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Two Great Thinkers on "The Good Life"

by Alexander Green

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

 

 

Dear Reader,

What does it mean to live a good human life?

 

Mankind has grappled with this question for thousands of years. But social scientist Charles Murray, author of the controversial bestseller "The Bell Curve," argues that we're not thinking about it enough today.

 

At a recent lecture, he told the audience that one of the problems with education today is that students are no longer taught the difference "between being nice and being good."

 

Having spent much of the last two decades on college campuses, he observes that students "are not sexist, racist or homophobic. In conversation, they are earnest about social problems. They want to be generous to those who are less fortunate. They say please and thank you. But," he concludes, "being nice is not being good."

 

He proposes that we do a better job of educating our students about what good means as it applies to virtue, and the Good as a way of thinking about how to best live our lives.

 

Some might argue that this is the role of religion or the family. And in some households it is. But in many others today, it is not. And since public schools steer a wide berth when it comes to discussing the content of any faith, the education system has become largely silent on this issue.

 

In his new book "Real Education," Murray points out that we can skirt sectarian controversy - and better prepare students for the future decisions they will have to make - by studying the core values of the world's great wisdom traditions, including those put forward by the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the great Chinese thinker Confucius.

 

Why should we listen to them? Because at some point in their lives, most thinking people realize that they will never achieve their youthful fantasies of money, power or fame.

 

Nor will we live a life of unceasing adventure, circumnavigating Africa in a sailboat, feeling the tropical sun and ocean spray. (Film critic David Denby says the female version of this fantasy is Tuscany, "a primal paradise of sunshine, sex, love, terra-cotta tiles, and huge salads with real tomatoes.")

 

Aristotle reminds us that we should not be disappointed. Our final goal in life should not be wealth (which is only a means to something else) or gratification (which he calls "the life for grazing animals").

 

Rather, he shows us that true happiness only results from living an active life in accordance with virtue. This notion seems decidedly out-of-touch in today's world.

 

Take sports, for example. Murray points out that we used to encourage our children to play sports so that they learned "fair play, courage in adversity, loyalty to teammates, modesty in victory, dignity in defeat."

 

Yet today we see professional athletes behaving like spoiled brats. Parents scream and swear at referees at Little League games. Coaches teach their players that "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" and "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser." Meanwhile, the media focuses on big contracts, multi-million dollar endorsements, and the celebrity lifestyle.

 

You don't hear much about virtue. The word itself sounds quaint, judgmental. Like you're out of sync with society's implied dictate to "do your own thing."

 

It's fine to follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell advised. But Aristotle reminds us that genuine contentment and lasting happiness don't come from fulfilling all our desires, but rather by reaching the highest levels of understanding and exercising virtue in our daily lives.

 

This requires work - and practice.

 

In every area of life, our behavior quickly becomes habitual. A good habit becomes a virtue. A bad habit becomes a vice. (We've all known individuals whose uncontrolled appetites - bad habits - wreaked havoc in their lives.)

 

According to Aristotle, peace of mind is only achieved through reason, temperance and noble character. Not always easy. But the end result is a life lived in harmony, like a beautiful work of art.

 

Writing two centuries earlier, Confucius reached the same conclusion. Like Aristotle, he emphasized that the possession of virtue is not just a matter of recognizing the difference between right and wrong, but acting - living your life - in accordance with what you know to be right.

 

Murray asks, "If your children grow up to be courageous, temperate, able to think clearly about the consequences of their actions, to be concerned with the welfare of others, with a sense of obligation to set a good example for others in their own behavior and to accord to others their rightful due, do you really care whether they were raised to be good Aristotelians or Confucians?"

 

(Or, we might reasonably ask, good Christians or Buddhists or Hindus?)

 

At some point in our lives, most of us have thought - at least haphazardly - about the pursuit of the good life. But many have done it unaided.

 

"The problem," says Murray, is that we "have been given no help in tapping the magnificent body of thought on these issues that homo sapiens have already produced."

 

We should study the great wisdom traditions, he says, for one simple reason: Being virtuous is hard.

 

We face tough choices. Do you stay in a lousy marriage for the benefit of the kids? Do you move your aging father into a nursing home? Do you work harder to advance your career or spend more time with your family? Do you provide financial aid to your adult kids or make them struggle like you did?

 

How we answer questions like these determines the quality of our lives. The decisions generally require trade-offs between short-term and long-term effects, costs and benefits, plusses and minuses.

 

We want to choose wisely. And after more than two millennia, Confucius and Aristotle still offer us practical solutions. They help us define and experience "the good life."

 

Of course, no philosophy, no ethical system, no religious faith has cornered the market on wisdom. So it behooves us to learn what we can from all the world's great traditions.

 

And, perhaps most importantly, never stop wrestling with the questions themselves.

 

 

Carpe Diem,

 

Alex

 

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Alexander Green is the Investment Director of The Oxford Club and Chairman of Investment U, a free, internet-based research service with over 300,000 readers. (The Oxford Club's Communique, whose portfolio he directs, is ranked third in the nation for risk-adjusted returns over the past five years by the independent Hulbert Financial Digest.) Alex has been featured on "The O'Reilly Factor," and has been profiled by Forbes, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, CNBC, and Marketwatch.com, among others. He lives in central Florida with his wife Karen and their children Hannah and David.

 

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