Expanding the Arc

From Analysis to Argument

What is the Best Way to Live?

The question of how best to live our lives has been raised by all the world’s religions as well as by philosophers and thinkers through the ages. There is a long history of what has been called “wisdom literature” that has been handed down in various traditions. For example, in the West, Hesiod, in Works and Days, next to Homer one of the oldest texts in classical literature, gives advice on all sorts of things, from when to plant to choosing a wife. And in the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Proverbs also contains advice and instruction on how to live a good and righteous life. Chapter16, verse18, tells us: “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  Such literature attempted to help people make wise choices and live happy, fulfilling lives. Today there is a whole genre of “self-help” books that give advice on how to live, how to become wealthy, how to find true love, and so on. It is a perennial human question. Unlike other species, whose lives are constrained by instinct, humans are basically free to choose the way they live their lives. At the age of most of you reading this book, this question, “How should I live my life?” is a dominant and many times perplexing one. What seems uppermost in the minds of most students entering college, more narrowly, is: “What career should I pursue?”  Students today are pressured to answer that question even as early as high school.

Some people know early on what career they want to pursue, but many do not. You may even doubt if you want to pursue a two or four-year degree at all. But the choice of a degree, while it may determine how much money you make during your life, or whether you will become a so-called “white collar” or “blue collar” worker, does not determine HOW you will live that life. Should you get married? Have Children? Live for pleasure? For Others? Should having a big house and a big car, and taking exotic vacations be your goal? What about your society? Should you spend at least part of your life serving others in your community? Perhaps join the military? Should you live “as everybody else does”? At your age, the choices seem endless.

One of the things a college education should do is to help you make some of these choices. Even if you “know” what career you want to pursue, you should spend some time taking courses in other fields to see what they are like. They might open up new vistas on how to live your life. You might find something else that you are really good at, or you might fall in love with a completely different subject. Keep an open mind and stay flexible. While an old cliché says that when one door closes another opens up, the opposite is also true: choices you make today, paths you choose to go down, are branches in the tree of your life. Once you go down one path, over time it becomes increasingly difficult to retrace your steps and go down a different one. Finally, those who study the changing job market and the impact of technology on work tell us that people entering the work force today can expect to change careers at least three times during their lives—so the career you begin after college will probably not be the one you retire in.

Your career or work, however, will only constitute part of your life. So again the question of how you should live that life comes up. Most people, if asked about what they want in their futures, after listing common goals such as love, a family, financial security, or engaging work, usually simply say they hope to be “happy.” But defining happiness is difficult, and happiness means different things to different people. The best way to get an idea of past and current ideas and research into defining happiness is simply to read the Wikipedia article “Happiness.” Other excellent articles are “Happiness” in Psychology Today, Peter N. Stearns’ “The History of Happiness” in the Harvard Business Review, and Jennifer Senior’s article “Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness” in the New York Magazine. In April 2015, the third World Happiness Report of the United Nations put Switzerland, Iceland, and Denmark at the top, with the US only fifteenth.

But no matter what career you choose, or how “happy” you currently are, you will inevitably face difficulties and adversities in your life. As King Claudius says in Hamlet, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” In fact, a good bit of the religious and philosophical wisdom passed down to us through the ages is advice on how to face “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to again quote from Hamlet. People who are feeling good, who are experiencing success in their careers and families, on whom fortune is smiling, don’t spend a lot of time with a therapist. It is when things go wrong, as they inevitably do, that we need help, that we look for the courage and fortitude to withstand such storms. Is there a way to live that will minimize such storms? That will help us to ride them out? Where do we turn for solace? Many religious people turn to God and prayer. One theory about the rise and pervasiveness of religion, in fact, is that it arose for this very purpose. It helped explain why bad things happen and gave people hope in the future. It also helped comfort them in the face of death.

In classical Greece, for instance, several distinct philosophies—ones that that still have followers today—arose to address the difficulties people face in life and the question of how best to live one’s life. The Greek philosopher, Socrates, said that the unexamined life is not worth living. We should not simply follow the crowd and believe what everyone around us believes. We should subject belief to critical examination. As Plato presents him, for Socrates the best life is one of continual pursuit of the truth, of learning. It is the highest attainment of what it means to be human. In pursuit of knowledge we avoid vice, and knowledge helps us make better choices and so lead better lives. Aristotle, Plato’s student, believing that reason was that which was unique to humans, emphasized that reasoning well was man’s highest virtue. Reasoning well would lead to “happiness,” and so Aristotle begins in the West the discussion of what happiness is and how to attain it.

One key to a happy life, and to avoiding many of life’s sorrows, that Aristotle prescribed was striving for what he called the Golden Mean, the middle ground in all things between excess and deficiency. In fact, this idea, “Nothing in Excess,” was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The idea is also central to Greek tragedy, where, especially in Sophocles, the fall of a great man is caused by excess—usually arrogance caused itself by too much wealth and power. The tragedies counselled sophrosynê, or moderation and self-control.

The idea of self-control was given poetic visualization by Plato in the Phaedrus, where Socrates describes the “chariot of the soul.” The charioteer is reason; he controls two winged horses, one white and one black, the passions. The white horse represents energy, boldness, and ambition, while the black represents appetite, desire, and greed. The soul seeks The Good, in the eternal realm, but the black horse keeps him earth bound. So life is a continuous struggle. We must use reason to control our emotions in order to live a complete and fulfilling life.

In addition to Plato and Aristotle, other Greek philosophers had different ideas on how best to live one’s life, some of them becoming isms still around today:

  • Stoicism. Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262), who taught in the stoa, or covered walkway in the agora of Athens, said one should live in accordance with nature. Particularly, we should learn to rise above the emotions, our goal being peace of mind. Events may be beyond our control, but our reactions to them are within our control, and we must accept what happens to us. Further, we are responsible for what we do—we cannot blame others, or nature. Stoicism became almost a religion among the Patrician class in ancient Rome. Marcus Aurelius (121-180), one of the “good” emperors, embodied its highest aims. During the last twenty years of his life, while waging constant war on the empire’s frontiers, he jotted down in Greek what he titled “To Himself.” These have come to be called his Meditations.  They are rightly admired even today.
  • Epicureanism. Epicurus (341-270), his writings known only through later commentators, taught that pleasure is the highest principle. However, pleasure is attained by knowing one’s limits and attaining tranquility—which he described as freedom from fear and the absence of pain. To achieve this state, he said, the simple life is best. This philosophy, it should be pointed out, is distinct from Hedonism, the active pursuit of pleasure as the highest good. Epicurus also taught that one person’s pleasure must not impinge on another’s pleasure or cause another pain (See Epicurus & Epicurean Philosophy at epicurus.net.).
  • Cynicism. Diogenes (c. 404-323). founder of the cynic philosophy, lived in Athens and attended lectures at Plato’s Academy (and some say heckled him). He wound up in the wealthy city of Corinth where he lived as a beggar, slept in an earthen jar, and mocked the wealthy and their slavish followers. He said we should live simply, without pretense, and not burden ourselves in getting and spending, as the wealthy citizens of Corinth did (See Diogenes on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.).

A prerequisite for leading a good life that almost everyone is familiar with today is the Latin phrase, mens sana in corpore sano, which means a “sound mind in a sound body.” It comes near the end of the Roman Poet Juvenal’s Satire X, titled “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” which relates how the riches, the power, and even the physical beauty that many famous Greeks and Romans possessed led to their destruction, and how even long life itself is not something to be desired.

Many of these classical ideas about how to live one’s life were carried over into medieval Christianity. However, with the fall of the Roman Empire in the west and the rise of Christianity, life came to be seen simply as a brief passage between birth and the next life after death. Thus one’s purpose in life was to avoid sin and strive for virtue; life was thus a struggle between good and evil, and the physical pleasures of the body were thought to lure people into evil and jeopardize their souls. As the middle ages progressed, the Virtues and Vices became allegorical figures presented on stage, warring over the soul of Everyman. Each of the seven cardinal virtues had an opposable vice:

  • Chastity
  • Lust
  • Temperance
  • Gluttony
  • Charity
  • Greed
  • Diligence
  • Sloth
  • Patience
  • Wrath
  • Kindness
  • Envy
  • Humility
  • Pride

As Everyman learns, in the medieval morality play of that name, the pursuit of pleasure and the neglect of Good Deeds will leave one precariously on the brink of hell when Death comes calling. Thus, since life on this earth had become very difficult, particularly during the early centuries of the period known as “the dark ages,” emphasis was placed on the way to live this life so as to be assured of one’s reward in the next. The perfect embodiment of this belief—that life is a pilgrimage along a dark road beset with evils—can be found in the Italian Poet Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the famous opening to this work, Dante finds he has become sidetracked in his journey toward salvation. He finds himself alone, in a dark wood, set on by evil beasts. He must go a long journey to find his way back to God and salvation.

After the middle ages, during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods in the West, classical philosophy, along with classical approaches to living the best life here on earth, again became the subject of writers and thinkers. During this period a number of writers sought to describe the model life for the leaders of cities and states—one that would ensure happiness for themselves and their subjects. The center of this life was the study of the Greek (newly available) and Roman classics, where models of behavior were held up for emulation. This “course of instruction” was not on how to achieve salvation but on how to live a good and productive life here on earth. It came to be called Humanism. According to Lauro Martines, in Power and Imagination: City States in Renaissance Italy:

Humanism envisaged a course of study and a certain kind of citizen. It was an  educational ideal. . . . It looked to a practical life in society and it was meant for those  destined to hold leading social positions. The major poets of Rome and Greece held an  important place in the humanist syllabus. . . . More than a source of mere pleasure, poetry  for the humanists was a commentary on experience; it was a guide, a shaper of men.

Somewhat later, in the eighteenth century, two short works by famous writers, both by chance published in 1759, dealt with the same central issue—how to live. In France, François Marie Arouet De Voltaire (1694-1778) published a slender volume titled Candide. It is a fast-paced story whose plot is filled with all sorts of disasters (most of which actually happened in real life) that befall his young, naïve protagonist. As in an allegory, the characters represent different approaches and attitudes to life and its vicissitudes: For example, Dr. Pangloss, Candide’s teacher, is an optimist. Martin, who joins Candide in South America, is a pessimist and always assumes that people are completely self-interested and that everything always turns out for the worse. Other characters represent different goals that people pursue, thinking that these things will bring them happiness. Cunégonde, a lovely young girl who kisses Candide at the beginning of chapter one and is the cause of his getting kicked out of his earthly paradise, becomes the “love of his life” that Candide pursues throughout the tale. When he finally catches up with her in Turkey at the end, however, she has grown very ugly—but he marries her anyway.

At the end, the moral of this tale is told. Candide and his friends (a small society if you will) visit a small farmer. He knows nothing about the philosophical questions that have consumed them throughout the story, saying only that he and his family cultivate twenty acres and feed themselves. He makes one of the final observations about how to live. He says that his whole family works, and “work keeps away three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” Finally, the small society engage in a last discussion about life, destiny, free will, and happiness. Martin says, “Let us work without reasoning. It is the only way to make life endurable.” Candide’s reply: “We must cultivate our garden.” This position has been described as meliorism, between optimism and pessimism. It comes from the Latin word for “better” and indicates that, with work, we can improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

Across the channel in England, Samuel Johnson published a tale with a similar theme (though in a completely different style and tone): The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. In this tale, Rasselas, instead of being kicked out of paradise, leaves his natal home, “The Happy Valley,” because he wants to experience all that life has to offer. He travels with his sister and a philosopher-guide, Imlac, and samples the customs and beliefs of many different cities. He wants to know how he should live his life. But after talking to many “experts” and sampling life in different cities and in the country, he does not discover an answer. In the last chapter, titled “The Conclusion: In Which Nothing is Concluded,” he decides to return home. One of Johnson’s famous pithy sayings (Johnson is well-represented in books of quotations) is made by Imlac, who says about life: “Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.”

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Renaissance “humanist ideal” morphed into the “well-rounded” individual, one knowledgeable in many fields, able to think clearly, write coherently, and speak distinctly—an individual with a knowledge of history, of literature, of science and philosophy. Producing this kind of individual became the goal of education, particularly in colleges and universities. Educators wanted to produce “well-informed” citizens as well as engineers, scientists, and writers. As Alan Simpson put it in his 1961 essay, “The Marks of an Educated Man,” knowing many things constituted a “liberal education,” which he defined as “whatever nourishes the mind and spirit from the training, which is merely practical, or professional, or from the trivialities which are no training at all. Such an education involves a combination of knowledge, skills, and standards.” The rest of his essay outlines what he thinks those three qualities involve.

Finally, here, in the twenty-first century, E. O. Wilson, a non-believer in a spiritual justification for life, titles the last chapter of his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, “Alone and Free in the Universe.” Wilson begins this chapter with the following lines:

What does the story of our species tell us? By this I mean the narrative made visible by  science, not the archaic version soaked in religion and ideology. I believe the evidence is  massive enough and clear enough to tell us this much. We were created not by a supernatural  intelligence but by chance and necessity as one species out of millions of species in earth’s  biosphere. Hope and wish for otherwise as we will, there is no evidence of an external grace  shining down upon us, no demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned us, no second life  vouchsafed us for the end of the present one. We are, it seems, completely alone. And that in  my opinion is a very good thing. It means we are completely free.

Wilson is talking of humanity here—all of us collectively. We are free to become whatever we will, just as you are free to choose a career and a way of life.  However, your generation faces a number of complex challenges, challenges that, if not overcome, could destroy the very conditions in the biosphere that made human life possible.

So how should one, here in the twenty-first century, live his or her life? How should you, a freshman in college with your life before you, make choices that will help you (as well as your fellow citizens of the world) live a full, interesting, and prosperous life? Here are three articles that discuss the question of what constitutes happiness:


Bill McKibben. “Money Does Not ≠ Happiness. QED.” Mother Jones March/April 2007.

Panos Mourdoukoutas. “The Ten Golden Rules on Living the Good Life.” Forbes 14 Jan. 2012.

Rebecca Solnit. “The Mother of All Questions.” Harper’s Oct. 2015.