Have we lost the Art of Living in our society?

“Let us dream of evanescence and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.” – from the Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

From an essay by Stewart Lundy:

Ignorance is the source of knowledge, silence is the source of noise, and stillness is the source of change. The emptiness of the future provides the possibility for movement. This is the principle of conservatism: preserving not only possibility, but the very possibility of possibilities. This impulse is conservative, but never at the expense of future generations. Conservatism is the art of living.

“The best people have a nature like that of water. They’re like mist or dew in the sky, like a stream or a spring on land. Most people hate moist or muddy places, places where water alone dwells. . . . As water empties, it gives life to others. It reflects without being impure, and there is nothing it cannot wash clean. Water can take any shape, and it is never out of touch with the seasons. How could anyone malign something with such qualities as this.”

— Ho-Shang Kung in Red Pine’s translation of the Tao Te Ching.

Why the example of water? Water is inherently conservative, conforming to its conditions yet remaining essentially the same. Water prefers stillness. If it is a stream, it runs downhill until it finds a resting place; but it is always in the process of changing, yet it is always only water. In the same way, the essence of conservatism is always the same, even though its conditions constantly change. Were conditions to cease their perpetual flux, conservatism comes to rest as a tranquil pond. The goal of conservatism is tranquility.

In itself, conservatism is tranquil. In relation to the ever-changing human condition, conservatism is always adapting. Conservatism is “formless” like water: it takes the shape of its conditions, but always remains the same. This is why Russell Kirk calls conservatism the “negation of ideology” in The Politics of Prudence. It is precisely the formlessness of conservatism which gives it its vitality. Left alone, the spirit of conservatism is essentially what T.S. Eliot calls the “stillness between two waves of the sea” in “Little Gidding” of his Four Quartets. Conservatism is both like water and the stillness between the waves—the waves are not the water acting, but being acted upon; stillness is the default state of conservatism:

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity

Like the Greek concept of kairos—acting in the right way, for the right reasons, at the right moment—this sort of waiting is simply careful conservatism. Conservatism is responsive, reactionary, reserved. Conservatism waits. Perhaps this is why conservatism is most needed in the modern age of mobility. Being careful, and above all patient is crucial to doing something right. Realizing that one does not know the best way of doing anything guarantees not that one will find the best way, but that one might not find the worst way….

Technology and art are at odds like never before. We have lost sight of the truth. Technologically, we are more advanced than we have ever been. But what about artistically? There are few artists today who consider the ontological bearing of art, and even fewer who use art to communicate grace. As tools are necessary for art—brushes, pigments, canvas—so technology is simply a tool for the art of living. Technology is in its essence incomplete, waiting to be fulfilled by its use as part of art. Today the technology of living, which focuses on youth, longevity, and pleasure subverts the art of living which focuses on maturity, sustainability, and truth. The art of living has been replaced with the technology of living. I do not know how we can return to the art of living.


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