To this question, the most advanced thinkers believe there is no answer. Morality, they maintain, is a matter of personal expression. What is the good life for one person will be hell for another. To “privilege” one moral vision over the teeming diversity of individual moralities is an exercise of naked power, usually of the racist, sexist kind.
There is a shred of truth in this postmodernist nonsense. Our private cravings and intuitions don’t always fit the standard virtues. William James called morality a tragic condition, because to achieve it we must mutilate and sacrifice some portion of our desires.
In addition, any question about the good life will be answered differently in different circumstances: the good life for an Iraelite of the time of Solomon did not coincide perfectly with that of an Athenian of the time of Pericles, and neither are identical to ours.
No matter. The need for a shared vision of the good life I have discussed elsewhere, and will treat as self-evident. The reality of the good life must be rooted in human nature, and to some indeterminate degree will transcend differences of time and place. My interest, in any case, is in the here and now.
The words “good life” connote wealth and possessions. The ancient Greeks agreed with this notion, but would have added strength, beauty, and a noble birth. Christian morality, on the other hand, utterly rejects a wordly definition of the good life: the rich man never enters heaven, only the rich in spirit do.
Unlike Christianity, I have no quarrel with money, which can increase one’s reach to do good, or material stuff, which can be great fun to play with. Always, it’s better to have than to lack. But one dollar beyond the point of subsistence, money and possessions become superficial attainments — ornaments to the good life, rather than the thing itself. To be ruled by the love of money is to live in bondage to trivialities.
Success in life depends less on getting and spending than on the ability to fulfill the primordial longings of the human heart. Of these, the most powerful, without question, is the need for companionship, making marriage and family the necessary first steps towards a happy, well-ordered existence.
Marriage means more than sex and reproduction, the evolutionary reason for the institution. Marriage can break open the cage of subjectivity in which every self-conscious person is imprisoned: husband and wife can experience the world through one another’s eyes, and become part of a story larger than mere individual survival.
The same is true of having children. Kids fill a home with the noise of companionship, and extend the story into the future. With kids, the more the better, though I suppose there’s an upper limit beyond which they cease to be a family and become a horde.
The family is the moral core, from which emanate all judgments about what is good and evil in life. When we wish to express the most commanding kind of love or loyalty, we can only do so in familiar terms: we speak of our motherland, of the father of our country, of the brotherhood of man.
In a democracy, however, the good life can’t remain a wholly private affair. The private man is also the public citizen, and to the degree that he withdraws from that duty he invites the state, with its power of compulsion, to move into the vacated space. Service well performed inspires satisfaction. Influence over matters close to home — schools, public safety, traffic, commercial zoning — permits the citizen to improve the texture and the flavor of his life. If, as Aristotle claimed, we are all social animals, some portion of the good life will be found in society.
Between public and private, there must be a balancing act. At one end of the scale, hermits and anchorites do violence to human nature and to democracy alike. Citizens should enjoy the opportunity to serve, whether in the elementary school PTA, the church committee, in public office, or as a patron of the arts.
But all morality, including public morality, emanates from a private core, which must be protected and preserved. The professional politician, the movie star, the “celebrity,” lack all substance except as an idea in the minds of strangers, and lead lives no less unnatural than the hermit’s in the desert. The good life, in self-protection, will avoid the shadowless glare of fame.
The third element of the good life concerns the acquisition of knowledge and the realization of talent. Each of us is born ignorant, and to the degree that we remain in that condition, we fail to grow up. Knowledge is control; wisdom, an understanding of what can and what can’t be controlled. The good life is predicated on acquiring both.
Similarly, we each possess the native gift to perform certain activities: building, writing, thinking, healing, playing baseball, etc. We should hone to the keenest possible edge the skills we are born with, for the following reasons. First, the display of mastery is in itself a great pleasure, both to oneself and to others. Second, excellence tends to be rewarded, socially and materially. But third, and most importantly, the pursuit of excellence is a requirement to the pursuit of happiness: to be worthless and useless at every activity would add up to a life few people would consider, in any sense, worth living.
Family, service, excellence: here are the three great pillars on which a good life must rest — in a liberal democracy, in the here and now. Is it really that simple? Not quite. Two additional factors are needed. The first is virtue: an understanding of the rules of right and wrong behavior, and a strong desire to do right. The second, and surely the most influential, is luck.