Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Excelling in the outer, failing on the inner

It's been said that a civilization or society has an outer and an inner life, and that when the society is flourishing, that's because the outer and the inner are working together in harmony.

The outer life is manifest in science, material artifacts, political economy. The inner life is that of its members - their human flourishing and spiritual wellbeing. What determines how the two are linked is the values or ethics of the day. When the values are right, both aspects thrive and the society has vitality. When the values are wrong, one aspect dominates the other.

So, the analysis would be that we live in a period that has excelled in the outer and has become detached from the inner, because the vitality of the age - growth, consumption, etc - precludes it. Hence, our outer lives - work, politics, economics - have become detached from our inner lives, and so life often feels dehumanizing and appears to be heading for some kind of destruction.

That said, you see all kinds of situations in which you see a desire to link the outer and the inner.

- It's the appeal of ecological philosophies that try to re-enchant nature and the material (funny how the materialist age is one that values the material less and less).
- It's why complementary therapies thrive, no matter how flaky they are, because they don't just promise welfare but wellbeing.
- It's why narratives, stories and myth-telling dominate entertainment - from novels and history books, to online games, to films - because they address the inner need for imaginative resources to tell us who and what we are.
- Conversely, you might say it's why politics has become so managerial, because it has no vision of what it is to be human.
- And, I suspect it's why the law based upon rights is becoming unhinged, and is undermining as much as promoting human flourishing, because it is gradually replacing human relationships with contractual relationships, mutual respect with solipsistic demands, sympathy with suing etc.

The focus on the outer also generates a culture that finds it hard to hear the harsher truths of our inner lives, that it's as much about pain as pleasure, limitation as freedom, commitment as choice, trauma as tranquility. But the paradox is that meaningfulness is only found when individuals can embrace both sides. There is no love without suffering, no beginning without ending, no life without death.

What to do? I'm not that sure! However, key and rather disparate questions are beginning to emerge for me.

- How can we construct a rhythm for the day/week/year that is not determined by work or consumption, and so allows our inner lives to shape the outer, not just the outer the inner?
- What virtues do we need to pay attention to the inner again - patience, attention, a tolerance of doubt/uncertainty, courage (I'm reminded of Pascal's, 'man's sole problem is his incapacity to stay quietly in one room.').
- Clearly education is crucial, as the virtue ethics approach, with which this inner/outer analysis chimes, is all about character formation, habits, practical intelligence.
- I'd say we need less fix-it politics and more one that might be a little like faith.

- Mark Vernon

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this fascinating post! It couldn't be more timely... The inner and the outer life could also be described as the spiritual and the material life. Our civilization has often struggled to balance these two - sometimes opposing but ultimately uniting - vital human needs. Unfortunately, as our material existence has become more comfortable, we have become less secure within our spiritual lives. Disillusionment with traditional religious practice and beliefs has caused many of us to abandon organized religion. I find it interesting that you propose politics as a new approach to finding "faith" and I see it already happening among many of our citizens. As human beings, we all have an innate need for the "inner" as well as the "outer" aspects of our existence. The danger lies in attempting to replace or to substitute one for the other. We already have established foundations for our inner lives, allbeit flawed, in our spiritual systems and in our traditional philosophies. We should use our ability to innovate and to expand our knowledge of this metaphysical aspect of our nature. However, we enter perilous ground when we look to the state to serve as a system of faith or vice versa.