The duo behind the Thinking Aloud video archive recently interviewed George Kateb about the possibilities of living a good life in our damaged world. Kateb, one of the most respected and influential political theorists of the past several decades, is the author, most recently, of Human Dignity, a secular defense of a concept that has received little true scrutiny.
The point is to live one’s life, whether or not you think the world is damaged. To live a life. But, never, never to think that you can lead a good life. Never, never to think that you can lead the good life.
I think of two things that help to define a tolerable life that people need and are right to need and want. And they are the two that Freud comes up with: work and love.
Can you have work and love in a damaged world? Yes, you can, but not with an easy conscience. Why not an easy conscience? Because it’s never justified. There’s always too much damage in the world for you to think that the world exists for your work and your love.
We are oblivious, and can’t help but be to some extent oblivious. We would die from the impact of true knowledge of the amount of suffering existing just around us at any given moment in time. This is a lesson taught powerfully by George Eliot in Middlemarch. We’d die if we could hear the heartbeat of a squirrel. We would die from the roar at the other end of silence.
So how does one live against a backdrop of nothingness? What does one do about the pathologies that seem to make life less worth living, rather than more worth living?
Once you’re determined to do something, the obligation is to do your best. Should you assume an obligation to do something? I think one should. It’s not the same thing for everybody, though. But, to sort of struggle against pathology on the one hand, and the temptation of destructive nihilism, on the other hand, it’s enough to keep you going… fill up a life.