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Where Is the Good Life?

Making the Humanist Choice

by Paul Kurtz


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 3.


What is the good life, and is it achievable? People have sought for happiness, and they have explored the ends of the earth for its realization, but in different ways: the quest for the Holy Grail; a life of service; the delights of pleasure and sensual consummation; or of quiet withdrawal.

Happiness is, no doubt, available in many forms; different individuals and cultures have endowed diverse objects with value. Perhaps not everyone will wish to be engagé, fully involved, creatively exercised; they may wish, instead, repose and quiet, peace and security, a life of leisure and retreat. Yet, without overemphasizing the point, the very essence of life - human life - is creative achievement.

We are defined as persons by the plans and projects that we initiate and fulfill in the world. The humanist saint is Prometheus, not Christ; the activist, not the passivist; the skeptic, not the believer; the creator, not the conniver.

As I see it, creative achievement is the very heart of the human enterprise. It typifies the human species as it has evolved, particularly over the past forty to fifty thousand years: leaving the life of the hunter and the nomad, developing agriculture and rural society, inventing industry and technology, building urban societies and a world community, breaking out of the earth's gravitational field, exploring the solar system and beyond. The destiny of humankind, of all people and of each person, is that they are condemned to invent what they will be - condemned if they are fearful but blessed if they welcome the great adventure. We are responsible in the last analysis, not simply for what we are, but for what we will become; and that is a source of either high excitement or distress.

The tasks that emerge in human civilization are for each individual and each society to forge his or her, or its, own destiny. Human life has no meaning independent of itself. There is no cosmic force or deity to give it meaning or significance. There is no ultimate destiny for humankind. Such belief is an illusion of its infancy. The meaning of life is what we choose to give it. Meaning grows out of human purposes alone. Nature provides us with an infinite range of opportunities, but it is only our vision and our action that select and realize those that we desire.

Thus the good life is achieved, invented, fashioned in an active life of enterprise and endeavor. But whether or not an individual chooses to enter into the arena depends upon him or her alone. Those who do can find it energizing, exhilarating, full of triumph and satisfaction. In spite of failures, setbacks, suffering, and pain, life can be fun.

To achieve the good life is an accomplishment. It involves the development of skills, the proper attitude, and intelligence. The first humanist virtue is the development of one's own sense of power - of the belief that we can do something, that we can succeed, that our own preparations and efforts will pay off. The courage to excel - the courage to become what we want, to realize what we will - is essential. It is in the process of attainment that we thrive: Sisyphus is not to be condemned; there are always new mountains to climb, new stones to heave; and they are never the same.

However, in order to have a sense of our own self-power, it is necessary to be able to live in an ambiguous world of indeterminacy and contingency. Nature is not fixed, nor is our destiny preplanned. We can build new monuments and discover new theorems; there are new worlds to be conquered and created. We must not let ourselves be mastered by events, but we must master them - as far as we can - without fear or recrimination.

If cowardice and fear are our nemesis, so are gullibility and nincompoopery, which must be controlled by the use of reason. To use reason is to demand evidence for our beliefs, and to suspend belief wherever we do not have adequate grounds for it; it requires that we not be deluded by the purveyors of false wares, but that we base our desires, as far as possible, upon the reasonable grounds of practiced reflection. There is a constant tendency to fly from reason to a paradise of perfection or quietude. There is no easy salvation for humans, and it is a delusion to think that we can find it. Life is restless and outgoing. It can never be content with what is; it is always in the process of becoming. It is the new that we worship, not because it is better, but because it is a product of our own creative energy.

True Joys

Our actions are mere random impulses until they are organized in creative work. It is the unity of effort and energy that gives vent to our dreams. Thus the good life uniquely involves creativity. This is the great source of joy and of exuberance. It is in our work that we best reveal ourselves, not in idle play, or leisure - as important as these things are - but in the mood of seriousness. Yet creative work is a form of play and, if coterminous with it, can be among the highest forms of aesthetic satisfaction: planning a project, teaching a class, constructing a road, and performing a symphony are all forms of creative endeavor. Those who do not work lack the key ingredient of happiness. The "sinners" are the lazy ones who cannot, or do not, have the creative impulse.

Though the joys of creativity are legion, pleasure needs to be experienced and enjoyed in itself and for itself. The hedonic-phobics cannot let themselves go. They are imprisoned in a cell of psychic repression. One needs to open the doors to the delights of pleasure, to the many wondrous things to do and enjoy: food and drink, art and poetry, music and philosophy, science and travel. But merely to seek pleasure without any serious lifework is banal. And to focus only on physical pleasures - important as they are - is limiting. One needs an expansive view of life, to enjoy many things, to cultivate one's tastes for the variety of life's goods. Robust hedonism is a form of activism; the world we live in and have created offers splendid opportunities for our enjoyment.

Among the finest pleasures of life are the joys of sexual passion and eroticism. Celibates have committed a sin against themselves, for they have repressed the most exquisite pleasure of all: the full and varied sexual life that is so essential to happiness. We must, therefore, be open to the multiplicities of sexuality. We ought to act out and fulfill our fantasies, as long as they are not self-destructive or destructive of others; and we ought to be free to enjoy the full range of pansexual pleasures.

Important as individual audacity, courage, intelligence, self-power, and the fulfillment of one's personal dreams and projects are, the good life cannot be experienced alone, in isolation. The richest of human plans and joys are shared with others. Love in its truest sense is nonpossessive, a cooperative participation; and friendship is the noblest expression of a moral relationship. We need to develop love and friendship for their own sakes, as goods in themselves.

But we cannot focus on inward ends alone, for the world intrudes in our domain of interests. We should develop a wider moral concern for those beyond our immediate contact, for the community, the nation, and the world at large. A person's creative work can and should involve others, and a sense of our moral obligations and responsibilities should develop that enlarges our horizons and enhances our universe. A beloved cause can give meaning and content to one's life. Though one works hard for progress, one should have no illusion about the possibilities of utopia; a willingness to tolerate ambiguity, even imperfection, is the mark of maturity.

Finally, each person must face death: life has meaning only if we realize that it will end. It is in viewing one's life as a complete whole that one sees it for what it is: what I accomplished and did well; whether I fulfilled some of my dreams and plans; whether I enjoyed life, made friends, fell in love, worked for a beloved cause, and so forth. I should have no false hopes about death, but I should do what I can to ward it off. Indeed, health is a first condition if one is to live well. We must not be deluded by a belief in immortality but should face death realistically. A free person worships the creative life as the ultimate good. But when death comes, he or she will accept it with equanimity, if with sorrow; and he or she will realize that in the face of death the only thing that really counts is what has been the quality of life, and what has been given to or left for others.

Attaining Success

Thus we may ask, Can we achieve the exuberant life? Yes, to some extent, but not by following the path that most philosophers and theologians have advised. The key to a full life is to open up to life - not suppress it or flee from it, but to give vent to our creative endeavors, to allow our imagination and creativity to have free play. We need to have confidence in our own power and to live audaciously. We need to be critical and skeptical of premature claims of truth or virtue, to use our common sense based upon reason and experience. We should not be afraid to enjoy pleasure or sexuality. Yet, at the same time, we need to develop love and friendship with others and a genuine moral concern for a better world. These are some of the ingredients that I have discovered contribute to the richness of life.

Each day, each moment, can be an adventure, pregnant with opportunity. With so many good things to do and enjoy, life can be interesting, exciting, and energizing. The full life is the goal. Though one has cherished memories, one need not look back; nor should one remain fixated on the present, indecisive and afraid to act. We need always to look ahead to the future: life is open-ended possibilities. We are not only what we are now, but also what we will choose to become. That is the faith and the optimism that has inspired me. Whether others will also find joy in the strenuous life of challenge is, of course, up to them. It is there simply awaiting one's action. The point is that it does not depend simply upon nature or society, destiny or God, but on what each person chooses.


Paul Kurtz is Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry and Chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism. Among his many books is Exuberance, from which this article is adapted.


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