A few years ago, I had the most important conversation of my life. I was working hard discharging my professorial duties at Notre Dame, striving to master the world’s currents of philosophical reflection, writing up my own discoveries, and lecturing to all the budding sages on campus, when one day a very active, prominent woman in South Bend said something that changed my life.
“Tom, when I was 18 and in college, we used to sit up late at night in the dorm and talk about all sorts of important things — life, death, love, meaning, God, happiness, the future, good and evil,” she told me. “Now I’m 45 years old, and when I get together with friends, all the conversation is ever about is what the kids are doing, what’s on sale at the mall, and who Notre Dame is playing this weekend. . . . Would you please come into the community and give those of us who aren’t students any more an opportunity again to talk and think together about things that really matter? We all need a little philosophy in our lives.”
What could I say? She was right. There was a need. And I felt that I should answer the call. But how would people respond? In the ancient world, Socrates had often philosophized in public, giving people the chance to think and talk about important things. But that had clearly significant consequences, since he ended up being poisoned by popular demand. I hoped for better results. But I never could have imagined what was to happen.
During the years since that request, I have had an adventure very unusual for a 20th century philosopher. I’ve flown all over the country, with side trips abroad, to talk to big, enthusiastic groups of working people outside of any academic setting about such topics as success, ethics, happiness, personal satisfaction, corporate life, collaborative excellence, and the meaning of it all. I’ve enjoyed high-energy international wisdom sessions with leaders of the business world. I’ve visited all sorts of gatherings, from small civic organizations to huge national conventions. I’ve perched on the sofa with Regis and Kathie Lee to pass on some philosophical advice to early morning America.
In the midst of all this travel and talk, I’ve been seeing something I had never anticipated. In the pit of financial difficulties, or in the wake of tremendous successes, in places you would never expect it, in good times and bad, people of all sorts are suddenly starting to do something that from my point of view is deeply right. People are becoming philosophers, rethinking their lives, trying to get some clue of a big picture for it all. People of all sorts are beginning to launch into the engagement of attention and intellect that my friend in South Bend had so strongly wanted. In every part of the country, I’ve seen people starting to think in a new way about their work and their lives. They are beginning to reflect deeply on some of their most basic assumptions, and to question how they really want to live. They’re tackling the big questions and asking how these issues apply to their lives right now. Why are so many people beginning to think in this way? Winston Churchill did once point out: “You can always depend on Americans to do the right thing — once they’ve exhausted every other possibility.” That may just sum it up. Having exhausted every other possibility, Americans everywhere suddenly are becoming philosophers.
I’ve come to believe that something like a midlife crisis is gripping our whole culture. I see it everywhere. On different occasions, in various parts of the country, accomplished people have told me with some perplexity that after many years of “chasing the good life,” they’re suddenly beginning to ask the question: “But am I living a good life?”
Notice for a moment the difference between these two phrases: “the good life” and “a good life.” They differ in the smallest way and yet convey such different images. The phrase “the good life” seems to conjure up a vision of luxury, material possessions, travel, enjoyment, and, of course, money. The phrase “a good life,” by contrast, seems to have moral, and even spiritual, overtones. This captures the name of the crisis. In a culture awash with the material, we’re clearly in a time of spiritual rethinking. And it’s in this context that I have seen people beginning to turn to philosophy for answers.
Philosophy is, from its Greek roots, “love of wisdom.” Notice here a small point. It’s not “knowledge” of wisdom. It’s “love.” Think about this for a moment. If you have an object of love, you embrace it; if you lack it, you pursue it. Philosophy is not, at its best, just a matter of filling our heads with new questions and deep knowledge. It’s also an enterprise of the heart. It is the passionate pursuit and wholehearted embracing of wisdom, or genuine insight about living. Knowledge may not change your life. Love always does.
It’s my great joy to help people in our time connect their own searches to the wisdom of the past. The great philosophers of history have left us a tremendous inheritance of wisdom for living that applies every bit as much today as it did 200 or 2,000 years ago. It’s like a huge bank account on which most of us never draw. I’ve become convinced that if we’ll just write some checks on the great thinkers, if we’ll just appropriate some of the wisdom that the philosophers of the past have to offer, we can create solutions for the future that alone will give us what we most deeply want and need.
In the ancient world, Aristotle, for one, recognized that people seem to chase such different things and to have different views on the good life. Ultimately, he believed, we all pursue the same thing: happiness. However, there are basically three different views on what happiness itself is.
Some people seem to think that happiness is the same thing as pleasure. If you want to be happy, they say, seek pleasure and avoid pain. This conception of the human quest revolves nowadays around visions of big houses, fine cars, beautiful clothes, exciting art, uplifting music, good sex, fine wine, fat cigars, hot tubs and cool friends. It is a conception of happiness, Aristotle believed, that is fit for grazing cattle but not for human beings. Now, Aristotle had nothing against pleasure. But he realized that happiness is not the same thing as pleasure. And I concur. I can’t imagine a happy life devoid of pleasure, but happiness is something much bigger.
The second view of happiness that echoes down through the centuries is that happiness is the same thing as personal peace. Tranquility. Equanimity. Unperturbed. Imagine the soul of a happy person as mirrored by the surface of a pond on a windless day.
This is an attractive view for stressful times. Anxiety seems to envelop our nation, and it’s every bit as dangerous as it is pervasive. Recently I read a newspaper article headlined: “High Anxiety Big Heart Risk.” It reported that “highly anxious people are more than four times likelier to suffer sudden heart death.” I remember thinking to myself “Reading this is not going to help the nervous people very much.”
Without a measure of personal peace, a life of happiness is indeed hard to imagine. But Mary Anne Evans, who wrote more than 100 years ago under the pen name of George Eliot, insightfully remarked: “It is vain to say that human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.” So even personal peace is not in the end the same thing as happiness.
As George Eliot realized, we are dynamic creatures. No purely passive state of being can amount to true happiness for any of us. I have come to see that a conception of happiness culled from the Aristotelian tradition of thought, and resonating deeply with Judeo-Christian theology, is the most perceptive understanding of what the philosopher said we all seek. In its most developed form, it also can encompass the insights of the other two definitions that, standing alone, are inadequate: Happiness is participation in something that brings fulfillment; happiness is proper engagement in the tasks and challenges of life. It is activity in accordance with excellence, activity that can bring pleasure and peace of mind, but always as a side effect of the deeper good it directly creates.
What then brings fulfillment? Philosophy here can tell us a lot. No activity, enterprise or relationship can be fulfilling to the people involved, and thus contribute in a positive way to their experience of happiness, unless it respects and nurtures four fundamental and universal dimensions of human experience. In a related way, no human being can have a life that is truly good unless he or she is developing along all four of these dimensions and providing to some degree for the possibility of similar development in the experience of others.
Let me lay out briefly what those dimensions are, and what the target is toward which each of them aims:
- The intellectual dimension aims at truth,
- The aesthetic dimension aims at beauty,
- The moral dimension aims at goodness,
- The spiritual dimension aims at unity.
The first dimension of human experience is the intellectual. Every human being has a mind, and each of us needs truth as much as we need air, food and water. One social commentator has said, “People must view truth as precious; they use it so sparingly.” The role of truth in the good life is not adequately appreciated. The reality is that a work environment, business relationship or family life that does not honor truth and make it available to all involved will not ultimately be fulfilling to the people in that situation and will not contribute reliably to their overall long-term happiness.
The aesthetic dimension is just as important. We all need beauty in our lives. People perform better and feel better about what they are doing in pleasant surroundings. Squalor and ugliness depress the spirit and prevent the good life from being anything more than a distant dream. I’ve stood in the grim, desolate streets of modern-day Russia and have surveyed the blight of our own inner cities and have wondered how people in such aesthetic voids can attain any hope of a truly good life.
It’s not only beauty we see or hear that matters. I’ve come to realize that one of the most important forms of the aesthetic in human life is that active experience of what we often call “performance beauty,” the beauty that is experienced by a Mikhail Baryshnikov, a Yo Yo Ma or a Michael Jordan doing his thing, while the rest of us watch. Creating a beautiful solution to a problem, laying out a new and attractive business opportunity, bringing a family member delight — these can all be extraordinarily powerful sources for an experience of the aesthetic in our lives. This is some of the deep anchorage in human nature for the importance of empowerment in the workplace and shared contribution in the home, that is increasingly being appreciated. Any proper experience of beauty — performance beauty or perceptual beauty — elevates and liberates people to feel their best and do their best, whether at home or in an office.
The moral dimension of human experience aims at the target of goodness. Without an environment of moral goodness — kindness, fairness, respect and basic justice — people don’t feel free to dig deep and take positive risks in what they are doing; they don’t feel a sense of fulfillment in their work or in their relationships. One thing important to understand about the moral dimension is that it affects us more in the little details of everyday life than in the relatively rare ethical dilemmas that textbooks and journalists pose for our perplexed contemplation. In the end, only good people live a truly good life. The fourth universal dimension of human experience necessary for fulfillment and sustainable happiness is the spiritual dimension, the dimension whose distinctive target is unity, or ultimate connectedness, another name for which is sometimes “love.” The spiritual quest is for inner harmony, outer unity among ourselves and our fellows, and a deep connectedness between all of us and the rest of nature, within the ultimate embrace of a relationship to nature’s source.
I’ve come to believe that every human being has four basic spiritual needs, needs that must be respected and met in any life that will, overall, be perceived from within as a good one to have. We all have a deep spiritual need for a sense of:
- Uniqueness as individuals;
- Union with something greater than the self;
- Usefulness to our fellow creatures; and
- Understanding concerning the big picture for our lives.
We will feel a sense of fulfillment, and thus of happiness, in what we are doing and in how we are living only if our work and life environments respect and contribute toward meeting these four deep needs that we all have. Accordingly, when we care for these needs that the others around us have, we bring our relations with them into alignment with the kind of life worth living.
I’m convinced that the good life has intellectual, aesthetic, moral and spiritual components. When truth, beauty, goodness and unity guide us, we move into a position to resolve the good-life crisis. This is the only possible way to live the life as a good life.
In recent years, the corporate world in America has been unnecessarily losing a great number of very talented people to midlife and midcareer crises. Those who stay are often not contributing what they’re capable of achieving. People who are experiencing the good-life crisis, who are personally reassessing their lives in light of their deepest values, will not find it easy to settle for less than a work environment that respects and encourages those values. They certainly will not be able to flourish, to be and do their best, in conditions that have not been wisely developed with sensitivity to what really, deeply moves people, and what most fundamentally matters to us all.
As the big wave of millennial philosophizing begins to crest throughout the population, all of us who aspire to effective leadership and world-class performance in our work with other people better be ready to surf on it. We’d better have our boards in the water, and we’d better be paddling in the right direction, because this one’s going to be a tsunami, and it will take us farther than anything else possibly could. As a matter of fact, it is only as we resolve the good-life crisis ourselves and help others to do so as well, that we put ourselves philosophically in position to start dealing effectively with the other crises and challenges we face.
This essay was based on and adapted from the introduction to If Aristotle Ran General Motors, which was published shortly after this piece first appeared in our Summer 1997 issue. Tom Morris was a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame from 1981 to 1996.