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The Art of Living: The Roles of Self and Community

Who shall I be? How do I become? What highest value(s) ought I aspire toward? What is the end and aim of life? The Art of Living refers to the project and the problem of our lives as characterized by these fundamental questions.

This discussion will explore implications for our Art of Living gleaned from the novel "Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. What does Morrison's novel say about the roles of self and community in our lives? To what highest value(s) does Morrison urge us to aspire? What does she think the end and aim of our lives ought to be? What can we learn from Morrison about addressing the problem and the project of our lives? What can Morrison teach us about who to be and how to become? For you personally, what are the roles of ownership, the whole truth, names, self and community in your life? How do these values fit into your art of living? 

The plan for the discussion is to follow the Stanford "Art of Living" lectures. I recommend reading Toni Morrison's novel "Song of Solomon" before watching the video lectures. The lectures will be much clearer if you have a basic understanding of the plot and its characters. The book is still in copyright, but is widely available at your local library or for purchase from your favorite bookseller. You can learn more about the novel from the Wikipedia page on "Song of Solomon". Here are the three 50 minute video lectures which will guide our discussion:

• The Narrative Construction of the Self by Kenneth Taylor

• The Flight of Self by R. Lanier Anderson

• It's not about you Living Longer. It's About how you Live and Why by Joshua Landy

This is the fifth discussion in a series inspired by an accessible, exquisite, free on-line course The Art of Living (, three Stanford professors discuss five great works to explore how philosophy and literature can help us practice the art of living. The lecturers are Kenneth Taylor, Joshua Landy, and R. Lanier Anderson and the works are Plato's "Symposium", Shakespeare's "Hamlet", Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling", Nietzsche's "The Gay Science", and Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon". The course video lectures will guide our exploration of "The Art of Living" in a multidimensional way. For an overview of our topic, please watch the 50 minute video Introduction to The Art of Living.

These are links to the other meetups in The Art of Living series:

1. The Art of Living: Love and Reason in Plato's Symposium

2. The Art of Living: What Can We Learn From Shakespeare's Hamlet?

3. The Art of Living: The Paradoxes of Faith and Existence

4. The Art of Living: The Roles of Art and Science

5. The Art of Living: The Roles of Self and Community

6. The Art of Living: Engaging the Project of our Lives

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  • Jennifer A.

    I'm sorry to miss such a worthwhile and brilliant discussion. I am still interested in utilizing the resources for this discussion. Will there be by any chance notes compiled from the discussion that can be posted to our meetup group?

    January 9, 2014

    • Jennifer A.

      Thanks so much!

      January 10, 2014

    • Charles N.

      I was attracted to the discussion because the topic (self vs other) is one I've been addressing lately in my own writing. If you go to my blog link http://cnolanhb.wordp...­ and scroll down to the 12/1613 entry "Heroes", you may find it interesting.

      January 10, 2014

  • Jennifer A.

    I feel that I missed an interesting and enlightening discussion--sorry that I couldn't make it. Would there be anyone that would like to continue this valuable discussion?

    January 10, 2014

  • Charles N.

    An energetic and stimulating discussion - we went 20 minutes over the time.

    1 · January 10, 2014

  • Margaret

    A very interesting, enlightening discussion. thanks C.J.!!

    1 · January 10, 2014

  • CJ F.

    For tonight's discussion here are some questions to consider (we will explain the 3 lectures and Toni Morrison's novel "Song of Solomon" in case you couldn't read or watch):

    What is a Self? Is a Self narratively constructed? How do names help construct a Self? Is the whole truth and the history of one's family & community important in forming a Self? Is becoming a Self the essence of one's Art of Living?

    Is there a deep paradox between the enabling conditions (symbolized by flight) and the restricting conditions in forming a Self? Does the individual emerge from the restrictions imposed by others as flight emerges from the resistance of air? Are Self & Community a yin-yang oneness? Are Self & Community incompatible? Can we fly and be rooted at the same time?

    How can we practice our Art of Living given this conundrum? Do novels give us the tools for reading, thinking & practicing an Art of Living to narratively build our Self and to understand & interrelate with others?

    1 · January 9, 2014

  • Charles N.

    One could validly say that you cannot really care for others unless your sense of self is firmly rooted. I've been considering this since hearing the word "selfless' tossed around so freely at the "CNN Heroes" TV event - all of the individuals being honored were strong individuals with deeply held personal values - far from selfless. The Wright brothers had a great deal of confidence in their own abilities. Pilots fly - passengers less so.

    1 · January 8, 2014

  • CJ F.

    Here are my notes on the 48m lecture "It's not about you Living Longer. It's About how you Live and Why" by Joshua Landy:

    Landy critiques his colleagues' conclusion that Milkman has become a Self at the end of Toni Morrison's novel "Song of Solomon". He suggests flying and caring for others are irreconcilable: you can't be fully yourself and fully responsive to others. Do you agree? Can we fly and be rooted at the same time? Is this paradox of Self & Community resolvable? How ought we approach our Art of Living in the face of this difficulty?

    For Landy novels help us develop our capacities by providing a storehouse of models to inform the story of our life. Does reading give your value system a workout? What genre is the story of your life? Is life necessarily a tragedy? Can a novel help you develop your Art of Living?

    I have more extensive notes at

    Watch Landy's lecture:

    January 8, 2014

  • CJ F.

    Here are my notes on the 43m lecture "The Flight of Self" by R. Lanier Anderson:

    Anderson's profound lecture explains the final line in Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon": "If you surrender to the air, you can ride it." He explores the motif of flight in the novel arguing it places values on both what we aspire toward as well as what we leave behind. He builds on Taylor's discussion on names in the novel by observing that our names are put upon us by others (a restricting condition). Yet through narrative we can own our lives by controlling our interpretation of names (an enabling condition). He concludes that Milkman's flight realizes that the restricting conditions on our lives ARE the enabling conditions: the resistance and opposition of others defines our life and gives it meaning & value. Individual is community!

    I have more extensive notes at

    Watch Anderson's lecture:

    January 7, 2014

  • CJ F.

    Here are some notes on the 53m lecture "The Narrative Construction of the Self" by Kenneth Taylor:

    Taylor's lecture interprets Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" from the perspective of his philosophical theory of the Self as "a being capable of self-representation". He explains how narration is intimately connected to our identity as a Self. A few relevant passages from "Song of Solomon" relating to the self can be found on pp. 69-70 and 137. Can you suggest others?

    Do you personally have a complete & coherent self? Is that important? Is narration a vital part of the construction of an identity? Is the whole truth & the history of one's family and community significant to the formation of a Self? Is this becoming of a Self the essence in developing an "Art of Living"?

    I wrote more extensive notes about Taylor's exquisite lecture on my FaceBook page:

    Watch Taylor's lecture:

    January 6, 2014

    • Jyoti M.

      CJ, it turns out I will not be able to attend the workshop this Thursday but I will see you on Jan12th. Sorry I have to miss such an interesting discussion.

      1 · January 7, 2014

  • CJ F.

    One week from tonight we will discuss "The Art of Living: The Roles of Self and Community" based on Toni Morrison's novel "Song of Solomon" and three lectures from Stanford University's free on-line course "The Art of Living".

    Spoiler alert: the videos and our discussion will disclose the ending, so you may want read the novel first.

    The discussion will mainly follow the three Stanford lectures (each is about 50 minutes long):
    1. The Narrative Construction of the Self by Kenneth Taylor:
    2. The Flight of Self by R. Lanier Anderson:
    3. It's not about you Living Longer. It's About how you Live and Why by Joshua Landy:

    What is a Self? Are names, whole truth, community & history necessary to build a Self? What is the importance of flight? Are Milkman, Pilate, and all characters in the novel & in life ambiguously graced w/ good & foible, just like me? Can ambiguity in great literature further our Art of Living?

    January 2, 2014

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