The Good Life and Sustaining Life: An Inquiry into Our Great Vexation (An excerpt)

Preface: Our Great Vexation

There may be no greater vexation in our time than the question of how to make a living in a manner that accords with leading a good life. Laypersons may evade the question merely by closing their eyes and keeping their heads down; doing so involves the great effort of remaining blindly unthinking. For the thinking person, however, such is not an option. Yet if nearly every thinking person has faced this vexation at one time or another and doubtless throughout most of his adult life, virtually no one has ventured to think it through in a well-considered, systematic fashion.

Unlike those who despair of what they see or who sound the world weary note of caution that ‘life is full of burdens, compromises, and trade-offs,’ I assume that the question, though surely quite hard, is not so foreign that it cannot be addressed nor so enigmatic that it must go unanswered. This is why ‘thinking through things,’ which Aristotle regarded as the supreme undertaking of philosophy, becomes so timely and paramount today. We cannot go on with this great vexation, yet we do not know how to go on otherwise.

The dilemma catches most people off guard, ensnaring some for life. Over the past four years in my philosophy practice, for instance, I have listened to the nihilist wishing not to be one, to the creative person who is taken, all around, to be hopelessly impractical, and to the relatively wealthy individual who, amid the mental turmoil, lives with a ‘bad conscience’ (Nietzsche). Some, that is, are able to make a decent enough living but sniff out that what they are doing is just a lot of ‘bullshit work’ (David Graeber). Others pursue beauty or union yet have to elbow their way in and hustle to get gigs simply, and clumsily, in order to get by. And others are enmeshed in the kind of well-paying work–say, for a large oil corporation or an investment bank–that is so at odds with any  idea of social good or notion of distributive justice that they quickly fall victim to mental discord.

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