Life presupposes viability and viability implies the power to live. Life without viability or the power to live cannot take form long enough to achieve its living status. It is a contradiction in terms. And so the natural will to live is also the Nietzschean will to power, and more specifically, the will to power in order to live. Here power is properly understood as a correlate of life or as a means to a vital end. In itself, it is totally meaningless. Likewise, the slogan used by Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign “Yes we can” begs the question “can what?” For Americans, the obvious answer was “Yes we can thrive,” which is a glorious form of “Yes we can live.”
Therefore it comes as no surprise that Michel Foucault related knowledge to power and vice versa. In fact knowledge—i.e., the conceptual framework that is required to understand, predict, and manipulate reality—is an incomplete form of power that calls for the ability to act upon it via an effective behavior, thereby highlighting the complementary mind/body relationship. This ability, on the other hand, can only make sense in connection with some purpose, which necessarily fits within the larger, multifaceted telos called life.
The point of this argument is to grasp holistically the threefold dynamics of life, knowledge, and power as a source of insight. Any exaggerated emphasis on one aspect of this complex would foster a tendentious and misleading view.
Life—as a general purpose—gives direction; knowledge—as theoretical power—gives instruction; behavior—as practical power—gives application. The interplay of these three elements, which come together as one in each individual, constitutes the basis of their personal history, embedded in nature and culture at a particular time and in a particular place.
What can we say to flesh out the concept of life as a “larger, multifaceted telos?” A good point of reference is the hierarchy of needs by Abraham Maslow, in the shape of a pyramid. We start at the bottom with the essentials, having to do with survival and health, thanks to which the level up is unlocked or becomes possible: the pursuit of safety—freedom from violence or hardship—and security, e.g., stable or dependable employment and human interactions. This in turn unlocks or makes possible the next level in the hierarchy: the desire to achieve meaningful family and community relations, plus intimate friendships or a loving relationship that provide a deep sense of belonging. All this ultimately opens up two further levels that together form the apex of the pyramid: the concern with getting respect or recognition from others, paired with the ambition to fully actualize our creative potential and find fulfilment in the completion of worthy—socially significant—goals. The latter imply an expanded conception of self, predicated on an insight of profound interconnectedness with the world, or even higher in the order of consciousness, an insight of spiritual transcendence.
Since time immemorial, people have had to contend with a broad array of circumstances, ranging from the most unfortunate to the most fortunate and exposed to the vagaries of chance; which can equally bring bad fortune or good fortune. By circumstances, I mean every aspect of life from birth to death, be it genetic, familial, social, cultural, environmental, in short everything that both empowers and limits people, and defines the conditions of their freedom. The question is then, given this lottery of fate, reminiscent of the cards given randomly to a poker player, how they choose to play their odds. Perhaps we can take heart in the fact that poker players, in the course of a great many games, can gain the upper hand and even make a living, if they learn the art of playing these odds with superior discipline and skill.
Life is therefore a mix of incidental conditions and individual freedom. The ideal political system is arguably the best one at compensating unfavorable conditions and promoting creative freedom to maximize the possibility of self-actualization for all the members of the polity. And yet, for this maximum to transition from dream to reality, each member is required to cultivate social awareness and exercise social responsibility. Put differently, to be universal, everyone’s right to “follow their bliss” (Joseph Campbell)—in the propitious context of a welfare/liberal state that mitigates the rigors of our human condition and consecrates the benefits of individual liberty—must be accompanied by everyone’s duty to respect this right in others. Furthermore, this maximum is unrealizable without a complementary willingness to cultivate environmental awareness and exercise environmental responsibility, since our fortune hinges organically on that of the planet.
The rule of law is there to bolster this call for awareness and responsibility, both at the level of society and the environment. Its principal tool of enforcement is the fear of punishment, which traditionally has been considered the beginning of wisdom. The latter takes virtue—or doing the right thing—as its own reward. It would appear safe to assume that the ideal individual, as a “social animal” (Aristotle), would have internalized the rule of law or made the call for awareness and responsibility, both at the level of society and the environment, a freely acquired wisdom.
The problem is, even if we could all agree on what constitutes an ideal political system or human being, we would be left with the difficult task of determining the way forward to get as close as possible to this ideal. Like an asymptote to a hyperbola, our efforts are meant to strive for this ideal, but never to achieve it, however far we may get from bad to good, and perhaps even great. We humans can succeed at defining what is desirable and honorable, but also we can fail at being consistent with this savory and lofty definition. In fact, we may even fail in our apparent successes, or mistake illusions for truths, thereby compounding the risk of a shameful or pitiful outcome.
This humbling realization leads to an imperative: we must collectively—in every area of human activity, every group, every institution, nonprofit, corporate, or governmental—ensure a system of checks and balances that invites participation and discussion, and tolerates dissension, in order to achieve superior integration or accommodation. Of course, my righteous exhortation is nothing new. Others before me have insisted on the importance of a safe public realm of respectful disputation. An example is Jurgen Habermas, who argued that the possibility of questioning traditions openly is what created the conditions for the French Revolution and the creation of democratically elected institutions. There are admittedly many more examples, from the time of Socrates, who pled at his trial for the right to “speak his mind” against the opinion of the jury, to the time of Voltaire, who “would have given his life to make it possible for [anyone who wrote things he detested] to continue writing” until more recently, with the likes of Noam Chomsky, “in favor of freedom of speech precisely for the views you despise.”
The logic behind this line of thinking is that we each have a unique blend of strengths and weaknesses in the way we see or do things, such that together we may somehow complement each other and reach a mode of being that is more wise than foolish, provided of course we agree to be jarred out of our comfort zone in the name of a higher ground of intellectual and moral elevation. Only then can we avoid the pitfall of bigotry or sectarian intolerance that can be terribly divisive and oppressive, and even destructive when violent. Here I am reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville who warned us against the danger of a majority turning a deaf ear to the minority and becoming a tyranny, or of Michel Foucault who bemoaned the normalizing effect of a dominant discourse that dismisses as nonsense or madness whatever stands outside of its parochial dogmatism. All these closed spaces stink of staleness. They badly need all those we have marginalized to open the doors and the windows for a breath of fresh air that will restore our mental acuity and save us from the complacent dullness of a know-it-all who only engages in conversation with mirrors.