duty as we understand it -- duty towards others: it is rather duty towards himself." Or rather, as I point out in my Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern Day Journey of Discovery Through World Philosophy, it is a duty towards self and other at one and the same time.
To the Greeks of antiquity, for those males who enjoyed being democratic citizens, a big part of becoming all we can be is doing our part to create conditions that enable others to do so as well.We might recognize that the bounds are blurred between public and private self, and between the individual self and the societal variety. Such recognition is probably required if one is to practice fully arete.
I go on to note in Six Questions that in
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, Robert M. Pirsig, commenting on Kitto's book, concludes that this "motive of 'duty toward self' ... is an almost exact translation of the Sanskrit word dharma, sometimes described as the 'one' of the Hindus". Pirsig asks, "Can the dharma of the Hindus and the 'virtue' of the ancient Greeks be identical?"Pirsig clearly thinks they are one and the same. But what both Kitto and Pirsig fail to grasp is that for the ancient Greeks, there was no distinction of any sort between duty towards others and duty towards self; they were one and the same. Every act, every deed in ancient Greece was committed by a member of its citizenry with a keen mindfulness of its impact on everyone else. Each recognized that one could not attain personal excellence at the expense of others, but only by paving the way for them to attain it as well. There was no private self as there is today, only a self that was part of a whole, part of an excellent citizenry and society. In that respect, arete is like the Hindu conception of Dharma, which, contrary to what Pirsig states, encompasses an individual's duty not just to himself, but to his religion, his society, his nation. This sense of duty towards others and oneself is equivalent to the hozho's underpinning philosophy of t-aa ho ajit-eego, in which the Navajo are inculcated from a young age to believe that there are no divisions between duty to themselves, to their tribe, and to the universe as a whole. They have the same respect and sense of duty for the wholeness or oneness of life" that Kitto ascribes to the ancient Greeks. In striving further to develop this individual wholeness, in becoming an "excellent all-rounder," one is at the same time furthering one's duty to one's community, contributing to greater social harmony.
So rather than, as Crawford exhorts us, strive to "reclaim the real" (one can argue ad nauseum about what that might amount to, and whether the world 'in our mind' and the world 'out there' is actually a false and fruitless dichotomy advanced for far too long), what one might do instead is regularly engage and encounter one's fellow humans in places and spaces that lead a thoughtful and compassionate person to share and discover and sculpt new visions and ideas and ideals, and even work out strategies for making them a reality.
We can also make our world more one comprised of the 'compassionate real 'by recognizing our rightful role and duty to become a co-creator of the universe in ways that enable others to do so as well.
A core traditional Navajo belief is that every move you make must be done with the idea of bringing yourself into harmony with your total environment, or ho, which is made up of things like nature, family, tribe, society, country, planet, universe.
Rather than paralyze a person from acting, such a belief system can be a great impetus and inspiration to do so, in ways that make so much more of 'the real' than 'the real' is at any given moment.
The life of the mind, the spirit, the body, are interwoven not just with the individual self, but the world itself - and a sense of duty to do one's utmost in one's mortal moment to make ours a more connected world.
This calls, I believe, for the skilled and dedicated hands-on practice of duty to self and others. Or at least, that's my code.
I put it this way in Six Questions:
This sense of duty towards others and oneself is equivalent to the hozho's underpinning philosophy of t-aa ho ajit-eego, in which the Navajo are inculcated from a young age to believe that there are no divisions between duty to themselves, to their tribe, and to the universe as a whole. They have the same respect and sense of duty for the wholeness or oneness of life" that Kitto ascribes to the ancient Greeks. In striving further to develop this individual wholeness, in becoming an "excellent all-rounder," one is at the same time furthering one's duty to one's community, contributing to greater social harmony.
One of the few helpful and meaningful things Kant has ever said in his otherwise tortured writing and thinking that has resonated was his dictum to treat people as ends in themselves, rather than primarily or only as means. To me, that is the real soulcraft of today, and that is where we should get our hands dirty - digging into the world and sculpting it in a way that makes everyone an end in themselves. What the Greeks knew was that by making the world one in which all are ends in themselves, we are making it more so for ourselves as well.