In Unto This Last, John Ruskin declares that the “only wealth is life.’ There is something deeply attractive to me in this absolute declaration. Here my spade turns. Whatever does not avail to life, Ruskin adds, we should designate “illth, for we ought to have a corresponding term” to wealth, one that designates those things that impede or even actively destroy life. (pp. 209, 211 in Penguin edition.)
To take “life” as one’s standard of value means that, at a minimum, that which provides for the material goods required for subsistence is good. For starters, it would seem we need to supplement that standard with the proviso that all are equally entitled to “life”—from which it follows that all should have the means to sustain life. When it comes to mere existence (what the new discourse is calling “bare life,” having resurrected the term zoe out of Aristotle’s work), no life is more valuable than another. Life is a non-discriminating term. “I know when one is dead and when one lives,” says Lear (V, iii, 264), and that basic difference is all that counts. We should value, Ruskin is saying, everything (whether it be food, or a way of arranging human and social affairs) that contributes to sustaining life and delaying death.
What appalls Ruskin—and me—is that, despite the lip service we pay to life as, if not the highest, at least a recognizable, good, we hardly act that way. “We usually speak as if death pursued us, and we fled from him; but that is so in only rare instances. Ordinarily he masks himself—makes himself beautiful—all-glorious; not like the King’s daughter, all glorious within, but outwardly: his clothing of wrought gold. We pursue him frantically all our days, he flying or hidden from us” (190). Our actions belie our devotion to life since so much of what we do is death-dealing, either for ourselves or for others. Isn’t it enough that nature brings pestilence, famine, and death? Do human actions have to add to those burdens?
Yet even Ruskin—as determined a seeker of firm, absolute values as any writer I know—cannot maintain “life” as an unqualified standard. He, too, like almost all writers on the subject is moved to consider what makes a life worth living (to borrow William James’s phrase). It seems impossible to view all lives as equal or equivalent. We are pushed to judge among lives, to compare them, to see some as more valuable than others. For Ruskin, this evaluation takes the form of assessing various modes of living in the world as contributing to the promotion of life. “Five great intellectual professions, relating to the daily necessities of life, have hitherto existed,” he tells us:
The Soldier’s profession is to defend it.
The Pastor’s to teach it.
The Physician’s to keep it in health.
The Lawyer’s to enforce justice in it.
The Merchant’s to provide for it. (177).
And the value of these lives, when we come to judge them, is not only determined by how well different individuals performed the professional task they assumed, but (crucially) rests on the willingness of those individuals to die instead of failing to perform that task.
“[T] duty of all these men is, on due occasion, to die for it [i.e. life].
“on due occasion,’ namely—
The Soldier, rather than leave his post in battle.
The Physician, rather than leave his post in plague.
The Paston, rather than teach Falsehood.
The Lawyer, rather than countenance Injustice.
The Merchant—what is his “due occasion” of death?
It is the main question for the merchant, as for all of us. For, truly, the man who does not know when to die, does not know how to live (177).
What happened to the supreme value of life? It has evaporated in front of us—or, at the very least, some individual lives must willing accept death “on due occasion” in order to promote the general life (of the species?, of a more circumscribed community?). A life not devoted to the furthering of life is a life not worth living. Integrity to that purpose, faithfulness to duty, could require death. And if one does not acknowledge the claim death has upon him in such instances, one “does not know how to live.”
So, it seems, life is not such a simple matter. One has to learn how to live. Or maybe it is better to say that one has to self-consciously, reflexively, assess one’s life in light of the standard to promote life—and then judge if one’s life meets the standard. A certain reading of Nietzsche would see him as precisely scorning this sort of evaluation. Living creatures should pursue life—its continuation and the pleasures it might afford along with the sufferings that it entails—period. No second thoughts, no regrets, no judgments of good and evil. Any evaluation beyond seeing something as “good” because it avails life or “bad” because it impedes it only hinders life’s full expression. To affirm life unreservedly is to damn the consequences in ways that Ruskin cannot bring himself to do.
The sticking point is, as Esposito (in Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy) makes clear in his chapter on Nietzsche, is that Nietzsche denies that it is either possible or desirable to “preserve life through the abolition of conflict” (85). Life is only abundant, only fully realized, in conflict. Thus, life cannot be sequestered from death; life is, to a large extent, the infliction of death. In the most basic terms, this boils down to the fact that life feeds on other lives. Everything that eats must kill some other living creature for its food. If every creature (as the conatus doctrine in Spinoza asserts) aims to persist in its own mode of being, the life is sustained only through the destruction of some conative beings by other conative beings. There are no willing sacrificial victims to life’s persistent hunger. In order to sustain life, we must kill.
It is this logic that I am trying to puzzle out. Lots of different ways to go from here. One is the Girard route, toward the idea that the sacrifice is inevitable, and thus the issue is whether the sacrifice will be imposed on another creature or assumed by one’s self. Freely chosen self-sacrifice (the model is Jesus Christ) is the only path to peace.
A different track leads to my opening concern. If Nietzsche states some fundamental law of life, then how come Foucault, Arendt, Taylor etc. seem to think that a special attention to life is a “modern” development—and that this “special attention” leads to death-dealing polities/societies. Why is the attempt to preserve life, an attempt to fend off the Nietzschean fatalism about the inevitability of conflict, a formula for increasing the violence some humans direct toward others. And, finally, I also want to consider how “bare life” is not enough, so that (on the one hand) we have the appeal of the Aristotelean notion of “flourishing” (a la Martha Nussbaum) and (on the other hand) we can think of lives not worth living (leading to issues of assisted suicide as well as unassisted suicide).
I’ll see how far I get in subsequent posts.