live first, then use the machine

Lewis Mumford once wrote: "For mark this: only those who live first and who keep alive have earned the right to use the machine. Those who use machinery because they are incapable of facing the stream of life and directing it [become] mere attachments to a mechanical contrivance."
To be responsible, we are supposed to know how to live the good life. That was the point of ancient philosophy. The good life is the quality life. Remember the catch phrase, quality time? I wonder what happened to that. What about quality writing? Yes, we all know about quality shoes and frocks: perhaps because of its woven qualities, the internet has become a web for all things fashion, especially appearance. But what of other forms of quality?
I think about quality when I look at my rss feed, and wonder how many modern images I need to see, and how many is too many. I consider trendy things to be relevant - for there is something crucially social about trend - but too much trend can ruin one's thinking.
The word quality, in its English genesis, comes from "how much" (qua) - but also "who" and "what". The word itself is not only based on inherent characteristics, but quantities thereof. If something is that much better than something else, its quality is superior.
But we know from Aristotle that too much of a good thing can spoil the broth. That if it exaggerates goodness, it becomes the opposite of good. For example, doing too many good deeds can make one bitter. So, quality is that which is just right. But if it is just right, then it will be relative: different people will see quality in different places. Oh dear!

There is a joke here that speaks to this. A child asks his father: what is the difference between 'free' and 'for nothing'? The father says: school is free, but you go there for nothing. Of course, as an educator, I disagree, after laughing, and claim that an education can improve the quality of life; perhaps not materially, especially not today, but certainly in terms of access to the good life, whereby one learns to cope with oneself (and material loss!), and gains holistic social tools that open up alternatives.
But some people would define a quality education as that which leads to certain employment. As if every job was a good job. Similarly, some define quality food as that satiates at a low cost. The latter topic is easier to deal with, because there is a lot of public discourse about it. We now know that not all food is good food, and that unprocessed food is quality food. When I read this Wendell Berry lecture on food awareness, I thought to myself, some writing is so much more meaningful than other writing. Some writing is quality writing: it is a guide to better action, and living.
Quality writing to my mind is the kind that can only be produced by one who has walked the walk, as I touched on in my post on learning. And there are no short cuts to living well; the paradox is, too, that living well often involves making a lot of sacrifices.
So, to return to the father who said that school is free, but you go there for nothing - such a father would probably not consider sacrifices in connection with quality, simply because making a sacrifice is a leap of good faith: it means embarking on something that looks doomed from the start.
The motivation behind the sacrifice comes from the heart, for the mind is overcome with doom, but the heart can still be filled with passion. I don't know how much currency this idea has these days. I know that once upon a time, examples such as the life of Ben Franklin were taught to inspire children with the thought that it is possible to achieve great dreams while living as model citizens, but I get the feeling that most people feel like they have lost their agency in life. Regardless, it is edifying to consider the lives of great people, for one can better envision a way forward. After all, this used to be how history was understood: historia magistra vitae est.
Lewis Mumford wrote that the only person who should use machines is he who has learned how to live well, if he is not to become but an extension of the machine. His commentary should remind us to consider what it means to live a quality life. Some may argue, "Who needs quality when all there millions of trendy photos for free on the net?" But a picture is only worth a thousand words if we speak a language to begin with. It's not for nothing that we say, if you pay in peanuts, you get monkeys! Words are to put things in their place. No, words aren't exactly free, because they require work, but they lead to a quality life, not a heavy dependence on technology.

Elements: Animus.

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