How should I live my life?


So what does it mean for the country that our cultural common denominator is shrinking? That increasingly Americans have very little experiences through which to understand the lives of our fellow citizens? And why, in the midst of these trends is there general agreement on an issue as potentially flammable as contraception? Recently I found good answers to these questions in an unexpected place — in an essay on literature and ethics that provides a convincing account of the rock bottom consequences of a fractured population. The essay is called “Perceptive Equilibrium: Literary Theory and Ethical Theory,” and it was first given as a talk by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum 25 years ago. The purpose of the paper was to merge literary theory with ethical theory — to show how forms of art like the novel can help us answer arguably the two most fundamental philosophical questions: How should I live my life? How should we live together? Here is Nussbaum describing the centrality of literature to ethics: “One of the things that makes literature something deeper and more central for us than a complex game, deeper even than those games, for example chess and tennis, that move us to wonder by their complex beauty, is that it speaks like Strether. It speaks about us, about our lives and choices and emotions, about our social existence and the totality of our connections.”

more from Kevin Hartnett at The Millions here.