Throughout the storied and colorful history of philosophy, it has made many attempts at defining the good life. With these attempts some common themes began to emerge and a set of general models grew out of the disparate threads of definition that philosophers attached to their specific ideas of what the good life should look like.
The problem that most of us find in applying the specific models of the good life presented by the different philosophies is that they require too much specificity while excluding the experiential, situational, and personal nuance that is necessary for people to truly find a path to their own version of the good life. I believe that no philosophy is comprehensive enough to capture the subtlety required to appeal to and work for everyone.
To that ends, I wanted to take a step back from the specific approaches of the good life and present four general models that might help us in identifying and applying the principles of thought and action that come out of philosophy and that can deepen, enrich, and fulfill our lives.
It is important to note that these models are not mutually exclusive. They can all exist harmoniously in your life. You need not choose one and slavishly adhere to it in order to reap the rewards of it. I present them in separation, only to show the distinctions and differences, so they can be understood and applied at all.
It should also be noted that these are not the only philosophical models for living. There are many more. These are the ones to which I most often find myself returning to, and the ones I have the most familiarity. I urge you to discover your own and apply them with the same alacrity to which I apply the ones I define here.
“In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn, than to contemplate.” – Descartes
In school we learn. We memorize. We recite. We capture information and we vomit it back up and because of that mind-numbing pedagogical methodology, I think there is a fundamental problem with modern education. It has strayed far from the holistic mind-building that was its intent. If the point of education is to improve the mind we should be focusing more on teaching people how to effectively contemplate the knowledge they accumulate instead of forcing them to become exceptional parroters of already discovered information.
The contemplative model of the good life puts an emphasis on the deeper thinking of philosophical experience. It is not enough to know things, we must be able to think things. We must be able to achieve a sustained focus on things and dig deeply into them – profoundly and with a meditative scrutiny.
This model for the good life is captured well in the philosophical reasonings of Descartes. His maxim of “I think therefore I am” is a perfect mantra for the contemplative model. It is through the reasoned contemplation of our being that we come to understand the world and our place in it. It is through concentrated introspection that we begin to shape and mold that knowledge that we have gained into something more well-defined and more valuable.
The value of the contemplative life is directed towards a deeper knowing of the world. Because a life filled with deep exploration and contemplation is a life of understanding. It is a life of wisdom and not merely a life of knowledge. While knowledge is a great gift to the world that we should all continuously seek, wisdom is your personal understanding of it. Wisdom is the ultimate achievement because it means the knowledge was absorbed, filtered, changed, and made into something worth knowing and something that can be applied to live well.
“Everything has been figured out, except how to live.” -Sartre
This model may be considered the flip side of the contemplative life. This is a philosophical life of mental and physical movement. Of applied philosophy. Of engaged existence. It is the living, breathing, running, jumping, stretching, straining, application of philosophy through action.
The active model puts an emphasis on going out and “doing” philosophy. On living in the world and through the world by engaging with it on multiple levels. Political. Social. Cultural. It is concerned with the magic that philosophy can offer when it is put into practice. The active model of the good life is about experiences and interactions. It is about pushing the boundaries of our mind and body through actions that keep you moving towards your passions and dreams.
This model for the good life is best captured in the philosophies of the Existentialists. In them, we see a rebellious appreciation of actionable philosophy and an emphasis on living a meaningful life in spite of the inherent meaninglessness of it all. In existentialism, we see a call to action to define your reason for being and then make it a part of your very soul. It demands you to be a soul of action and choices and principles.
We should pursue the action model of a good life because it is a way to breathe life into all the things that we think. We are creatures that exist in the world – that exist in societies and cultures and political structures that demand our engagement. No matter how much we want to shelter ourselves from the machinations of the world we have no choice but to be involved to some degree. The active model of philosophy beckons us to seek out those opportunities of engagement in the world and make them a part of our life and identity.
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” – Epictetus
It is important to first define my use of the word fatalism here. This is not a blind and blanket resignation towards our ability to affect change in the world. I am not suggesting that one should adopt a view of hard predeterminism. The fatalistic view that I am speaking of is more traditionally philosophical. It is a view heavily espoused by the Stoics and adapted to different degrees among philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
This fatalistic model of the good life emphasizes an appropriate acceptance of the things to which we have no control and not spending on our energy on resisting those things. It instead suggests that we put our energy towards influencing those things to which we can control. It internalizes our locus of control. It scopes out the boundaries of what we can affect and helps us to sharpen our focus on those things that are within our power to change.
This model of the good life is most certainly best exemplified in the work of the Stoics. Stoic thought has seen a resurgence through the work of Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holliday and it is obvious why. We live in tumultuous times. Politically, socially, culturally and personally. There are so many external forces pushing and pulling us towards or away from things and it is good to be reminded that those things have less control over the happiness trajectory of our lives than we give them.
And that is the benefit of this model of the good life. It helps us to accept the situations of our lives, to a degree, and gives us the capacity to react appropriately in order to maintain our equanimity and joy of living. It removes us from the burden of constant worry and gives us the perspective we need to know how to approach the difficult situations of life.
It is difficult to be able to identify the boundaries of our control – to be able to acknowledge that much of your life is not entirely yours to manage. The fatalistic model provides us those boundaries in stark clarity. More than that, it forces us to focus on the things you do control and that have the most important relevance to your happiness – your relation and reaction to negative experiences.
“Not what we have but what we enjoy constitutes our abundance.” – Epicurus
I want to be clear here. The hedonistic model of life is not one of unbridled excess, as the term hedonism is commonly understood. The hedonistic model of the good life is one that moves in pursuit of simple, personal pleasures. This is a model of living that celebrates the joy of friendship. The pleasure of a simple, well-prepared meal. The wonder and beauty of a sunset. The echoing music sound of a child’s laughter. A good book and a warm cup of tea as the rain taps against a window.
These are the quiet, simple indulgences that give so much value and meaning to our lives. They are things missed if your attention is only on the larger, more elusive pleasures that never seem to live up to the expectations we have of them.
This model of the good life is most eloquently expressed in the philosophy of the Epicureans of ancient Rome. Despite their misappropriated reputation, these were men and women who emphasized the simple pleasures of life and sought them out with a passionate consistency.
We should want to pursue this model because there is always a necessity to return yourself to the simple pleasures of living – beyond contemplation, beyond action, beyond resignation – we need to remind ourselves that the company of friends, a simple meal and a glass of wine is sometimes all that we need to renew in us the joy of being alive.
There are so many missed pleasures in the world because we have turned our attention to those enormous, hulking wants and desires that blind us to what we already have. The hedonistic model asks us to readjust our attention to those things that truly lend themselves to a sense of a fulfilled and fruitful life. Appreciate the simple pleasures of living and be returned to the consistent joy that can be found in life.
As I said in the beginning of this article, we should not try to pursue any one of these philosophical models to the exclusion of the others. They are all necessary, to some degree, to bring about the true and holistic fruition of the good life.
All of these models should find a place in your life at one point or another. They should all be sprinkled liberally throughout your participation in living – given the circumstances, experiences, and situations you find yourself in and what is called for to get the most out of your life.
I imagine you already engage these few models to some degree in your life. Your task should then be to identify which models are lacking in your life or which models you want to further nurture and to grow them to the degree appropriate for you to find the proper balance for your version of the good life.
I have given you the knowledge, the responsibility of defining and applying these models and finding the wisdom in them is up to you.