The Good Life

Socrates, among others, spent his adult life searching for the Good life. He was convinced in the end that it consisted of the search itself. Needless to say, as a philosopher he prized the life of the mind, and I recall when I was teaching how the students for the most part would dismiss his ideas as totally irrelevant to their own. They didn’t intend to spent their lives thinking about thinking. They had a fixed purpose and it didn’t have anything to do with Socrates or the Good life.

Most of us don’t think about the Good life much because we figure we know that it obviously consists of having as many things as we can and as much fun as possible in the process. We as a society are focused almost obsessively on pleasure and possessions as the only goods. We don’t need any damned philosopher to tell us that his kind of life is the best for us. We know better.

But this sort of focus does really diminish us as human beings, it seems to me. There has to be more to life than simply earning enough money to have more stuff than the Smiths next door while we play in our spare time. For centuries, until quite recently, the earning of money was considered a necessary evil. Usually, it was something that “lower classes” did and it left the “upper classes” time to pursue higher ideals in their leisure time, to reflect and improve themselves through education and travel — not to muddy their hands in the making of money. That was the case for a very long time, and it was reinforced by the Christian view that the poor are blessed and the rich need to give their wealth away. The love of money is, after all, the root of all evil. That idea never caught on, of course, and as more and more people got tangled up in the making of money gaining wealth became acceptable. People like Calvin began to write apologies for wealth-getting, making it not only acceptable, but a sign of God’s favor.

In the confusion that developed during the industrial revolution and the two world wars, people gave less and less credence to strict Christian views and more and more attention to this life, here and now. And money was the way to go. Money could buy happiness. And the notion that we struggle and suffer in this life so we can be rewarded in the next life became a useless fiction. Along with this view went any serious thought about the Good life. It’s simple: the Good life consists in making money, and more is better.

I recently saw a cartoon of a fat man standing at the window looking out at his business empire with his arm around his young son. “One day, son, this will not be enough for you either,” he is saying.  Indeed. We never have enough. That’s the trouble with making wealth the center of one’s whole being. Life as we have come to know it is spent on a treadmill. Perhaps it is time to take a page out of the old philosopher’s notebook and reflect on the deeper meaning of the Good life. It may not be the life of the mind, as Socrates insisted it was. But, surely, it cannot be the shallow life we now prize as the way to live. We confuse “life” with “life-style,” and we adopt a shallow, artificial way of living that takes us away from the things that really matter — like friends, family, beauty, and the preservation of the good earth that sustains us all.


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