Promethean Lives

A self-help book with substance


Exuberance, by Paul Kurtz, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 178 pp., $8.95.

Most philosophers write for an audience of other philosophers, who are professionally trained in complex argumentation, accustomed to detailed analysis, and familiar with academic style. One unfortunate result of this is that the ordinary person is not the immediate beneficiary. As often as not the lay person, beginning a philosophy book, is soon nodding—not in agreement, but at the threshold of slumber.

Paul Kurtz's book Exuberance is a welcome exception. A philosophy book accessible to and written for a general audience, Kurtz's discussion is stimulating, intellectually responsible, and personal in style as well as enthusiastic in tone. This is evident from the opening lines: "There must be something wrong with me. I am happy, exuberant. This has been true for as long as I can remember. Am I sick? Those around me seem to moan and complain.…Why am I happy? What does it mean to be satisfied—deeply—with life?"

What follows is an extended answer to this question. Kurtz champions the activist attitude toward life, connecting happiness with freedom and the power to control our individual destinies. He contrasts this position with that of the self-sacrificing saint whom he finds to be "dominated by over-belief and repression"; with the contemplative meditator, who withdraws into an isolated world; with the pleasure seeker, who is forever unfulfilled; with the conventional establishmentarian, whose life motivation is to meet social obligations; and with the utopian revolutionary, who sacrifices individual growth for the sake of some unobtainable ideal. Each of these, Kurtz argues, is extremist, lopsided, narrow-minded, life-denying, and thus highly unlikely to end in fulfillment and joy. In contrast, the activist manifests "the dominant virtues of modern man: the willingness to take destiny in one's own hands, to tempt fate and to turn it about to suit himself."

The activist is a modern Prometheus, who realizes that freedom entails the exercise of power. We are free to the extent that we have control over our lives, which in turn is measured by the power that we are able to demonstrate creatively. Thus, freedom is neither a private inner state nor an abstract metaphysical entity. Put simply, it is the ability to act and think in our own terms.

Though Prometheus brought fire from heaven some legendary time past, the modern mentality is plagued by a sense of powerlessness. Kurtz roots this impotence in fears of uncertainty, which thwart not only our creativity but our coping mechanisms as well. Where once we sought to prevail, it is now a virtue to cope, to simply maintain. What is required is a shift in perspective, so that the uncertainty of life is transformed into the gateway to drama and diversity, excitement and suspense. If ambiguity and uncertainty lead to dread and anxiety, it is not from any logical necessity, as the Existentialists seem to imply, but from other reasons or causes. The well-trod path may be comforting and safe, but it is hardly adventuresome; the road not taken, hazardous, but filled with possibilities.

When the need for security is the underlying motive of our actions, we run the risk of embracing unfounded beliefs. Here Kurtz begins his discussion of skepticism versus gullibility, which is an excellent and compelling essay in defense of the scientific method as it relates to ordinary life. What the freethinker, rationalist, humanist, and skeptic share in common is "the natural tendency…to combat gullibility wherever it occurs." A predisposition to believe in the absence of evidence is prelude to folly, since beliefs have consequences, entail action. Those who are inclined to believe in such things as astrology, scientology, occultism, faith healing, reincarnation, and the like will find this a disturbing and challenging chapter.


Besides his enviable clarity, Kurtz has the gift of handling complex issues and ideas without yielding to the academician's temptation—to say every last word and thus lose the reader in the rough terrain of digressions. He does this by anchoring his observations to the context of living a human life. What Kurtz says is ultimately related to human choice, action, and consequence. This is especially evident in his discussion of enjoyment, where he argues for a mean between the extremes of hedonic-phobia (which makes a policy of minimizing pleasures) and hyperhedonism (which makes of pleasure the supreme value). The former is excessively restrained; the latter, indiscriminate. If our pleasures are integrated with the other aspects of our lives, they will be more fulfilling and meaningful. Since there is a relationship between pleasure and conduct, and since pleasures have contexts and are thus related to activities, it is possible to weigh pleasures on a scale of values.

From here Kurtz turns to love and friendship, shifting explicitly and dramatically from an individual's concern for self to his or her concern for others. There is a clear and sensible discussion of the parent-child relationship, which Kurtz sees as best founded on the parent's ultimate concern for the child's eventual autonomy: the goal of parenting is to free the child from dependence. What Kurtz says about the nature and dynamics of parenting has none of the psychological theorizing so often found in print. His observations are refreshingly simple and apt. For example: "To work and save, to plan and conserve are important qualities of character that need cultivation." We must strive to be what we wish our children to become. At bottom, successful child raising requires reasoned choice and reflection, not technical or theoretical expertise.

We need to be reminded that we are already equipped to handle life's problems if only we have the courage to face the facts and take the reins rather than losing ourselves in the evasions of abstraction and theorizing, complaining and fault finding. Many people are lonely because they have forgotten that "friendship…must be based upon a general concern for the other. This means that a number of moral virtues are present: caring, honesty, sincerity, trust." It is very nearly a conceptual truth that a caring, honest, sincere, and trusting(worthy) person will have friends.

When Kurtz speaks of moral virtues he is not speaking from a premodern, quasi-religious conception. Morality is viewed as a creative activity rather than as a response to a frozen absolute independent of lived experiences. Morality is neither a legalistic nor an ecclesiastical matter but is born of human choice, which emerges from concrete and unique situations. We learn to be moral, not by following rules, but in discovering "that we can't consistently lie or cheat or use violence with those we deal with, or else trust and honesty will break down. The moral principles governing transactional living and working together become apparent."


The book ends appropriately with an essay on death. Given that "the ultimate good for each person and the basic source of all human values is life," how should one face death? The fact of death brings us into direct encounter with the meaning of our life, by providing the widest context within which to assess ourselves. Human beings alone are aware of their eventual death, and our attitude toward this knowledge can either inspire or distort our lives. Kurtz argues diligently against belief in immortality: such a belief is totally unfounded and robs us of the capacity for full moral responsibility. He is unrelenting, nearly intolerant: "The believer in immortality is fixated on death, yet he endeavors to deny its awesome reality. This means a failure to face the finality of death and an inability to see life for what it is."

If these words seem harsh, it is because Kurtz believes that we ought to keep faith with truth, not illusion; that genuine courage is preferable to false consolation. Except for sudden, unexpected death, dying is itself an activity, something that we can do well or poorly. If we do it well, we shall have the satisfaction of seeing our lives come clearly into focus, as when a complex work of art reveals its meaning and the various aspects that formerly vied to capture our attention come together all at once.

Exuberance is not a major philosophical contribution in the academic sense. It is not a book in epistemology or ethics, logic or metaphysics. It makes no attempt, pretentious or otherwise, to solve the traditional philosophical problems once and for all. It will not be a standard text of required reading for philosophy majors. In a sense, the book is a manifesto, not a dissertation. In very straightforward terms it charts the topography of the free and active life, offering a series of challenging reminders. It is—one hesitates to say, because the word is losing currency—a book of wisdom, free of platitudes. I suspect that Kurtz's colleagues will admire this little book. It is the kind that many people will wish they had written and almost everyone will be glad to have read.

Mr. Chesher, a previous REASON contributor, alternates between teaching philosophy at Santa Barbara City College and house painting.