The House We Live In
The classical Greek, Buddhist, and Confucian philosophers laid the foundations for our present-day understandings of virtue, wisdom, and flourishing. Aristotle thought wise and virtuous people did more than live and endure; they thrived and flourished. And they didn’t just flourish alone; they flourished as members of families and communities.
To what degree are we, as a culture, successfully cultivating the conditions that foster individual and collective flourishing? How well are we transmitting the wisdom, values, and virtues that are the necessary perquisites for developing meaningful and satisfying lives—lives that harmonize personal fulfillment with concern for the welfare of others? There are important reasons to think we are falling far short of what is possible. First, many of the values reflected in television, film, magazines, social media, advertising and popular music—radical individualism, limitless self-expression, the pursuit of status, wealth, and celebrity, and the unbridled acquisition and consumption of material goods—are more conducive to lives of self-indulgence and self-absorption than lives that genuinely flourish. The triad of institutions that might conceivably push back against these values—family, church, and school—have been significantly weakened by a multiplicity of social, economic, and cultural factors, and may themselves be sources of outdated or dysfunctional values. Our failure to transmit the wisdom, values, and virtues that support genuine flourishing is one major factor contributing to our current cultural malaise—a malaise characterized by economic inequality, a “culture of narcissism,” increases in “deaths of despair” among the middle-aged, increases in diagnoses of anxiety and depression among the young, a failure to effectively meet the challenge of climate change, and a declining capacity to distinguish fact from fiction in matters of politics, science, and public health.
Our contemporary “culture war” reflects another values-related problem: the clash of divergent understandings of virtue, wisdom, and flourishing held by people whose identities and values are at least partly determined by their regional, ethnic, racial, religious, educational, professional, age-cohort, and social class affiliations. The “tribalization” and “affective polarization” resulting from the politicization of these divergent values threatens to tear societies apart.
The most pressing question of our day is whether we can arrive at a new operating consensus on virtue and truth—one shared by enough of the citizenry to permit democracy to function. We are, by historical necessity, a multicultural, pluralistic society and a new consensus can’t be based on the tenets of a single religious tradition. We need a solution that is, to at least to some extent, transcultural. The House We Live In: Virtue, Wisdom, and Pluralism outlines one possible approach to a transcultural solution: a reconsideration of values, virtues, wisdom, and flourishing grounded in the commonalities between the classical Greek, Buddhist, and Confucian traditions.
Published: Oct 1, 2023