The Art of Life

You’d think that increase in wealth would increase happiness, but it doesn’t.  It appears to  just increases crime:  

“All the available empirical data suggest that among the populations of affluent societies there may be no connection at all between rising affluence, believed to be the principal vehicle of a happy life, and greater happiness…On the whole, only a few percentage points separate countries with an average annual income per capita between 20,000 and 35,000 dollars from thoe below the barrier of 10,000 dolars…on the other hand, one social index that seems to be growing most spectacularly in line with the level of affluence…has so far been the incidence of criminality: of burglary and car theft, drug trafficking, econimc graft adn business corruption. And of an uncomforable and uneasy sensation of uncertainty, hard to bear, let alone to live with permanently.” –Zygmunt Bauman, “The Art of Life”

My new favorite author is definitely Zygmunt Bauman. He is a Jewish ex-communist from Poland who has taught in Britain since the 60’s and is now 84 and professor Emiretus at Leeds University.  He has written a lot on postmodern consumer culture.  I’m just finishing his “The Art of Life” (2008) and have really found it to be powerful, challenging, and well put. In sum: we generally think wealth will bring us possibilities which in turn will make us happy. We give up non-market paths to happiness (having leisure time, close friendships, home cooked meals in common with others, work-life balance) in order to accumulate money, in our pursuit of objects and experiences which will bring us our desired end: happiness. But in this pursuit we give up what actually would make us happy (friendships, leisure, etc). Our consumer culture pushes us towards this frenzy. We can purchase our identity and security through consumer labels and so remake ourselves constantly. In our ‘liquid modern’ age, things change so rapidly that the notion of revolution is redundant and trivialized, as things constantly change. Virtues have been radically shifted, so that stability and steadfastness, which were once considered assets, are now seen as liabilities while the ability to efface oneself and recreate, to let go of the past, ignore it and forget it– and instead be flexible always forever towards the future which is effaced as soon as it comes and become ‘history’– this is the new virtue. Bauman challenges us to be authentic selves who choose for ourselves how to live rather than adopting the consumerism of our age as he refers to many great and lesser known thinkers along the way. Here I will highlight some of the things that challenged me most in this book. While I do not agree with Bauman on all points, I certainly think he does a fabulous job explaining our current culture and our place in it, and I thoroughly agree with his challenge that we should authentically live our lives and take both personal existential and civic responsibility for the choices we make, as well as his concerns about the gradual erosion of civil society.

So the introduction to the book is called “whats wrong with happiness?” Whats wrong with it is that we tend to think happiness is increase in GNP– the wealthier a people become, the more likley they are to be happy, on the whole.  But studies seem to have shown clearly that happiness does not rise after you get to a basic level of economic development. More economic increase beyond that basic level does not increase happiness, but actually can decrease it. He has a great quote from Robert Kennedy from 1968:

“Our GNP…registers the costs of the security systems which we install to protect our homes and th eprisons in which we lock oup those who manage to break into them…It includes the production of napalm, nuclear arms and armed vehicles…It records…television programmes that florify violence in order to sell toys to children. On th eother hand, GNP does not note the health of our children, quality of our deducation or gaiety of our games. It does not measure the beauty of our poetry and the strength of our marriages. It does not care to evaluate the quality of our political debates and integrity of our representatives. It leaves out of consideration our courage, wisdom and culture. It says nothing about our compassion and dedication to our country. In a word, the GNP measures everything, except what makes life worth the pain of living it.”

Bauman points out that much of what is crucial to human happiness is not something you can buy: “Whatever your cash and credit standing, you won’t find in a shopping malllove and friendship, the pleasures of domesticity, the satisfaction that comes from caring for loved ones or helping a neighbour in distress, the self-esteeem to be drawn from work well done, gratifying the ‘workmanship instinct’ common to us all, the appreciation, sympathy and respect of workmates and other people with whom one associates; you won’t find there freedom from the threats of disregard, contempt, snubs and humiliation.”

The ironic fact is that as people attempt to buy consumer goods in order to be happy, their pursuit of that often leads them to give up these non-market avenues to happiness: “It may easily happen, and fequently does, that the losses exceed the gains and the capacity of increased income to generate happiness is overtaken by the unhappiness caused by a shrinking access to the goods which ‘money can’t buy’. Consumption takes time (as does shopping), and the sellers of consumer goods are naturally interested in tapering to a bare minimum the time dedicated to the enjoyable act of consuming. Simultaneously, they are interested incutting down as far as possible, or eliminating altogether, those necessary activities that occupy much time but bring few marketing profits.” (5)

In pursuit of wealth, to purchase commodities and experiences, people often neglect and so lose really meaningful avenues to authentic happiness: “Even the agreeable taste of the restaurant food or the high price tags and highly prestigious labels attached ot the gifts sold in the shops will, however, hardly match up to the value in added happiness of the goods for whose absence or rarity they are meant to compensate: such goods as gathering around a table laid with food that has been jointly cooked with its sharing in mind, or lenghty, attentive listening by a person-who-counts to one’s intimate thoughts, hopes and apprehensions, and similar proofs of loving attention, engagement and care.”

Many are unreflective about their consumerism, and the way it provides their goals, meanings, and basic framework and directives for their life.  People get the magazines which show them how to dress, they get their ideas of normal and new style from movies, television, media and the consumer culture experts.  Bauman points out that our culture trains the young in consumer savy before we teach them about wisdom: “Thanks to the diligence and expertise of the advertising copywriters, such life-and-(high)street wisdom tends nowadays to be acquired at a tender age, well before there is a first chance to hear subtle philosophical meditations on the nature of happiness and the ways toa happy life, let alone a chance to study them and reflect on their message.” So the young consumer-girl who knows already “how to make her wardrobe work well” makes regular and frequent trips to the best department store where she can be assured she will be ‘in fashion.’ “What the ferequent visits to Topshop means for her is first and foremost a comforting feeling of safety: Topshop’s buyers confront the risks of failure on her beahalf and take the resonsibility for the choice on themeslves…Liberty does not trust her own taste and discretion sufficiently to buy (let alone don in public) just what has caught her eye; but things she bought in that shop she can parade in public with confidence– confident of recognition, approval and, in the end, of th eadmiration and high status that closely follow it…” (10)

We buy our identity. We are in some sense considered by others (and then because of that by oneself) to be what we own– what we wear, drive, where we eat, where we live, what we live in. In this society of self-creation through consumption, “Labels, logos and brands are the terms of the language of recognition. what is hoped to be and as a rule is to be ‘recognized’ with the help of brands and logs is…identity…Once a ‘whole life’ project, idntity has now turned into an attribute of the moment. Once designed, it is no longer ‘built to last forever’, but needs to be continuously assembled and disassembled.”  And wemust do this in consumer culture.  The ironic twist to this is that this necessity– this requirement and responsibility to consume does not seem a burden because it is packaged and sold to us as “freedom”– freedom to choose who I am and what I will become.  But that it will be done through consumption is necessary– to be a good citizen of consumer culture. 

We live as a society of shoppers: “In a society of shoppers and a life of shopping we are happy as long as we haven’t lost the hope of becoming happy; we are secure from unhappiness as long as some of that hope is still ticking. And so the key to happiness and the antidote to miserty is to keep the hope of becoming happy alive. But it can stay alive only on the condition of a rapid succession of ‘new chances’ and ‘new bginnings’, and of the prospect of an infinitely long chain o f new starts ahead. That condition is brought about by slicing life into episodes…” Any indefinite, interminable commitment would severely limit the range of plots available for the succeding episodes. An indefinite commitment and the pursuit of happiness seem to be at cross-purposes.”

Bauman discusses how that today people fear the responsibility of ownership– so much so that his example is Fexpetz, a firm which rents pets to people so they don’t have to deal with the ‘pain of ownership’.  We fear getting locked in– because such duration, such ongoing stability, is likely to be a liability not an asset in a value system which prioritizes the potential to ebb and flow with the constantly changing environment in which we find ourselves in liquid modernity.  We must continually create and recreate ourselves. 

At the end of the introduction Bauman sums up life as art:

“Our lives, whether we know it or not and whether we relish the news or bewail it, are works of art. To live our lives as the art of life demands, we must, just like the artists of any art, set ourselves challenges which are difficult to confront point-blank; we must choose targets that are well beyond our reach, and standards of excellence that vexingly seem to stay stubbornly far above our ability to match whatever we do or may be doing. We need to attempt the impossible. And we can only hope, with no support from a trustworthy favourable prognosis (let alone from certainty), that with a long and grinding effort we may sometime manage to match those standards adn reach those targets and so rise to the challenge.”  This description of life as a work of art is not so liquid– it is old school in that Bauman talks about trustworthiness, long and grinding effort, stubbornly setting goals far beyond what we can accomplish at present.  So we see that Bauman’s description of liquid life in the liquid modern world of change and lack of commitments is really a critique of this consumer culture.

Perhaps the best quote in the whole book follows:
Our lives are filled with uncertainty. They are frail, fragile, changing and little is secure. In the face of this, we attempt to build identity through consumption, in a fruitless hope of gaining some sort of stabilization through objects and experiences outside ourselves.

This frenzied pursuit of goods– particularly of ostentatious consumption of exclusive products and high end commodities– actually shows how desperate and fragile people’s lives are: “The struggle for legitimacy through magnificence and excess implies instability and vulnerability” If I think my identity is made stable by purchasing a particular car or an expensive bottle of champagne, I definitely have an instable identity, shown to be vapid as soon as the champagne is gone. This one-upmanship consumerism is a failed project, and it ultimately leads to resentiment.

In chapter 1, Bauman refers often to ancient sages. I want to share just a few of the best quotes which he brings up:

Epictetus: “Think of your life as if it were a banquet where you would behave graciously. When dishes are passed to you, extend your hand and help yourself toa moderate protion. If a dish should pass you by, enjoy what is already on your plate. Or if the dish hasn’t been passed to you yet, patiently wait for your turn. Carry over the same attitude of polite restraint and gratitude to your children, spouse, career and finances. there is no need to yearn, envy and grab. You will get your rightful portion when it is your time.”  This patient mindfulness of self and others which can slow to appreciate the moment instead of rushing on to the next thing is a result of life choices contrary to the fast paced blur of liquid consumer life.

Seneca: “A nobler mind never wavers in its resolutions, neverbecomes  of self-contempt, never changes anything in its best way of life. it is the other way round with sensual pleasures: they cool down the moment they boil at their greatest heat. The volume of sensual pleasure is not great, and so it fills up rapidly, pleaure turns into surfeit and the original animation turns into dullness and sloth.”  Here Seneca reminds us of the long lasting sustainable profit of the non-sensual pleasures of a disciplined life of stable character. 

Epictetus: “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’;s opinions, you will never be rich.”

epictetus: “There is nothing that brings greater trouble on us than the fact that we conform to rumour, thinking that what has won widespread approval is best, and that, as we have so many to follow as good, we live by the principle, not of reason, but of imitation’;”

Epictetus: “a mass crowd is particularly important to avoid [since] the larger the size of the crowd we mingle with, the greater the danger.”

Pascal: “The sole cause of human happiness…is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” (we run out and about doing all sorts of things to distract ourselves and to keep from thinking or reflecting)

the last quote I will share is from bauman himself at the end of chapter 1:
“Twenty four hours a day and seven days a week humans tend to be drilled, groomed, exhorted, cajoled and tempted to abandon the ways they have considered right and proper, to turn their backs on what they have held dear adn what they thought had been making them happy, and to become different from what they are. They are pressed to turn into workers ready to sacrifice the rest of their lives for the sake of competitive enterprise or enterprising competition, into consumers moved by infinitely expandable desire sand wants, into citizens embracing fully and unreservedly the ‘there is no alternative’ edition of the’ politcal correctness’ of the day, which prods them, among other things, to be closed and blind to disinterested generosity and indifferent ot the common weal in case it can’t be deployed to enhance their egos…”

I hope that in this somewhat random series of quotations of and from bauman you get the idea of what he is saying– We are free to choose how we will live our lives. In our present culture we seem to be very influenced and affected by consumerism, which encourages us to think of ourselves and our happiness in terms of what we can buy– clothes, restaraunts, events, etc. He wants us to think: how does our consuming make us happier or less happy? What do we give up to consume? What do we gain? To what extent are our identities wrapped up in what we own? (perhaps the best way to evaluate this is to consider the time and thought we put into what we own– clothes, cars, etc) What are the non-market sources of pleasure that I do and can rely on which require little or no purchasing?

These are questions Christians ask too seldom. If they are asked, it is usually in the context of helping the poor or needy or missions with our money. But there is another question which needs to be asked– what are our values, and how are we spending our lives? One can continue to be a workaholic and divert much of one’s money to missions or the poor, but in that case have you really begun to live an excellent life? But Bauman is not calling us to a life of leisure and relaxation. He clearly says that an excellent life is possible when one expects the impossible and sets extraordinarily high goals for oneself. Mindlessly working 80 hour weeks in order to be a high level consumer of exclusive goods is fruitless. But for the rest of us the question still remains: what are we doing with our lives? Our lives are a work of art– there is potential for amazing lovely greatness, but only if we work hard and expect great things from ourselves. This life-stewardship is an essential part of the Christian Gospel– our lives have been bought with a price, and the life we now live is to be lived not for our own selfish pursuits, but in service to God and others. If our lives are not reflective of real others-centeredness, then we need to reconsider how we are living our lives.

May God have mercy on us all…

More books by Zygmunt Bauman:

  • 1998: Work, consumerism and the new poor. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-20155-5
  • 1998: Globalization: The Human Consequences. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-7456-2012-4
  • 1999: In Search of Politics. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2172-4
  • 2000: Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity ISBN 0-7456-2409-X
  • (2000 [ed. by Peter Beilharz]: The Bauman Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-21492-5)
  • 2001: Community. Seeking Safety in an Insecure World. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2634-3
  • 2001: The Individualized Society. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2506-1
  • 2001 (with Keith Tester): Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2664-5
  • 2001 (with Tim May): Thinking Sociologically, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-21929-3
  • 2002: Society Under Siege. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2984-9
  • 2003: Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds, Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2489-8
  • 2003: City of fears, city of hopes. London: Goldsmith’s College. ISBN 1-904158-37-4
  • 2004: Wasted Lives. Modernity and its Outcasts. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-3164-9
  • 2004: Europe: An Unfinished Adventure. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-3403-6
  • 2004: Identity: Conversations with Benedetto Vecchi. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-3308-0
  • 2005: Liquid Life. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-3514-8
  • 2006: Liquid Fear. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-3680-2
  • 2006: Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-3987-9
  • 2006: Moralność w niestabilnym świecie [Morality in an instable world]. Poznań: Księgarnia św. Wojciecha. ISBN 83-7015-863-3
  • 2007: Consuming Life. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-4002-8
  • 2008: Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-6740-2780-9
  • 2008: The Art of Life. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-4326-4
  • 2009: Living on Borrowed Time: Conversations with Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 978-0745647388
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    2 responses to “The Art of Life

    1. Seasons greetings to you too. Did you know what the Muslims believe regarding Christmas and the birth of Jesus? Please discover & comment at

    2. I love it! Excellent, Andy. I will be reading this book and others of Zygmunt Bauman. Thanks for writing this and getting the word out.

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