Nick Riggle dropped out of high school at age 17 to become a professional rollerblader, participating in stunt shows, demos, and world-class competitions (including three ESPN X Games). Now he is an author and philosophy professor at the University of San Diego.
Below, Nick shares 5 key insights from his new book, This Beauty: A Philosophy of Being Alive. Listen to the audio version—read by Nick himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. You did not consent to existence.
Here you are, on planet Earth, alive and aware, heart beating and embodied. You did not ask to be here; you did not consent to this life. No one had a chat with you about whether you would mind a fleshy existence on this spinning space orb.
Why should you care about your life? Why care about something you did not ask for?
If someone randomly handed you the keys to a Ferrari, it is totally up to you whether you care about it. It’s cool, but it is also expensive to own, awkward to drive, super delicate and finicky. It’s perfectly reasonable to reject it as a burden.
Life is also expensive, awkward, finicky, and delicate. And you did not ask for it. So why accept it? Why cherish and value it?
This Beauty seeks a sincere answer to this question, one that I can confidently embrace, affirm, and share with my precious readers, including, when they are old enough, the two children that I have brought into this world.
2. You only live once.
Carpe diem, live like there is no tomorrow, live in the moment, treat yourself. These are phrases, often clichés, that affirm the value of life and inspire its embrace. I call them existential imperatives, and they suggest answers to my Question.
After all, a little reflection on your one and only life can send you frenzied into the wild and uncertain world. You only live once! Live like there is no tomorrow!
“If you only live once, then why embrace life rather than shrink away?”
These phrases ring true, but why do these phrases work? If you only live once, then why embrace life rather than shrink away? Life is delicate and precious, so stay home; don’t take any risks. Or consider live like there is no tomorrow: Why isn’t that terrible, irresponsible advice? There is a tomorrow, and everybody needs to plan for it.
Existential imperatives tap into something special about life, but it is unclear why or how.
3. The difference between living and being alive.
We have two very different ways of thinking about life. One is the life of your small, fluttering heart, your warm, bloody, delicate body. It is the life of rest, nourishment, protection, comfort, and support. This life is precious, and because of that, it is a demanding life that needs to be cared for in the complex and volatile biological world. I try sleeping eight hours, I shower, feed myself, shave, exercise, seek comfort, recover from illness and exhaustion, squirm to ease the pain in my back, visit doctors, work to pay for food, shelter, and insurance, and hopefully find moments to give myself a break. The preservation of life accounts for most of this precious life.
Then there is this other life woven through: the life of passion and pursuit, dreams and aspirations, of love sought and realized, of beauty and community, hopeful for peace and justice. It is a life wanted but not always had, animated in thought and action by the hope that I shall flourish along with friends and family—that we shall hold each other up through excellence, creativity, and good will. We flourish together—humanity flourishes. Thoughts of this life fill the heart with love and hope.
“There is more to life than maintaining it, that you can reach for something beyond your little self—toward love, creative achievement, community, and higher beauty.”
When I am moved by you only live once, I don’t hear it as you have only one life. I hear it as, remember: you are alive. It offers the reminder that there is more to life than maintaining it, that you can reach for something beyond your little self—toward love, creative achievement, community, and higher beauty.
4. Beauty imbues meaning.
For centuries, philosophers and scientists have thought about beauty in terms of pleasure, beauty as the capacity to cause pleasure—the pleasure of a beautiful sunset, a stunning painting, or a special song. These things reward experience and enrich our individual lives.
But beauty is so much more than mere pleasure. It can also answer my Question. Pablo Casals (1876-1973), the legendary Spanish cellist and conductor, relied on and returned to his fans the beauty of music. He wrote:
For the past 80 years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine, but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning for me. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being.
Beauty sustained and renewed Casals, and in return he gave us all the beauty he was capable of creating. Leonard Cohen spent his life writing beautiful songs and literature. He said, “A lot of those songs are just a response to what struck me as beauty, whatever that curious emanation from a being or an object or a situation or a landscape, you know. That had a very powerful effect on me, as it does on everyone, and I prayed to have some response to the things that were so clearly beautiful to me.” Cohen prayed to respond to beauty with beauty, and we are lucky to know what his “prayers”—and sustained effort over many decades—yielded.
“Beauty makes life worthy of replication as beautiful.”
It is a remarkable and mysterious fact that we can devote ourselves to beauty. This suggests that beauty is not mere pleasure but meaning. Beauty moves us to be alive. The beautiful or the aesthetic is not some pretty face or silky sky. Beauty makes life worthy of replication as beautiful. It moves us to create, imitate, and share the meaningful sources of life’s value. Beauty is an invitation and acceptance, a joint enterprise, and a promise to give each other our best answers to The Question.
5. Aesthetic community.
Wittgenstein famously pointed out that beautiful things have very little in common, except this: the hand wants to draw what the eye sees as beautiful, whether that’s a Gothic church, a handsome face, or a stunning landscape. Maybe you don’t draw, but you linger in a beautiful space, write a poem about it, or take a picture. The dish is delicious, so you recreate it at home. Like Cohen and Casals, you imitate and recreate the beautiful.
But imitation is not your only aesthetic impulse: your hand draws the beauty your eye sees, and then what? You offer it up. We share the beautiful. You see a film and share your reactions and interpretations. As I decorate my house, I think of future visits, hoping others will love the space. You dress to impress; bands play at concerts; chefs cannot wait to release new menus. Beauty is what we find, create, and propagate, either through imitation or through distribution of the thing itself.
And finally, you don’t imitate and share any old aesthetic thing. Why did you share that song, play it on repeat? You are moved to imitate and share things that speak to you, that seem alive with beauty in a way that makes you feel alive. You express yourself. You deploy aesthetic value as a means of self-expression in aesthetic engagements and interactions. You make your own sensibility concrete in sharing this beautiful thing. You even make real, present, and social your special connection to beauty in the way you laugh or dress, the food you cook and serve, and the way you write or speak.
Beauty implicates us in aesthetic communities, wherein we express ourselves, imitate, share, and offer up our individual ways of being alive in response to beauty.
To listen to the audio version read by author Nick Riggle, download the Next Big Idea App today: