Caroline and I enjoy a bit of TV — or at least, we try. With so many channels these days, audience share is fragmented; quality suffers. The new wildlife documentaries seem to be more about the daredevil production crew than the animals; history programs are more re-enactment dramas than historical fact … and then there are the sitcoms and crime shows. Gore is cool; so is cynicism; there’s even a new twist on that old staple, sex — the new normal is to have lots of sex with lots of people in lots of places, especially at work, especially if you’re a lawyer or doctor. Everyone knows that long-term monogamous relationships are doomed; ‘love’ is whatever you can grab from those heady first days and (if you’re lucky) weeks of newfound passion.
And then there’s me, sitting quietly, reading about Aristotle and ‘the good life.’ No, he wasn’t talking about la dolce vita but about a life worth living — an enriching, satisfying path to dignity and integrity. Gosh, just using words like that makes me feel like a dinosaur. But then I remind myself, I’m not suddenly losing touch — I always was old-fashioned. I was skeptical as a teenager, and I’m still skeptical about those things that strike me as contemptible — mindless popular trends and the age-old myths of progress and success.
Progress? It’s mostly technology; what’s it accomplished? Our ability to stress ourselves beyond reason, for one. It’s also morphed war into the new form of world-wide terrorism — no distinction between combatants and civilians, no front lines, no end in sight.
Success? We have more millionaires than ever, but do we have happier people? MSN News reports that 55% of Americans under 45 hate their jobs; where’s the success in that? And with all that short-term sex, who still experiences the exquisite rewards of well-worn intimacy and deep companionship?
The Good Life meant something quite different to Aristotle. Unfortunately, my college professors left me thinking that philosophers had too much time on their hands and a genetic predisposition to long-windedness. Now at last, a whole new generation of Western philosophers is revisiting that dreary approach to the Classics. It turns out that those dead old Greeks weren’t just trying to be clever; they were working with their thoughts and feelings to become less reactive, more in tune. They were in search of mental and emotional wellbeing — which is why I can relate to them; that’s why I abandoned everything and went off to India.
What Aristotle called ‘the good life,’ the Buddha called ‘awakening.’ It just goes to show that people are people, no matter which corner of the planet they come from. Both these men recognized stress as a response to life and tried to find a way to change that response. Did either of them succeed? That’s for you to figure out.
What so many of us can’t stomach any more is the way religions have hijacked ethics and turned them into totalitarian rules to be believed whether you understand or not. There’s more to ethics than thou shalt not. Ethics are a skill that grows from self-discipline — something profoundly out of sync with today’s do-what-feels-good attitude.
I’ve always thought of myself as an arch-rebel, but when I look back on what I was rebelling against, I see that it was and is against a society in moral decline. Who cares for the values of fuddy-duddy, finger-wagging old school marms? We want leaders who respect our opinions, and teachers who encourage exploration and curiosity. But look at these questions that, incredibly, only philosophers care to ask: Why is it wrong to harm others? What’s wrong with having as much sex as possible with as many people as you can? What are the consequences of hiring strangers to raise our children and care for our aged parents? Does guilt cause disease?
Today’s a sunny fall Sunday and I sit inside my house, unable to enjoy my garden because my neighbours are filling the neighbourhood with noise and air pollution from leaf-blowers, pneumatic log-splitters and powerful garden vacuums that suck up bugs and dirt along with fallen leaves and grass cuttings. When I ask them to take a break, they insist they have to do this on weekends, that their machines are really quiet and that they don’t really cause any air pollution. They seem to think they’re fooling me. What are the consequence of such absurd denial? How does it affect their own well-being, never mind my own?
These aren’t trivial questions, even though the circumstances may be. By seeking to answer them in ways we can understand, we approach the good life. Life is never free of irritation, even tragedy, but by understanding the way we deal with it, we can change our experience. People have been trying to improve the world for centuries by making money and enacting laws; true, the richer nations have made advances in civil rights, but only because people fought for them; who’s fighting for the good life? It’s about personal self-discipline, not the law; it’s not the struggle to work harder and make more stuff, but the dignity to stop this infernal vicious circle, take a breath, look at those around you and enjoy — and share — the fruits of a life well-spent.