This is the question that was the basis for the only philosophy course I took in college. The course, Philosophy of Art, I had hoped would explore the artist impulse that people have to create. And to be able to define what distinguishes a good piece of art from one that isn't.
Unfortunately, the course was neither about art nor how to distinguish what is good. Instead, it was a course in semantics, of how one talks about art, and why art can't be defined.
It wasn't that the professor spent portion of every class denigrating people who had religious faith. It was rather that we talked around subjects, never about them, and therefore never reaching a point of understanding or resolution.
He would take a seemingly innocent or benign idea, like goodness, and through a process of analytical reductive reasoning show us how there is no true idea of goodness. This simple and effective tactic left most of us in the class scratching our heads about what the class was about rather than questioning what we believed about anything.
For probably ten years, I would occasionally dream about this professor. Dream about us debating in class, and me changing his mind. I don't think the professor was so clever to think that he'd make philsophers of us all by tearing down our belief systems. Rather, I think he was convinced that truth could be understood in the analysis of language. And yet, that truth was not true in a values or universal sense, but true to the use of the words in that context.
I think he was an intellectual nihilist, yet did not live that way. He believed in something, and for him it was his art and athletic endeavors. It was what he truly valued. And I'm convinced they gave him a social context of friendship through which universal values were evident in their interaction.
What I understand today is that my professor's approach to understanding could not produce a kind of understanding that is whole, but rather small and fragmented.
As a kid, did you ever take a part a toy, and then try to put it back together, only to have some parts remaining? The toy is something whole. Something more than the sum of its parts. Language is something whole, more than grammar and patterns of word usage.
Say the word tide, and it conjures up a range of images. But you don't know what I mean. If I add high or roll to it, two very different images come to mind. The words are parts. Sentences, paragraphs, essays, chapters, and books are wholes. Not necessarily complete wholes, but some whole none-the less.
For example, this image is of a portion of a map of the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. For many of you, it is just lines, shading, markers and names. You can tell it is a map, but it doesn't go much further than that.
The map can serve as a guide, an introduction, to what a person can find here on a visit. Come this summer, you can visit the Fish Hatchery or swim in the cold waters at Sliding Rock or hike up to John's Rock. Each place is represented on the map. Each a place that has meaning for people who visit here.
For those of us who have spent time here, the map is much more. It is a visual connection point to memories and images of places, people, situations and experiences that we've had in locations noted on the map.
For example, just off the map image there is a place call Mt. Hardy. Seen at the center of this picture. On the map, it is just a name of one of hundreds of peaks to climb. Yet, on a June night in 2003, it was a place of fascination and horror, as we watched lightning flash and strikes all around as a group of us camped.
The place on the map represents more than a name. It is something whole and complete, because we experienced it as more than a name on a map. It is a place that will forever stay with those of us who camped there that night.
When we say something is good, we are not trying to analyze its component parts to identify what makes it good. We are saying something about the whole of the object.
I'm convinced that human thought is rationalized emotion. We feel something, and our words provide us a way to connect with those deeper parts of our lives that we know exist, but have a hard to time expressing. We use things like maps and art to provide a connection between those parts of us that are only understandable as something whole and complete.
When we talk about what is good, we are talking about values that capture for us something whole and often times something that is greater than us. These connections, to me, represent the emergent reality that I wrote about here. We are not just our thoughts or just our emotions. We are not just a bank of talent or a fulfiller of tasks along an assembly line. We are whole beings who cannot be understood in any complete way by analytical reduction. Our wholeness rather is understood as unrealized potential within a particular setting. When we look at a work of art, like this painting of Wyomng, that I found online many years ago, we can get really close and look at the technique of the artist, the picture fades and the brush strokes emerge. Then step back, and the picture takes on its wholeness again.
What is good about this painting can be described on many levels. There is the technique. The thematic material. The use of color and perspective. But all those are only parts of the picture. When they are all combined together, do they create a painting that we can say is good? Possibly, but it has a lot to do with the values that we bring to the experience. And our values are products of our interaction with people in society.
I believe that our lives can be like this painting. Excellent in the execution of the brush strokes and use of color, but even more significant because of the picture itself. When we find wholeness in our life and work, we are more than the sum of activities that we do each day. We become a work of art whose life and work is good.
When the Five Actions of Gratitude appeared in my mind one morning driving through northern Mississippi, this is the sort of thing I saw in the fifth action, Create Goodness. A couple quotes from my Weekly Leader column.
The ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle taught his students that “every action and pursuit is considered to aim at some good….what is the highest of all practical goods? … It is happiness, say both ordinary and cultured people; and they identify happiness with living well or doing well.” By this he means that the actions born from our individual initiative, through our relationships, in our work and the daily course of our lives aim at goodness, defined as happiness or living or doing well in life and work. ...
Contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in describing Aristotle’s thought on this point wrote, “ What then does the good for… (humanity) … turn out to be? … It is the state of being well and doing well in being well … . “ The word that Aristotle uses is eudaimonia (eu-day-mo-knee-a), traditionally translated as goodness. Its meaning is much more complex that simply as an adjective for describing a piece of pie or last Sunday’s football game. It touches on ideas related to fulfillment, human flourishing, happiness and completeness. The good person is one whose whole life is an integrated combination of thought, feeling, initiative, interaction, and action, resulting a good life or good work, or a better product, community or world.
What is Good?
It is a life that is complete and whole, fulfilled, meaningful and makes a difference that matters. The good life is a complete and happy life. It is a life connected to others just as their lives are connected to ours. And when we find that completeness, our lives are like a painting that evokes values that create goodness and elevate the lives of others. We also become like a map which is a reference point, an example, of what is possible, and for those who know that we have become a reminder of what the experience of a complete life is like.