C. S. Lewis said:
‘I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman). But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc. exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes? As Dr. Johnson said, “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavor” … We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it. So your job is the one for which all others exist.’
I love this quote. I live my life by this quote. But was he right?
I did my undergraduate work at Wellesley College, a highly competitive all-women’s school in the US, full of very ambitious women. Most of them had plans to become lawyers, judges, politicians, high powered business women, doctors, journalists, etc. Yet, I don’t think they saw their future careers as somehow existing for the sake of happy homes in the wider world.
That certainly didn’t seem to be the dominant thinking among our professors and college administrators, either. Our studies were not for the purpose of generating happy homes in society, were they? And if they were, then what about the happiness in our own future homes? It was not a secret that the careers we were going into were gruelling and would require everything we had to succeed. Wellesley was there to prepare us for that success, not so much for success in the home. And perhaps it was an open secret that if we wanted to be successful professionally, there would be some unavoidable conflicts with success in the home.
When successful Wellesley alums came to speak to us, they were always invited to campus because of their success in their profession, not because of their success in the home; bankers, lawyers, politicians, academics, activists. I never heard them speak of their home lives.
But if Lewis is right, then why was my experience at Wellesley the way it was? Why did we spend nearly all our time preparing for, working at, analyzing, applauding, and rewarding all those other jobs?
I don’t have a neat answer to these questions, but at the same time I don’t want to abandon Lewis’s insight. Instead, I want to look at it from a different perspective, by considering it in light of some thoughts from Aristotle.
Aristotle, too, considered the concept of a ‘job for which all other jobs exist’. He discussed this concept, though, by using terms like ‘master art’ and ‘highest science’. The highest science was defined as the science for which all other arts and sciences existed. Aristotle thought this highest science was politics.
Now, that sounds a little more plausible than Lewis’s view. Power over millions of people, global fame, the opportunity to practice state craft, change the course of history, influence world events – you know, that sort of thing – surely Aristotle was not far off the mark when he argued that politics was the highest of all the sciences.
Yet, let us consider his reason why politics is the highest science. Aristotle thinks that everything we do in life aims at some ‘end’, or ‘good’, and that there is a ‘chief good’ in life – the highest end for which all of our other actions are done – which is happiness. Now, not only is Aristotle interested in what the highest end is for a human life, but he also wants to show which of the disciplines have this highest end as their object. Surely, whatever discipline studies how to achieve this chief good would be the most authoritative of all the arts and sciences – it would be the ‘master art’.
Aristotle argues that politics is the discipline which has this good as its object. Politics is the master art because it’s purpose is to achieve the ‘good for man’ – the highest good which all other disciplines are used to achieve. It is politics that legislates what we should do and what we should not do; in this way, it has a certain conception of what a human life should look like. Aristotle thinks that the function of the law is to guide us toward our highest ‘end’ of happiness. Remember that for Aristotle, the happy man is the virtuous man, and the virtuous man is the one who is fulfilling his potential as a human being to be a moral agent. So, the law is there to help us develop good, virtuous habits, which will make all the difference to the kind of person that we become.
Now, there is a problem here. To modern ears, the idea that politics is there to direct man toward his ‘highest good’ sounds foreign, even dangerous. Nowadays, we regard the function of politics to be that of protecting and defending our freedoms, not directing our actions toward some ‘end’. We value our freedom to direct ourselves – and our families – toward what we understand to be our ‘good’.
This modern conception of politics, indeed, was (and continues to be) the project of the philosophy of liberalism. As I have mentioned before, liberalism espouses the importance of individual rights and individual liberty, and is considered by most people to be the philosophy upon which our western, democratic society is built. Although liberalism has a rich heritage incorporating many thinkers, one definitive version of it can be found in the work of the philosopher John Rawls, who wrote A Theory of Justice in 1971.
One basic premise of Rawlsian liberalism is that governments should remain neutral as much as possible on questions concerning what is a ‘good’ human life or a ‘bad’ human life. After all, people often disagree on what it means for a human being to be good or bad, or even on the nature of happiness. If a government were to have its own conception of what human happiness or goodness was, and then were to police its citizens to live according to that conception, it would deny a certain portion of society the freedom to live their own conceptions. The state, then, must remain silent on the moral content of what we as citizens try to achieve in our lives, and limit itself to protecting our rights to live as we choose, as long as it is in a peaceful way.
Now, maybe you agree with this aim of liberalism, or maybe you don’t. Whatever your view, I think it is fair to say that something like this version of liberalism has had a very great influence upon our Western democracies. And if that is the case, then politics can no longer be considered the ‘master art’ under Aristotle’s criteria. Indeed, if questions of the good life are no longer the concern of politics, but instead have been recognized as an issue of private concern, then surely it is parenting that becomes a prime candidate to replace politics as the master art.
It is in parenting that the question of what it means to be human is at its most urgent. It is parents who give their children a conception of what a ‘good’ life and a ‘bad’ life for humans might be. It is parents who develop their children’s moral reasoning, directing them toward a ‘good’ life. And the strong emotional bond that exists between parent and child means that moral values are transmitted from one generation to the next powerfully, not only by words, but also by feelings. That is why politics, though clearly important – and here is where Aristotle and I part company – simply cannot achieve for human beings what good parenting can achieve for them. Parenting is a practice that passes on humanity like no other, and in that sense, it has to be the master art.
I hope C. S. Lewis would agree.
This article was first published at Philosophy for Parents.