What is the Good Life? Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, & Kant’s Ideas in 4 Animated Videos

We all have some vision of what the good life should look like. Days filled with reading and strolls through museums, retirement to a tropical island, unlimited amounts of time for video games…. Whatever they may be, our concepts tend toward fantasy of the grass is greener variety. But what would it mean to live the good life in the here and now, in the life we’re given, with all its warts, routines, and daily obligations? Though the work of philosophers for the past hundred years or so may seem divorced from mundane concerns and desires, this was not always so. Thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche once made the question of the good life central to their philosophy. In the videos here, University of New Orleans philosophy professor Chris Surprenant surveys these four philosophers’ views on that most consequential subject.

The view we’re likely most familiar with comes from Socrates (as imagined by Plato), who, while on trial for corrupting the youth, tells his inquisitors, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Pithy enough for a Twitter bio, the statement itself may too often go unexamined. Socrates does not endorse a life of private self-reflection; he means that “an individual become a master of himself,” says Surprenant,”using his reason to reign in his passions, as well as doing what he can to help promote the stability of his community.” In typical ancient Greek fashion, Plato and his mentor Socrates define the good life in terms of reasonable restraint and civic duty.

The Platonic version of the good life comes in for a thorough drubbing at the hands of Friedrich Nietzsche, as do Aristotelian, Kantian, and Judeo-Christian ideals. Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead,” and in particular the Christian god, “allows us the possibility of living more meaningful and fulfilling lives,” Surprenant says. Nietzsche, who describes himself as an “amoralist,” uses the proposed death of god—a metaphor for the loss of religious and metaphysical authority governing human behavior—to stage what he calls a “revaluation of values.” His critique of conventional morality pits what he calls life-denying values of self-restraint, democracy, and compassion (“slave morality”) against life-affirming values.

For Nietzsche, life is best affirmed by a striving for individual excellence that he identified with an idealized aristocracy. But before we begin thinking that his definition of the good life might accord well with, say, Ayn Rand’s, we should attend to the thread of skepticism that runs throughout all his work. Despite his contempt for traditional morality, Nietzsche did not seek to replace it with universal prescriptions, but rather to undermine our confidence in all such notions of universality. As Surprenant points out, “Nietzsche is not looking for followers,” but rather attempting to “disrupt old conceptual schemes,” in order to encourage us to think for ourselves and, as much as it’s possible, embrace the hand we’re dealt in life.

For contrast and comparison, see Surprenant’s summaries of Aristotle and Kant’s views above and below. This series of animated videos comes to us from Wireless Philosophy (Wi-Phi for short), a project jointly created by Yale and MIT in 2013. We’ve previously featured video series on metaphysical problems like free will and the existence of god and logical problems like common cognitive biases. The series here on the good life should give you plenty to reflect on, and to study should you decide to take up the challenge and read some of the philosophical arguments about the good life for yourself, if only to refute them and come up with your own. But as the short videos here should make clear, thinking rigorously about the question will likely force us to seriously re-examine our comfortable illusions.

For many more open access philosophy videos, check out the Wi Phi Youtube channel. You can also find complete courses by Prof. Surprenant in our collection of Free Online Philosophy Courses.

Related Content:

105 Animated Philosophy Videos from Wireless Philosophy: A Project Sponsored by Yale, MIT, Duke & More

135 Free Philosophy eBooks

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

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (14)
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  • William says:

    I’ve always identified with Aristotle’s views much more than with Socrates. It seems to me that Aristotle is saying that individual virtues are the one path to the good life and that path come from within, while Plato posits the path to the good life needs exterior influences for the person to achieve success.

  • Chandran Methil says:

    All these philosophers assume that the human condition starts with a clean slate. We know that this assumption is incorrect. Heredity and Environment play significant roles in character and temperament. Heredity influences go back to the beginning of our species. A cat which learns a new trick transfers this knowledge to successive generations. Environment is conditioned by parentage,race,religion,education,social status and a host of other factors. A human is therefore heavily conditioned by factors which are not in his control. Some of these have been enunciated by some of these philosophers and it was Socrates famous dictum “Know Thyself” that was central to his philosophy. Happiness is when one has deconditioned oneself and knows who he really is.

  • Jon M Scott says:

    Very interesting

  • Emeka Valentine says:

    Self knowledge is the begining of all wisdom.It is when we allow our reason to control our emotions that wisdom comes.

  • tidy.eagle says:

    good life for me is time spend smiling as often as I could , not for a just a joke or yarn but for time that occupy ..reading , observing , traveling, meeting new people and cultures have opened my mind …and then I also agree environment in which we live in play mammoth role in shaping our Ives , when we do understand all these variables … our road to good life ..begins finally :) Happy new year !!

  • johnberk says:

    I am grateful for this post. Since I have been currently dealing with a loss in my family, I found myself to be trying to answer this complicated question. How to live a good life is very simple to ask and very difficult to answer. From my point of view, it is a combination of all the stuff that was presented in each one of these videos. I agree with the on the Kantian imperative with him, but can’t agree with him about his claims about God, where I feel more united with Nietzsche, and so on. What I know is that the suffering and pain are both real and my goal should be to help others to avoid them as much as possible – which makes it clear where I stand in this current refugee crisis. We have to be able to accept our own mortality and behave in a way that is in accordance with the nature, society, and other individuals. I truly hope that one day, we will all understand that the war and violence are futile, and that fighting against any injustice would be our main source of happiness.

  • Sophist says:


    In many ways, the opposite is true. Aristotle claimed that the good life cannot be lived without a variety of external goods. Without the luck of being born to a good family and with a good temperament, the good life is hard to achieve. Material comfort, luck, good breeding, a youth filled with proper education, and friends are all requirements of the good life for Aristotle, and the average person has little control over such factors.

  • Howard Hughes says:

    Hi Chris, thank you very much for these digestible videos and taking the time write and post. I love that truth is universal, that it is collaborated regardless of time, distance, ethnicity and social standing. Listening to Socates analogy of the chariot for mastery of the self reminded me of this piece from the Upanishads, one of the Hindu holy books written some 3,000-5,000 years ago.

    “Know the Atman (Self) as the lord of the chariot, and the
    body as the chariot. Know also the intellect to be the
    driver and mind the reins.

    The senses are called the horses; the sense objects are
    the roads; when the Atman is united with body, senses
    and mind, then the wise call Him the enjoyer.”

  • Debashis Ghosh says:

    I find the concepts of living good life, though quite good, assume that lives are steady. But good life for a child, for a young person or for an old person are not the same philosophy. Not only the views are different but also the stakes and worries. I believe that good life concepts of Plato and Aristotle combined with Buddhist teachings can show us the path of perfect good life. The necessity of being born with certain privileges may also ruled out with such concept. Enlightening requested.

  • Flor Roma says:

    Good life for me is a just life. I try to be just and fair to everyone , to my family and friends and neighbors and to my students , so as to have a clear conscience at the end of the day. Nothing like a clear conscience as I go to bed. I try hard to adhere to self restraint in most challenging situations
    though it’s easier said than done. I try to be reticent amid the hoopla in the mass media and some noisy colleagues because at the end I am answerable only to God and to myself.

  • Jayden Lambert says:

    I wish I could meet these peak versions of Human Society.

  • Chris says:

    This is just plain wrong. Nietzsche in particular focused on the role of the human condition and how evolution and genetics shaped individuals and groups of people.

  • Chris says:

    The comment I left above was in response to one of the responses above though it doesn’t seem to be showing up that way. The person who said that all these philosophers assume a clean slate is wrong.

  • Mercilyn says:

    Among the four mentioned philosophers, who among them have opposing diffinition of good life?

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