How to Live a Good Life (2020), edited by Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary, and Daniel Kaufman, is an introduction to 15 philosophies for living our lives. Ranging from ancient ideologies, through the major religions, to contemporary schools of thought, 15 leading scholars enlighten us with the philosophies that guide their lives.
Personal Development, Philosophy, Self Help, Religion, Spirituality, Sociology, Modern Philosophy, Philosophy Movements, Personal Transformation Self-Help
Introduction: Discover 15 different perspectives on how to live a good life.
Do you have a philosophy of life?
That might sound like an impossibly big question. But of course, it’s one that humans have been thinking about for millennia. We don’t just need an answer to the question, “Why are we here?” – we also need to know what we should do with our time here.
It’s possible to go through life without spending too much time thinking about this. But thinking about your personal philosophy of life can be a wonderfully enriching experience. You can go on a journey, discovering the many different ideas that some of humankind’s greatest minds have uncovered over the centuries. From sacred to secular traditions, from East to West, and from ancient to modern, these summaries explore 15 contrasting – and sometimes complementary – ways of approaching life, as told by experts in their respective areas.
In these summaries, you’ll learn
- why Confucianists disagree with Buddhists;
- how Stoicism helps you stay calm, even when you’re not in control; and
- what Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he said we were “condemned to be free.”
The ancient Eastern philosophy of Buddhism values ethics above all.
In March 2000, high in the Himalayas, Buddhism expert Owen Flanagan was lucky enough to find himself in the company of the Dalai Lama. Keen to seize the opportunity, Flanagan asked the leading Tibetan Buddhist a question about the ethics of killing someone.
If one could assassinate Hitler, or a similar evil figure, during that person’s rise to power, should one do it?
The Dalai Lama consulted his fellow spiritual leaders. It took them a few minutes to reach a conclusion. His response? It’s ethical to kill such a person. Then the Dalai Lama added a caution: “But don’t be angry.”
The key message here is: The ancient Eastern philosophy of Buddhism values ethics above all.
Ethics is a fundamental principle in Buddhism. One of a Buddhist’s main purposes in life is to minimize overall pain and suffering – and, ideally, to maximize happiness. That can involve deeds that seem bad, like killing Hitler. As long as you act in the right frame of mind, without becoming angry, you’d still be acting ethically. You’d still be acting out of compassion in your attempt to reduce the amount of suffering in the world as a whole.
The Buddha, otherwise known as Siddhartha Gautama, lived in the sixth century BCE. He developed Buddhism to stand in contrast to the Indian Brahmanic tradition that preceded Hinduism. The Brahmins believed that all living things were trapped in a cycle of birth and death. After death, a being’s permanent essence, or atman, transferred to another being. Escape from this cycle was only possible for the high-born Brahmins themselves.
Buddha, however, rejected the notion of atman – he said that we did not possess that sort of permanent essence. Rather, he claimed that everything was impermanent. So, instead of striving for the release of one’s essence into the universe, Buddhism teaches that we should aim to obtain nirvana or salvation by leading good, selfless, ethical lives.
One thing to note is that Buddhism might help you reach some state of serenity – but that isn’t really the point. Buddhism isn’t about you. It’s about the good you can do for the world overall.
Confucianism is about relationships, while Daoism teaches us to act in harmony with the world.
We just learned that Buddhism isn’t about you as an individual. It takes an outward-looking view instead. But in doing so, does it lose focus on the reality of life?
Some followers of Confucius have claimed it does. For them, not thinking about oneself is like closing your eyes so you can’t see your nose. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
For Confucians, living a good life isn’t about denying the self. It’s about acknowledging the self as part of the relationships that define us all.
Another ancient eastern philosophy, Daoism, also embraces one’s place in the world, but emphasizes the importance of acting in harmony with nature.
The key message here is: Confucianism is about relationships, while Daoism teaches us to act in harmony with the world.
Fundamental to Confucianism, according to the scholar Bryan Van Norden, is the fact that we cannot exist independently of others. After all, our parents are the only reason we exist. So, in order to live well, we must maintain our relationships.
In fact, we have bonds with everyone around us. The Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming pointed out that everyone would naturally feel concern for a child in danger. We’d also feel concern for an animal in the same position, or even a tree. This compassion comes from being aware, on some level, that we’re all deeply interconnected.
Daoism shares Confucianism’s sense of interconnectedness, but it places emphasis on nature. It embraces things on their own terms and never lets emotions cloud thoughts. Some people think that Daoism is just about being with nature, but there’s more to it than that. Our relationship with nature can represent the challenges we face in life.
For example, one ancient story explains how the Daoist Dayu responded to an approaching flood. Rather than putting up defenses, he made new channels in his land to use the water’s natural flow for irrigation. Thus, Dayu understood and accepted his situation – and mastered it.
A contemporary example of a Daoist mindset is what Professor Robin R. Wang calls the “Realtor’s mentality.” A realtor might work for 30 clients at once knowing that only a couple will buy from him. Rather than getting frustrated by the low success rate, the realtor learns not to fixate on any one client and calmly accepts the reality of that situation.
In other words, the path to success isn’t always a straight line. Daoism teaches us to embrace the zigzags we encounter.
Aristotelianism encourages us to flourish – but acknowledges that external factors also play their part.
The East wasn’t the only place in the ancient world where multiple philosophies developed. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers put forth their own views on how to live a good life. One such view is Aristotelianism.
An Aristotelian is someone who follows Aristotle’s teachings from his famous work, Nicomachean Ethics. It’s a philosophy that is realistic and honest, as author Kaufman argues.
Think of a very talented tennis player – someone who is good enough to count as one of the all-time greats. If she lives during a period when the competition is weak, she will never be able to prove her talent. That player simply won’t have an opportunity to flourish.
The key message here is: Aristotelianism encourages us to flourish – but acknowledges that external factors also play their part.
Aristotelianism recognizes that a simple rulebook-like philosophy is not enough on its own. What we all want is to flourish – to realize as much of our potential, and as many of our goals, as possible. That’s known as a eudaemonic life, and if you’ve lived such a life, you should feel justly proud.
Unfortunately, we’re not all equally capable of this – just like that talented tennis player. Think of someone born into an unsupportive family, or someone whose life is ruined by a natural disaster. It’s harder for these people to flourish through no fault of their own.
That’s a hard truth to accept. And despite Aristotle’s influence on modern thought, it’s more common these days to cling to the belief that we’re in control of our own fates. But Aristotelianism acknowledges that the truth is more complex than that.
So what can you do to live a good life? Well, even with the influence of external events, you should still try to flourish as best you can – and not just in one area, but in several. A wonderful artist, for instance – however talented he is – should still take care of his family.
By aiming for balance and maximizing your own abilities and strengths, you can try to achieve a eudaemonic life. But you’ll have to accept things as they are: whether you succeed isn’t just up to you.
Stoicism focuses on indifference, while Epicureanism focuses on pleasure.
Two more contrasting philosophies emerged from the Classical world – Stoicism in Greece and Epicureanism in Rome.
Zeno of Citium established Stoicism in Athens around 300 BCE. Stoicism dictates that humans should lead moral lives characterized by four virtues: practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.
Epicureanism, on the other hand – founded by Epicurus in Rome – has one key concept at its heart: pleasure.
The key message here is: Stoicism focuses on indifference, while Epicureanism focuses on pleasure.
Professor Massimo Pigliucci explains that, beyond Stoicism’s four virtues, it has a second pillar. Like an Aristotelian, a Stoic must acknowledge that some things are simply out of her control. Therefore, she tries to develop ataraxia – a state of tranquility – so she will be able to cope calmly with misfortune.
Stoics divide things outside their control into two categories: preferred and dispreferred indifferents. Think about wealth. Being rich is always going to be preferred, while being poor is dispreferred. But Stoicism says that your level of wealth doesn’t affect how virtuous you are. A rich person may be either good or bad. So, wealth is “indifferent” and doesn’t affect whether you’re a good person.
A Stoic’s focus on indifference can also help with negative emotions. Say someone insults you. Rather than getting angry, think about the criticism. Is there any truth in it? If so, the insulter has done you a favor. If not, who cares? The person is wrong. Not that we should be emotionless. Stoicism does allow for positive emotions like joy and love.
Epicureanism places more emphasis on feeling. In fact, it’s based around the simple concept of pleasure.
We all naturally strive for pleasure. Even babies avoid pain and seek pleasure – it’s what philosopher and author Hiram Crespo calls the pleasure-aversion faculty. That doesn’t mean unbridled hedonism, though – not if we practice hedonic calculus. Hedonic calculus involves weighing whether something is likely to prove pleasurable in the longer term.
So an epicure wouldn’t simply drink all the beer in one evening. He would recognize that, after a certain number of beers, the overall experience – hangover included – wouldn’t be pleasurable. Conversely, some major decisions like studying at a university might be painful at first, but pleasurable in the long run.
Epicureanism doesn’t provide universal answers to moral questions. Instead, the best course of action is to use hedonic calculus to work out the most pleasurable solution. So don’t be overly serious – and do go through life with a smile on your face.
Hinduism and Progressive Islam both bring ancient ideas into a modern context.
So far, we’ve looked at philosophical schools that don’t have any gods, although one of them – Buddhism – is, in fact, classified as a religion. But of course, theistic religions provide plenty of wisdom on how to live a good life.
Although Hinduism boasts many gods, living a good life predominantly relates to the concept of karma – the idea that good or bad things may happen to you depending on how you, or your past self, have acted.
By contrast, Islam upholds a set of scriptures that lay down God’s word. And Progressive Islam is a specific branch that puts humanity at its core.
The key message here is: Hinduism and Progressive Islam both bring ancient ideas into a modern context.
Professor Deepak Sarma says that a belief in karma is common to all branches of Hinduism. This concept is tied to reincarnation – the belief that after you die, you’re reborn in a different body.
During the course of your life, you accrue both positive and negative karma based on your actions. The accumulated karma makes itself known in two ways. First, it affects the events that will happen to you in the future. Secondly,it affects what body you inhabit in your next life. It’s therefore common for Hindus to say that the good or bad events they experience are a result of karma.
The ultimate aim is to break out of this cycle of birth and rebirth. To get as close as possible to this, you have to build up good karma. So, as you go through life trying to be as good as possible, you’re also paying for bad deeds that you, or your past self, have done.
Another ancient faith, Islam, also has a lot to teach us today. In fact, one branch of this religion has developed pretty recently. Dr. Adis Duderija was attracted to Progressive Islam because of its modern interpretation of his faith. Progressive Islam rejects extremism, champions social and gender justice, and embraces the multiple faiths that make up the modern world.
Reason also plays a crucial role in Progressive Islam. Since the scriptures are ancient, they don’t always have a literal application in the modern world. Therefore, according to Progressive Islam, it’s intellect that drives forward our understanding of Islam today. This reinterpretation in a modern context is particularly important when it comes to morality.
Here’s an example. Muslim scripture recognized that women were equal to men, rejecting practices like female infanticide. These views may seem obvious today, but they were originally ahead of their time. Interpreting these texts, then, we should stay true to their spirit, and champion women’s causes that are progressive today.
In both Judaism and Christianity, scripture provides an opportunity for reflection.
Interpreting ancient scripture in a modern context is a challenge faced not just by Islam, but also by Judaism and Christianity. And similarly, these two religions encourage the idea that our interpretation of sacred texts can vary.
Rabbi Barbara Block, for instance, acknowledges that the Hebrew Bible isn’t a work of philosophy. Rather, it’s something that has been interpreted in many different ways throughout history. And this variety of interpretations gives Judaism its wonderful complexity.
Similarly, public intellectual Alister McGrath rejects the idea that Christianity is a particular collection of ideas. It’s more about reflection – specifically, contemplating the role of Jesus Christ.
The key message here is: In both Judaism and Christianity, scripture provides an opportunity for reflection.
Even the Talmud – a key Jewish sacred text – stresses the importance of variable ideas. It tells a story about the Houses of Shammai and Hillel. They’re having a dispute about the correct interpretation of the law. A voice from heaven interrupts them, declaring a preference for the House of Hillel’s view – but stresses that “Both are the words of the living God.” We do need to make choices, but multiple options may be valid.
Prayer is also fundamental to Judaism, but Rabbi Block suggests that we shouldn’t think of it as asking God for favors. Instead, prayer is good for our souls, and helps us with decisions. For instance, a prayer may thank God for helping those in need, but it’s up to us to actually go out and provide that help.
In Christianity, it’s also up to us to find meaning. Christian faith is more like a perspective than a fixed set of rules. As writer C. S. Lewis put it: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
So, a question like “Why is there suffering?” draws varied responses. Some say that suffering allows us to grow. Martin Luther considered suffering a reminder of mortality. St Augustine argued the presence of evil reminded us that other things were good.
McGrath offers another perspective: what happened after the Crucifixion lets us understand how to react to trauma. Scripture explains that Christ’s followers felt hopeless after their leader was killed, yet they gradually developed ways to cope.
That’s just one example of how Christianity, like Judaism, can help us find meaning in the world, without being prescriptive.
Ethical Culture and secular humanism are two philosophies that don’t involve belief in God.
Currently, traditional religion is not as dominant as it once was. Some alternative philosophies have emerged that acknowledge some of the benefits of religion, without sharing their belief in any god.
The key message here is: Ethical Culture and secular humanism are two philosophies that don’t involve belief in God.
Let’s start with Ethical Culture, which defines itself as a nontheistic religion. As its name suggests, it places a strong emphasis on ethics and the value of community. It emphasizes the importance of these traditional values by having a clergy, like many theistic religions.
Ethical Culture was founded by Felix Adler in 1876. Adler originally studied to become a rabbi, but only ever gave one sermon. In it, he presented an interpretation of Judaism as a secular religion. This radical view prevented him from becoming a rabbi, so he struck out on his own. Ethical Culture realized the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s desire for “a church of ethics.”
Cleric Anne Klaeysen acknowledges some problems with Adler’s teaching, such as his misogyny. Yet many aspects still ring true – including his belief that the modern world presents people with challenges that older religions can’t handle. Adler’s followers uphold documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stressing our dependence on one another and our mutual obligations. While there is no god in Ethical Culture, it is still idealistic.
Secular humanism, on the other hand, is not a religion. It’s a non-dogmatic philosophy that stresses the importance of independent thinking. Just like Ethical Culture, secular humanism encourages us to care for each other, says John R. Shook – but without a religious framework. Various philosophical schools feed into secular humanism, including Aristotelianism and Stoicism as well as utilitarianism and existentialism – which you’ll hear more about shortly.
Guided by reason, secular humanism offers a practical way to understand and improve the human condition. The emphasis on reason means that secular humanism respects science deeply.
Unlike some philosophies, secular humanism isn’t meant to define your worldview exclusively – you can be other things, too. However, if you consider yourself spiritual, then a label like “religious humanist” might be more accurate.
What Ethical Culture and secular humanism share is the assertion that you don’t have to believe in a god to lead a good, ethical life.
Existentialism and pragmatism both reflect on the ways in which we are free.
Did you choose to be born? No? Neither did anyone else.
That’s the starting point for existentialism, the twentieth-century philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Having been born, we are conscious and free to make our own choices. Hence, in Sartre’s words, we are “condemned to be free.”
A little earlier, across the Atlantic, another non-religious philosophy emerged: American pragmatism. Like Ethical Culture, it drew inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson and his famous championing of self-reliance. But, as Emerson also reminded us, we are only free within certain limits.
The key message here is: Existentialism and pragmatism both reflect on the ways in which we are free.
There’s something contradictory about existentialism, as Skye C. Cleary acknowledges. Actually calling yourself an existentialist contradicts what it’s really about. We shouldn’t let ourselves be defined by any particular set of beliefs; instead, we should simply be authentic to ourselves. And as individuals, we’re too complex to be summed up by a simple label anyway – especially since we’re all constantly changing.
Sartre gave the example of a waiter who’s good at his job. He comes to believe that being a waiter is what defines him. But no single role can ever define a person. We must acknowledge that things will change in the future, just like they did in the past.
That belief in change means that existentialism is not necessarily bleak. We should all aim to move beyond what we are right now, and use our freedom to create meaningful lives for ourselves. As well, despite our inevitable subjectivity, relationships with others are crucial, too.
American pragmatism was founded by two Americans, William James and Charles Peirce. It’s similar to existentialism in beginning with a pretty dark observation. Philosophy is far more than an intellectual game: it’s something to live or die by.
Fundamental to pragmatism, as John Kaag and Douglas Anderson argue, is the precarious nature of life. We face huge challenges and the possibility of death is ever-present. But it’s possible to move forward all the same, learning to navigate unstable terrain.
James and Peirce had contrasting ways of doing this – James championed an individualistic approach to life, while Peirce stressed the importance of community. What united both was a belief that by pursuing certain ideals, like beauty, truth, and goodness, we all have the capacity to make things better – even if we can’t ever achieve perfection. We may be terribly restrained in our lives, but we have the freedom to act well.
Effective altruism is just one way we’re still exploring philosophical questions today.
One recent philosophy shines the spotlight directly onto the question of how to do the most good.
Effective altruism takes a simple approach. It asks its followers to examine how they can maximize their positive impact on the world. In many cases, this is through donating as much as possible to charity. Or it might be through taking on jobs that do exceptional amounts of good.
This modern approach to ethics shows that the question of how to live a good life is as valid and complex today as ever.
The key message here is: Effective altruism is just one way we’re still exploring philosophical questions today.
Effective altruism is a twenty-first-century phenomenon, but its roots lie in the eighteenth-century tradition of utilitarianism, founded by Jeremy Bentham. He famously argued that we should try to achieve “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” This led Bentham toward progressive views, including support for women’s rights – a cause that would benefit considerable numbers.
Effective altruism is similarly focused on maximizing the outcome of charitable work. That may mean evaluating charities so that you know your donation will do particularly good work. It could even mean taking a high-paying job, but having a shared living space so you can donate even more of your salary to good causes.
As writer Kelsey Piper explains, all of this can lead to an increased understanding of the true complexity of the world, and the true difficulty in making these calculations about moral value. But it also encourages you to put the effort in and do the best you can.
You might think you’ve already heard that in some of the other philosophies we’ve discussed. Well, you sort of have! There’s a lot of overlap among these 15 schools of thought, even though some of them developed millennia apart and on opposite sides of the world.
Whether you find yourself drawn toward Daoism or Progressive Islam, Stoicism or existentialism, you’ll see plenty of common threads linking them together – one key example is our common desire for meaning. On the other hand, there are plenty of differences too.
It’s pretty certain we’ll still be asking these questions in the future – and coming up with new answers. Answers that are just as fascinating, complementary, and contradictory as the ones we’ve just discussed.
The key message in these summaries:
People have been debating how to live a good life for thousands of years. The answers they’ve come up with have been extremely diverse – although there are some similarities. To find your personal philosophy for life, you should explore a range of schools of thought, even if you’ve been raised with a particular set of beliefs. There’s plenty of sage advice in the multitude of philosophies.
Actionable advice: Choose your own philosophy.
These summaries are just a starting point for what could be a lifetime of exploration of different schools of philosophy, in all their incredible richness. You might find that one of the philosophies we’ve just discussed – or maybe two or three – particularly sparks your interest. Or you may feel you have some more exploring to do. Either way, there’s a lot to discover. Now’s the time to dive deep into your philosophical journey.
About the author
MASSIMO PIGLIUCCI is currently the K.D. Irani professor of philosophy at the City College of New York. He has a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Tennessee. Pigliucci has been elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science “for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudoscientific attack.” His work has been published in national and international outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Aeon, Philosophy Now,and The Philosophers’ Magazine, among others. He is most recently the author of the bestselling How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life .
SKYE C. CLEARY, PhD, MBA, is a philosopher and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love She teaches philosophy, leadership, and management at Columbia University, Barnard College, the City University of New York, and the New York Public Library. Skye authored the script for the TED-Ed animation “Why Do We Love? A Philosophical Inquiry,” which has had over 2.2 million views. Skye is currently working on a second animation for TED-Ed about Simone de Beauvoir. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Philosophers’ Magazine, HuffPost, Business Insider, and The New Republic.
DANIEL A. KAUFMAN, PhD, received his BA in philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and his PhD in philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is professor of philosophy at Missouri State University.