The Good Life
Let me ask you a question: Are you living “the good life?” Most likely, for as long as humans have had time to ponder, we’ve been asking the question, “What is the good life?” That line of thinking usually leads us to even more questions. But we all want to live the good life, right?
So, what is “the good life” to you? Think about this for a moment. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? A healthy family? Money? Success? Most of us think of things that we believe will make us happy. The good life is being happy, right? Retiring on the beach fishing, traveling the world, perhaps escaping to a cabin in the mountains—it’s generally material things we associate with happiness and “the good life.”
Well, Aristotle would both agree and disagree with our conclusions. He said there is a supreme good for humanity, and that our supreme good is happiness. But happiness is so subjective, isn’t it? So of course, that must mean there is a more common definition of happiness—that there is a primary meaning for what Aristotle referred to as “the good life.”
According to Aristotle, “the good life” is a life lived when we fulfill our greatest potential. Not only that but ultimately, the good life is what we all desire, because the good life is what brings ultimate happiness to us. This ultimate happiness isn’t a place or a thing, or a pile of money—it’s a way of life.
The Good Life is a Way of Life
For Aristotle, we achieve the good life by using reason—a gift he believed was unique to humans. Aristotle makes a pretty simple argument: if we use reason, we make good decisions, and good decisions lead to virtuous living. Living virtuously actualizes a human being’s potential, and living up to our potential is what truly makes us happy. Aristotle said that to live virtuously—to be happy, we need to be reasonable and make reasonable decisions.
Let me put it this way: Let’s say you are born with an awesome talent for making and repairing mechanical things but you decide to become a chef, something you might love but for which you have absolutely no ability. You can’t tell the difference between a cucumber and a tomato, but you decide to make your living—pay your bills and support your family, by becoming a chef.
You would not be living up to your potential, and ultimately, you’d probably have a pretty miserable life because you’ve set yourself up for failure. You know you can’t cook, but you insist on trying to make a career of cooking. Aristotle would say this is unreasonable because we took actions that lead to failure. He’d also say we took these actions because we didn’t use God’s gift of reason to make good decisions.
I like to take Aristotle’s ideas a step farther. I think every gift we’re given, from reason to mechanical ability, from cooking to nursing—whatever, is given to us to help us find a more constant connection with God. I think happiness, especially for those of us living (or at least doing our best to live) into the spiritual mystery of life, is about using reason to achieve spiritual oneness with God.
True happiness only comes from experiencing that blissful God connection deeply. Reason helps us realize our God connection by helping us wade through dogmatic and doctrinal muck, and our God connection leads to the fulfillment of our ultimate potential, which leads us to ultimate happiness.
In his masterwork Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote that as humans we all have the same potential and that actualizing that potential should be our only real goal in life. When we are actualized we are happy, and when we are happy, the people around us are happy, and the people around them are happy, and so on until ultimately all humans are living into their ultimate, best potential and we’re all happy.
I know this can start to sound like Tony Robbins or one of the other self-help gurus, but Aristotle saw a life of virtue as the only true path to happiness, and the only path to virtue is reason.
For Aristotle, reasoning well meant one would ultimately find a certain state of character—a virtuous state. If we’re reasoning well, we don’t murder or steal or cheat, because these actions lead us to terrible and morose lives.
By living to a higher moral standard, our character is changed.
What Aristotle’s talking about is a very difficult standard to live up to. In fact, it’s so difficult he realized it was virtually impossible for any human to live a perfectly virtuous life. Many of us will do our best, but most of us, Aristotle thought, would do some pretty heinous things at one point or another in our life. Nobody’s perfect, after all. So, to emphasize his ideas about happiness Aristotle created an example for people to follow, a perfect human being he called “The Sage.”
Now, think for a moment about the importance of this ideal—what’s called a regulative ideal—the sort of standard against which all other humans are judged. Does this “sage,” this “regulative ideal,” sound familiar?
If you’re a Christian, you’re probably (hopefully) thinking about Jesus. It’s interesting to note that by the time people started writing about Jesus, Aristotle’s ideas had been around for more than 400 years, and they pervaded religious thought—especially Jewish religious thought. So Jesus is very obviously meant to be a regulative ideal. Once his teachings became formalized into doctrine, his life, and his faith became the standard against which his followers were supposed to judge our own lives—both materially and spiritually.
This not only shows the profound influence of Greek philosophy on early Jewish and later Christian thinking, it also shows a profound response from God—what to me is an incredible show of support and love. In the example of Jesus God says, “Hang in there! It’s terrible out there, I know. Virtuous people seem impossible to find. But you can do it. I AM with you, always, and I love you, always. Don’t give up. Look to Jesus and follow him! Be like him! Think like him! Believe like him!”
Scripture and the Regulative Ideal
The Bible has a lot to say to support Aristotle’s idea that the good life is the virtuous life. Of course, a lot of what scripture has to say about virtue—especially the Second Testament, was influenced by Aristotle in the first place.
Jesus is all about living Aristotle’s virtues! The perfect human—the happy human, in Aristotle’s view, lived according to the cardinal virtues. Okay, so what are the cardinal virtues? Well, we need look no further than a passage from 2 Peter 1:3-9 (The Message):
Everything that goes into a life of pleasing God has been miraculously given to us by getting to know, personally and intimately, the One who invited us to God. The best invitation we ever received! We were also given absolutely terrific promises to pass on to you—your tickets to participation in the life of God after you turned your back on a world corrupted by lust.
So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s right before you, oblivious that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books.
The cardinal, or primary virtues, are prudence, justice, temperance (restraint), and courage. Let’s take a closer look at these virtues and see if Jesus, as a regulative ideal, lives up to them. Then, let’s see if we live up to them.
PRUDENCE is the ability to make good decisions; having good judgment. Does Jesus have good judgment? Absolutely! Do we?
JUSTICE is treating all people with mercy and compassion. Does Jesus practice true justice? Without a doubt! How are we doing in the justice department?
TEMPERANCE (restraint). Well, if Jesus isn’t the ideal of restraint I don’t know who is. What about us? Do we practice restraint in this on-demand, give-it-to-me-now society?
And finally, there’s COURAGE. Jesus willingly went to the cross and died for his beliefs. Jesus obviously fulfills Aristotle’s sage requirements.
How are the rest of us doing?
Aristotle may have thought a realized self is an impossible goal. But in Jesus, God shows us that a happy life of realization of oneness is not only attainable, it’s what we’re designed to accomplish. We’re designed to be happy, and to be happy by finding oneness with God, which will make us virtuous, which makes us happy.
Jesus shows us both how to live and what the ideal human looks like. But most importantly, Jesus shows us how intimately God lives within us, and just how effective life lived in God’s constant presence can be.
As Christians, we understand the power of Jesus as the sage, the ultimate human ideal. But we also believe the Christ revealed in Jesus is alive and working within and through all of us. We believe God is changing the world, through every single one of us, every single day.
So, I ask you to think about what the good life means to you, and how you’re doing living it. Bring your ideas, thoughts, questions, hopes and fears to church next week so we can share our ideas with each other. Through discussion, we all grow, and by sharing our ideas with each other, we all live a little more into our potential—which means, of course, we’re all ultimately a little happier. And isn’t that a good reason to get together as church?