One needs some kind of perspicuous conceptual distinction between the good life and sustaining life if one hopes to be able to make any sense of one’s doubt concerning whether or not one is wasting one’s life. (I take ‘wasting my life’ to be a philosophical question raised most clearly, most existentially only within the confines of the modern age.) Only if there is a distinction between higher forms of life (good life) and mere persistence in one’s existence (sustaining life) can one assuage oneself of such a doubt.
Now, when I wonder, ‘Am I wasting my life?,’ I am asking whether I have any reason for living apart from merely going on day after day. This question occurs to anyone who can meet his material needs (and possibly then some) but who would like to know why it is worth all the bother ‘in the end.’ ‘What is all the bother about?’–this is a (perhaps, the) philosophical question of the first order.
To ensure that the distinction I want to draw between the good life (that is to say, I have a defensible reason for living) and sustaining life is neither too strict nor too broad, I need to make some methodological assumptions at the outset:
1.) Pluralism on its own is ‘too thin.’ The thesis that holds that I can live however I see fit so long as I do not harm anyone does not, as of yet, furnish me with an account of the good life. It only opens up a space of freedom. What is good about pluralism, of course, is that it makes it possible for me to inquire into whether some way of life or other could count as being higher. As I have argued elsewhere, pluralism all too often leads to nihilism, the view according to which there is no point in living.
2.) Monism–the view according to which all our values must be directed at a single final aim–is straitjacketing. Isaiah Berlin pointed out that this tends to lead to mass conformity, fascism, Maoism, etc.
3.) Historical epochs only allow for certain forms of life to ‘show up’ for us. In modernity, some higher ways of life are available to us while others are not. There is, for instance, no sense to be made of the claim that one wants to live like a Viking, a Beowulf, a Visigoth or that one wants to become a medieval saint. This spirit of anachronism is already what Don Quixote taught us.
4.) Something like Plato’s method in The Republic would have to be applied to our considerations of how a person with character X determines whether way of life X’ would be revelatory. A contemplative sort of person would be ill-served were he to erroneously believe that the life of the statesman is right for him. (This is where Plato goes wrong in his understanding of the philosopher-king. One is either a philosopher or a king.)
The first conclusion I want to draw from 1.) – 3.) is that there can only be a finite set of higher forms of life that ‘show up’ for us in the modern age.
The second conclusion is that one would have to inquire into (a) what sort of character one has, (b) what sort of higher life could possibly fit, and (c) how it would be possible for this sort of character to seek to live this particular–and particularly well-suited–way of life.
The third conclusion is that we should now have good grounds for knowing whether we are wasting our lives if it is the case that we are not seeking to live one of these higher forms of life but only instead perduring in our existence. (I take it one is not wasting one’s life if one is seeking to lead a higher form of life that is, it turns out, not right for him. This person clearly wants to lead a higher form of life but is simply confused; for all that, he can still be set upon the right path.) For instance, the bourgeois way of life in which one seeks only to secure the ordinary goods (status, comfort, health, stability) can be regarded as a paradigm case of someone’s wasting his life. This is because the bourgeois way of life is simply an instantiation of sustaining life and, as such, is ‘barren.’ Arguably, then, on any defensible conception of the good life, sustaining life would have to provide the ‘infrastructural support’ for the leading of the good life.