The Best Things in Life
The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations, by Robert Nozick, New York: Simon & Schuster, 320 pges, $21.95
Robert Nozick's new book is finally out. Rumors of it have been circulating among his admirers for years, along with considerable excitement, for Nozick's 1974 book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, was to many people—I'm one of them—one of those rare intellectual experiences that forever after alter one's way of looking at the world.
It has been a long wait. True, in 1981 he published the mammoth Philosophical Explanations, an admirable book, but one unmistakably written by a philosophy professor for other philosophy professors. In The Examined Life, the Nozick of Anarchy returns—not as antic as before, clearly older, but speaking with the inimitably Nozickian voice.
The voice returns, but not the same themes. Those who seek Anarchy, State, and Utopia Revisited will be disappointed. This time, Nozick writes about how life is to be lived. "I want to think about living and what is important in life," he begins, "to clarify my thinking—and also my life." And with that he sets out on a wide-ranging, thoughtful consideration of the best things in life, the most important things in life, and how they fit in with the ways we go about living our lives day by day.
It is a book like no other. Imagine that you have an extraordinarily intelligent friend, curious and witty, appallingly well-read, who drops by after dinner. The two of you retire to the library, perhaps with a snifter of something to sip on, put a fresh log on the fire, and talk deep into the night about things you care about. That's what reading The Examined Life is like.
The book meanders. Through the first nine chapters, with such diverse titles as "Dying," "Parents and Children," "Creating," "Sexuality," and "Emotions," the book seems to be a set of meditations on discrete topics—all interesting, all important, but disconnected. Beginning with the discussion of emotions, however, and becoming plainer in the subsequent chapters, the connecting theme slowly emerges, one so simple that it is difficult to describe. Roughly: Life should be intimately bound up with reality.
The ramifications of this thought take Nozick another 18 chapters to tease out, but the point of departure is intuitively attractive, introduced by Nozick's "experience machine," a thought experiment from Anarchy that he resurrects for this book. If there were a machine that could perfectly simulate a perfect life (define "perfect" however you please), would you choose to be plugged into the machine and live the rest of your life hooked up to it instead of living in the real world? Hardly anyone would choose the experience machine. In effect, the core of The Examined Life explains why. There is intrinsic value in being connected with reality, and much of what constitutes the examined life is an effort to become "more real."
Thankfully, Nozick's discussion of reality steers clear of the great epistemological arguments about whether we can know reality. The aspects of reality that concern him are things like value, meaning, weight, and importance, and Nozick grounds the discussion in the kind of issues that the rest of us worry about. For example, the chapter entitled "Importance and Weight" opens with this sentence: "We want to be important in some way, to count in the world and make a difference to it." Can there be a reader anywhere who does not know what Nozick means? Who does not suddenly want to know more about what Nozick is going to say about "importance"?
In the middle of these meditations, Nozick plunges for one long chapter into a complex exercise in which he tries to organize all of the dimensions of reality. "Let us consider the widest possible list of relevant evaluative dimensions," he writes. "It contains (take a deep breath): value, meaning, importance, weight, depth, amplitude, intensity, height, vividness, richness, wholeness, beauty, truth, goodness, fulfillment, energy, autonomy, individuality, vitality, creativity, focus, purpose, development, serenity, holiness, perfection, expressiveness, authenticity, freedom, infinitude, enduringness, eternity, wisdom, understanding, life, nobility, play, grandeur, greatness, radiance, integrity, personality, loftiness, idealness, transcendence, growth, novelty, expansiveness, originality, purity, simplicity, preciousness, significance, vastness, profundity, integration, harmony, flourishing, power, and destiny." He then proceeds to construct a multidimensional "polyhedron of reality" incorporating all these dimensions. Ingenious and theoretically important as the polyhedron might be, it didn't work for this book (for me, at least). But it's hard to complain too much when the author has introduced the discussion by writing, "Some readers will not find this section reverberative.…If so, I suggest they move directly to the following section, saving the two of us unnecessary pain."
Nozick's forte is in talking about the elements of reality one at a time—the integrating themes come through naturally, without forcing. Simply paying attention is as important a theme as any. I sit at my computer, drinking coffee, a violin concerto playing in the background, thinking about what I think of Nozick—and Nozick is rightly pointing out, in various ways, that I would be much better off doing just one of these things at a time and doing it more fully and attentively. In this, Nozick's thought has been influenced by Buddhist views of reality and a variety of East Asian and South Asian meditative techniques. The chapter on enlightenment draws most obviously from these experiences, but so also do the chapters entitled "The Holiness of Everyday Life," "Focus," "Being More Real," and "Selflessness," among others. This is a major virtue of the book.
The Buddhist meditative schools have riches to offer to Western thinking, but they tend either to have been ignored by mainstream Western students of philosophy or embraced with the excessive fervor of the newly converted. Nozick draws on these traditions knowledgeably and respectfully but weaves them into the lessons he has learned from Western thinkers—just the right kind of intellectual ecumenicism.
What is most endearing and most valuable about The Examined Life is Nozick's determination to engage the reader as a partner. He does not lecture. He does not posture. He is not being the cool professional who deals in ideas, plying his trade. He is an adult fascinated and perplexed by life in ways that fascinate and perplex all of us who reach a certain age and still try to figure out what life's all about.
It thus seems true to the spirit of The Examined Life, though in violation of the conventions of book reviews, that I refrain from pointing out in a few snappy sentences where I think Nozick is wrong. There are many things I would like to argue with him about, but the point of the book is precisely to evoke from the reader what he thinks, and in doing so to enable the reader to think better and more clearly on these topics. It almost doesn't matter whether you think Nozick is right.
For me, the most obvious example of this is the chapter on the Holocaust. Nozick's thesis is that the Holocaust is momentous beyond our power to comprehend; that "the Holocaust is an event like the Fall in the way traditional Christianity conceived it, something that radically and drastically alters the situation and status of humanity." He proceeds to expand on this theme in ways that I find bizarre. However, it is also true that since reading that chapter I have found myself thinking about the Holocaust and thinking about the Christian concept of redemption. (Nozick writes that "whatever changed situation or possibility the crucifixion and resurrection were supposed to bring about has now ended: the Holocaust has shut the door that Christ opened."). The chapter about the Holocaust still hasn't convinced me and probably never will. But it has made me think, hard, about something important.
But what about the political Nozick of Anarchy? What about that soaring, supremely confident justification of the minimal state? Toward the end of the book he confronts that question. "The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously, inadequate," he writes, "in part because it did not fully knit the humane considerations and joint cooperative activities it left room for more closely into its fabric." I have added the italics, for I think Nozick is pointing to an inadequacy in Anarchy that is generic to various celebrations of individual freedom: They tend to imply a world of sovereign individualists barely talking to one another except to carry on formalized transactions; they tend to ignore the many ways in which individual freedom can facilitate, enrich, and energize community life—including cooperation, compassion, altruism, and "humane considerations" of all sorts.
In The Examined Life, Nozick makes this one statement about Anarchy and refuses to elaborate. Nozick's subsequent reflections about politics stress that "there are some things we choose to do together through government in solemn marking of our human solidarity." And he almost offhandedly indicates approval of some governmental measures—antidiscrimination laws, for example—that will horrify many of his libertarian admirers. Such remarks are part of Nozick's struggle to come to terms with the discrepancy between the ideal and the actual, a discrepancy that he sees in capitalism as in communism and Christianity. "The temptation is to say simply that none of the actual [negative outcomes] was intended by the originators or founders of these ideals…," he writes. "But this reply will not do. That is how those ideals operate, over and over again, in this world, on this planet, when we are the ones who do the operating. That is what they come to, what we make them come to."
But isn't it also true that that's how the ideals of social democracy operate "over and over again?" That when we pass antidiscrimination laws (to pick up on that particular example), they inevitably become corrupted as they in fact have been in the United States in the last two decades? And that being the case, doesn't one still have to decide what the ideals are and to work to translate them as best one can into the real world? And in this context, aren't the ideals in Anarchy still valid?
Nozick acknowledges only that such questions exist, making us wait for another book to find out in detail what he now thinks of the minimal state and utopia. But for those who wonder how The Examined Life fits in with Nozick's earlier work, there is already a simple answer: In Anarchy, Nozick meditated on human freedom. Even given freedom, however, human beings still have to live their lives. This time, Nozick helps us think about what freedom is good for. The Examined Life is a book for grownups—not just because having lived a number of years makes it easier to understand what Nozick is talking about, but because it is the process of living those years that leads one to need such a book. "There are very few books that set out what a mature person can believe—someone fully grown up, I mean," he writes in the introduction. Robert Nozick has added to their number.
Charles Murray is Bradley Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Best Things in Life".