How to aim straight at the good life

09 October 2007

It’s not a matter of happiness or morals, Mark Vernon learns

The jacket illustration, by Caroline Jennings, of the book reviewed below

The jacket illustration, by Caroline Jennings, of the book reviewed below

The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the good life
Jean Kazez

Blackwell Publishing £9.99 (978-1-4051-6078-0)
Church Times Bookshop £9

WHILE academic philosophy con-tinues to indulge its arguments about arguments, a burgeoning crop of popular philosophy books is engaging a wider audience. Along-side the “What do you think?” kind of introductory texts, another question is increasingly being asked: “How should we live?”

Kazez’s warm and lucidly written book is in this camp. It considers religious as well as philosophical responses to its central question: “What is it that makes life go well?” There is no single or simple formula for the good life, Kazez says. Aristotle thought we were living well when flourishing at what is most characteristically human. This had an ethical dimension to it, though Aristotle didn’t think morality could be the whole of it (the Stoics argued that a truly good person would be happy on the rack).

But happiness isn’t the defining test of the good life, either. Aristotle admits that factors beyond a person’s control play an important part in this: good luck, adequate parents, enough wealth.

Aristotle underpins the author’s approach, though she is wary of his emphasis on reasoning as the answer to the question what makes us most characteristically human. She also thinks his conception of the good life is too exclusive. So, sifting through the history of the idea of the good life since the ancient Greeks, and drawing on many personal and literary examples, Kazez creates a list of primary factors — including happiness, self-determination, self-respect, morality — and secondary factors that may well also play a part — a sense of progressing, wisdom, and close relationships.

As well as providing an intro-duction to the problems commonly found in philosophical examina-tions of the subject, Kazez includes substantial discussions of how the good life relates to people with disabilities, and why so many people would say that religion plays a vital part in it. She thinks this is mostly because of concerns about trans-ience and a desire for transcend-ence, though she doesn’t much feel this way herself. Permanence, she says, is secondary, compared with things valuable in themselves.

The book ends by remembering Aristotle’s advice: expect your idea of the good life to fit only roughly; too much precision undermines it. Have enough of an idea simply to take aim.

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