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Reflecting on the good life: intergenerational dialogue.


This manuscript describes a course designed for incoming students as an introduction to liberal arts education, which proposes a close relationship between ethics and aesthetics, between "the good" and "the beautiful." Students are exposed to different Western philosophical definitions of the good life, as well as to different definitions of beauty. Underlying is the course's working metaphor of life as work of art: life as a work of self-creation. In weekly conversations with senior citizens, students produce an autobiography informed by readings, and assist their conversation partners in producing a narrative of their own life. Unlikely conversation partners of different generations can stimulate with their questions a deep reflection on the definitions of the "good life" at work in the span of a lifetime.


What is "the good life?" The question seems to encapsulate the main topic of ethics, the discipline of philosophy that seeks to find ultimate justifications for human existence. An individual's life is affected, conditioned and perhaps even determined by a myriad of contingencies. Yet, the way in which an individual overcomes and even employs these contingencies in a process of self-creation can be found to be poignantly analogous to an artist's creation of a work. Both the "self-created" individual, in this limited sense, and the artist must adapt to the contingent hand they have been dealt, if they are to "impose" on their material a form they ultimately find to be beautiful. For, isn't that what we all hope to be able to declare on our deathbed, "My life has been beautiful!"?

Yes, I will wholeheartedly grant, these are heavy questions with which to welcome a group of fourteen eager and starry-eyed incoming college students to our campus. And yet, since some questions take a lifetime to answer, it is never too early to begin asking them in all seriousness! Not only is the perspective on each stage of the road bound to be unique, and the definition of the "good life" it will yield particular to that given situation, but, most importantly, one of life's most perplexing characteristics is its unpredictable duration. This last fact is one that I was painfully reminded of recently in the context of the course I wish to describe in what follows.

The question regarding "the good life" as well as that regarding the relationship, if any, between what we find to be "good" and what we find to be "beautiful," constitute the leitmotif for a course I teach at Colorado College, [1] which is designed as an introduction to a liberal arts education. In a brief seven weeks, students are expected to begin developing strong habits in the practice of close reading of difficult texts, thematically comparing them, conducting collective research on artists that inspire them, communicating those interests and research to the members of the group in class presentations, as well as writing research papers. As if that were not ambitious enough, the course receives the designation "Alternative Perspectives: A (Western Tradition)." This is a mandatory, all-campus requirement, which together with its counterpart, "Alternative Perspectives: B (Non-Western Traditions)," is meant to insure that all students receive at least a minimum exposure to these broad categories of heritage-based knowledge before graduation. Like all courses with these designations, my "First Year Experience: Juncture of Ethics and Aesthetics" course offers a survey of important literary works in one of these traditions. Guided by our stated leitmotif, we begin with four books of Plato's Republic, continue with Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Euripides' Medea and Aristophanes' Clouds, transition to Aristotle's Poetics and three books of his Nicomachean Ethics, explore Nietzsche's account of the origin of Greek tragedy in his Birth of Tragedy, and celebrate the end of our first three-and-a-half week block with a much deserved four day block break. During the second block we read Kant's account of the beautiful and the sublime, proceed with Schiller's Letters on Aesthetic Education, continue with Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil, inquire about the ethical questions addressed in Gide's novel The Immoralist, and conclude by becoming inspired by Dewey's rescue of experience in general as possible aesthetic experience in his Art as Experience. We conclude the course with writings by Thoreau.

According to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, a thing's excellence may be measured by the degree to which it realizes its nature. For humans, the good may be equated with happiness, to which the Greeks gave the name eudaimonia, happiness or flourishing. To lead a good life, then, for humans, means to fulfill our potential for the elusive kind of activity that is happiness. How relevant is this Aristotelian idea for us dwellers of the 21st century? Is the notion of happiness as a process and activity at odds with our tendency to consider it rather a state of material accumulation or social recognition? What is the concept of the "good life" that we operate under? The beauty of Aristotle's answer is precisely that it stresses the nature of happiness as process and habit, which seems to implicitly require, for us rational animals, the frequent, almost constant, exercise of our reflective faculties. This reflecting is one, furthermore, in which not only does the past inform the future, but one in which the thought of the future calls for a certain way of living the present.

The leitmotif which guides the demanding intellectual program for this course comes to its full expression during the last week, in which students put the finishing touches on the course-long project that they present at the end: an autobiographical account of the different concepts of the "good life" they have entertained and lived by in the span of their young lives. Invariably, this exercise in intimate, personal reflection has yielded very thoughtful, soul-searching autobiographies. And, just as invariably, the end of the course has exposed a lingering unease with the self-centered nature of the exercise. "Is there no application on the real world," the question is often put to me, "for all these theories we have read?" Indeed, teaching in a small liberal arts college, the specter of privileged detachment from the real world is a concern with which I have wrestled since my days as a student in this same institution. The world can feel beyond the reach of the small, privileged, and largely homogenous, group of advantaged equals inhabiting the ivory tower. The situation can be reminiscent of the merry storytellers of Bocaccio's Decameron, gathered in a safe place while the world around them battled the thirteenth century plague. How is one to avoid the gnawing sense that one's journey pondering the ultimate ethical question happens along a lonely road?

Don't get me wrong: expensive as a liberal arts education certainly is, the socio-economical homogeneity of these incoming students is not quite what one would tend to expect. Fifty percent of our student population receives financial aid, and the many students who must work to help support themselves are the rule rather than the exception. Even so, and in spite of the fact that students in this intensive learning format develop a strong bond with each other, as well as with their instructor, our intimate rapport through continuous conversations seems, at times, to point to our isolation from any other group. This feeling of isolation is exacerbated, in my view, by the fact that this course is exclusively designed for incoming students as part of our First Year Experience program, which means close bonding within that age group at the expense of limited mingling with older students. The issue becomes perversely urgent towards the end of the course, when students are asked to ponder the relevance of our readings for the reflective exercise that is to culminate in their final project: their annotated autobiography. Since, in one way or another, all our authors address the role of the individual in the community, a larger community becomes conspicuous for its absence. In order to alleviate this sense of irrelevance, I have devised a community based learning component for this course, which, I am confident, is making a world of difference both for my students and for the senior citizens who are participating in our autobiography project.

For the first time since I have been teaching this course, students are meeting one-on-one, once a week with senior citizens of Silver Key, a local community service organization. The questions asked and answered by these somewhat unlikely conversation-partners in the course of these meetings will yield an autobiographical reflection for each of the participants, excerpts of which will be presented at a closing gathering of our small community of students and elderly. As it is for the course, the central question for this project is "What constitutes the good life?" The idea of this community component is to use the literature we are reading to encourage students to reflect on their life as a work of self-creation. At the same time, conversations with partners who have lived four times as long as they have will expose them to different, less theoretical, styles of self-reflection. Whether backed by theory, by ethical or religious principles or merely by intuition, it is a premise of this course and its autobiographical project that throughout our lifetime we make decisions and have experiences that profoundly contribute to shaping us. But to think about one's own existence is never an easy task. We are so used to seeing ourselves in a specific, perhaps too comfortable way, that true reflection about the "how" and "why" we are who we are often does not take place unless we are confronted with a stimulus that challenges our comfortably rehearsed "story." Such a stimulus can be provided by an interlocutor, a partner in conversation, who in some important ways is different from us. His or her questions in an open, sympathetic conversation can help us probe those aspects of our life that we may have taken for granted, and consequently may never have sought to question.

While our senior citizen partners, with the conversational and "technical" support of a student, are free to generate a narrative of their own lives in whatever form they choose (written, oral, video or audio-taped), students are charged with producing an actual biographical, albeit academic, paper of their own life-reflections. Since this course is cross-listed in philosophy and comparative literature, students' papers are expected to integrate relevant discussions of authors studied in class. On the last week of the course all our senior conversation partners are invited to join us in a campus party in which selections of students' papers and of their interlocutors' narratives are presented.

So far, weekly meetings between students and elders have been very stimulating. One student has agreed with her senior partner to produce a recorded version of her partner's autobiographical materials, in addition to typing a selection of passages her partner is dictating to her from the copious notes she jots down during the week, in anticipation of their meeting. Another student is engaged in a collaboration to produce a song about his partner's life. An elderly woman, who suffers Alzheimer's disease, has captivated the imagination of one of my students by her ability to remember in the most vivid detail images from her most distant past. In some cases, reminiscing about the past provides an occasion to fictionalize and improve it, and this is an aspect of the senior citizens' oral history narrative that is stimulating important reflections in my students.

What are the seniors getting out of this? Judging from what participants in the project have told me, the opportunity to reflect on a life, stimulated by conversation with a young person, is an invaluable gift. The intimacy and companionship that senior partners and students have managed to achieve in a limited number of meetings are remarkable. This is so, paradoxically, even in the exceptional case of a senior partner who made it clear from the first meeting with a student that she did not "need any companionship!" Both the students' autobiographical papers and their partners' histories, in whatever form the end up taking, bears witness to the depth and seriousness with which they are engaging in this process of reflection on what constitutes a life well lived.

When is the appropriate time to engage in this retrospective exploration of one's life? Aristotle argues that to assess the success with which a life has achieved its stated goal of happiness, it is necessary for the process to have completed itself. Nevertheless, I have contended, and my students have agreed, that it is never too early or too late to begin. Indeed, one of the autobiographical papers whose reading has given me most pleasure since I began teaching this course, was one written last year. The paper was written by a winter start,[2] B., who used his semester between high school and college to pedal his bicycle from Oregon to Maine. The autobiography was a perfect balance between the style of reflection on life that he had practiced during that long bike ride alone and the new style of reflection he was engaging in during his first course in college. While the latter incorporated some of the technical conceptualization our readings had made current in our class, the former enjoyed some of the rawness and spontaneity of breaking free from the somewhat confining world of high school and home. As usual in these First Year Experience courses, we (students and their first college instructor) forged a close bond, which was continued in several courses I taught in the following months, and which several students from that original group attended. One Friday during an Aesthetics course I was teaching eight months later, we experienced technical difficulties with the audiovisual equipment. B. was unable to share with the rest of the class a powerpoint slide show he had prepared on a certain graffiti artist he was enormously excited to have recently discovered. His presentation had to be postponed until after the weekend. It, however, had to take place posthumously a few weeks later. That Saturday night, B. became accidentally electrocuted in a campus power utility basement and died.

I often think back on B.'s autobiography. He, like many other of my students, seems to have taken seriously the parallel I introduced between ethics and aesthetics, the possibility that progress towards creating a good life might be linked to an increasing appreciation of beauty. His autobiography described a process of growing clarity in this direction.

But the claim that the person capable of tuning in to the beauty of the world is consequently capable of leading a good life requires some serious clarification. Beauty, after all, as our class readings make painfully clear, is a highly contested, subjective category. For my purposes, Aristotle lays a promising groundwork for ethics, when he declares in his Poetics that the origin of poetry can be traced to humans' nature as the most imitative animals, who not only do all their learning by imitation, but also receive their greatest pleasure from that imitative practice, namely learning. It is a short jump from this formulation to that other crucial one, found in his Nicomachean Ethics, in which he claims that happiness, eudaimonia, is the highest goal and only end in itself of a good life. Happiness, for Aristotle, is an activity: living in accordance with virtue. And virtue, in turn, is a state: the state by which we choose to steer our lives along the middle path. Virtue is a habit of choosing, a behavioral pattern in response to particular types of situations, steering between the extremes of excess and deficiency. To choose a good life, finally, requires exercising our innermost capacity for learning through imitation and from which we derive our greatest pleasure. Imitation means a certain, not necessarily conceptual or intellectual understanding, which allows us to reproduce or retrace the relationships and connections between and among things.

This, in my interpretation, is what constitutes beauty, that elusive, subjective category about which we can often only say: "It pleases me." Aesthetic pleasure, as the American pragmatist John Dewey claimed, may be seen as a mixture of thinking and feeling, both intellectual and sensual delight. It is only in that sense that the horrible visions of a tragic hero such as King Oedipus may be declared to count as things of beauty, as one of the most controversial authors in our reading list, Friedrich Nietzsche, posits in his Birth of Tragedy. Thus, this course seeks to suggest to incoming students, and by extension to our senior conversation partners, that the juncture between ethics and aesthetics is by no means limited to the formula "appreciation of art will lead you to a better life"! True, art objects are particularly interesting cases but by no means the sole things of beauty. In the extended sense in which I have been using the term, beauty is the pleasurable activity by which humans exercise attunement with their world, by which they understand and "learn" their world. Art, by extension, and understood in the "soft" sense that allows the intelligibility of a common metaphor such as "the art of living," can be said to be the human practice of attuned reflection on life. It is the hope behind this experimental collaboration, our inter-generational dialogue, to explore the possibility that the practice, the habit (ethos) of reflecting on life, might contribute to create precisely the type of life which according to Aristotle is the most beautiful: the reflected life. Isn't that as close as we can come to considering ourselves self-sculptors, who hope to one day exclaim: That was good, that was beautiful!


[1] Colorado College operates under an eight-block calendar per academic year. Students take eight courses, each three and a half weeks in duration, referred to as "blocks." Each block is the equivalent of one semester-course and counts for four credit-hours in the traditional semester-calendar. Faculty teach a total of six such blocks per academic year. Students take and faculty teach one block at a time, meet five days a week for an average of three hours daily. The block plan has been alive and well since 1970.

[2]"Winter starts" are students selected for admission in January rather than September, in order to alleviate housing issues on campus, since traditionally more students go on semester programs abroad during the spring.

Alberto Hernandez-Lemus, Colorado College

Dr. Alberto Hernandez-Lemus is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature.
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Author:Hernandez-Lemus, Alberto
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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