How to Live a Good Life? Watch Philosophy Animations Narrated by Stephen Fry on Aristotle, Ayn Rand, Max Weber & More

We recently featured a series of animations from BBC Radio 4 scripted by philosopher Nigel Warburton, narrated by writer, performer, and all-around wit Stephen Fry, and dealing with a big question: what is the self? Those four short videos called upon the ideas of thinkers as various as Sartre, Descartes, and Shakespeare. This new follow-up draws from the intellectual wells dug by the likes of Aristotle, Max Weber, Ayn Rand, and the Buddha to address a still big, somewhat less abstract, but a perhaps even more important problem: how do I live a good life?

Rand, as her many detractors never hesitate to put it, thought the answer lay in following the highest mandate, our own selfishness. Buddhism, for its part, puts its stock into four noble truths: the inescapability of suffering, the origin of that suffering in our own minds, the possibility of changing our lives if we stop craving so many things, and the usefulness of the Buddhist “eightfold path” in doing so. Max Weber argued that the “Protestant ethic,” as defined by Calvinism, made capitalism itself into the big deal it has become today. And Aristotle recommended living virtuously as a means of attaining eudaimonia, or flourishing.

Alas, for all the important work done by these and other thinkers, the attainment of a good life can remain pretty elusive for us modern folk. Maybe we can do no better than learning what our predecessors have thought and said on the subject as best we can, and deciding for ourselves from there. But fortunately for us modern folk, we have videos like these at our fingertips which make it not just quick and easy to take a first step toward that state, but which get us laughing along the way. As with the rest of these series of animations on life’s big questions, the best jokes appear subtly, so you’ve got to stay attentive — surely one of the more important virtues anyone, ancient or modern, can cultivate.

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in CinemaFollow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • Gary says:

    These are really cool illustrations and would make excellent posters!

  • John Dawson says:

    Buddhism: Life is hell and then you die, which would be a relief, but unfortunately you get reborn. So what you have to do do is renounce values and want nothing so you won’t be disappointed when you don’t get it, and maybe, after many hellish lives, you will become nothing, which will be nirvana.

    Calvinism: We are all born so evil that we all deserve to burn in hell for ever, but God (who created us as we are), in his infinite goodness, has elected a few of us to live for ever with Him in paradise. (If this sounds unfair to you that’s because you are looking at it from a puny human perspective rather than from the almighty’s perspective.) So you must act virtuously, but don’t expect to be rewarded, that ship has sailed.

    Aristotle: We all want to flourish as best we can, and the way to do that is to seek the golden mean, keep to the middle of the road so to avoid the ditches on either side. But which is the right road? The road taken by the most virtuous men! Who are the most virtuous men? The ones following down the middle of the right road!

    Objectivism: Life is great if we learn how to live it. Like all living beings, we have to act according to our natures in order to survive and flourish (eg a bird has to use its wings, a dog its smell etc,) The human means of survival is reason. But for reason to function it must be free of force. So we need a government that is limited to protecting our freedom from force rather than one that violates it. Then it’s up to each of us to act rationally, which means by certain principles. If we chose not to we will suffer the consequences and learn a better way, if we chose to we deserve the fruits of our labours, and to flourish as best as our endowments allow. And we will also benefit from all of those who are free to flourish and trade with us in matter and spirit.

  • Erskine Fincher says:

    Two corrections regarding Objectivism:

    1) Rand never said that it was immoral to ask others for help. It is only immoral to demand such help as a moral right, as if you should have the right to live off of the effort of others. One may morally request another person’s help only if one acknowledges their right to refuse, recognizes an obligation to be worthy of their help, and returns an appropriate amount of gratitude for the favor.

    2) She believed that the role of government was to protect individual rights. Period. Not just property rights, but ALL rights, and not just of the “powerful,” but of EVERY individual. More broadly, the purpose of government is to ban the initiation of force, so that people may only deal with each other by reason, persuasion, and mutually agreeable trade.

  • maxine fox says:

    Fascinating to read about the philosophers and am learning
    how to get on with people in my life that are difficult!

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