June 26, 2006

LONELY AMERICA: SOCIAL CAPITAL AND THE GOOD LIFE (OLD SCHOOL)



Caption: This is a lonely goat. Not a very pretty sight.

This is the second post about America’s declining stock of social capital, which can be defined as all the different formal and informal ways people and groups connect with each other. These reflections were prompted by a recent article (see yesterday’s post) about a new study that found more Americans were feeling isolated.

Aristotle is Goat Rope’s official philosopher in residence. This is partly because, being an ancient Greek, he knew a thing or two about goats. Also, he had some good things to say about the good life in public and private (if you can forgive him for being born 2,400 years ago and having some of the baggage that came with that).

Aristotle viewed happiness as the goal of life since we seek it for its own sake. But happiness for him wasn’t mere pleasure but an active life in which people developed to their full potential in public and private life. He coined the phrase about humans being political animals and said that to live alone, one must be either a beast or a god.

Since we are not gods and are in no danger of becoming them, when friendship and social capital decline in private and public life, we are in danger of becoming more bestial.

In this area as in some others, Aristotle holds up pretty well. In his Ethics, social capital, which he simply called friendship, was the basis for a happy life for people at all ages and social positions,

for it is a kind of virtue, or implies virtue, and it is also most necessary for living. Nobody would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things. Indeed those who hold wealth and office and power are thought to stand in special need of friends...In poverty too and all the other misfortunes of life people regard their friends as their only refuge. Friends are indeed a help both to the young, in keeping them from mistakes; and to the old, in caring for them and doing for them what through frailty they cannot do for themselves; and to those in the prime of life, by enabling them to carry out fine achievements...


He argued that the same was true of public life: “Friendship also seems to be the bond that holds communities together, and lawgivers seem to attach more importance to it than to justice; because concord seems to be something like friendship, and concord is their primary object—that and eliminating faction, which is enmity.”

If you were trying to summarize what modern research shows about social capital, you could do a lot worse that that. But that will keep till next time.


GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, El Cabrero, for bringing Aristotle back into public discourse. The Nicomachean Ethics is one of the wisest books ever written. That brings me to a question. What do you think replaces social connections in our lives? Entertainment? What is it in the current state of things that leads us to fail to develop social connections?