What is 'The Good Life'?
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
'The good life' - Terry Martin tackles an age old question:
For many older people the expression "the good life", conjures up an image of the seventies sitcom of the same name, in which a suburban couple adopt a sustainable, simple, and nearly self-sufficient lifestyle.
The eminent English philosopher, the late Sir Roger Scruton, opens his article 'Do the right thing' by stating that:
'"The good life" may mean the life that is good for me, or the life that is good simpliciter. It is an ancient task of philosophy to show that these things coincide: that happiness and virtue are one'. 1
The suburban couple’s life was one that was good simpliciter and probably also good for them too, thereby virtuous. This second and different sense of the expression 'the good life' can be traced back to the writings of Aristotle (384–322BC), who in his ethical works, describes eudaimonia as the highest good for humans. It is the only human good that is desirable for its own sake (as an end in itself) rather than for the sake of something else (as a means toward some other end). 2
Eudaimonia is generally translated as 'happiness' or 'well-being' or 'human flourishing.' Aristotle said that although everyone agrees that eudaimonia is the highest good for humans, there is substantial disagreement on what sort of life counts as doing and living well. That is, how do we specify just what sort of activities enable one to live well. According to Aristotle the naturally admirable qualities are the classical virtues: courage, justice, temperance, wisdom and prudence.
Scruton goes on to say:
'Aristotle made the sensible observation that what is good for a thing depends on what kind of thing it is. … To know the good life, we must know what kind of thing we are. … We are human beings, with needs, desires and appetites. And we are persons, with goals, ambitions, and ideals. The human being is part of nature, driven by organic processes that resemble those which drive the animals. The person, however, seems to stand above nature, making free and conscious choices which may set him on a collision course with his bodily instincts. Aristotle described human fulfilment (eudaimonia or happiness) in terms which favoured the rational being above the animal... What matters is fulfilment of the person, rather than satisfaction of the body.' 1
Dennis Prager, American conservative radio talk show host, writer and Orthodox Jew, expresses a very similar thought:
'Goodness is about character - integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage, and the like. More than anything else, it is about how we treat other people.' 3
He goes on to explore the many obstacles to becoming a better person, including the need 'to battle our nature. Among many other things, we are naturally preoccupied with ourselves. Yet, to be good, we have to constantly think about others and how we are treating them.' 3
This view runs counter to the contemporary emphasis of building up self-esteem, which can lead to narcissism and the pursuit of pleasure. Pleasure comes with the fulfilment of desire – getting what you want and wanting what you get. Happiness comes with the fulfilment of the person and when
'…you are content with what you have done and with what you are. Happy people look on their goals, their motives, their feelings, and their situation, and see them as intrinsically good. It is impossible therefore that a person should be just happy, and for no reason. Happiness consists in something: the achievement of a life’s ambition, the repose of requited love, the sense of each day as filled by worthwhile deeds and feelings. So understood, happiness, like love and friendship, comes only when you do not aim at it.' 1
To be happy is to be virtuous, and to be virtuous is to be happy. A virtue is a disposition, which leads us to do what is right, not by filling our mind with maxims, but by educating our emotions. We can, and perhaps should, regularly reflect on our aspirations to be living a good life, but in old age there is a particular poignancy and urgency. Increasingly aware of our own mortality, we hope that our life will be memorialised and eulogised as having been good and that we showed courage in it being thus.
Roger Scruton concluded his article 'Do the right thing' by stating that:
'By striving to deserve the good opinion of those who know us, we may also earn the hatred and contempt of those who do not. This is perhaps the most important of life’s lessons, and the hardest to bear. That is why steadfastness is a virtue, and why we should teach it to our children. For no one can be assured of happiness, until learning to distance themselves from anger that is undeserved, and to continue nevertheless in the course of action that provoked it.' 1
Roger Scruton, 'Do the right thing', The Good Life, ed. by Ian Christie and Lindsay Nash (Demos, 1998)
Aristotle, Lesley Brown (ed.), David Ross (trans.), The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford, 2009)
Dennis Prager, 'Thirteen obstacles to becoming a better person', dennisprager.com/column/thirteen-obstacles-to-becoming-a-better-person.