Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Two Meanings of the Good Life - Part III


It should be clear from the previous posts, that the classical “good life” is preferable to the modern “good life”. This is not only because of the intrinsically higher value of the classical “good life", but also because of the shortcomings of the modern definition. Man cannot live the “good life” if the main purpose of such a life is an ever-increasing accumulation of external and bodily goods. There might conceivably be an upper limit to the amount of wealth that can be generated for individual consumption, but more importantly, the lack of attendance to spiritual goods can eventually lead to a sense of despondency, not only for the individual but also for society as a whole. “Happiness” in the modern sense cannot be entirely satisfactory in the end, as many people often regretfully find out.

Though the classical definition of the “good life” is over two thousand years old, it is more sophisticated than the modern one. The modern definition of the “good life", which pervades today's Western societies, seems primitive and superficial in comparison. This observation is yet a confirmation that though materially rich, the modern world suffers from a certain spiritual and moral poverty. A society cannot possibly value the goods of the soul if it does not define the “good life” in the classical sense. What to say, then, about Western society that has largely forgotten the classical definition of the “good life”?

In the past, religion filled part of the gap that exists between the classical and the modern view of the “good life”. Societies in which most people prayed to God and read the Bible were societies which, to some extent, still valued spiritual goods. The legacy of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas for many centuries upheld the Aristotelian definition of the “good life”. As the influence of the Church and the need for religion declined with the advent of modernity, this legacy was largely abandoned. As a result, the secular and materialistic modern societies have much weaker links with the spiritual goods than previous ones.

Yet, there are reasons to think that the classical definition of the “good life” could gain currency today. After all, the classical “good life” is secular, individualistic and hedonistic (though in a sophisticated sense) since it is concerned with reaching “happiness” for the self (in the form of eudaimonia). These are precisely the values that are cherished in the modern world. Further, the material conditions of modern societies seem far more suitable for the classical “good life” than the societies of the ancient world. Indeed, most people in the West today already have fulfilled the necessary external and bodily goods, and some attention could now be brought to spiritual goods. There are small signs that this might be the case, for instance in the popularity of Buddhism and spiritual self-help books.

But though the soil may be fertile in some areas, the seeds must also be planted and watered. The question is thus how modern society can be reminded of the existence of the classical “good life”. In order to change the perception of something as fundamental as the definitions of certain terms that are commonly used in society, the focus should be on early education. As Aristotle emphasised at the end of his Ethics, the principles of the “good life” should be taught already to schoolchildren.[1] They should become aware of what is the “chief good” of man, because, as Aristotle suggested, “will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life?”[2] An important civic task of teachers should therefore be to substitute the classical definition of the “good life” for the modern one in the minds of the young. Some of those seeds would then undoubtedly burgeon.

A successful rediscovery of the classical definition of the “good life” could have interesting political consequences. A wider recognition of the concept of the classical “good life” in the Western welfare society would mean putting the state's arrogated responsibility for the “happiness” of the people in some perspective. The state can claim an important role in providing “happiness” to the people when “happiness” is only thought to be the result of external and bodily goods. After all, modern nations all practice forms of state-capitalism: they have governments and public sectors that are deeply involved in providing a large array of such goods to the public; e.g. security, rule of law, infrastructure, utilities, environment, healthcare, banking, education, pensions, child and elderly care, etc. However, if the “good life", instead, were defined in the classical sense, where the “chief good” is eudaimonia, then the state would be unable to provide “happiness” to the people. The role of the state would be perceived very differently if it were confined merely to contributing to the necessary and basic requirements for the classical “good life”. The most important goods would then be spiritual goods, which could not come from the state since these goods can only be acquired by the individual, often in relationships with other individuals. The reintroduction of the concept of the classical “good life” in society would probably, therefore, raise questions about the size and role of the state in society and increase the acceptance of an open and competitive market in many sectors.

It follows that the modern Western state, therefore, has an inherent interest in preventing the classical view of the “good life” from become too widespread in society (or at least not encouraging it), as this would tend to undermine it. The legitimacy of the modern state rests not on providing internal and external security, for which just a fraction of its current size and budget are needed, but on being perceived by the people as indispensable for the provision all the goods (including services) that lead to “happiness” in the modern sense. Indeed, this perception of the role of the modern state has contributed to its continuous expansion since at least the end of the 19th century, at a local, national and supranational level. An even more chilling conclusion is that the modern state cannot have a strong interest in the moral and spiritual development of the people; quite the contrary. It might then not be so surprising that national education systems do not follow Aristotle's advice of including the classical “good life” to their curricula. It is well-known that the general education system is an effective instrument of social control; as John Stuart Mill said, it is a “mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another”.[3] The objective is, of course, to obtain productive young citizens who will question as little as possible the dominant value system.[4] An important such value that should not be questioned is the modern concept of the “good life”.

However, even if the dire reality described above could be remedied, the “good life” in the classical sense is not likely to ever become widespread. Such a life requires a dedication that cannot be expected of most people, regardless of the external conditions. What might be hoped for, however, is that the classical definition of the “good life” would become better known throughout modern society. Thus, the question should not be how people decide to live, but what is the highest ethical standard of society. To live up to a high standard is, by definition, rare; what is important is the existence of such a standard. In order to for such an ethical standard to slowly spread in society, it is necessary to become aware that the modern definition of the “good life” is incomplete and should progressively be replaced with the classical meaning of this expression.



Notes: 

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book X.

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book 1, chap. 2.

[3] J.S. Mill, On Liberty, p68. (Everyman’s Library, 1992.) In the same vein, H. L. Mencken also once said that the role for the education system was; “To make good citizens. And what is a good citizen? Simply one who never says, does or thinks anything that is unusual. Schools are maintained in order to bring this uniformity up to the highest possible point. A school is a hopper into which children are heaved while they are still young and tender; therein they are pressed into certain standard shapes and covered from head to heels with official rubber-stamps.” (see “H.L. Mencken at Full Throttle”, by Michael Dirda in his review of Mencken’s “Prejudices”, The Sunday Times, 29 November 2010).

[4] See for instance, N. Chomsky, Lecture at the Istanbul Conference on Freedom of Speech, 20 October 2010 (available on Znet.org). 

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Two Meanings of the Good Life - Part II

The previous discussion suggests that it is necessary to consider not only material but also spiritual requirements in order to correctly define the “good life”. This is precisely what the classical definition of the “good life” does.

The “good life” in the classical sense consists in living in accordance with nature: any being is “good” if it does what it is most proper for it to do, if it uses its full natural potential. What is “good” for man is then not only what is pleasant and comfortable, but what is ultimately possible. It is not necessarily that which comes most easily, instinctively or “naturally” to man, but that which is most specific to human nature. Leo Strauss summarised the “good life” in the classical sense in the following way:

“The good life simply, is the life in which the requirements of man’s natural inclinations are fulfilled in the proper order to the highest possible degree, the life of a man who is awake to the highest possible degree, the life of a man in whose soul nothing lies waste. The good life is the perfection of man’s nature”.[1]
In the classics, the “good life” received perhaps its clearest and fullest expression in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.[2] Aristotle identified three types of “goods” that man should acquire in order to perfect his nature: “bodily goods”, “external goods”,[3] and “goods of the soul”.[4] The most important are naturally the spiritual goods; they are the goods that can be considered, in Aristotle's words, “most properly and truly goods” because they are specifically human.[5] The two first types of goods are accessory goods; they are not “final ends", but they are necessary in order to attain the highest goods. Indeed, Aristotle fully understood that spiritual goods can only develop in a certain physical security and material comfort.[6] He said that man “needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment”.[7] This idea was later adopted by anarchist thinkers like Mikhail Bakunin[8] and Rudolf Rocker, who said that:
“True intellectual culture and the demand for higher interests in life does not become possible until man has achieved a certain material standard of living, which makes him capable of these. Without this preliminary any higher intellectual aspirations are quite out of the question”.[9]
In order for man to fulfil his proper function, according to Aristotle, it is necessary to strive for the goods of the soul; that is, to strive for virtuousness.[10] To live virtuously means to develop the moral and intellectual virtues, such as gentleness, honesty, wisdom, intellect, and others. (Aristotle identified ten moral and five intellectual virtues).[11] This is not an easy endeavour of course; as Aristotle readily pointed out, there are many impediments to living virtuously,[12] and it requires efforts “not for some chance period but throughout a complete life”.[13] However, this does not mean the “good life” can only be reached at old age, because the “good life” in the classical sense is not so much an achievement as an activity.

As this classical “good life” is defined, man obviously cannot be fully “human” if he does not make efforts to acquire all three types of goods. Most people would admit that a sickly and unhealthy life in poor and wretched conditions can dehumanise a human being and even break his will to live. But not as many people see that humanity also requires the attainment of the third set of goods. As Aristotle said, “the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts”.[14] A human life focused on the sensuous and material aspects of existence cannot, therefore, be said to differ much from an animal life.[15] Shakespeare expressed a similar thought when Hamlet saw the human need for spiritual goods:
 
 “What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time
 Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
 Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
 Looking before and after, gave us not
 That capability and god-like reason
 To fust in us unused”.[16]
 It becomes clear then, that in the modern definition of the “good life” only the first two kinds of goods are necessary for living the “good life”. It only proposes the realisation of the external and bodily goods. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the modern definition of the “good life” therefore seems to be a subset of, and a prerequisite for, the classical definition. The “good life” in the modern sense is incomplete because it lacks the important third part; it fails to consider the goods of the soul. When man lives the classical “good life” by striving for the moral and intellectual virtues, he develops an awareness of his material conditions from a historical and social perspective. Thus, the “good life” in the classical sense allows an individual to make those particular social comparisons without which the “good life” is next to impossible in the modern equalitarian welfare states.

The ultimate end of the “good life” is, as always, “happiness”. But which “happiness”? In the modern world, “happiness” comes, not surprisingly, from acquiring external and bodily goods, as per the definition mentioned earlier. This is the prevailing view of “happiness” as a temporary satisfaction of the senses, as a pleasant reaction to an improvement in material conditions. Of course, this view of “happiness” is not specifically modern at all. Already Aristotle pointed out that “all men think that the happy life is pleasant and weave pleasure into their ideal of happiness”.[17] What is called the “modern” definition of the “good life” is therefore in reality simply an inadequate  definition, because it only leads to a kind of “happiness” that fades and eventually disappoints. As Schopenhauer said, in the modern world, “no man is happy, he strives his whole life long after imaginary happiness, which he seldom attains, and if he does, then it is only to be disillusioned”.[18]

The classical meaning of “happiness” is, of course, very different from the modern one. The Greek term for “happiness” is eudaimonia, which is considered to be the “final end” of man.[19] It can be translated both as “well-being”, “living well”, “thriving”, and “flourishing”. There seems to be no such word in modern languages, and this in itself is a telling sign of where priorities lie today. “Happiness” in the sense of eudaimonia can only be attained if efforts are made to live the classical “good life”. According to Aristotle, eudaimonia is the highest good man can seek because it is “that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else”.[20]  Though a virtue is also “desirable in itself", it is also desirable “for the sake” of eudaimonia and cannot, therefore, be the “chief good”.[21] The morally and intellectually virtuous life is therefore a desirable life to live in itself and also for the sake of eudaimonia.[22] As the French thinker Pierre Hadot has pointed out, this is consistent with the classical view of philosophy as a way of life.[23]

There is another important difference between the modern and the classical perceptions of “happiness”. In the modern world, “happiness” is perceived as a state; at any moment one either is or is not happy. Similarly, the moral and intellectual virtues are seen as qualities: in the modern world one is seen to be either endowed with some of them or not.[24] For example, one man is deemed to be honest and another one wise. There is no concept, either in the case of “happiness” or in the case of the virtues, of any kind of process, such as “development”, “striving” or “thriving”. For the ancients, however, both “happiness” and the virtues were seen as “activities”.[25] As Aristotle said, spiritual goods are “achievable by action”,[26] they are not simply “states of character",[27] as they are often perceived in the modern world. In other words, in the classical view, a man can only be called, say, wise or honest if he acts in life with wisdom or honesty, if he strives to be wiser and more honest. This point again illustrates that “philosophy” in the classical world, as opposed to the modern world, was seen also as a way of living, an attitude to life.

This might explain why there is so little regard for the moral and intellectual virtues in the modern world. Attention to the goods of the soul is seen as relatively uninteresting because they are imagined to be innate “states of character”. In the modern view, only external and bodily goods are generally thought to be improvable through efforts; these are the areas in which efforts are perceived to be possible and necessary. This helps to explain, for instance, the contemporary popularity and even sometimes obsession, for bodily goods (in the form of sports, fitness, spa resorts, fitness clubs, yoga, diets, biological and health foods, etc.) and for external goods (in the form of security, welfare, investment plans, financial status, clothes, gadgets, cars, etc.).[28] Important external goods also include, as Aristotle pointed out, having friends, being treated with dignity, and getting respect.[29] These goods are also of high priority in the modern world, since they are thought to be essential for reaching “happiness”.[30] However, although all these goods do, indeed, contribute directly to “happiness” in the modern sense, in the classical view they are merely the foundation for the development of the virtues (if taken in moderation).[31] They cannot directly lead to eudaimonia.[32]

The frequent surveys that try to gauge “happiness", such as the UN World Happiness Report, of course do not give any information about eudaimonia. (Indeed, it should be difficult to survey the amount of eudaimonia in society.) These surveys merely tend to confirm the erroneous assumption that improvements in material conditions lead to lasting “well-being”. That these surveys always show that the safest, wealthiest and most peaceful, nations are the “happiest” in the world is consistent with the fact that these nations have been the most successful in letting their citizens acquire a continuous flow of new external and bodily goods. The acquisition of these goods does indeed lead to “happiness” according to the modern definition. It hardly needs pointing out, however, that the populations of these nations are not particularly known for their successful achievement of moral and intellectual virtues.

Nevertheless, there is a certain recognition today that “happiness” in the modern sense is unable to be fulfilling in the long term.[33] It is even sometimes acknowledged that the modern definition of “happiness” is far too skewed towards the fulfilment of material conditions, away from the classical definition.[34] For instance, the UN World Happiness Report admits that something is lacking in the modern way of looking at “happiness”:

“Aristotle spoke of virtue as the key to eudaimonia, loosely translated as “thriving”. Yet that tradition was almost lost in the modern era after 1800, when happiness became associated with material conditions, specially income and consumption”.[35]
In a way, it is understandable that material conditions are the most important criteria today for the “good life” and for reaching “happiness", in the modern meanings of these terms. Modern societies have been going through a sustained period of economic growth over several decades, and many people have seen their material conditions improve significantly. Economic growth often indirectly determines whether, for example, Mrs Jones will get a raise or Mr Smith will get hired. Such relative increases in standards of living lead Mrs Jones and Mr Smith to experience temporary surges in “happiness” as they increase consumption or savings (i.e. financial security). However, not only is such “happiness” transient and ultimately unsatisfactory, but economic growth is no longer assured today, at least in the West.[36] 

In such circumstances, the “good life” in the modern sense doesn't lead to “happiness", but to frustration. This is all the more reason why the classical definition of the “good life” should become more widely known. But then the modern definition of the “good life” should also be recognised as incomplete. Now that the classical meaning has also been reviewed, the final post will deal with the conclusions for the modern world.



Notes:

[1] L. Strauss, Natural Right and History, p127. The University of Chicago Press, 1965

[2] However, similar ideas can be found in the writings of the Buddha and his disciples, as well as in the medieval Catholic Church, through St Thomas Aquinas. Plato also raised the subject briefly in Gorgias, where Socrates maintained that the wicked and the undisciplined man is unhappy. See, for instance, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorgias_%28dialogue%29 

[3] “External good” here refers not only to material conditions but also to other external aspects, such as honour, for example.

[4] “Now goods have been divided into three classes, and some are described as external, others as relating to soul or to body; we call those that relate to soul most properly and truly goods, and psychical actions and activities we class as relating to soul”. Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book 1, chap. 8.

[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book 1, chap. 8.

[6] This is also the Confucian idea that poverty should be alleviated, or a certain standard of living assured, as a precondition for the development of moral or spiritual values. When external and bodily goods are limited and even insufficient, and no improvement in the amount or quality of these goods is possible or even imaginable, future expectations are also limited. It is then not possible to dedicate time and effort on the acquisition of spiritual goods. This was the situation for most people during most of the history of mankind. However, when external and bodily goods are sufficient and easily accessible, they are not enough in themselves for eudaimonia. External and bodily goods therefore perfectly fulfil the condition of being necessary but not sufficient for “happiness”.

[7] Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book 1, chap. 8. Also, in order to live the “good life", Aristotle said that man must be “sufficiently equipped with external goods”. Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book 1, chap. 10.

[8] Bakunin also expressed the same idea when he wrote: “Who are right, the idealists or the materialists? The question once stated in this way hesitation becomes impossible. Undoubtedly the idealists are wrong and the materialists right. Yes, facts are before ideas; yes, the ideal, as Proudhon said, is but a flower, whose root lies in the material conditions of existence”. M. Bakunin, God and the State, p1.

[9] R. Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, p79. Working Classics Series, AK Press.

[10] Aristotle wrote: “...we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete”. Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book I, chap. 7. 

[11] Moral virtues according to Aristotle: courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, “greatness of soul” (magnanimity), ambitiousness, gentleness, friendship, honesty, being charming. (see Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book III and IV. Source: classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.mb.txt) 
Intellectual virtues according to Aristotle: art, knowledge, practical judgement, wisdom, intellect.(see Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book VI. Source: classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.mb.txt)

[12] See Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book VII. Source: classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.mb.txt 

[13] Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book I, Chapter 10. Source: classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.mb.txt 

[14] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, chap. 5.

[15] This kind of life may obviously vary in degree from an animal life, but not much in type. The classicist George Santayana expressed this idea as well: “reason is indeed not indispensable to life, nor needful if living anyhow be the sole and indeterminate aim; as the existence of animals and of most men sufficiently proves”. G. Santayana, The Life of Reason, p51. Prometheus Books, 1998.

[16] Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 4.

[17] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VII, chap. 13. 

[18] A. Schopenhauer, The Emptiness of Life, Studies in Pessimism, Essays. 

[19] See, for instance, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eudaimonia 

[20] “Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else”.Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book 1, chap. 7.

[21] “If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good”. Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book 1, chap. 2. “Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself”. Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book 1, chap. 7.

[22] As Aristotle wrote in a famous passage: “The happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action. The characteristics that are looked for in happiness seem also, all of them, to belong to what we have defined happiness as being. For some identify happiness with virtue, some with practical wisdom, others with a kind of philosophic wisdom, others with these, or one of these, accompanied by pleasure or not without pleasure; while others include also external prosperity. Now some of these views have been held by many men and men of old, others by a few eminent persons; and it is not probable that either of these should be entirely mistaken, but rather that they should be right in at least some one respect or even in most respects”. Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book I, chap. 8. Source: classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.mb.txt)

[23] See Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life.

[24] Even the word “quality” is mostly used today instead of the word “virtue", which is not surprising since virtue refers etymologically to the way (or activity) of a man (vir).

[25] “It makes, perhaps, no small difference whether we place the chief good in possession or in use, in state of mind or in activity. For the state of mind may exist without producing any good result, as in a man who is asleep or in some other way quite inactive, but the activity cannot; for one who has the activity will of necessity be acting, and acting well”. Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book 1, chap. 8. See also for instance, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX, chap. 9 and 10.

[26] Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book 1, chap. 7.

[27] As Aristotle wrote, making the distinction between states and activities: “Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these”. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, chap. 1.

[28] Regarding financial status, Aristotle said: “The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else”. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, chap. 5.

[29] Aristotle said regarding friends: “But it seems strange, when one assigns all good things to the happy man, not to assign friends, who are thought the greatest of external goods”. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX, chap. 9), and regarding honour: “Desert is relative to external goods; and the greatest of these, we should say, is that which we render to the gods, and which people of position most aim at, and which is the prize appointed for the noblest deeds; and this is honour; that is surely the greatest of external goods”. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, chap. 3).

[30] These aspects are considered so important that they often get confused with spiritual goods.

[31] There is a fundamental problem, therefore, with the Lockean concept of “pursuit of happiness” which has become the credo of large parts of the Western world, not only in the United States. This expression only exists because “happiness” is perceived in the modern sense. Happiness in the classical sense is not something that can be directly pursued; it is a consequence of living the “good life” in the classical sense.

[32] “The answer to the question we are asking is plain also from the definition of happiness; for it has been said to be a virtuous activity of soul, of a certain kind. Of the remaining goods, some must necessarily pre-exist as conditions of happiness, and others are naturally co-operative and useful as instruments”. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, chap. 9.

[33] As an example, see, for instance, “Meaning is Healthier than Happiness”, by Emily Esfahani Smith, The Atlantic, 1 Aug 2013. Source: www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/08/meaning-is-healthier-than-happiness/278250/ 

[34] From the six main factors in the UN Happiness report seen as having the biggest impact (75%) on “happiness” in the world (GDP per capita, years of healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble , perceptions of corruption, prevalence of generosity, and freedom to make life choices), four of them can be called part of the “material condition”, and all except “generosity” are what Aristotle call “external goods”, not “goods of the soul”. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Happiness_Report , and http://unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf, see specifically Chapter 5, by Jeffrey D. Sachs. Further, the report states that “Even though social, psychological, and ethical factors are crucially important in individual happiness, public discourse and public policies tend to focus the lion’s share of attention on economics. The public is told, and generally believes, that the key to greater happiness is through more economic growth”. See UN 2013 World Happiness Report, Chapter 5, by See Jeffrey D. Saschs. Source: http://unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf 

[35] See in the UN 2013 World Happiness Report, Chapter 5, by See Jeffrey D. Saschs. Source: http://unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf 

[36] This is true at least since the financial crisis that started in 2007, though the impact to salaried workers go back further, to the early 70s. As is well known, for many reasons, purchasing power since the early 1970s has not been keeping up with productivity increases in the rich post-industrial world.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Two Meanings of the Good Life - Part I


Expressions change over time, but not always for the better. Since modern societies are sometimes seen as containing the “collected reason of the ages”, to use Burke's famous phrase,[1] one could be forgiven for thinking that linguistic expressions only gain in nuance by embedding new meaning, never discarding any substance over time. Yet, the “good life”[2] is an example of an expression that in modern times has lost a significant part of its original, classical meaning. A look at the differences between these two definitions leads to some important conclusions about modern society.

Today, the “good life” is generally considered to be a comfortable, pleasant, and carefree life based on a certain standard of living. This is the modern meaning of the “good life”, based on life's material conditions. Thus, Herbert Marcuse defined the “good life” negatively, as “a life which is as much as possible free from toil, dependence, and ugliness”.[3] In this sense, the “good life” may never be available to all people all the time, but in the West it can certainly be said to be available to most people most of the time.[4] 

The “good life” in this modern sense is implicitly considered to be the kind of life that is conducive to “happiness”. In fact, this is a foregone conclusion since the word “happiness” is itself defined today in such a way that it could not be otherwise. Just as the “good life” has a specifically modern meaning, so does “happiness”. The United Nation's definition of “happiness”, which arguably could be taken as a reference, makes a clear distinction between the emotional feeling of being “happy” (which is more related with personality), and “happiness” as a level of satisfaction with external conditions.[5] Not surprisingly, with this definition of “happiness”, the countries with the highest standards of living also have the highest levels of “happiness”.[6] The modern definition of “happiness” is conveniently aligned with the modern definition of the “good life”.

However, it seems difficult to rely exclusively on material conditions for reaching “happiness”. The modern capitalist system thrives on a certain popular dissatisfaction with the existing level of goods and services.[7] The expectations of modern man constantly increase as standards of living improve; he constantly demands better conditions, whether a safer car, a cleaner environment, or more generous social services.[8] As José Ortega y Gasset said, “that which previously would have been thought to be good luck, or would have inspired humble gratitude to fate, has been converted into a right that one is not thankful of, but that one demands”.[9] Security and material comfort, which before the advent of the modern world could be only obtained with wealth and power, is now not only a reality for almost everyone in the West, but also seen as a “right”.[10]

For these reasons, it is not surprising that modern man generally does not think he is living the “good life”. Can someone really be said to live the ”good life” if he is constantly dissatisfied, expecting something more, and if he takes the conditions of his life for granted and sees them as a “right”? It seems that the “good life” requires not only a certain standard of living but also an awareness of that standard. A corollary to the modern definition should then be that for someone to live the ”good life” he must also know he is living the “good life”. In other words, he must be able to put it in perspective. The “good life” thus implicitly requires a comparison with another kind of life which, evidently, is not so “good”.[11]

However, such a comparison is not easy to make in the wealthy welfare states of the Western world, where the level of equality is high and material conditions do not vary much among the general population (as Gini coefficients make clear).[12] It is often difficult for an individual to recognise and appreciate a comfortable standard of living, far above the realisation of his primary needs, if this standard is generally shared by others in his vicinity. This helps to explain why many people in the West are not aware they are living the “good life”. Thus, paradoxically, a society in which nearly everyone is living the ”good life”, in effect is a society where almost no one is.

Other comparisons can be made, however. It is also possible to become aware of the ”good life” by putting it in historical and social perspective. Unfortunately, such remote projections also do not seem to be man's forte. Man does not have the natural reflex to compare his material situation with the dire conditions of past generations, or with the often difficult conditions of people currently living in less developed societies. Most people living in the rich Western world seem to take their current conditions for granted also in this sense; they are unaware of their outstanding standard of living, forgetting the uniqueness of their societies both from a historical point of view, as well as in the world today.

Such comparisons obviously require some kind of sensitivity to the historical and social conditions of mankind. A particular kind of imaginative understanding seems to be needed. Such a sensitivity requires, in John Dewey’s words, “a field of perception, rich in hues and subtle in shades of meaning”.[13] It consists in having a certain intellectual awareness; that sort of intellectual intuition which Plato called noesis and which he considered essential in enabling the thinking activity.[14] But such a consciousness is rare; experience shows that not many people are naturally endowed with such intellectual sensitivity. However, there should be no a priori reason why it could not be developed early in some men and women, providing it is part of their education.

The “good life” in the modern sense is therefore not as prevalent as it might initially seem; indeed, for the majority in the rich and developed world the ”good life” is hardly possible at all. Man's nature is such that material conditions gain a significant part of their value only if they are considered relatively. In the modern world, most people are unable to fully appreciate their comfortable material conditions because they are unable to put them in perspective. They are generally not aware that they are living the ”good life
, because they can or will not make the relevant comparisons.  Therefore, though there is some truth to definition of the “good life” in the modern sense, something is evidently missing from this definition. To see what this is, it is necessary to look at the older definition of the ”good life, which will be the subject of the next post.



Notes: 

[1] From Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

[2] Equivalent expressions exist in some other languages, such as “la belle vie”, “la dolce vita”, “det goda livet”, etc.

[3] H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, p135. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.

[4] The United States may be somewhat an exception to this statement.

[5] As page 4 of the UN 2013 World Happiness Report states: “As we showed in last year’s World Happiness Report and again in this year’s report, respondents to surveys clearly recognize the difference between happiness as an emotion and happiness in the sense of life satisfaction”. Source: http://unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf 

[6] The UN World Happiness Index always shows the richest, cleanest and safest countries at the top of the list, year after year (i.e. Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, etc.). Source: http://unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf 

[7] It became necessary to “keep the customer dissatisfied", as Charles F. Kettering of General Motors famously wrote in 1929 (Kettering was General Director of Research Laboratories at General Motors from 1920 to 1947). See also, J. K. Galbraith's now classic, The Affluent Society (Penguin Books, 1999). He writes on p.128, for instance, that efforts were eventually made by business to “create the wants it seeks to satisfy”.

[8] See Professor B. Friedman, Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Chapter 1. Further, Richard Easterlin, professor of economics at University of Southern California, says that previous generations have proven that our desires adjust to our income. At all levels of income most people usually estimate that they need about 20 percent more than they have in order to be “perfectly happy”. (Professor R. Easterlin, The Economics of Happiness).

[9] J. Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p111. (Austral, Edición Conmemorativa, 2005.)

[10] As in the “right” to “decent” housing or the “right “to “worthy” employment, and many others such “rights”.

[11] The national Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality in a country, is now generally below 30 for the welfare states of Western Europe. See, for instance, Eurostat (www.eurofound.europa.eu/areas/qualityoflife/eurlife/) 

[12] L. Strauss, Liberal Education and Responsibility (essay). 

[13] J. Dewey, Experience and Nature, p315. Dover Publications, Inc., 1958. 

[14] Plato considered that such an intellectual intuition (noesis), together with discursive reasoning (dianoia), is what makes up the thinking activity (nous) of man.