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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

140 Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

What is the Self? Watch Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions Nar­rat­ed by Stephen Fry on Sartre, Descartes & More

How Can I Know Right From Wrong? Watch Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions on Ethics Nar­rat­ed by Har­ry Shear­er

Learn Right From Wrong with Oxford’s Free Course A Romp Through Ethics for Com­plete Begin­ners

How Did Every­thing Begin?: Ani­ma­tions on the Ori­gins of the Uni­verse Nar­rat­ed by X‑Files Star Gillian Ander­son

What Makes Us Human?: Chom­sky, Locke & Marx Intro­duced by New Ani­mat­ed Videos from the BBC

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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Comments (5)
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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!

  • Akimou says:

    The recog­ni­tion of prop­er­ty rights accord­ing to Rand is to be enforced by gov­ern­ment (as she says by the point of a gun). This impos­es on oth­ers the oblig­a­tion to recog­nise an indi­vid­u­al’s right to prop­er­ty (again at the point of a gun). This is a restric­tion of free­dom which con­tra­dicts Rand’d own prin­ci­ple con­cern­ing coer­cion.

    There are NO rights with­out oblig­a­tion.

    Rand asserts that it is wrong to coerce a per­son into accept­ing some­thing since this restricts their free­dom

    How­ev­er she believes that it is accept­able to coerce a per­son into accept­ing the prop­er­ty rights of anoth­er indi­vid­ual.

    Rand dis­plays objec­tive moral bias in favour of the indi­vid­ual who pos­sess­es prop­er­ty.

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