American Ambition: Occupation and Confusion Over Intrinsic Goods

The view of human occupation that American’s inherit is strange, in that it carves up into simple categories the complex range of human activity. A person’s occupation, outside of the realm of politics and law, may either be related to business (widely conceived), the visual and auditory arts, education, and “science.” If one’s work falls outside of these categories, and identity is largely bound up in what one does for work, the ability to be understood suffers. Even worse, if one is not profiting from their work, or not profiting in the amount culturally considered successful, one does not, to the common eye, have their work as an occupation, but as a “hobby,” which, curiously, devalues one’s involvement in their work.

Strange that one may materially benefit from each of these fields: business and production reaps financial gain, the visual and auditory arts may be exploited for financial gain, but at the least offer up a sort of consumer-pleasure, education is commonly taken to be necessary for preparing young people for work, and Science is the advancer of medical and luxury technology. It is not ridiculous to suppose that the way the average American conceives of occupation centers around financial or material gain. A student is often asked, “what do you plan on doing with your major?,” and puzzles their questioner when they express a financially-unviable goal, as if all degree programs require external justification. “Why not do something that can provide stability, and do x on the side?” Such advice is not necessarily wrong, but the giving of that advice indiscriminately to all belies a profit-driven mindset.

This is in no way an accurate picture of human occupation. In which category do clergy fall? What of a monk? No room is left for them in American society: they produce no material gain, and increasingly, are seen to be mere manipulators in a sort of vaguely Christian-business (which some indeed are). What of a Philosopher? Collapse their discipline so that it’s a handmaiden to capitalistic science, or consign them to be jesters, only being worthy of displaying pleasurable, semantic parlor-tricks. “It’s a shame,” it might be said, “that Marcus was so enamored with philosophy–he could have done so much more.” “Why does Sophia waste so much time on her art? It’ll never bring in much money, and she could have such a successful career in accounting!”

The American way (and perhaps now the Western way) is not a path towards the attainment of intrinsic goods, but instead moves one to pleasure (merely one intrinsic good) to the detriment of others, and ties together pleasure and its means so tightly as to often confuse extrinsic goods for intrinsic goods. Someone in this confused state has trouble understanding those who practice their occupation as a means of seeking intrinsic goods besides pleasure, for the realm of possible career paths they can conceive of is reduced to those which produce the most obvious forms of good (material goods and pleasure). That mankind may work towards more than survival is overlooked–that man’s bodily survival is not his proper end has been totally discarded.

The inaccuracy of our cultural conception of occupation flows from our improper valuing, and its inaccuracy consists in dividing the disciplines wrongly. Science is taken to be the thing people who seek knowledge go towards, the arts are for the creative types who wish to produce artworks, business is for everyone else who just want to make an “honest living,” and education is to prepare children to pick one of these occupations. But, briefly, the world is not so divided: truth-seeking is not constrained to what we now call science, and, further, the most fundamental and probe-worthy topics are all non-scientific (i.e. the purpose of life, the existence of God, the ground of moral values, the definition of knowledge, the methodology for gaining knowledge): there thus exist occupations centered on inquiry apart from Science, and these are not mere handmaidens. Education would then be wrongly conceived of: to educate is more than just to prepare for a child to engage in science, art or business–at the least, there are many more fields of inquiry to pursue, and an education in them is, I contend, intrinsically valuable.

This development of western culture (and not the perils of white identity) is truly the decline of Western culture. There, it seems to me, are two groups primarily responsible for the decline of the west. The first, naive conservatives who interpret “the pursuit of happiness” to be the pursuit of pleasure and material wealth. The second, naive “free-thinkers” who venerate pop-science figures like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins to the place of public-intellectuals; this group can be identified by their “Bazinga!” or periodic table tees, and their inane utterance that they “fucking love science.”

We have constructed a society where those who seek pleasure and confuse extrinsic for intrinsic goods, and do so with talent, even selfish ambition and ability, flourish, while others, though they may find success, mostly find it by relinquishing what would otherwise be the best way for them to seek intrinsic goods to “side-projects.” Pursuit of the good is left to be picked up as a hobby, or else totally discarded.

One thought on “American Ambition: Occupation and Confusion Over Intrinsic Goods

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  1. The West, even as far back as the Hellenic World, has always had a hard time balancing our perceptions of the relative positions and worth of eudaemonia , arete, and phronesis. This is nothing new and we’ve survived so far, albeit with various paroxysms of ill behavior.

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