Friday, September 19, 2008

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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