The Good Life

What can we say about the good life for human beings? Over the centuries, philosophers and religious thinkers have spun out their theories. Plato’s Socrates holds that life is a preparation for death and that what we do now has eternal significance. The good life is one of knowledge, self-discipline and justice in the soul. Nietzsche holds that the good life is one that we affirm by living fully and with gusto, but with a sense of the tragic dimension of human life. His test is to get us to ask ourselves if we can willingly embrace the thought that our lives will repeat themselves forever in every detail, the famous Eternal Return of the Same. Another popular and ancient view is that we ought to eat, drink and be merry, because death awaits us all. Yet another is the dour religious view that the world, for all its pleasures, is a sink of iniquities. It is really a place where our faith will be tested and those who fail can look forward to eternal suffering. The good life is submission to the Divine Will.

Can we settle on a single definition of the Good Life for human beings? The differences between individuals and cultures, between aptitudes and shaped desires make this very unlikely. Life is short, and perhaps the goal is illusory. So let’s grant that there are various ideas and explore them through a contrast between a generally ‘other worldly’ approach to the good life, and a generally ‘this worldly’ approach. What we think about these things have practical consequences in our lives.

One ‘other worldly’ approach explores the idea that it is through being embodied that people are put into a world of suffering and deprivation. Plato, for example, tells us that the body is an impediment to knowledge and that the soul is superior to the body and ought to rule over it. The Good Life is really lived in Heaven, not on this earth, so the ‘good life’ on earth will be merely the least unworthy life, as seen from the perspective of Heaven. The pain and suffering you have now will no longer afflict you there. Now we see but through a glass darkly; in Heaven we will see the face of God. These are strong ideas and have had a terrific impact on the human psyche over the last two thousand years or so.

Taken to extremity, the ‘other worldly’ approach shows its disdain for the mortal body and all its frailties. Ascetics show us just how far the ‘spirit’ can overcome the inclinations of the body. At the same time, the ego is to be suppressed. Our mortal sin is the sin of pride. The self must be put away, and this is shown in altruism and self-sacrificing behavior. We ought to lose our selves in service to others. As far as possible, we ought to live in the world but not be part of it. There are higher things than this paltry, insecure and fearful life that we live on earth, a world of sin and evil. Forget this world; it is going to the Devil. What matters is your eternal soul. Think of the end, and the end is nigh.

Now consider a ‘this worldly’ approach to the good life. As I imagine it, we are to celebrate life on earth and not deplore it. The evils of the world can be combated. It is wrong to turn away from the world even if it is ultimately ‘unreal’. We have a duty to make the only world we know a better place for all of us to live. Furthermore, it is not a crime to have a body. We did not sin by being born, because, like all animals, we are born through entirely natural processes. Like the other animals we will die entirely natural deaths, and that will be an end of our individual existences. Like the flowers in the field, we are born and we die. There is no future immortality and no supernatural End, Telos or Purpose for which we exist, and whose accomplishment gives our lives Meaning with a capital ‘M’.

So what are the ingredients of a good life from this perspective? Obviously, it is not a simple matter. A number have been proposed, but the basics are the necessaries of continuing life: food, drink, shelter, clothing and community. These are the minimum conditions of the good life. They may also turn out to be sufficient. However, for our complex world, there are, perhaps, other ingredients that play an important role, like a sense of physical safety and social security, of access to healthcare and education, of freedom from financial insecurity and corrupt business practices, of freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure, of just laws, of freedom to participate in the political process, to express one’s views, and to chart the course of one’s own life within the rule of law. It seems also that most humans need satisfying human relationships, the ability to serve others, have love and sex in their lives, perhaps children to raise, and eventually the opportunity to die with as much dignity as possible in such an inherently undignified process.

I will conclude by emphasizing the crucial difference between the two main approaches: between living with belief in the supernatural or living without it. Our relation to the world changes profoundly whether or not we think there is anything ‘behind’ the natural world as we discover it with our reason and our senses. It colors our idea of the good life for human beings, how we think a fully human life ought to be conceived and lived. This is a profound choice that everyone makes in the heart of her or his own being, and it is an unavoidable choice to make once we become aware of the alternatives.

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15 Comments.

  1. I think it’s funny how back then many people thought that knowledge, virtues, and wisdom were more important and now things like wealth and power are the most important things in our society. Although these aren’t the only things important these days, they are very high up on the ladder. Also in the concluding paragraph, I don’t really understand what you are trying to say.. If we believe in things that are supernatural then our morals and choices in life will be changed? Supernatural things meaning that there is a God or a higher power? or maybe karma? This article was interesting to read and has reminded me that living a good life, I need to embrace and explore what is around me rather than being intimidated or scared.

  2. You philosophy folks sure love your black and white, either/or thinking.

    There is no single definition of the good life, thank goodness, and to distill all of this to two main differences with an unavoidable choice is just plain wrong.

  3. A nicely written piece. Some quibbles of course, I carry a quiver of them. Up until modern times most philosophers were also believers and often had a keen religious sensibility so the dichotomy between a mundane and an extra-mundane orientation was not operative. The idea that a religious view of life means that one ceases to care about anything but the hereafter is just wrong and contra the strictures of all the major religions. You could be a throuroughly observant Jew, Christian, Muslim etc and have all the desiderata of the good life that you list. You ought to like them so much that you want everybody to have them.

    What is the difference then between the two forms of life which may outwardly be the same. I would suggest that it is context or living in the Presence. ‘Everything will perish save His face’ (Koran) Take a peek at the Psalms purely for research purposes.

  4. In my opinion, asking “what is the good life?” is kind of a dumb question. I believe that one cannot answer such questions until the end of their life. For example, let’s look at some heroes: Dr. Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther, St. Augustine… Granted, placing them as “heroes” depends on your perspective, but in terms of history, we were taught that these were “good guys” in general. Well, in their lives, they weren’t “good guys” and they didn’t lead good lives. It was only until far after their deaths, when their works were observed from a stellar standpoint, that the world decided “hey, these are some heroes we have here!”.

    What’s my point? A good life can’t be defined by anyone living at the moment. Why? Because they are too caught up in their own ideas, their own pride, their own teachings, their own understandings, and their own ways, to step outside of their world for a moment and say “well maybe it’s this.” Yes, people do attempt to step outside and look at things from a 3rd person persective, but even this is contorted by their built-in philosophies. Take Socrates, the only reason he went around arguing with people about the meaning of piety is because he believed they were wrong, and wanted to convince them.

    Yes, he did want to “find the deeper truth” but that’s because he assumed that the truths he was told were wrong.

    So you see, even in stepping outside, we actually just step outside our planet only to orbit around it, caught by it’s own gravity.

    So, it’s only someone who has died and come back, or died and is in heaven, or hell, it is only THAT person that can say “the good life is then…”

    Yes, this sounds very dire, we can’t solve our own problems. Yes, this does sound very “other worldly” I will admit. But it at least attempts to make sense of an argument that doesn’t really let anyone live at peace!

    But that’s my opinion, of course…

  5. “Plato’s Socrates holds that life is a preparation for death and that what we do now has eternal significance.”
    I am afraid this a Christian – or, more accurately, a Pauline-Augustinian – travesty of Plato’s position as we find it in the Phaedo, helped by the common inaccurate English rendering.
    In Phaedo 64a Socrates does not say that “life is a preparation for death” but that true philosophers of their own accord make it their business to practise dying and death.
    The philosophical life (= the good life) is not a bodily dying but a freeing (as far as possible)of the more refined activities of a human being of the necessary constraints of life. (Ask Phelps if he could have got his eight golds had he given ear to his body.)
    The philosophically good life is not a denying of life but a refinement of life. The ideals of Plato and of Epicurus are not opposed: they merely reflect different circumstances and underscore different personal emphases.

  6. From the author: Thanks to everyone for their comments. They have made me think.

    First I agree that there is no one definition of the good life for human beings as such. There have been many attempts at a definition; some from an other-worldly and some from a this-worldly perspective. It is also true that for most of history, a thoroughly this-worldly perspective has not been possible. Exceptions, perhaps, are the philosophies of atomism and Epicureanism, but these were suppressed early on. Most philosophers up until the modern period did indeed claim belief in the Divine, however conceived.

    I agree with Michael Reidy that taking up a religious perspective does not mean that one necessarily gives up on this world. It just means that there is something held to lie beyond the world that we experience. Michael asks what the difference between the two forms of life would be. There need be none, but I suspect that this-worldly approaches will emphasize making the most of this world, with whatever means we have. Without divine commandments and prohibitions, we can look clearly headedly at our problems and take the best approach that reason and science can provide or suggest. For example, a this worldly approach would tend to be pro-choice in the abortion debate, for euthanasia in the right circumstances, for sex education and free condoms, for stem cell research, for gay marriage, and so on. It could make a difference, though all this might be compatible with a very tolerant and liberal theology.

    In reply to D.R, Khashaba, I would agree that “preparation for death” is not be best translation of the Greek. The term used is ‘meletes’ which means ‘care for’ or ‘concern about’. So I would translate the idea as that of living with the appreciation of approaching death.

    Thanks again, Jeff Mason

  7. The good life is fulfilled existence.-Aiya-Oba

  8. Norman Hanscombe

    Might it be a good thing if, before we attempted to pontificate on, for example, what Socrates (or anyone else for that matter) might have meant by ‘the good life’, we heeded Socrates’ suggestion that the beginning of wisdom lies in the definition of our terms?

  9. So the minimum basics (food, drink, shelter) are necessary but not necessarily sufficient. Isn’t human nature always in quest for more? We are continually seeking a better life once we have attained a good life.

  10. Norman Hanscombe

    After almost 3 years a post. A record of some sort? What people around me (and they included individuals from VERY different societal ‘levels’)considered good lives in the 40s would now be seen as dire ‘poverty’. There was a general acceptance of what life was dishing out as being acceptable in a sense which has now disappeared completely.

    Nowadays, and it’s an attitude I feel developed dramatically in the late 60s /early 70s, there’s a tendency to believe whatever one has, you “deserve” more, and “deserve” it faster. I suspect our evolution hasn’t prepared us as a species to deal with affluence, and modern epidemics of depression, aggression, etc., arise from the fact that our species’ dreams have become unattainably high.

    Add to this current highs in such areas as self-esteem and “knowing” we know, and it becomes unlikely many will establish realistic premisses for what constitutes an attainable “good” life.

    But I’m probably being optimistic?

  11. I didn’t notice the 3-year gap but that if that is a record, do I get a prize? Now? 🙂 Life is good.

    I agree with the notion that today it is all about getting the most, the fastest. Instant gratification.

    I can relate to the attitudes of the 70s, maybe even 60s but 40s is out of my scope.

  12. I think if your life is not bad then you are having a good life. What is a bad lie anyway? There are so many bad things happening to so many people all around, you just have to see and then realise you are lucky to be one of the. Some is suffering from an incurable illness. Somebody is left alone because parents died in an accident. Somebody lost everything. Somebody is born poor. somebody is handicapped etc etc. If none of these things happened with you, then you are lucky and having a good life. The problem is we look only upwards, people who have more than what we have but if you look down I am sure you will see more people there and you should be happy.

    Mashhood

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