The Good Life and Sustaining Life: Definitions (Excerpt)

Preliminary Remark

The good life and sustaining life are two separate, albeit connected, concepts. How they are connected, when they are connected properly, is the subject of this philosophical investigation.

Definitions and Distinctions

 1. By ‘the good life,’ I mean that for the sake of which one ultimately lives.

 2. Throughout the course of this guide, I will often distinguish between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ in order to bring out the distinction between various viable conceptions of the good life (the higher) and various mistaken conceptions of the good life (the lower). 

Remark: I will claim that the bourgeois and hedonistic ways of life are chief examples of ‘the lower.’ Plato delightfully refers to hedonists as the ‘lovers of sights and sounds.’

3. By ‘wasting one’s life,’ I mean not living out a viable conception of the good life either (a) because such a form of life is not available to us in the modern world or (b) because such a form of life cannot be defended as a higher form of life. 

Remark: There are two possible mistakes that one can make. 

(a) An example of a once yet no longer viable way of life is that of the crusading Christian knight. To live one’s life as if one could really be a knight today (and I do not mean merely ‘playing at’ being a knight) is to waste one’s life in a specific sense: it is to live in folly. In examples such as this one, we are witnessing the problem of anachronism, which amounts to fantasy. We must watch out so that we do not fall into fantasy or self-deception, believing that we can lead the kind of life (live like Che Guevara, say) when such a life cannot ‘show up’ for us in our time.

(b) A different sort of example of wasting one’s life, one that I will be exploring at considerable length, is the bourgeois conception of a good life. The error in this case is that one identifies the good life with sustaining life. Put differently, one treats the bourgeois as if it were higher when in actuality it is a lower form of life. This point will become clearer by ‘Day 2. Sustaining Life.’

4. By ‘sustaining life,’ I mean being able to meet my material needs (or my material needs together with those of the individuals who are dependent upon me) day after day.

Remark: Unless one inherits wealth or is especially good at taking (foraging, dumpster diving, cheating, or stealing), one must ‘make a living’ in order to sustain one’s life.

5. By ‘make a living,’ I mean making concerted, lawful efforts in order, day after day, to satisfy the material needs of my dependents and me.

Remark: I add the qualifier ‘lawful’ with some reservations. I am assuming in what I write that the order in which one lives is basically just. I am not assuming that one is living in a corrupt political society or in a lawless one. If either of these things were the case, then the possibility of leading a good life would already be compromised or brought into doubt. Indeed, one would doubtless be concerned with sustaining life (or, concluding that there is no point in living, may quickly become a nihilist).

6. By ‘material needs,’ I mean those without which a human being would cease to be a human being were they to remain unsatisfied for a long enough period of time. These material needs include food, water, shelter, warmth when it is frigidly cold, coolness when it is threateningly warm, and transportation.

Remark: Fascinatingly, we human beings have exactly so many (or few) material needs just because each is a response to some biological fact about human survival. I need to eat, so I have the material need for food. I need to sleep, so I have the material need for shelter. I need to drink, so I have the material need for a ready supply of fresh water. I can easily get so cold that I could die, so I need to be in a warm enough climate and wear warm enough clothing. The same goes for my getting too warm. Lastly, I need to secure all these things, so I have the material need of transportation.

7. When the good life is harmoniously connected to sustaining life, I will call this consonance. When the two are in conflict, I will call this discordance.