The Virtues of Youth

All the kids have always known / that the emperor wears no clothes / But they bow down to him anyway / It’s better than being alone

– Arcade Fire in “Ready to Start”

I remember a couple of years ago explaining to a friend my understanding of the notion of teleological development in Aristotle’s writings. I used the metaphor my philosophy professor had, that of an acorn developing into an oak tree. It went like this: the potential for becoming an oak tree is inborn in the acorn, and comprises it’s true nature. To be a “good” (or “thriving,” “flourishing,” etc.)  acorn is to become an oak tree. This might also be applied to people: if one is a “good” human, one should embody the distinctive virtues that constitute the true nature the human being (whatever those might be).

The point then came up that a culture that embraces a teleological understanding of human nature would hold a privileged position, in terms of power and status, for its adults. Young people are by definition unable, on the whole, to be “good” in this particular sense. They have not existed long enough as creatures in this world to have become skilled in practicing the virtues which comprise the point and purpose of their existence. They’re greenhorns who must necessarily mess up on the road to their flourishing. In such a culture adults who have excelled in various field of endeavor – from religion and science to care-taking and the manual trades- would be revered and praised as exemplars of human flourishing. They would be objects of intense longing and aspiration on the part of young people.

After conveying this, in so many words, to my friend, she furrowed her brow and expressed how different this outlook was from her own. This friend had for a number of previous summers run a day camp for young kids with her friend for her small island community. She loved working with children and aspired to be a midwife. On her view,  children embodied the virtues that older people ought to strive for: a sense of wonder, openness, and a refreshing, iconoclastic kind of naiveté.

I was struck by her words, partly because I shared this belief in the virtues of children. Her words reminded me of a passage in book of collected lectures by Rudolf Steiner, called The Spiritual Guidance of the Individual and Humanity, claiming that children possess a “higher wisdom [that] functions like a ‘telephone connection’ to the spiritual beings in whose world we find ourselves between death and rebirth. Something from this world still flows into our aura during childhood.” This being the case, “even the wisest person can learn from a child.” Although not everyone will accept Steiner’s entire spiritual cosmogony, it seems to me that most people agree with the general thrust of this passage: the child possesses a kind of wisdom that the adult does not.

Thinking about this now, however, it seems that this valorization of the young goes further than a recognition of the wisdom of children. Contemporary American culture, on the whole, is in many ways a youth culture. For one, it places great value on innovation and change (in technology, ideas, values, etc.). In the realm of capitalist economy, David Harvey memorably calls this institutionalization of continuous upheaval  “creative destruction”. And who is better at creating the new (and destroying the old) than young people? Innovation is clearly a value that youth are more apt to live with than the aged.

America is also a culture that values physical beauty, particularly youthful physical beauty. While this is something that has been valued throughout history and cultures to varying extents, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that contemporary American culture, with it’s multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry and ubiquity of body dysphoria, has a particularly intense, and perhaps pathological, attachment to this ideal.

The some goes for the ideas that form our everyday understandings of the world. One of the dominant epistemological models in our culture is that of Nietzsche’s free “spirit who plays naively…with everything that has hitherto been called holy, good, inviolable, divine.” The once-dominant understandings of religion, knowledge, and political membership– and the concomitant embodiment of these understandings in the (adult) figures of the holy person, philosopher, and citizen — have lost their credibility in the eyes of much of the population. It’s not that there are no elements in these ideas and figures that are valuable for our contemporary culture — the Socratic self-questioning of the philosopher, perhaps, or the understanding of the importance of shared labor in medieval Benedictine monasticism —  but that it’s just those elements as elements that are valuable, not the calcified and decaying structures of which they were once an integral part.

As a result, the teleological understandings of human nature that underwrote the authority of the holy person, the philosopher, and the citizen have been replaced by a new embrace of the place of flux, creativity, experimentation, and playfulness in a human life. Consequently it is the young and their characteristic qualities that are celebrated, rather than the older, more moderate, and sturdier (albeit dustier) qualities of the accomplished adult.

About Ben

I'm a young person living in Portland, Maine with abiding interests in philosophy, community, and how to lead a good life in the modern world.
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