Original Inequality II: A Modern Golden Mean, Research Time, 02/03/2017

Continued from last post (No, really, it just takes a while to get going). . . When I took my first undergrad-level class about Aristotle, we talked about the line that displays the Golden Mean. Virtue, the philosophy goes, is a mean at a perfect balance between two extremes. And it was diagrammed as a line.

A straight line on a chalkboard. On one end, a word for some destructive habit like recklessness. On the other end, the prof would write its opposite, but equally destructive habit, like cowardice. Then he wrote ‘bravery’ in the middle of the line and thought he explained it perfectly well.

Think about equality here in the most just sense. Imagine
the kind of society where every individual would not only
have the opportunity to be as fit and powerful as the most
athletic dancers, but where we would all become so in the
course of everyday, ordinary life.
You can draw it on an exam, but it doesn’t really explore what it means to have your behaviour balance two destructive extremes. Not what it means in your psychology and daily habits. Not in terms of how three different kinds of behaviour can actually express a single tendency.

None of those actually illuminating questions. The line is the easiest thing to draw on the exam.

I thought of this while reading Rousseau, because he seems to think about virtue in a similar way. He discusses this in a totally different context than Aristotle did. And please don’t think I’m trying to make some actual interpretive point about whether and how Aristotle’s idea really did influence Rousseau in this regard.

That’d be a totally unproductive time – a philology important only to a very well-paid scholar. And I don’t want to be a humble scholar anymore. I don’t even think I ever did want to be only a scholar.

I want to put these ideas next to each other so that someone who reads this can understand them both a little better. Understanding a concept better can let a person use an improved tool to understand the world and their life experience.

That’s basically what I think the public purpose of philosophy is. But let’s leave the really hippy-dippy stuff for another time.

So Rousseau is describing the roots of society’s decadence. In simple terms, that’s inequality. But how does this general idea of inequality spell out in everyday life? Inequality is a social corruption that’s expressed as public health problems.

Among the rich, you find diseases of gluttony and overeating – like adult-onset diabetes. Among the poor, you find diseases of poverty and hunger – like malnutrition.* The proper lifestyle is that of free people – you drink when you’re thirsty and eat when you’re hungry. You walk everywhere and exercise constantly.

A clear sign that your society is riven with destructive inequality and
profound corruption: A lot of wealthy people who let themselves
become obese out of laziness and the refusal to take any but the
physically easiest route anywhere at all.
* We’ve reversed the content in the 21st century, but it amounts to the same kind of decadence. More rich people suffer diseases of hunger like malnutrition because wealthy women often express the systemic sexism they experience as eating disorders. Poor people, meanwhile, can only afford heavily processed, starchy food and work crap jobs like call centres where they sit down for 10 hours every day.

Quite literally, an equal society is a healthy society because its people are – on the whole – healthier as individuals. Not the only kind of social and personal health Rousseau is interested in when he thinks about fundamental human equality, but it’s one very important vector.

It’s a very materialist perspective. It reminded me of what Nietzsche wrote about the importance of good health to the virtue of a society. But what matters for a thorough materialism is that social progress and virtue has this expression in the visceral matter of everyday life.

It illustrates the old Golden Mean concept better than that stupid line as well. The image of personal health helps you understand virtue as a perfectly balanced intensity. Feed yourself too much energy and you’re a slob or a decadent fatty. Maybe you undercut yourself and you’re nothing but a skeleton. Either way, you’re barely able to move. . . . To be continued

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