For a friend, who asked, “What is the good life?”
I can’t do better than Marcus Aurelius on the value of a good life.
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” Marcus Aurelius
The problem is, what is a good life?
I would like to offer some of the characteristic virtues present in a good life as I have observed it in others, and as I strive to live it myself.
Honesty. Not only in dealing with the world and the people within it, but also in evaluating one’s own self.
Beauty. As in Keats’ “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.” Hence also the hallmarks of beauty: balance, symmetry, form, repetition, and the way they lead to blissful apprehension of what the words, music, shapes only point towards – “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,/ Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:”
Temperance. All things in moderation, including moderation.
Love. The Greeks had several words for love. What’s important is being true (see honesty) to the nature and function of each, because some involve deliberate choice, some are circumstantial and some are so to speak reflexive, unbidden, the product of shared DNA. For the latter, which has the remarkably ugly word Storge, we should remember Cordelia, who rightly said that she loved her father Lear “as my bond.” Although the blind bastard wanted more, in honesty, there is no more. However, there is denial of that “bond” in a repudiation by parent or child, which in some cases might be a good thing. Philia, or friendship, has more reciprocity built in: one does not feel affectionate regard, or friendship for someone at a distance of age, social status, whatever, and neither should you. Eros comes in two overlapping but not necessarily coexisting forms: sexual passion which can be powerful but brief, “the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable,” and in contrast the continuing affection of a lasting relationship that preserves that feeling of being a part of another — a fusing of identities, a sharing that is a long-lasting version of that rare moment of union through physical sex. Philautia or love of self is more obvious in its absence or distortion, when it blinds “he who is in love with himself need fear no rivals” than when it is a healthy self-esteem that holds a duty-to-self that is expressed in ways that range from posture and self-care to a resolute refusal to compromise one’s cherished values of truth and honesty.
Since I’m with Marcus about the probability that there are no gods, I think of Agape, or charity or “love of god” as an aberration. It’s either corrupted by religion into blind belief, or so wildly theoretically generalized, as in “love of humanity” that it’s at best a goofy wish, and at worst a sloppy version of a far more important “love” which I find in the universal declaration of human rights, and more specifically, in that the declaration enjoins us to treat each human being as a human being. I once heard George Bernard Shaw interviewed by a person who could not imagine morality without god, and who therefore asked what a morality without go could be based on. GBS replied, “I would start with, ‘Thou shalt not kill me, and work from there.’” Expanding on this thought, which he didn’t do at that time, is that you don’t say, “Thou shalt not kill me,” unless talking to another “me.” Only in recognition of each others’ me-ness is it possible to realize human rights in our daily behaviour as well as in our courts of law.
But there’s also another way of looking at Agape, which in the King James Version of the Bible appears as “charity” and in the more modern translations as “love”. It’s Paul, the PR man of early Christianity, writing in Greek to the Corinthians who uses the word “agape.” He does go on and on, but I particularly like these often-quoted verses which I learned in the KJV: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.”
Which takes me to the moral revolution in Jesus’ teaching: forgiveness. His prayer includes “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive they who trespass against us.” Once again, I remember the KJV version, and note that more modern versions replace “trespasses” with “sins,” which implies the seven deadlies, or “debts,” which narrows the field to economics. However, a goodly number of people still mumble “trespasses” automatically. Putting aside divine forgiveness, of which I am sceptical, the forgiveness deal as I understand it is that we will be forgiven if we forgive. This implies reciprocity, and recognition of the other person’s me-ness. The important thing to remember is that among human beings, this doesn’t always work out the way we would like it to, largely because one aspect of me-ness is that everyone is an asshole at least part of the time.
The deal in Jesus’ prayer is Judaic in sprit. The Jews are unusual in the history of religions in that they argue with their god, and also with each other. Job asks “Why?” Even Jesus asks “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It’s this search for Justice that runs through rabbinical lore and judgement in both small and large matters that I’d like to include in the characteristics of a good life. Sadly, it also doesn’t work all the time, because Jews, just like everyone else, fail to learn from their own history.
“A just man justices,” said Gerard Manley Hopkins. And to do justice requires clear-headed, honest reasoning, which is sharply to be distinguished from rationalization and magical thinking.
While we’re trolling religions, let’s pause over the one word most associated with the Buddha: compassion, which I take to be recognition of the me-ness of others. Close to forgiveness, including much that is in agape, compassion is an aspect of a good person’s life that colours all the others.
Finally, a good life is hopeful, even in the face of excellent reasons to despair, such as death. I like the words of the British actor, Bill Nighy. “And I don’t really believe that I’m going to die. Yeah. I know it’s gonna happen, but I think maybe at the last minute somebody might make an exception.”