The prudent man, according to Aristotle, is “able to deliberate well about what is good and advantageous for himself as a means, to the Good life in general. That pragmatic ability, in turn, depends upon his self-knowledge and his knowledge of ultimate causes. Thus, as we have seen, the Neoplatonists considered it the greatest wisdom for a person to recall his true spiritual ‘homeland and choose a course of earthly detachment in keeping with his soul’s high destiny.
The central questions of ancient ethical theory concerned the nature of the Good life and the conditions of its achievement Given that focus, the role of pleasure in the Good life was a topic which, throughout antiquity, was rarely far from the central area of debate. In particular, the thesis that pleasure is the good was urged on different grounds by various individuals and schools, and as vigorously disputed by their opponents.
Tolstoy’s philosophy of life is viewed as resting on his aspiration to present the simple and Good life , not in abstract form, but in “all its plenitude and wholeness. Tolstoy is considered as the leader and spokesman for the Christian principle that the Good life consists of “the surrender of earthly possessions and perfect obedience to the command to resist not evil.” However, since the world is engaged in an arms race and examples of imperialism abound, Tolstoy’s gospel of non-resistance is rejected as being unrealistic. Also rejected are the opposite philosophies of Darwin and Nietzsche dealing with survival of the fittest. A middle position between the extremism of Tolstoy and his opposites is suggested as the best path for the world to follow.
The cultivation of awareness of death is not a simple unblinkering of human reason but a complex spiritual discipline, which serves different aims for Epictetus than for Benedict, or Heidegger. Since death is the defining limit against which we measure the aim of human life , a call to remembrance of death can mean almost anything: seize the day, gather your roses, make ready for battle, repent of your sins, realize your impermanence and interdependence on all sentient beings, abide in the peaceable kingdom of the present moment. The implications of death awareness are as various as the definitions of the Good life .
Severinus Boethius, “the last representative of the ancient philosophy,” by one account, “the first of the Scholastics,” by others, belongs to the neo-Platonic tradition in a more unusual sense than later men to be considered, for he would attempt the typically Platonic task of reconciling Plato and Aristotle, to the advantage of Plato, who was, it seems, the founder of both the Academic and Peripatetic schools. A somewhat less exacting assignment set for himself was that of transmitting all the works of Plato and Aristotle to the Romans.
Boethius wrote the incomparable Consolation of Philosophy, which contains a famous definition of eternity as ‘perfect possession all at the same time of endless life ‘, and perhaps the first clear statement of the difference between conditional and simple necessity
One of the main problems for medieval users and commentators of the Consolation was how to accommodate within a Christian scheme of thought a text that considers God, death, and the aims of a good life without mentioning anything specifically Christian, and which contains some ideas that, at first sight, conflict with the faith. The preferred way of tackling this difficulty was already suggested by a miniature, which, the evidence suggests, accompanied the Cassiodorean edition, where Philosophy is depicted with the traits of the biblical Wisdom.
At the opening, Conrad speaks of the service performed by the river: “… ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks… The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service… It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud.” Then Marlow imagines the river of Roman times: “Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages… death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush… Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him — all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.” These two accounts, taken together, indicate the ambivalence of the river, of the natural world, and of man.
The Good life , the life of a wise man, is a life according to nature. Not everything in nature is according to nature; there arc Cynics, Epicureans, and the feebleminded. These diverge from type. The nature to follow is the universal nature, rational nature, human nature, for reason in man is essentially the same as reason in the universe. The Good life does not consist of externalities, but it is an inward state, a strength of will, and self-control.
It is easy to see why wealth and pleasure and power come to mind as the Good life . They seem to make it possible for us to live like we really want. If we were independently wealthy, for example, we wouldn’t have to be fake with the boss, play nice with coworkers-indeed even go to work.
Too often, in our modern world, we view ourselves as being in a temporary exile from the Good life . It just so happens right now (we say) I’m stuck playing roles that don’t give me the scope to express my deep down authentic self. I spend my days being the dutiful worker, selfless single parent, the chauffeur, the family cook. If I could just clear some of this stuff of daily life out of my way (or at least push it to the side), I could devote more time to being the real me, which may be to become an even better parent or spouse, to spend times with friends, to take up an art, to be an evil genius, to throw myself into a beloved hobby. All I have to do is pay off a few bills first, complete my education, retire, and so on.
Tolstoy is considered as the leader and spokesman for the Christian principle that the good life consists of “the surrender of earthly possessions and perfect obedience to the command to resist not evil.” However, since the world is engaged in an arms race and examples of imperialism abound, Tolstoy’s gospel of non-resistance is rejected as being unrealistic. Also rejected are the opposite philosophies of Darwin and Nietzsche dealing with survival of the fittest. A middle position between the extremism of Tolstoy and his opposites is suggested as the best path for the world to follow
In prison he wrote the incomparable Consolation of Philosophy, which contains (at 5. 6) a famous definition of eternity as ‘perfect possession all at the same time of endless life ‘, and perhaps the first clear statement of the difference between conditional and simple necessity (the necessity that he’s-walking-if-you-know-he-is does not–when added to the fact that you know he is-‘drag with it’ the necessity that he’s-walking). For many centuries Aristotle was known in the West only from two of Boethius’ translations.
Rilke, speaking as early as 1904, described this challenge vividly in Letters to a Young Poet:
The girl and the woman, in their new, their own unfolding, will but in passing be imitators of masculine ways, good and bad, and repeaters of masculine professions. After the uncertainty of such transitions it will become apparent that women were only going through the profusion and the vicissitude of those (often ridiculous) disguises in order to cleanse their own most characteristic nature of the distorting influences of the other sex. Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully and more confidently, must surely have become fundamentally riper people, more human people, than easygoing man, who is not pulled down below the surface of life by the weight of any fruit of his body, and who, presumptuous and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves. This humanity of woman, borne its full time in suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she will have stripped off the conventions of mere femininity in the mutations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching today will be surprised and struck by it. Some day… some day there will be girls and women whose name will no longer signify merely an opposite of the masculine, but something in itself, something that makes one think, not of any complement and limit, but only of life and existence: the feminine human being.
Rilke realized that the source of both sorrow and joy was the same “carrying stream,” just as life and death are sides of one whole realm. And so, though we tend to think of pain, depression, and other falling moments as something to be avoided, and we associate happiness with rising moods and successes, ultimately they belong together. Rain is an image of this cycle of growth. As Rilke expresses it when he ends the Duino Elegies in a spirit of hope and affirmation:
And yet, were they waking a likeness within us, the endlessly dead, look, they’d be pointing, perhaps to the catkins, hanging from empty hazels, or else they’d be meaning the rain that falls on the dark earth in the early spring. And we, who have always thought of happiness climbing, would feel the emotion that almost startles when happiness falls.
Two final aspects of the text’s critique of civilization merit attention. The first is that the “spreading” of civilization — colonization — disrupts the lives of its victims. Perhaps the best example of this disruption is that the African natives are “paid” nine inches of brass wire weekly for their efforts, a currency completely worthless to them. “So, unless they swallowed the wire itself,” Marlow reasons, “or made loops of it to snare the fishes with, I don’t see what good their extravagant salary could be to them” ( Heart of Darkness 42). In his Author’s Note to Youth Conrad himself remarks, “it is well known that curious men go prying into all sorts of places (where they have no business) and come out of them with all kinds of spoil”. And Hay aptly argues that “in Heart of Darkness one major theme, if not the ruling theme, is that civilization depends for its conquest of the earth on a combination of lies and forgetfulness”. Second, Heart of Darkness represents “civilized” Europeans ( Marlow and Kurtz excluded) as possessing minds “of the stay-at-home order” for whom “the immutability of their surroundings” and “the changing immensity of life glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance”
Besides the emphasis upon speculative theology tied to Greek philosophy, another characteristic shows itself in the Alexandrian school of thought: the ingenuity with which allegorical interpretations developed to accommodate tradition to the changing modes of thought. By means of allegory the Stoics thus could understand ancient Greek writings; by the same means the later Greeks thus made rational their traditional myths; the Jews, notably Philo, so could understand their scriptures; and so Clement and Origen their sacred literature; and, finally and later, Augustine interpreted very conveniently portions of the New Testament literature. Clement employed allegory in the search of esoteric truths believing that the mark of attainment to higher knowledge or gnosis came by way of such insight. Deeper meanings are concealed to those who have only literal eyes. Redemption of man thus comes by way of illumination and enlightenment (a Greek doctrine so explicitly taught by Socrates). Men need only to be shown the way to the Good life and they will follow after it, for man has the divine image in his rational make-up. No taint of original sin mars this divine nature in man. But the logos is needed for illumination.
These tensions are reflected in the writings of mediaeval Jewish Neoplatonists, almost all of whom make some attempt to limit the sphere of validity of their philosophic principles.
The truly Good life is not philosophic contemplation but that immediate and super-rational relation with God. achieved in its highest form by the prophet. For the ordinary man the Good life consists in prayer, good works and the love of God.
Before the 18th century in Western culture, the Good life took a variety of forms, but none of them looked like that. At times, the authentic life was found in the idea of serving your social class or your city, not yourself or even your family. At other times, it was to be accessed by going outside of yourself not in, getting your self-definition from an outside source like God, or honor, or even the body politic. It has been identified in calm intellect and at other times in blazing passion—but in either case not in a sort of low-grade contentedness that seems natural to us today. At least one famous definition of the Good life (Freud’s) says that it cannot exist at all.