|Gaugin, Still Life With Three Puppies.|
The reason I have to try to be generous is that it's so hard to say anything interesting and plausible about this question that I'm always annoyed by the answers people give.
The reason, though, that I do try to be generous is it's so hard to say anything interesting and plausible about this question that ... well, I feel like critcizing is like shooting fish in a barrel.
But I had to really struggle to be generous when reading Ronald Dworkin's discussion of the question in a recent New York Review of Books.
It wasn't so much Dworkin's idea of life as a kind of attempted performance that got to me -- though, indeed, I had some difficulties there too -- but more the idea that to live a good life requires some kind of striving, achievement, a rising to the challenge.
He puts it this way:
In my own view, someone who leads a boring, conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had.Later, he talks about the good of accepting risks in a good life. The kind of case he mentions has become a standard philosophical example -- though people seem to disagree about what it's an example of, exactly. The example is the Great Artist who has to decide whether to Sacrifice His Family to Pursue His Great Art -- something like what Gaugin supposedly did when he left his wife and five children alone to go off to paint full-time.
It's commonly thought -- and Dworkin agrees -- that when the Great Artist really does produce Great Art, the sacrifice is vindicated. It's somehow worth it. Dworkin goes further, though, and says that not only does the success of such a venture make for a good life, even the attempt at such a venture makes for a good life. We might value daring in life, even if it risks making our lives worse, just as entrepreneurs and dare-devil skiers do. So the Gaugin types -- they're really onto something.
But look, we can't all be special, can we? It really bugs me, the idea that to have a good life you have to be trying really hard to create something special and magical, bucking convention, striving to really make it something distinctive and unusual. Like, it's not enough to be a nice person and good parent and generally helpful kind of guy or gal. No, to have a good life you have to climb Mount Everest, or travel among some undiscovered tribes, or fight in some war, or discover some new type of beetle or something.
Can we just pause to tally up the problems that have arisen from this way of thinking? Places like Mount Everest are becoming overrun with adventure seekers; the poor undiscovered tribes who just want to be left alone have had their habitat ruined by oil-seeking outsiders; young people around the world are set to fighting against and killing one another, and other young people who aren't all that interested in beetles are full of self-loathing and worry because, really, all they want to do is have a nice time, maybe have a beer and watch the game.
It seems to me what we need around here are more models for the good life that aren't full of adventure and striving. Models that show us how to celebrate the ordinary day to day things, like eating dinner with people, going for a walk, and looking at interesting stuff in a museum or a field or whatever.
Sure, you can turn any of those activities into a striving for achievement: "I'll make adventurous or gluttonous food! I'll walk faster, harder, longer than anyone else! I'll learn all the paintings by heart!" But doesn't that sound horrible and depressing?
As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to the meaning of live, no one has really improved on Voltaire's Candide instructing us that "we must cultivate our garden." Engage yourself in a practical pursuit, and the boring will be transformed to interesting, the flowers will entertain you, the vegetables will grow for eating, and you'll forget about all these stupid questions like what is the meaning of life.