Guglielmo is a youngster in his last year of High School. After having attended the first three years of “Liceo Classico” in Italy, he moved to Canada at the United World College Pearson (UWC Pearson) to conclude High School.
With Guglielmo De Rigo we will talk about “What is the good life?”
Q1: Guglielmo, “What is the good life?” is a question to which is hard to find an answer, how did your path of reflection begin?
As a philosophy student, I decided to write my High School dissertation on Moral Philosophy. Through the immensity of themes that Moral Philosophy looks at, I decided to focus on a question that regards every human being: “What is the good life?”. Philosophy is a word that we have indeed heard throughout our lives, maybe during our time at school, maybe by some old relatives or in a tv series such as Black Mirror. However, to explain how philosophy will help me to answer the question “What is the good life?” I will come back to the ancient Greek meaning of the word, which is “love of wisdom” (from the ancient Greek verb “φιλεω” (phileo), meaning to “love” or “be friends with” and “σοφία” (sofia). More specifically, the branch of philosophy that allows us to investigate the aim of our existence and the ultimate way of spending our time is called moral philosophy. It allows us to undertake a wide survey inside ourselves and to question our behaviour. Here stands the greatness of moral philosophy, in its ability to drive us towards a greater awareness regarding the events of our lives, no matter how never-ending the path ahead may seem.
Therefore, it appears that philosophy, among all disciplines, is the one that comes best at our help when reflecting upon the question: “What is the Good Life?”. In fact, philosophy alone can accompany us through this difficult journey into the discovery of ourselves, since it teaches us to understand thoughts and our life is made of thoughts. Each person dedicates their life to different matters: some of us work in an office, some other teach sailing at the beach and sadly some others still work underpaid in factories. Some believe that accomplishing our sense in this planet is connected to the creation of a family that will give us some successors in the world, some others do not have such ambitious ideas. However, the purpose of my reflection was not to investigate the huge amount of jobs around the world or to make a survey about the couples that decided to get married in European Countries over the last five years. Conversely, I aimed to understand what is the “good life?” we can pursue on this planet, and in order to do so I need to understand how people think, what makes them happy and what suggests them to decide something instead of something else.
Q2: You said your exploration begun in the very ancient times with the pre-socratics thought, how would you describe their view on the “good life”?
Yes, I begun my exploration by examining what the pre-socratic philosophers’ thought the good life to pursue is. However, before taking a close look at their doctrine, it is important to state a fundamental assumption: those philosophers were convinced of the intelligible coherence of the phenomenal world. Therefore, they considered the universe intelligible as a whole. However, the order of the universe (from the ancient Greek word “κοσμόσ”, “kosmos”, which literally means “order”) contrasts and underlies the chaos of human perception. Thus, to comprehend the order of the universe, they believed it was essential to recognise the faintness of our perceptions and to turn ourselves to the use of our ultimate quality: reason.With this in mind, the pre-socratic philosophers, which are often called Naturalistics, devoted themselves to the research of the “αρκή” (“Archè”), which they considered the very first or most fundamental principle, the first cause, the engine behind everything. The “Archè” is often associated to a natural element, such as water to Tales, or to air to Anaximenes. However, if we consider the case of Anaximander, the Arche is something different: the “απειρον” (“apeiron”). It is an ancient Greek word and it is composed of two parts: the word “peiron”, meaning “border” and an alpha privative, which is a prefix conveying the meaning of absence and privation, thus resulting in “infinite” or “without borders”. These philosophers made the pursuit of their lives to research an immanent and lasting ground for existence, something that could explain the essence of things. Consequently, they were very critical of the cosmogony in mythopoetic tales; in fact, they refused to believe what was common faith amongst their contemporaneous citizens such as stories of a creation of the world by some anthropomorphous divinities, whose names were Zeus, Hera, Ares, etc. Considering this part of their doctrine, we may ask ourselves whether the task of critical thinking (what today called “thinking outside the box”) was one of the cardinal points of the good life for the pre-socratic philosophers. After all, they were trying to look for a cosmology, i.e. an explanation for the order of the universe, that didn’t rely on gods.
Therefore, we may argue that the change they brought in the history of thought was to free humans (or at least the part of humans who chose to follow them) from the stories of ministers and oracles, from pagan gods and ancient superstitions. Their doctrine is definitely an important milestone for the history of philosophical thought. Nevertheless, their research of a good life is excessively focused on the world itself, as a natural entity. In fact, may be too difficult for a contemporary leader to understand what is the good lifethat a person should pursue, without digging inside human nature itself. Therefore, this becomes a big weakness of their doctrine with respects to our scope. Moreover, since humans have a social nature, it is very hard to imagine a good lifewhich is mainly focused on the observation of the naturalistic world and on the understanding of it. How could they not take into consideration the importance of the relationship with other humans? They were the first ones to believe that the good lifewas a research towards a better awareness of what we are, and that in order to do so we needed to understand better what surrounded us and therefore question ourselves and the others. This leads my research to an important turning point: they considered the good lifeto be the research of a sense in our living without making it relying on gods and on a poster life.
Q3: You have successively delved into theories on the “good life” to live elaborated by illustrious philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. What would they argue with regard to our question?
Turning our discussion to the three most illustrious ancient Greek philosophers (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle), the situation changes again. Unfortunately, Socrates did not leave any written source because he was convinced that the only way his doctrines could be transferred was orally. In his mind, written production simply did not bear the same expressive power of spoken words. However, a big part of Socrates’ thought was transferred to us by his disciple, Plato, who transcribed a lot of his master’s ideas. Thus, to understand the view Socrates had of the good lifewe have to trust Plato’s words.
Plato described his master as someone who, while on trial for corrupting the youth, told the inquisitors: “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Therefore, in this passage emerges the importance Socrates gave to reflection and research. Nevertheless, he did not endorse a life of private and self-oriented deliberation. On the contrary, he meant that an individual becomes a master of himself using the reason to restrain his passions, as well as doing what he can to help promote the stability of his community. Consequently, Socrates believed that it is not enough to conduct a life in pursuit of wisdom per se, but rather the good lifecan happen just if we dedicate what we learn through reason to dominate our actions and in this way it is possible to contribute to the well-being of our community. Nevertheless, in my research I found often very difficult to distinguish between what Socrates and Plato thought because Plato is basically the only one who wrote down a good portion of Socrates’ thought and we don’t know how much he influenced the writings with his opinion. Anyway, it appears that Plato’s idea of the good lifeis similar to Socrates’, emphasising even more the component of restraint from passions. It seems as if with Plato, Socrates’ thought took a slightly more rigid shape. Plato confirmed his master’s teachings, but he gave them a veil of seriousness that transformed the Socratic sense of belonging to a community into a real civil duty: to live, to work and to fight for one’s society (as he argues in “The Republic”). However, Plato’s view ofthe good lifeis contradictory. How is it possible that peopleare not able to decide on theirown what life they’dlike to pursue? Plato sustained that only thepeople who were chosen by the philosophers could have been educated fully and thenthey could havetakenan important role in the society; all the othersshould have become either peasants or soldiers.This, in my opinion, is the point that a contemporary reader would struggle to accept.
Turning now to Aristotle, who lived between 384 and 322 BC, he argued in the Nichomachean Ethics that the highest good for an individual stood in the maximisation of their faculties as human beings, of which the most important is the reason. In particular, Aristotle claimed that the good lifemust include contemplation and the acquisition of intellectual virtues, which he defined as scientific knowledge. However, contemplating is not enough. In fact, the good lifecan be pursued through consistent right acting and the development of an appropriate state of character necessary to perform right actions. Aristotle sustained that the three main virtues (courage, temperance and generosity) are acquired as the result of habit and life experience. In addition, they stand in the middle ground between the vices of excess and deficiency; in a delicate balance between too few and too much.
In short, Aristotle believed the good lifewas the one that allows the person to reach Eudamonia: the sum of intellectual virtues and virtues of character, which is consequently associated with the highest good, happiness. It is interesting to notice how Aristotle, however, admits that the external conditions to which a person is subjected since the moment of his birth play an important role in the path of the individual towards Eudamonia. Interestingly enough, this was something totally beyond the control of individuals as much as it is today. Therefore, Aristotle would argue that several conditions ought to be present in order to allow an individual to reach Eudamonia. First of all, he needs to be born in the right type of state, which at that time was even a bigger challenge than nowadays. In fact, considering that Aristotle believed the role of the state was to help citizens to live well and that this was possible through laws and regulations that helped the growth of the character of the individual, at that time it was barely impossible to find such a kind of State. This is why, then more than now, this idea had the form of an intellectual utopia.
Q4: let us now move to more modern times, how would you define Nietzsche’s view of the “good life”?
To talk about Nietzsche, we now have to make a big jump in history; in fact, he lived between 1844 and 1900. With his perspective, he drastically changed the idea of what the good lifewas. He believed that life is best affirmed by striving for individual excellence, which he identified with an idealised aristocracy. He expressed big contempt for traditional morality even though he did not seek to replace it with universal prescription but rather by destroying the foundations of the notion of universality. The revolutionary mind of Nietzsche disrupted the old conceptual schemes: he encouraged people to think for themselves in a free way and to embrace their lives. He is famous for letting us his illustrious sentence: “God is dead”. By writing this, he was referring to the inexistence of the afterlife, and this could make us understand why he gave so much importance to the individual as a concrete reality in this corporeal life. His opinion of passions and desires is similar to Plato’s one: they are things to be overcome and extirpated from our lives. However, he was totally against Plato’s view of compassion and self-sacrifice, by claiming that those were an obstacle to individual development and nobility. In other words, what Plato declared a necessary feature of the good life, Nietzsche thought as “Life Denying”. Moreover, according to Nietzsche, sorrow and struggle are necessary conditions for the development of the individual and human excellence. As he claimed in the Genealogy of Morals: “Man, the bravest of animals, and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering. The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far.”
In contrast with Aristotle, who theorised a moral law and some stable moral principles, he encouraged individuals to think for themselves about what is important, beyond the conventional categories of good and evil featured by previous moral codes. A good lifeaccording to Nietzsche, was thus a life in which a person could look back at all his experiences and want nothing to be different. On the one hand, it is interesting how he challenged us to find our new sense of what is “good”, exceeding the conventional laws of morality. On the other hand, it is too much of a selfish vision of a good life to pursue and it can create too much competition and aggressiveness inside the society. Some people may argue that overall his moral theories have proposed a better life to live than the theories before him. Nonetheless, it seems to me as if, according to Nietzsche, the good lifewas something mostly achievable by an elite group of people that could be described as the idealised aristocracy.
Q5: To conclude, we would like to know how you have defined your vision of the “good life” after your philosophical investigation. Also, it would interesting to know if you have been able to trace real-life implications of your argument.
After having explained and analysed the thought of these masters of philosophy, I can attempt to give my own thesis on the issue: “What is the good life?”. First, we have to consider that I am in a different context: I am writing almost one hundred and fifty years after Nietzsche (which is not a lot considering the length of History), and more than two millennials after the Greeks. Moreover, we have to recognise that what we recall as Nietzsche’s theory on morality, or Aristotle’s conception of a good life, is likely to be their definitive opinion on the issue because they developed in their mature age. In contrast, I am writing in very different society at the age of 18, and I think I still have to learn from life. For this reason, my opinion on the issue is very likely to change in the next years of my life, as I grow older. However, I will try to explain in the easiest way possible my idea of the good life.
First of all, our lives are made of three different but fundamental parts: the relationship with ourselves, the relationship with other humans, and the relationship with the world as an entity. The first one and most important is the relationship we have with ourselves; here I refer to our inner self but also to our body and what is in contact with the outside reality. It is the most important because without a good relationship with our inner self we are not able to develop the other two stages of a good life (a good relationship with other humans and with the world). Then, how is it possible to have a good relationship with our inner self? If I had a rule that works for all the people all the times I would probably be famous, things that I’m not; however, I believe that some regulations that helped me to improve this part of my life could be helpful also for some others. The first thing that we have to develop is a good quality of listening to ourselves and this can be developed in different ways: the most traditional is indeed meditation and often times is also the most effective; nevertheless in the world we live today, other ways to free our minds can be physical ones, such as solo running in the forest or swimming in the pool. This way, we isolate ourselves from the stimulus coming from outside and we can reach a contact with ourselves. Once we have reached that point we have to try to concentrate not to think anything. This is important so that we don’t control our minds and free thoughts come in it and in this way we understand what is really important for us: these thoughts might seem very random or strange, but those are the key to a good lifebecause they are not influenced by the society we are living in and thus they represent our real self, that we shouldn’t forget about.
The relationship with other humans must be free and should not be stressful as in our society tends to be. As a matter of fact, I strongly believe in the principle: “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing.” This is to emphasise how important coherence is for our lives and how important is to be respectful to others. The third point is the relationship with the World: how can we live a good life if we don’t have a good relationship with the entity that is welcoming our existence? Lots of people still don’t want to admit it, but the world is facing very hard problems, such as the warming of temperatures or the rising of the level of waters and the increasing pollution in urban areas. Then, it is up to us, the young generations, that have most of their lives (hopefully) still ahead to change our way of behaving towards the world. After having considered these three categories in which our lives can be divided (I’m sorry if I haven’t consider others that might be very important but in the context of this essay I believe three are more than enough), it is then the time to understand where they lead. Applying these maxim to our lives will lead us to a free life, in which we can enjoy much more liberty than most of the people do. We can therefore understand my thesis: the good lifeis a life in which we reflect and act for what is good, not just for ourselves but for the world and the human species.
We can find some implications for sure. In fact, according to my argument, a good life can be lived only if the individual is sharing his attention and care between himself and the other people. In addition, if this is balanced with a deep understanding of our inner self, we can escape the temptations of society and live our best life. Let’s consider, for example, a reflection I made after spending a month working in Milan, one of Italy’s biggest cities. I have met a lot of people that live their lives in a very stressed way, striving for having better results and more quantitative things in their lives. Through advertisement, social medias, television and other techniques the big companies are trying to set our way of behaving and the more they better their ways of exploiting the new technologies to do so, the more we become slaves of huge mechanism that is reducing us to mere gears needed for stability of the market. Consequently, these people I met spent their life in a constant rush, striving for something they haven’t obtained yet, and forgetting about everything they already have. It didn’t seem to me that they were appreciating their life, but most likely they were just waiting to live a life that may never come. This is why it is important to have a good relationship with our inner self: so that we really understand what we want from our lives and that we are not conditioned by the temptations around us. Some people could disagree with me and say that the society wants us to have a great life and the progress is just leading us towards a better living. However, how do they explain the fact that we are getting lonelier and lonelier by spending more time on social networks rather than with real friends? How do they explain the fact that more and more people are suffering high level of stress or mental health problems? How do they explain the fact that the richest 1% of the world population owns the 99% of the world’s wealth? This path is unsustainable and will destroy the human race. If we go on living this way in one hundred years there will be a very small elite that will govern the world and all the rest of the people will get enslaved. This is why I strongly believe in freedom and in the fact that nowadays a good lifecan’t be just a life of reflection or observation: it has to be a life of action, a life of protest, a life that will emancipate the real essence of human beings. This understanding of a good life, based on the care of the self, but also of the other, on the understanding of the outside world, but also on the dedication to understand our inner self, will make us more aware human beings and therefore capable to live a good life.
Thank you, Guglielmo, for your exciting contribution.