The question of the good life, I imagine, was simple in the days before cities. It was having enough to eat, a place to sleep, clothing, tools, family and a tribal affiliation. So the good life was one of freedom from want and hardship. However, once the necessaries were provided, human beings wanted more out of life. Theories arose about how life ought to be lived.
Those who had the time and inclination to think more deeply about the good life for human beings were, first, the religious poets and prophets, and, then, the philosophers. Religion taught people to live a good life as defined by a religious teaching. Religion, as it were, does the thinking for the people who do not have time to think things through for themselves. Philosophy, however, asks people to think for themselves, to question doubtful premises and assumptions using reason, logic, and experience to provide the best arguments for their own position, while being able to put forward objections to rival arguments, and to answer objections to their own.
Every familiar religion embodies a code of conduct, notions of purity and impurity, moral standards, and a strong link with something considered Divine. In some forms of Christianity, for example, the good life is one that is lived in loving obedience to God’s commands and in the belief that Jesus is the personal savior of humankind. This is a life of self-renunciation, service to others and asceticism. We know of it because of Divine revelation. We accept it on faith as a dogma of the religion. Other religions have other dogmas.
The philosophers I respect proceed non-dogmatically. They want us to examine the views that have been advanced, compare them, and then decide which conclusion is supported by the best argument. Looking around, the early philosophers saw that people pursue different things in life depending upon their desires. Some pursue pleasure, others wealth, fame, or power over others. It is the same today.
It turns out, upon philosophical reflection, that the satisfaction of these desires does not, in the end, make people happy. Those who pursue pleasure become jaded. The wealthy become habituated to their luxurious lifestyle. Fame palls and one is forced to live in the gaze of others. The quest for power breeds fear and suspicion in the powerful and in their subordinates.
Finally, there are some people who appear to pursue truth and wisdom rather than pleasure, riches, fame or power. These, of course, are the philosophers. To be honest, when philosophers talk about the good life, they stack the deck in their own favor. Whenever they discuss it, the good life is the philosophical life. This does not mean that they are wrong, but we should be cautious how we receive their arguments. There is no such thing as the good life for everyone, and neither philosophers nor religious expositors have any right to lay down the law about it.
Nevertheless, with this caveat, there are a number of things that the philosophical life has to recommend it. As Aristotle tells us, it begins in wonder at the universe and the spectacle of life. It proceeds through the cultivation of learning and reason, through the dialectical give and take of discussion, through awareness of varying points of view, and through understanding the pertinent questions to ask. Philosophers use conversation as a means of investigating reality. It is an integral part of the philosophical life. The Socratic method of questioning is a perfect example. In fact, Socrates embodies a certain take on the philosophical life. It is one that includes having a good memory for what people say, inexhaustible curiosity, and a desire to get to the bottom of things. Another key element is Socratic ignorance. A keen sense of how little we know is a valued asset in the philosophical life, as is a skeptical attitude toward all dogmatic religious or philosophical speculations. Finally, the philosopher requires a kind of courage to pursue arguments to their conclusions, whether those conclusions are welcomed or not.
As to the way philosophers should live, Aristotle puts it well in his Golden Mean: All things in moderation; nothing to excess. And we may add: Eat right, exercise and acquire habits of feeling, thought and action that lead to moral and intellectual excellence. The good life is a life devoted to the discovery and communication of truth within a community of like-minded people possessing moral integrity and a genuine desire to learn.