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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