The Good Life Method: Reasoning Through the Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning by Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko is the perfect early January book to review. In this time of New Year’s resolutions, what better to discuss than a book on pursuing the good life:
Two Philosophers Ask and Answer the Big Questions About the Search for Faith and Happiness For seekers of all stripes, philosophy is timeless self-care. Notre Dame philosophy professors Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko have reinvigorated this tradition in their wildly popular and influential undergraduate course "God and the Good Life," in which they wrestle with the big questions about how to live and what makes life meaningful. Now they invite us into the classroom to work through issues like what justifies our beliefs, whether we should practice a religion and what sacrifices we should make for others--as well as to investigate what figures such as Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Iris Murdoch, and W. E. B. Du Bois have to say about how to live well. Sullivan and Blaschko do the timeless work of philosophy using real-world case studies that explore love, finance, truth, and more. In so doing, they push us to escape our own caves, ask stronger questions, explain our deepest goals, and wrestle with suffering, the nature of death, and the existence of God.
It also fits in rather well with my post from yesterday:
Like many during the
never-endingongoing pandemic I was trying to figure how I wanted to structure and approach my life. What would I spend my time on? Where would I put my focus and energy? What ultimately brought joy and meaning into my life?
And this approachable and engaging look at virtue, ethics, and the good life will reward careful reading and contemplation. While the book begins with a contrast between virtue ethics and consequentialism, it is really about how to go about a thoughtful, active and meaningful life; wrestling with the big questions and coming to grips with partial and contingent answers as best we can.
But like so many non-fiction books I have read in the past, I am struggling to organize my thoughts into a concise review.1 But will try to recap the main ideas and offer what I liked and learned.
The authors introduce the book as an attempt to show readers how to use philosophy as a practical tool towards the goals and desires we all have as humans; to live our best life if you will. Practical questions like how to do I manage my money or balance work, family and friendship? But also deeper and more challenging questions about God, community life and even death.
What the book offers, however, is a framework for tackling these questions not definitive answers. In fact, they argue that anyone with locked in definitive answers for all places and times should be viewed with suspicion as they are likely to end up in a authoritarian place.
Virtue ethics is this tool or framework. The core idea being that “there are goals for a good life and achieving them requires developing certain habits, which the ancients called virtues.” The ethics half is less a system and more internal principles; think “work ethic.”
The building blocks for this frameworks is based on four elements:
- Strong Questioning
- Loving Attention
- Making Meaning
Strong questioning is about digging deeper into what we believe and how we act. Agency is about developing your intentions and being honest about what you are doing and why. Loving attention is about paying attention to other’s stories, finding common ground, and connecting our lives with theirs. Making meaning is about understanding how various pieces and parts of your life fit together, making corrections when needed, and joining up various spheres of your life into a coherent whole.
The ultimate goal of virtue ethics is eudaimonia, often translated as flourishing. The concept is of being your best self, building up virtuous traits of character (courage, generosity, wisdom, etc.) and integrating them into your life.
God and the Good Life
The God and the Good Life course, of which the book grew out of, was built on the idea that “philosophy is care for our souls.” The course asked students four crucial questions:
- How do you decided what (and whom) to believe?
- What are your moral obligations?
- Should you practice a religion?
- What (if anything) can you do to make sure your life is meaningful?
The book is basically seeks to guide the reader through these questions. The first five chapters tackle the “good life” aspects: Desire the Truth; Live Generously; Take Responsibility; Work with Integrity; Love Attentively. The last five chapters cover the “God” part: Wonder about God; Take a Leap of Faith; Struggle with Suffering; Contemplate Your Purpose; Prepare for Death.
They also offer an “assignment” called the “Philosophical Apology.” This “part rigorous philosophical argument, part personal narrative, and part map to the good life” will help you work out your answers to these questions. At the end of every chapter they include a “soulcraft” section that include exercises to assist you and examples of their own apologies and those of students.
What I liked, what I learned
That rather long-winded introduction to the, er, introduction should help you understand the basic concepts the book tackles. I am not a philosopher by training so I will not attempt to critique or critically engage with the text as an academic or practitioner.
Instead, let me share what I appreciated about the book and what I came away with when I was done.
What I appreciated was the engaging and approachable style. The authors were personable, avoided jargon and wrote with clear prose. The mix of philosophy, personal stories and reader exercises both made it an enjoyable read but increased the odds you would feel connected to the material in a real way. This is not an abstract academic overview but exploration of things that have real meaning in the lives of the authors and readers.
What I came away with is an appreciation for the hard work involved in living an examined and yet active and meaningful life. Relationships are hard; particularly if you are trying to build deep, lasting ones. Trying to map out what the good life looks to you in both moral and concrete terms is a challenge. But these are the very things that give depth and meaning to our lives.
And as the authors point out in the introduction, there seems to be a serious meaning gap in our society. I honestly believe that virtue/character is critical to a healthy society and many forces in our culture have undermined and seek to destroy these very things.
This is a book that would reward re-reading. Having read it once to get the overall picture and a handle on the concepts, a re-read would allow for taking the time to really work on the soul craft sections; maybe even writing an apology.
This is a book that would have been very useful to me when I was younger. But even on the backside of 50 I think putting in the work to better understand what flourishing means for me and those I love would repay the effort in meaningful ways.
Lastly, I will note that the authors have an admitted perspective as practicing Catholics but I don’t think that is a drawback. They are open about it, but many of the writers and thinkers they explore are not Catholic and I think they truly are seeking the truth not conversion. They want you to ask the questions not predetermine the answers.
And that is why I think this book is a valuable read no matter your philosophical or religious background. Asking questions, exploring hard issues, wrestling with meaning, understanding stories, these are the elements of a meaningful life. And I fear they are increasingly rare.
There are a lot of self-help gurus and experts offering “life hacks” and other sales pitches. Most of this will end in frustration and even emptiness. Seeking wisdom is much harder. But it is worth it.
1This is another book I should not have read before bed. And while I absolutely adore my Kindle Oasis, I find it harder to go back and re-capture a book in e-format. With a paper book I can go chapter by chapter and look at passages I have underlined (with a pencil!) and remember important points that jumped out at me. I can sort of build an outline of what was meaningful to me. I try to remember to highlight as I go with the Kindle but I often get sucked into the book and forget. Another challenge was that this was an advance readers copy from NetGalley (for which I am very grateful) and thus my highlights are harder to access (Kindle doc versus purchased book).