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How shall we live? What shall we live for, if anything? How we can decide right from wrong? Is there any reasonable way to answer these questions that doesn’t require us to fall back on blind faith?
Let’s Ask the Old Greeks About It
People have been striving to answer these questions literally for thousands of years. One who attempted it was Socrates (469-399 BC). One of his most powerful breakthroughs was the idea of scrutinizing one’s beliefs through a type of cross-examination which became known as the dialectic. This involved asking and answering probing questions in order to arrive at something that could be considered true. Essentially he played devil’s advocate and challenged people to justify what they claimed to know.
For example, there’s a story where Socrates met a young man who was going to court to charge his father with impiety. When Socrates learned of this, he acknowledged the man as a presumed expert in piety, stating that one must be an expert in piety in order to charge his own father with impiety. Then Socrates humbly asked the man to define piety for him, a concept of which Socrates claimed ignorance. The man repeatedly tried in vain to define it, with Socrates offering a simple and undeniable explanation why each answer offered couldn’t be valid. It’s easy to see that Socrates would ultimately piss off the establishment and get himself sentenced to death. He could have escaped, but he chose to stay in Athens and take the poison. Socrates had tremendous respect for the law, even when it meant sacrificing his life to remain true to his principles. As I read about his life, I couldn’t help but develop a tremendous respect for him and his philosophy of life.
Another philosopher who made a significant dent in the question of how to live was Aristotle (384-322 BC), who studied under Plato (Plato studied under Socrates). A young Aristotle expanded on Plato’s ideas regarding the nature of reality (the world of forms), but eventually Aristotle began moving in a new direction and tackled the problem of how one should live.
Aristotle’s best answer for how one should live was the concept of eudaimonia. Unfortunately this word has been tough to translate to English, so there are two favored translations I’m aware of. The first is “happiness,” and the second is “human flourishing.” Most other translations I’ve seen are variations on one of these. Personally I might translate this term as “fulfillment,” although that’s not perfectly accurate either. Eudaimonia is a process of living virtuously, not a fixed state of being. It’s not really an emotion like “happiness” suggests. Aristotle came up with this answer because he found that eudaimonia was the only potential goal of life that could be considered an end in itself rather than a means to another end. I think this is the reason that happiness is perhaps the most popular translation because happiness is an end in itself, not a means to anything else.
Aristotle was interested in finding a right way to live, if such a thing could be said to exist. His answer of eudaimonia consists of two main components: virtuous action and contemplation. The main problem is that the means to discover the virtues was to look at people who seemed to be flourishing and living virtuously and take note of how they lived. As it turned out, such people would usually behave with some degree of integrity, honor, courage, honesty, rationality, fairness, etc. This is not merely an internal observation that one assesses in oneself — such values can be witnessed from the outside in, so Aristotle makes some progress here in attempting to create a semi-objective standard for right living. Like Socrates, Aristotle was also sentenced to death, but he chose to flee Athens and live in exile. (I tell you I’m immensely grateful to live in a society where philosophizing doesn’t currently carry the death penalty.)
The main problem I see in Aristotle’s insightful attempt to answer this question is that his solution is somewhat circular. In order to live well, we need to live virtuously and spend time on self-reflection and study, but how do we know what criteria to use in selecting the virtues or in choosing what to study? We basically have to find people that seem to be living well and flourishing — or in Aristotle’s time, it was suggested that we might also strive to emulate the gods, since they certainly seemed to be doing well. This isn’t unlike certain religions today that provide a model of virtue to attempt to emulate. Aristotle doesn’t answer one key question though: What is the best life one could possibly live? Eudaimonia suggests a way to go about finding the answer to this question, but it still leaves some gaping holes.
After Aristotle many others addressed the question of how to live. Every religion has its own answer. Some people say there’s no answer, that the answer doesn’t matter, that the answer is impossible for us to know, or that the answer is purely a matter of personal choice. The worst answer of all though is what most people do — to ignore the question entirely.
Choosing Your Own Context
What should you live for? Wealth? Power? Service? Longevity? Reason? Love? Faith? Family? God? Virtue? Happiness? Fulfillment? Comfort? Contentment? Integrity? Take a look at this list of values. There are hundreds to choose from.
It is important to make a global choice about how to live our lives, since this decision sets the context for everything else we do. If you don’t choose your context, you get the default/average context, which means you’re essentially letting others dictate your context. To make a gross generalization, in the USA this is a largely commercial/materialist context. It says to get a job, have a family, save some money, and retire. Be a good citizen and don’t get into too much trouble. But don’t really matter either. Be a good cog. Other cultures have their own default contexts. Most people simply subscribe to the default context of their culture with minor individual variations.
Sticking to your culture’s default context is among the worst of your options. Let’s consider the simple cases of a democracy vs. a dictatorship. In a democracy no one is really in charge of the cultural context as a whole, so the most common contexts end up as a mish-mash of bits and pieces that lack overall congruency. This will generally lead to confusion and mediocrity. Such a society will only provide a very fuzzy notion of how you should live, like getting a job, having a family, staying out of trouble, and retiring quietly. Ask an American what it means to live the best possible life, and you’ll get a lot of different answers, and most of them will be fairly fuzzy and unfocused — the kinds of answers that Socrates would shoot full of holes.
Now if you happen to live under a culture where the context is consciously directed, then you have to worry about who’s directing it and what their motives are and whether or not you can trust them. Where you find a strong dictatorship, you’ll usually see a more focused context than in a democracy. If you were to have asked someone from Nazi Germany what it means to live the best possible life, I’d bet the answers would have been more homogeneous and focused. But the problem of course is that such contexts are often designed to keep the context maintainers in power. There’s more pressure to conform to such a context. In the long run this type of context will usually lead to disillusionment, numbness, or fanaticism.
So if you let society dictate your context (which is what will happen by default in the absence of conscious choice), you’ll most likely wind up with a very fuzzy and unfocused context or one that’s focused on the wrong spot. Not a great choice either way. Certainly not the optimal choice. Such a context won’t provide you with enough guidance for how to live properly. You’ll spend a lot of time guessing your way through life or making a lot of mistakes that come back to haunt you later.
Ultimately if you want to get closer to the “best possible life” for you, you have to pick your own context. You can’t merely inherit the default context of your society and live up to what others expect of you. If you try to conform, you’re going to waste your life compared to what you might have done with it if you chose a better context.
So how the heck are we supposed to figure out how to live? Do we simply guess and hope for the best? Is there any rational, sane way to make such a hefty decision?
I can’t make this decision for you, but I can explain how I made this decision for myself, ultimately providing me with an answer that I found very satisfying. I think part of my answer is personal, but I also see part of it as being universal to all of us.
Living the Virtues
After I reached adulthood and began seriously pondering the question of how to live, the first major stopping point was essentially where Aristotle left off. In my early and mid-20s, I spent a lot of time working on living virtuously. I saw living the best possible life as becoming a person of virtue: to live with honor, integrity, courage, compassion, etc. I listed out the virtues I wanted to attain and even set about inventing exercises to help myself develop them. Benjamin Franklin did something very similar, as I read in his autobiography, and each week he chose to focus on one particular virtue in order to develop his character.Oddly, there was a particular computer game I absolutely fell in love with during this time — Ultima IV. To date I would have to say it is still my favorite game of all time. In this role-playing game you are the Avatar, a seeker of
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