Trodding the Path to the Good Life: What History has Taught Us

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Stuck in the endless lull of his trivial life, Bob felt far removed from the good life. His days had turned into a monotonous cycle of events. He would rise, dreading the day that stretched out before him. How could he escape the endless vortex that had consumed his life? The truth was that the problem wasn’t Bob’s life; it was him. In her diary, Anne Frank wrote “Things are only as bad as you yourself care to make them” (76). This is what Bob needed to realize. Only he had the power to change his life, and it was up to him to do so. But how could he enrich his life? The European philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, argued that if we only look out for ourselves, we impede our own happiness. (Rousseau, 425) In order to truly live a life of meaning, or the good life, we must fully commit ourselves to three phases: The tenacious and perpetual improvement of ourselves, the application of virtue into our actions, and the struggle to sculpt the world towards congruency with natural law.

In order to lead a virtuous life, we must first enter the realm of self-discovery. In history, the necessity of knowing ourselves has resounded throughout the ages, but was especially vital in ancient Greece. Perhaps the most famous for this concept was Socrates, who constantly challenged individuals to “know thy self.” He believed that the good life couldn’t occur unless one knew who they were, arguing that “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Bentley and Ziegler, 250). Greek philosophy held the idea that each individual possesses a cosmic blind spot, or hamartia, which is the hardest attribute for us to see in ourselves. (Clark) This is because it is the single quality that actualizes our limitations, telling us who we are and who we can’t be. To strive towards the good life, we must persistently put ourselves in situations that chip away at our hamartia. In doing so, we are inching closer to full self-realization.

This concept still remains at the heart of many modern educational programs. Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound and experiential educator commented:

“Without self-discovery, a person may still have self confidence, but it is a self confidence built on ignorance and it melts in the face of heavy burdens. Self-discovery is the end product of a great challenge mastered, when the mind commands the body to do the seemingly impossible, when courage and strength are summoned to extraordinary limits for the sake of something outside the self--a principle, an onerous task, another human life” ( Without the unwavering commitment to self-knowledge, we cannot live the good life.

Intertwined with self-discovery is the dedication to challenging and improving ourselves. Greek philosophy also emphasized this concept through the importance of Arête (personal excellence in which one actualizes 100% of their potential) (Clark 9/23/09). This is vital to the good life. If we are not constantly struggling to use all of our potential, we are simply standing in the way of our own happiness. While it is true that each person is born with varying traits, each person is fully capable of actualizing every ounce of their potential. Socrates reasoned “It is best and easiest not to discredit others but to prepare oneself to be as good as possible” (81). We cannot change others but we can, and have the responsibility to, better ourselves.

However, it is simple to discuss the importance of bettering ourselves but harder to execute it. Self-improvement materializes in the forms of setting goals, continuously working to meet them, and self-reflection. Within this pursuit, putting ourselves in challenging situations is crucial. Doing so provides ways to exceed previously perceived limitations. Inspirational Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai faced enormous adversity and still planted over forty million trees across Kenya. In her memoir Unbowed she wrote:
“None of us can control every situation we find ourselves in. What we can control is how we react when things turn against us. I have always seen failure as a chance to pull myself up and keep going. A stumble is only one step in the long path we walk and dwelling on it only postpones the journey” (164). This very idea reveals that every situation is a life lesson in self-improvement.

The pursuing of education is fundamental to the creation of our best selves. One of the most influential philosophers in Western Civilization, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, believed that knowledge was the basis for freedom, and that everyone should try to understand “all cases and all things at all times” (Clark, 11/05/09). Hegel believed he had accomplished this and wrote “Only when one stands on high ground can one survey the situation and note every detail, not when one has to peer up from below though a small hole” (5). Not only does knowledge improve ourselves, but it also enhances our rational view of the world.

In the “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato also emphasized the peril of ignorance. He stated “(The people stuck in the cave are) like us. For in the first place, do you suppose such men would have seen anything of themselves and one another other than the shadows cast by the fire on the side of the cave facing them” (103)? Plato contended that without unwavering commitment towards enlightening ourselves, we cannot actually aid the greater community. He wrote:

“Those who are without education and experience of truth would never be adequate stewards of a city, nor would those who have been allowed to spend their time in education continuously to the end- the former because they don’t have any single goal… the latter because they won’t be willing to act, believing they have emigrated to a colony on the Isles of the Blessed while they are still alive” (519).

This dynamic materializes in modern life as well. While those who remain ignorant will not live the good life, often those who are continuously educated also lack the initiative to enlighten themselves. When one is continuously told they are smart, for example, they remain stagnate in their old selves, deeming there is nothing to improve upon. This is the very cosmic arrogance that impedes progress, and therefore the ability to clasp the good life.

However, only focusing on ourselves, even discovering and improving ourselves, doesn’t fully encompass the good life. In our self-improvement, we must combat the selfishness that overtakes our spirit. Marcus Aurelius, the last of ancient Rome’s Five Good Emperors, wrote:

“At day’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that `I am rising for the work of man.’ Must I grumble at setting out to do what I was born for, and for the sake of which I have been brought into the world? Is this the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets? `Ah but it is a great deal more pleasant!’ Was it for pleasure, then, that you were born, and not for work, not for effort” (145)? If we let our selfish desires impede the actualization of all our potential, we allow them to hinder our good life.

We must next apply the virtue we have created in ourselves to our actions. Often, there is a split between what we think and what we actually put into practice. To live the good life, this split must be reconciled. Ancient Roman philosophy (Stoicism) revolved around the importance of actions. Marcus Tullius Cicero, a leading Roman statesman, argued that actions should be based on natural law, which governs the universe and applies to all. He claimed “Law is the highest reason, implanted in nature, which commands what ought to be done and forbids the opposite” (124). If our values and our actions are in line with the natural law, we can achieve virtue. Cicero affirmed “There is no human being of any race who, if he finds a guide, cannot attain virtue” (125).

It is inevitable that people will dispute what the natural law dictates. Nevertheless, the world is rational, and there is absolute truth. This idea has surfaced throughout history; it was believed by Socratics in ancient Greece, Stoics in ancient Rome, philosophers in Enlightenment Europe and during countless other points in history. Hegel claimed “In everything…reason must be awake and reflection applied. To him who looks at the world rationally, the world looks rationally back. The relation is mutual” (13). Martin Luther King Jr. defined what is moral by reasoning “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (35-36). Because there is absolute law entrenched in nature, in pursuing the good life, we must apply our actions to correspond with this law.

Once our actions are consistent with natural law, we must evaluate whether the actions of society correspond with these values. In doing so, we are further advancing our focus from our own lives, to greater community ideals. During the Enlightenment Europe period, a shift occurred in which people no longer simply believed what they were told by the masses. The idea of epistemology (how we know what we know) was developed and a rise of individual beliefs erupted. Unfortunately, in many societies, conformity is standard and, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (34). The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire contended “Our wretched society is so made that those who walk on the well trodden path always throw stones at those who don’t” ( Once we have individually developed an acute sense of what is moral, it is our responsibility to constantly question the values of society.

If we believe that the actions of society are unjust, we must use moral means to fight for our moral ends. As Martin Luther King Jr. states “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (32). The world is much more interconnected than most people realize, and the issues of another will directly affect us. But more importantly, becoming a positive force in the issues of society is the integral to living the good life. Wangari Maathai wrote “We do the right thing not to please people but because it’s the only logically reasonable thing to do- even if we are the only ones” (165). Just as there are blind spots within ourselves that we must strive to expose, there are also blind spots within society. In a commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania, the Irish singer Bono asserted “If you want to serve the age, betray it. What does it mean to betray the age? Well to me, it means exposing its conceits, its foibles, its phony moral certitudes. Every age has its massive moral blind spots. Slavery was one of them and the people who best served the age were the people who called it as it was, which was ungodly and inhuman” (2).

It is our duty as individuals to maintain our freedom by ensuring that the association is actually defending and protecting the whole common force. In The Social Contract, Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau discussed the balance between individual freedoms and devotion to community. He wrote “The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force… and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone and remain as free as before” (425).

Once again, it is quite simple to talk about defending the whole common force, but how do we translate these ideas into actual actions? For Wangari Maathai, defending the common force meant getting to the root of the issues that surrounded her. She wrote:

“We worried about their access to clean water and firewood, how they would feed their children, pay their school fees, and afford clothing, and we wondered what we could do to ease their burdens. We had to get to the root causes of these problems. Now, it is one thing to understand the issues. It is quite another to do something about them. But I have always been interested in finding solutions…It just came to me: `Why not plant trees?’” (124-125). But Wangari’s idea extended far beyond what she could have possibly imagined. Her trees grew to become symbols of empowerment, democracy, education, equity and standing up for justice.

In every society, in every second of history, there is an injustice waiting to be exposed. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God” (38). Not only does the world need you to stand up and devote yourself to the progress of humanity, but you need yourself to do so also; it is crucial to your ability to live the good life. Wangari Maathai declared:

“We have nowhere else to go. Those of us who have witnessed the degraded state of the environment and the suffering that comes along with it cannot afford to be complacent. If we really carry the burden, we are driven to action. We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk” (295)!

The world is constantly in need of catalysts for change, and when it loses one, history suffers. In the “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato predicted that when one person who had been enlightened tries to enlighten the disillusioned masses, they will defy this shift out of the familiar and kill the enlightened one. Too often in history, we have witnessed this very phenomenon. Socrates was put to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens” (Jowett, 154), Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and countless others have lost their lives in the pursuit of justice. After the assassination of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2008, history suffered her loss. As an advocate of democracy, Bhutto was one of Pakistan’s great hopes for peace. One article articulated “The murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has opened Pandora’s Box for political opposition vying for power within Pakistan” (Hardy, Chaos and turmoil has plagued Pakistan ever since, and terrorist organizations have become even more of a threat. Despite threats to her life, and the constant struggles she faced, Benazir Bhutto was still striving towards the good life. Shortly before her death she stated “Just before the attacks happened, I was very happy. The procession was one enormous party, the atmosphere was joyful, people were dancing in the street, it was magnificent. For me, that was the real Pakistan. That is what I have been working for” (

When people fail to expose the blind spots within the age, there is nothing that prevents atrocities from occurring. During the age of the Victorian Empire, scientific racism arose. The French nobleman Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau openly characterized “Africans as unintelligent and lazy; Asians as smart but docile; Native Americans as dull and arrogant; and Europeans as intelligent, noble, and morally superior to others” (Bentley and Ziegler, 935). Cecil Rhodes, a British Imperialist who made his fortune mining diamonds and gold in Africa, argued “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if it were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence” (227).

Affirmed by this perspective, it is no mystery that Europeans failed to rationalize ravaging the entire continent during the “Scramble for Africa.” It is obvious that by imposing their values and religion, filching resources, callously treating Africans, and instituting millions into slavery, Europeans were completely disregarding moral and natural law. In “The White Man’s Burden,” imperialist Ruyard Kipling argues that Europeans have the duty to civilize their “captives” which he refers to as “half-devil and half-child” (Kipling, 913). Not only is each imperialist responsible for the destructive after affects of colonization, but each European is also, for having done nothing to expose this injustice of the age.

Martin Luther King Jr. declared “So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind… rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice” (41). We must surpass the status quo, for the sake of the world and for the sake of ourselves in our quest for the good life. If Bob, for instance, devoted himself to these three phases: the development of his very best self, the practice of virtue in his actions, and application of natural law to best serve the community, he would truly be grasping the good life. Each person is extremely capable of achieving this.

Wangari Maathai reflected:

“I thought of the long journey to this time and place. My mind went over all the difficult years and great effort when I often felt I was involved in a lonely, futile struggle. I didn’t know that so many people were listening and that such a moment (winning the Nobel Peace Prize) would come. I am one of the lucky ones that lived to see a new beginning for my country… I hope Unbowed helps you discover, as I have, that the greatest happiness in life can be found in service” (192 and 306). There is no better feeling than going to bed each night knowing that you are the best person you can be and that you are truly a piece of the progress of humanity. There is no better good life.

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