What makes a good life

August 12, 2021

A top student of her high school class is approaching graduation, and she must choose what to do next year. Only she is hunted by feelings of doubt and fear. She dreads not what is ahead but what she will be leaving behind.

Every choice is an exercise in restraint, for it requires us to abandon unexplored possibilities. For this student, the epitome of a successful academic career, this prospect is simply unbearable.

In some ways, we all feel like her at some point in our lives. For it is to be human to be discontent with the immediate. We are in nature restless, and because of it we are anguished, despite leaving in the age of greatest comforts.

The way we cope with our restlessness always involves the search for the grander, the struggle for something bigger than ourselves. Throughout history, this longing has often materialized in violence.

Created during the European wars of religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the self was intended from the outset to offer human beings a vision of their lives that would restrain the human tendency to deploy violence in the name of the sacred.

Why we are restless, Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey.

This process seemed to end in 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the End of History. The individual was put front in center, as the end-all-be-all of a fulfilling life.

It was, however, the same Fukuyama who raised the question of what was to be then of western society, left with no other meaning to life than the hedonic pursuit of happiness.

If men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle.

Francis Fukuyama.

Michel de Montaigne tried to warn us, back in the sixteenth century, about the perils of the restless mind. He advised opposing the natural impulse to wonder and enjoy life for what it is in the immediatelly present.

Fear, desire, and hope launch us towards the future, and rob us of the sentiment and consideration of what is, to amuse us with what will be, even when we will be no longer.

Michel de Montaigne.

Unintendently, Montaigne has become one of the most fervent defenders of the pursuit of happiness through the embrace of the mundane which, in our capitalist world, is the embrace of the material.

Alas, as the student that introduced this story, we know Montaigne’s way of life is flawed, for it does not provide an answer to our natural longing for the transcendental.

Liberal states offer rights and prosperity, but nothing more.

The rise of post-liberal man, Mathis Bitton.

It was Pascal first, and Tocqueville later, who pointed at the fundamental hollowness of Montaigne’s theory of human flourishing. Specially powerful is Tocqueville’s description of the ills such approach would instill in the american man.

The inhabitant of the United States attaches himself to the goods of this world as if he was assured of not dying, and he throws himself into seizing those that pass within his reach with so much precipitation that one would say that at every instant he is afraid of ceasing to live before enjoying them.

Alexis de Tocqueville.

Without struggle, we are fundamentally bored, and from our boredom most of our modern ills emanate. This is not to say progress is not a worthy goal, on the contrary; It is the luxury of our times to struggle in the search for meaning. It is, indeed, the unanswered question of our times: what are the constituents of a good life, in the age of abundance.

Hi there 👋, I’m Gerard, I write about thinking tools and big ideas. I also work at Shopify and publish the best I read on Twitter.

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