City of Pigs

Enough or Not Enough?

When does a person have enough to live a good life? Is it by possessing the simple basics of life: sufficient food, water, air, clothing and shelter? Without these things, we suffer and die, but, taken together, are they sufficient to live well and thrive as a human being?

In Plato’s “Republic,” Socrates describes as healthy a society in which everyone shares the work according to ability and the modest sustenance it provides. The people are not greedy or envious, taking joy or sadness in the successes or failures of their collective enterprises. In the evenings, they sit on the grass, eat off leaves and drink from gourds. They have no fancy spices, but honey for sweetness, and wine and conversation for their entertainment. In this way, they live at peace with themselves, protected from covetous invaders by their collective ‘poverty.’ They have nothing that anyone would wish to steal.

This bucolic vision is interrupted by one of Socrates’ interlocutors, Plato’s brother, Glaucon, who angrily denounces the society Socrates describes as a ‘City of Pigs,’ unfit for proper men who refuse to countenance a world without war, plunder, call-girls, fancy upholstery, fine sauces and luxury imports from around the world. Glaucon’s world is one of great ambitions, great architecture, literature and even philosophy, for when has philosophy ever developed in the woods? In his view, we need civilization, culture, the distinction of noble and base, rich and poor, the superior and the inferior. Yes, there is strife, but we are made to strive, and without striving we will never reach our true potential. Socrates calls the city that Glaucon describes a “Fevered City.”

Who has the right of this, and who decides when enough is enough? Outside of extreme hunger and poverty, it seems that the judgment that one does not have enough of anything is subjective. When Kierkegaard proclaimed that ‘Truth is Subjectivity’, I believe this is the sort of case he had in mind. No one can tell you that that you do not have enough wealth, beauty, success or renown. Only you can say what is sufficient for you to live in a way that you judge fitting for yourself.

This is a gray area. With the exception of clean air and potable water, both of which are directly necessary for life, the value of the other things are what you want them to be. What, in your own mind, can you not do without? Only you can decide. For example, if you receive only 500 calories a day, you do not have enough to eat, period. But does a person ever have insufficient Beluga Caviar, prime rib, or expensive champagne? When the tap water is potable, does anyone truly thirst if they do not drink bottled water?

Or consider clothes. When, and on what basis, do I judge that I have enough or the right kind of clothes? Actually, I have more clothes than I absolutely need, and some of them I hardly ever wear. My judgment is that I have more than enough clothes, so I do not think much about them. However, a different person with different sartorial interests might judge that he or she never has enough clothes, or at least not fashionable enough clothes.

The same goes for shelter. Enough shelter, objectively speaking, is any enclosed space that provides sufficient protection from the elements and is large enough to lie down. In California, estate agents ask you how much house you want to buy. So you have a choice between more or less house, and what is ‘enough’ house? If you ask the people living in McMansions by the Sea, they will say that any house under 4000 square feet is not enough house. If you ask the poor immigrants living ten to an apartment what would be enough house, I think they might answer differently.

So, what ought we to conclude about whether we have enough of what we need to live a good life? If we go with the grasping world, nothing ever will be enough. Philosophically considered, there is an imbalance living continuingly in want of things that have no direct bearing on one’s well being.

In Plato’s story, Socrates acquiesces to Glaucon’s wishes. He builds the Republic to keep the fevered city from succumbing to its own excesses and attachments to unworthy values. He reminds the company, however, that the truly healthy and happy way to live is the one he described in his rustic idyll of the simple life.

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14 Comments.

  1. I agree in many respects, that what is enough is perhaps purely a cultural invention. Basic necessities aside, I think we do need more to live a good life, but I don’t think anything beyond the basic necessities are Necessary conditions for the good life.

    Art, love, friendship, etc all seem like parts of a good life to me, and I would have a hard time imagining a good life without them…. I still wouldn’t call them necessary conditions, I could imagine a isolated ascetic monk living the good life without any of these. But -I- would have a hard time thinking of such an ascetic life as a good life.

  2. Michael Foster

    It seems impossible to discover any inherent objective purpose in human life which would enable one to describe the best way to live it,other than that which any life form may have. As an atheist all I can see is that life has evolved,and what enables this is a set of conditions adequate for individual survival and procreation. The parsimonmious answer is therefore,the very minimum for subsistence and procreation,is good for life. All other views on what is required for a good life,can only flow from an individuals own perception of what life is for and how he/she/it should live in order to attain that goal.

    Currently “He who dies with the most toys ,wins” seems to sum up the attitude of most people.

  3. I am wondering whether determining the best way to live for oneself is a matter of finding an ‘inherent objective purpose in human life.’ What if there is no such thing? Would that mean that the question of the best way to live as a human being would be senseless?

    I agree that what is best, evolutionarily speaking, is having enough to survive long enough to procreate, however, we have that in common with all other animals. Is there anything that belongs to our kind of animal that needs something more to flourish?

    Jeff

  4. Jeff- I don’t buy into evolution as a motivating force in my life. If I NEVER procreate, I’d be okay, in fact I think I could live a flourishing life without ever procreating.

  5. I feel the need to mention Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. If anything it further convinces me that the human animal will always need (or rather want) for something. Never satisfied with having enough, whether it be wealth, social standing, religious… kudos, enlightenment, there is no upper limit or plateau. I can think of no example, even religious, which doesn’t contain the supposed motivation to do more, reach something higher.

  6. Thanks for the tip about Maslow. Interesting theory and seems right. As we meet our more basic needs, the need for self-actualization arises, and that last bit is what leads us our of wanting more all the time. The idea of reaching something higher may actually tame our needs for other things, like wealth or respect or power. I think if we look into Buddhism we see a path that leads away from feelings of insufficiency and towards a kind of peace of mind that transcends the struggles of life while still participating in them. Jeff

  7. I had Buddhism in mind and, though my knowledge is a little limited, I believe that Buddhists main motivation is to achieve enlightenment and the prospect of defining their rebirth. Perhaps this would provide the opportunity to be reincarnated as a being without any human needs whatsoever?!

  8. Michael Foster

    If you know the purpose or objective of any activity , from that you may work out what functions are required to move towards that objective. Conversely if you do not know the purpose of an activity,it may be possible to work it out from the functions that you see being performed. It is precisely my point that we cannot know the best way to live because because the term “best” implies activities best suited to attain the objective of human existence. Unless we all agree what human life is for we cannot agree the best ,or perhaps correct way to live. Comparing humans with other life forms gives us at least a minimum of functions which give us a baseline. To add to the meagre prospect of just subsistence and procreation I mentioned earlier,we can look at other functions which humans can perform.I am suggesting that looking at human capabilities suggests what humans should do,so obviously using our bodies to the utmost in sport etc,using our brains in thinking,using our intelligence and ingenuity,our problem solving ability;all these are things we are free to do if we have a communal structure- a society – to support us whilst we thus pursue human excellence. But unfortunately we also like pointless competition, taking other peoples lands and resources imposing our views,our laws our cultures on others,all of which may impair their ability to pursue human excellence. I cannot see how to separate this question from the basic moral question,”how should we live?”.The answer to that is I think, it depends what you believe life is for.

  9. Michael, I think you have got hold of a real problem in figuring out what the ‘good life’ for human beings actually is. Yes, it would be nice if Aristotle was right, and that we do have a function to perform in this universe, and that is to pursue moral and intellectual excellence by actualizing what is highest within us, and to him that means the rational part of the soul. Unfortunately, it is difficult now to believe that human being has a single function the actualization of which is the ‘good life.’ I believe that the whole investigation into the nature of happiness is bedeviled by this problem. What to do?

    What I noticed is that philosophers think that happiness is being a philosopher. Everyone else is on the wrong track. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all believe that only a reflective live is worth living, and that, if we pass our lives without seeking the philosophical truth of things, we might as well be dreaming.

    However, maybe we can take your suggestion at the end, and break up the idea of the ‘good life’ in ideas of ‘good lives.’ It think is would be bull headed of philosophers to insist that there is only one way to live a good life, and that is to be a philosopher. So maybe, as philosophers, we ought to ask, instead, what is the good life for a philosopher, what is the good life for the athlete, for the poet, the musician, the doctor, and so on. Perhaps we can conceive of a world in which both Homer Simpson and a philosopher can both be happy.
    Jeff

  10. Yeah… There is something really annoying about how, historically, philosophers tend to privilege philosophy.

    I think it has to do with familiarity. Philosophers are familiar with philosophy, and recognize its benefits, and coincidently think that the most purposeful life is what they are engaged in. I think most people think of their careers in the same way.

  11. There is an important part in Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs that could explain the ‘annoying privilege of philosophy’. I would prefer to call it behavior of the elite.

    If a philosopher would have found the way for the ‘good life’, or ‘good lives’, it would (or atleast could) make the philosopher obsolete. This poses a threat in the personal life of the philosopher at the second bar (possibly employment) of Maslow’s Pyramid (as I used to call it). As I understand Maslow’s Pyramid: if there is a threat to a certain area, all of the above becomes less and less important. Air (bar 1) has more priority then a girlfriend (bar 3) when there is a lack of air. Thus, ‘the good life’ (5th bar, self-actualisation) could pose a threat to the philosopers job (and his elite group of peers) and possibly never happen. I guess nobody wants to make themself obsolete.

    So if the ‘good lives’ are found, would the word be spread throughout the world? Even if it poses a threat… And if the word isn’t spread because of ‘protection’… Is the true ‘good life’ found?

    (my first post here and a pre philosophy student. And not very English by mother tongue, so I hope my point came across whitout too many mistakes).

  12. Hi Paul, Your writing was fine. I like the point that air is first in importance, and self-actualization does not get a look in while you are suffocating. But how would a philosopher become obsolete if she or he discovered a good way to live? Is that not compatible with holding down a philosophy job? There are a plurality of good ways to live, and we will never all agree about what the good life is, or happiness, or human flourishing. The task is to conceive a plurality of ‘good lives’ without putting them in any kind of hierarchy, and with only the least limiting restrictions. For example, we might agree that drinking a fifth of vodka every afternoon is not part of the good life, but how about drinking in moderation? Joggers swear by jogging, walkers by walking, but health seems to be a common goal. Maybe there are somethings we can say about the good life in general, as containing health, moderate wealth, education, moral principles and personal hygiene. There may be more of less, but something like this can be said.

  13. This sounds like relativism based upon real material privilege. There are objective ways of knowing what is enough and what isn’t, but it’s unmathematical. There is also more to be desired than having enough. People who have enough quickly long to move beyond a city of pigs. Maybe the question about how much is enough isn’t really interesting. Maybe the question about what makes human beings happy is more profound.

  14. OutofRange.net » Blog Archive » Greedy Fuckers - pingback on December 12, 2008 at 6:54 am

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