A Philosophy of the Good
"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 are we to be doing? What is our meaning and purpose?
Out of the early Greek quest for the answer 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 good life as impacting and benefiting society. For Plato, society must emulate justice, truth, goodness, and beauty; so he constructs an ideal society. For Aristotle, virtue lived out in society is the substance of the good life, and well-being arises from well-doing.
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 entries involved shopping or consumption of one variety or another. Some entries were on locations to live, and still others involved books or other media aimed at helping one construct a good life. Others were the names of stores selling goods to promote "the good life." There were no immediate entries on Plato, Aristotle, or the philosophical question they raised. There were no results on wisdom or the quest for knowledge lived out in a virtuous life. Instead, most of the entries involved material pursuits and gains. Sadly, this reflects our modern definition of what is good.
Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Doctor Gachet, oil on canvas, 1890.
Perhaps during tumultuous economic times, it is difficult not to equate material items with the good life, 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, we feel this search for meaning anew and afresh today, and perhaps wonder at the practicality or wisdom of looking to the past for insight or understanding into the good life.
And yet, the ancients remind us that "not even when one has an abundance does one's life consist of possessions" (Luke 12:15). Abundant or meager as they may be, possessions must not make up the substance of one's life, according to Jesus. Instead, their proper use necessarily involves right living in community. 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, O man, 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. And this is an offer extended to those with and without material goods.
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. It shines in humility before the God who is goodness itself, and 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 lives offered freely 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.