“What is my unique gift, my authentic talent?” – Ernest Becker, (on the main problem of life).
Last time I emphasized differences between purpose and virtue, but at the internal or individual level of reality, these seemingly distinct concepts converge. That is to say, the purpose of one’s existence vis-a-vis oneself is, in fact, a confluence of (1) making a good life for oneself, (2) self-perfection, (3) happiness, and (4) meaning- all possibly encompassed by the term ‘self-actualization’ or perhaps ‘enlightenment.’ Purpose at other levels derives from the fundamental efforts one makes towards these four elusive but inescapable goals that constitute a well-considered, subjective understanding of the purpose of one’s life. Whatever path you follow, secular or religious, this tetrad is governing even though differing beliefs about the other levels of reality guide the specifics.
THE GOOD LIFE
Clearly the most tangible goal of life for the individual is to create a good life for himself of herself. Compared to the other three facets, this is the easiest and most straightforward. There are two routes to the good life: (1) deciding on the lifestyle one believes to be good and pursuing it to realization, or (2) learning to appreciate the quality of life one already has or can easily attain. The former is the basis for Aristotle’s Eudaimonia, and seems to be endorsed by Epicurus, the Enlightenment philosophes, and the modern Protestant ethic. The latter corresponds to the teaching of the Hindus, the Stoics, and Catholic Christianity.
Using Aristotle as our authority on the good life, we learn that we require self-sufficiency for the adequate provision of the necessities of life.1 For most of us this means gainful work that can sustain a minimal or, even better, an optimal lifestyle. Aristotle is no puritan, telling us “… riches are a useful thing,” but reminds us that “the person who makes the best use of anything is one who possesses the virtue appropriate to that thing. Accordingly riches will be best used by the man who possesses the virtue appropriate to property, that is, the liberal man.”2 The lesson is clear – if we seek wealth as the means to a good life, it must be balanced by just spending, saving, and giving.
Aristotle also recognizes pleasure as a component of the good life, but rejects physical pleasure and mere amusement as the aims of the lesser person or of children. Instead he endorses a higher form of pleasure derived from wisdom, thought, and philosophic reflection. He also acknowledges the importance of freedom, leisure time, and the avoidance of vice. On his view, seeking a good life provides individual purpose and is attainable by a mix of gainful work and disciplined action.
Next time we will look at the obverse side of the good life coin when we pick up with Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher.
(continued next post)
1Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics in On Man in the Universe. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, N.Y. for The Classics Club, 1943. Page 233.
2Ibid., Page 133-134.