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.