Not long ago, I conducted an internet search on the tag “What is the good life?” and I was amazed at what came up as the top results of my search. Most of the top entries involved shopping or consumption of one variety or another. Some entries were on locations to live and still others involved self-help books or other media touting five easy steps to the good life. Other entries provided the names of stores selling goods to promote “the good life.”
“What is the good life?” is a question as old as philosophy itself. In fact, it is the question that birthed philosophy as we know it.(1) Posed by ancient Greek thinkers and incorporated into the thought of Socrates through Plato, and then Aristotle, this question gets at the heart of human meaning and purpose. Why are we here, and since we are here, what ought we to do? What is our meaning and purpose? As my internet search revealed, there were no immediate entries on Plato, Aristotle, or the philosophical quest that originated in that question. There were no results on wisdom or the quest for knowledge lived out in a virtuous life. Instead, the entries involved purely material pursuits and gains. Sadly, this search may reflect the substance of our modern definition of what is good.
Out of the early Greek quest for the answer to this question emerged two schools of thought. From Plato emerged rationalism: the good life consists of ascertaining unchanging ideals—justice, truth, goodness, beauty—those “forms” found in the ideal world. From Aristotle emerged empiricism: the good life consists of ascertaining knowledge through experience, what we can perceive of this world through our senses.(2) For both Aristotle and Plato, rational thought used in contemplation of ideas is the substance of the good life.
Despite the obvious emphasis by both on goodness emerging from the contemplative life of the mind (even though they disagreed on the source of rationality), both philosophers saw the quest for the good life as benefiting society. For Plato, the quest for the good life—that of justice, truth, goodness, and beauty—leads to the ideal society. For Aristotle, virtue lived out in society is the substance of the good life and well-being arises from well-doing.
Perhaps, in these times where the good life is equated with material gain and not virtuous living, it is not difficult to understand why the substance of good living is having more money, more security, or more opportunity. While it has always been said of every generation that these are times of great crisis and upheaval, each generation must reconsider the quest for meaning. Yet, many may wonder at the practicality or wisdom of looking to the past for insight or understanding into the good life.
And yet, the ancient writers remind us that not even when one has an abundance does one’s life consist of possessions. Abundant or meager as they may be, possessions do not make up the substance of one’s life. This is often heard in the refrains of individuals who have lost every possession, like those recently impacted by hurricanes in the US or typhoons in Japan and the Philippines. Though lamenting the loss of homes, most are grateful to be alive.
Perhaps the ancient Hebraic wisdom is particularly instructive in a time in which we might equate goodness with what we possess: “He has told you, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). This vision of the good life, cast not when times were good, but during a time when calamity and exile awaited the nation of Israel offers an alternative understanding. Do justice, love kindness, and live out both of those virtues in light of humility before God; this is what is good and is the ground of the good life.
The wisdom of the ancients, from the Greeks and the Hebrews, suggests that the good life can be attained regardless of circumstance or possession. It shimmers in the wisdom of justice and kindness. It is found in the application of knowledge rightly applied in relationship to the world around us. For it shines in humility before the God who is good and it is part and parcel of a relationship with that God. The good life is not bought or sold; it is not a prime real estate location or a formula for success. The good life is a life offered to God and to others in justice, kindness, and humility.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) A.L. Herman, The Ways of Philosophy: Searching for a Worthwhile Life (Scholars Press: Atlanta, 1990), 1.
(2) Ibid, 82.