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” in 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 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.


[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). See also Murray Rothbard's brilliant essay on these problems, called Education : Free and Compulsary.

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