What is a Good Life?

Human beings have an inherent drive and passion for finding absolution in what they deem the ‘good life.’

For decades however, philosophers have struggled to argue a solid case for such. It can be suggested that many facets work in unison to allow a good life, but what is it that could give a unified answer to this great philosophical question? This essay will attempt to clarify such uncertainty, considering two perspectives of the ‘good life’.

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Firstly, are there any characteristics, needs, abilities and sorted other elements that are shared by all humans? Secondly, if there are elements which exist, then what do these require the good life to include, or what must the good life be like, given the properties we all share? To attain the answers to these questions, reference will be given to Natural Law, Virtue Theory, Eudaemonia and happiness.

We are all striving towards it, the good life, happiness, well-being, a well-lived life, fulfilment. But what is it that makes us feel good? Though difficult to give a comprehensible definition, goodness is generally referred to as specific traits or properties of a real object or set of objects. More so, the concept of goodness can be divided into other, subsidiary concepts (Goodness and Value Theory, 2004). That is, a series of events which lead to innate goodness. In essence, both are deemed circular and leave no meaningful definition for discussion.

The good life is a condition in which a person will be the most happy. Such happiness can be researched through a deductive perspective, which has been done by many philosophers over time (Wernqvist, 2007). Two such philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, deem the good life as the state in which a person exhibits total virtue. Throughout this essay, their works will be compared and contrasted to give clear argument to the meaning a good life for humans.

Humans, their characteristics and their activities can be evaluated in relation to the parts they play in human life (Meyers-Levy, 2009). Alternatively saying, that every facet of human life can contribute to what is deemed good. Humans, being a subject of creation, ultimately entail goodness. Such a life is one in which actions someone does and feels leads to what is otherwise known as happiness. Such happiness is neither just an experience; nor is it found as a result of following moral laws. Rather, happiness is an activity. It is the events of the individual which lead to the life of good. INSERT REFERENCE Over time, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle have tried to highlight the concept of goodness by defending various accounts. Such accounts do not require that a person who is well off merely experience any feelings of happiness or satisfaction. What they do require is that their desires are consciously fulfilled, which does not come down to the same thing (Angner, 2009).

Plato argues that a person will exhibit total virtue when their desires have been quenched (Cooper and Hutchison, 1997), while Aristotle believes the perfect state of the individual will bring their ultimate virtue (Solomon, 1984).

Cooper and Hutchinson (1997) write that Plato’s argument for the good life is stemmed from love because through this, individuals can rid themselves of desires. That is, love is actually the quest for that good. Aristotle argues that the good life is different for each individual because it comes from living one’s life according to one’s virtues, and each person has different virtues (Solomon, 1984).

Through analysis of their works, both Plato and Aristotle agree the good life is a demonstration of perfect virtue. However, they disagree on the particular definition of virtue and its relationship to happiness. Therefore, both disagree on the ways of attaining such happiness.

Plato sees the good life as being attained through the perfect love and lack of desire (Cooper and Hutchinson, 1997), while Aristotle believes that the good life is achieved through a perfect state which causes its citizens to act upon their virtues (Solomon, 1984).

The original Platonic view of the world, (cited Cooper and Hutchinson, 1997) is that it is a two tiered place, the upper tier being the world of perfection, the lower tier being the world of reality, and love falling somewhere in between. The theory is that the plane of reality is an imperfect copy of the plane of perfection. According to the Platonic view, humans only see glimpses of the good while existing in the plane of reality.

Plato believes that love is the midpoint between reality and perfection, mortality and immortality. Love does not fall into the sphere of immortals and perfection because how could love be a god if he is not in possession of beautiful and good things? Since Love is the love of beautiful things, Love must have desires and therefore cannot be a god Yet Love is greater than mortals because love has and always will exist. Thus Love is a great spirit, a halfway point between the realms of existence (Cooper and Hutchinson, 1997).

To Plato, the good life is one in which a person is exhibits perfect virtue and is therefore closer to the higher realm of existence. Virtue is comes from the absence of desires, so true happiness means being satisfied to the point one does not have desires. This satisfaction and happiness occur when a person arrives at the mystical understanding of the world (Cooper and Hutchinson, 1997).

According to Plato, through Diotima and Socrates’ dialogue, love is the medium in which humans will attain the knowledge of the good, and come upon this understanding. It is human nature to seek out happiness, and ownership of good things makes one happy. (Cooper and Hutchinson, 1997).

Solomon (1984) illustrates that in order to show that happiness lies in virtue, Aristotle first splits forms of the good into three parts, external goods, goods of the body, and goods of the soul. He goes on to say that goods of the soul (virtues) are the most important because with them, a person can gain material wealth and pleasure. Aristotle defines happiness and therefore the good life as the realisation and perfect exercise of excellence. This is subsequently referred to as Eudaemonia.

Aristotle’s view of such is typically regarded as an objective account of well-being. Nonetheless, subjective stances do evidently play some role in well-being even according to Aristotle (Phillips, 2005). This is where the existence of goodness becomes a subjective account, because it describes a person’s well-being as a function of his or her feelings, experiences, desires, and so on, thus making it a conscious attribute of human life.

From a basic Greek translation, Eudaemonia is that of supreme life with fulfilment and happiness, identified after one’s death. Such life is built of variable actions of excellence which are both intrinsic and extrinsic in their nature (Urmson, 1988).

Recognised, are three types of excellence by Aristotle. They are Bodily excellence, the excellence of Character and the excellence of Intelligence. Two of these excellences (character and intellect) fall within the realm of human choice and rationalism. Bodily excellence is paramount to Eudaemonia, however exhibits little reference in this context (Urmson, 1988).

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There are also a number of influences that determine such excellence, often as a result of our actions through life. Controlled intrinsic actions are separated into two forms: the Moral and the Intellectual. The Moral includes one’s courage, piety, fairness and equality. The other form is that of Intellectual influences which include one’s fine mind, wisdom and intuition. In contrast are one’s extrinsic actions, which are often uncontrollable. They include our appearance, friends in high places (social connections) and wealth (Urmson, 1988).

Our actions per sae can be defined as either a chain; those actions that help you attain an end which in turn leads to a further end or as a direct result; which is an action that helps you attain an end in itself. For supreme fulfilment, these actions work in unison with one another (Urmson, 1988).

It is through such, as detailed by Urmson (1988) that “happiness and fulfilment is an objective good, as opposed to a subjective state of living. “

This is not conditional, but absolute (Solomon, 1984). This in layman terms means ultimate happiness occurs when a person’s actions are all virtuous and have goals which are virtuous. It also implies that in order to live the good life, there must be no action which is unnecessary, but for the sake of virtue. This implies that the good life must be a universal goal because unless all people are perfectly virtuous, action must be taken to maintain virtue for those who are not virtuous.

Take for example, one’s ambition to become a Primary School Principal. It is through relevant studies and experience that the individual is able to achieve such a goal. Though there may be monetary benefits for holding such position, it is not something that would drive the individual to achieve. Their character and intelligence hold the greatest motivation for fulfilment. Such an example utilises Aristotle’s Eudaemonic theory of unison between chained and direct actions as well as the forms of excellence, as previously adhered to. Basing such a goal on pleasurable or political instincts, such as salary or power, is not a means by which Aristotle would deem leading a fulfilled Eudaemonic life.

There are however three things that make men good and excellent; these are nature, habit and reason (Solomon, 1984). The road to happiness is through formation of habit and reason which create virtuous action, in addition to possessing a nature that compliments them.

Both Plato and Aristotle see happiness as being virtuous, but disagree on the nature of virtue, causing their ideas to follow varied paths. They do however meet at key points. Plato sees happiness as being close to godliness. By living virtuously one can obtain this godliness (Cooper and Hutchinson, 1997). To Aristotle, happiness is the result of being virtuous because by being so, one obtains pleasure and external wealth (Solomon, 1984).

Plato and Aristotle further agree that education is the means to attain virtue, but they disagree on how a person should be educated because of their differing views on the cause of virtue.

According to Aristotle (Solomon, 1984), virtue comes from the agreement of the nature, habits and reason in a human’s conscience. Therefore, Aristotle states that education should begin from birth and it should involve changing the child’s habits and forming his reason so that their nature, habits and reason will align.

Plato believes that virtue stems from an understanding of true Beauty, which exists only in the higher plane of the world. Thus Plato believes that education of a human being should begin when the child is ready to love another. Plato’s ideal education involves bringing a person along by having him experience different forms of love between people, so that he may begin to love physical beauty and then beauty of the mind. Through this he sees the beauty in all things and eventually, with guidance understands all forms of beauty, ultimately understanding formless beauty (Cooper and Hutchinson, 1997).

Another key agreement between Plato and Aristotle is the importance of interpersonal relationships in the quest for the good life. Both agree that interpersonal relationships account for the education of individuals, but Aristotle goes further because he sees attaining the good life as societal.

He recognizes that if one is forced to take action because of others misdeeds, he cannot lead the good life, and therefore each person must be equal to the next so that nobody has to act on account of another (Cooper and Hutchinson, 1997).

Human happiness is the foremost concern for both Plato and Aristotle in their works of literature. Since happiness is almost a universal emotion their conclusions on the cause of happiness is similar. But, Plato and Aristotle are completely different individuals, so the causes of their happiness are, at the same time, completely different.

In personal evaluation, I am inclined to side with Aristotle’s point of view for ultimate fulfilment. It is through the result of actions of excellence (both direct and chained) that we can demonstrate our way of life. This in turn fortifies perceptions of us having led a fulfilled and happy life. If one opted to follow fulfilment through mere pleasurable circumstances, i.e. because the money is good, then in Aristotle’s eyes, their life would be one deemed lavish, suitable for beasts pulled by desire and compulsion. Happiness cannot be placed on material things. It is a matter of setting a goal and looking past the superficial things that stand in the way.

It is therefore relevant to say that to lead a flourishing life, one needs to take ownership of the actions which lead to their lifelong goal. Actions often speak louder than words do. We as humans should do whatever it takes to produce the most fulfilment for ourselves. There is a distinct difference between feeling happy and merely being happy.



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