Where has ‘the good life’ gone?

In our globalised, postmodern age, an unprecedented level of choice and knowledge is transforming our understanding of morality.
Aisle of grocery store in Iowa. Credit: Getty Images.
Aisle of grocery store in Iowa. Credit: Getty Images.
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‘The good life’ is one of those multidimensional concepts which is difficult to pin down because it is so encompassing and recurs across epochs, cultures and forms of expression, from Mencius to Horace and Tolstoy to Hannah Arendt. 

Although propositions for how to achieve ‘the good life’ vary in their specifics, perhaps some general observations about it can be made. The concept of ‘the good life’ belongs to the secular realm of the here and now, of individual aspiration and earthly fulfilment. Religions, of course, have strong ideas about the proper and praiseworthy life, often achieved through self-restraint or self-denial, the rewards of which are usually postponed to the after-life. But the good life, on the most fundamental level, is one which enables the cultivation – in the sense of nurturance, development, growth – of all the impulses and capacities of the self, as it exists and acts in the world: the need for sociability and love, for bodily comfort and an aesthetically pleasing environment, for creativity and intellectual exploration. 

The good news about our own time is that, in the developed, democratic world, more of these basic elements are more available to more people than ever before. We are, on the whole, more comfortable, healthier and better fed than large masses of people have ever been before. Most of us have access to education and travel and, if we’re so inclined, we can read or go to museums to our hearts’ content.

However, thinkers throughout many epochs have also suggested that none of these pleasures and refinements add up to the good life without some sense of what the ‘good’ is – without some idea of shaping purpose, or conviction of meaningfulness and worth. It was this central principle that Aristotle called ‘virtue’ and he thought that it was necessary to the achievement of true well-being, as opposed to a fleeting sense of pleasure. 

We rarely use such morally charged words anymore, but it is in the area of values and aspirations that our advanced contemporary societies present both enormous opportunities and some very particular obstacles to the achievement of the good life. When I watched Kenneth Clark’s television series, Civilisation, with its parade of powerful beliefs, value systems and cultural ambitions succeeding each other through European epochs, I could not help but ask myself what governing ideas or ideals drive us forward today. To try to identify such underlying themes, or forces, in the present is much harder than recognising them in the already concluded past. Nevertheless, I think we can safely propose that the most obvious and central idea embraced by our advanced democratic societies is, simply, freedom and the right to individual choice. I therefore want to offer a few reflections on the relationship of this governing principle to the possibilities and challenges of the good life. 

Clearly, a measure of individual liberty is the very foundation of the well-lived life, and necessary to its very conception. People in highly tribal, or collective, or otherwise pre-individualistic societies, may experience various satisfactions, or have an idea of a meaningful universe, but they do not think about ‘how to live’ because the patterns of life are collectively determined for them and not a matter of personal preference or individual action. Indeed, some anthropologists would say that the very notion of ‘a life’ arises only in conditions of fairly advanced individuation. 

Moreover, freedom – as opposed to its absence – is surely an unequivocal good and, perhaps, the great good that our modern, secular societies have to offer. Yet neither the political articulations of freedom, nor its subjective perceptions, are always and everywhere the same. Freedom, as it is conceived and enacted in advanced democracies today, is distinct from its historical versions and poses some quite new, unexpectedly challenging problems. 

Throughout much European history, freedom was a distant ideal rather than an achieved reality, the object of political struggles and dreams, most often defined – to use Isaiah Berlin’s classic distinction – as freedom from: from absolute monarchs, capricious dictators, totalitarian regimes,

relgious repression, sexual regulation or constricting bureaucratic routine. But today, freedom is widely accepted as the normative political and social principle. It is a given of our lives and our political arrangements, as commonplace and easy to take for granted as the air we breathe. 

The extent of individual freedom prevailing in contemporary democratic, multicultural societies is more encompassing than perhaps at any other period of history. It is hard to think of another form of nation, or state, or political and social organisation which has required so little allegiance from its members or has proposed so few ethical codes or guidelines for behaviour. On each and every level of existence – from morals to manners, from sexuality to family patterns and identity, from career to leisure, from birth to death – we are free, as long as we remain within the broad frameworks of legality, to choose exactly what suits us and to do pretty much as we please. Postmodern democratic societies propose no existential imperatives and no moral codes beyond that of tolerance – which, necessary though it is to social coexistence, begs the question of ethics by positing a neutral multiplicity of moral attitudes and goods. 

On the face of it, this may seem like a description of a highly desirable – even utopian – state, conducive to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But the relationship between the lack of external constraints and the internal experience of freedom is hardly straightforward; and it turns out that living in conditions of unhampered liberty is not easy. 

The nature of the difficulty came home to me most vividly when I was travelling through Eastern Europe shortly after the transitions of 1989. This was a part of Europe where, for several decades, liberty was not only an abstract principle, but something passionately desired; its lack was felt palpably and daily as a terrible deprivation. The moment of liberation brought euphoria throughout the former socialist bloc. Indeed, freedom from Soviet domination has delivered undoubted benefits to post-1989 societies. As Adam Michnik, a leading Polish dissident before 1989 and a leading public intellectual since, has written and said on several occasions, Poland has become a ‘normal country’. 

But, Michnik has gone on to wonder, if Poland has gained so much – more than it might have dreamed, even in the heady days of 1989 – why are so many of its citizens disgruntled, disappointed and dissatisfied? One of the crucial reasons, Michnik suggests, is the exchange of certain dreams for more mundane realities; and the fact that freedom in its normalised, routine guise, is unglamorous – and psychologically highly demanding. Indeed, as many commentators in Eastern Europe have observed, freedom needs to be learned before it can be enjoyed. 

Here, for example, is Davidov Ansen, a Bulgarian intellectual, talking about the difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’ in 1991: ‘Ah, it’s harder now… Now, there are real choices. Before, you couldn’t even choose to be hero or victim… Now everything is a decision and a symptom of character. There’s a possibility of sending my daughter abroad to school. There are questions about whether to fire a former nomenklatura in my department and hire a well-meaning but less competent person. Real free choice.’

This, then, is the daily reality of freedom, as it is freshly perceived by Eastern Europeans. It inheres in the possibility, indeed the paradoxical necessity, of constant, individual choice. In postmodern democratic societies, the need to make choices and decisions extends to every domain of experience, from the banal and concrete (consumer options or preferences in fashion); to the important and consequential (which university to attend or the exact stripe of political party to vote for); to the most essential and existential: where to find sources of purpose or meaning, how to direct one’s life, how to be a good person or how, in fact, to be a person. 

But in the condition of radical, unstructured freedom, what are such choices based on? How are we to orient ourselves in a world without parameters or limits and how, if everything is permitted, can we distinguish between what is good or bad, right or wrong, serious or spurious? How do we choose between possible satisfactions – how indeed do we know what brings us satisfaction or a larger sense of well-being? 

Perhaps, in order to understand the challenges of freedom, we need to ask more fundamental questions about our lived and felt experience of this idea. Just what does it mean to feel subjectively free and how is such a state attained on the individual level? 

‘Man was born free and he is everywhere in chains,’ Rousseau resoundingly and challengingly declared. But two-and-a-half centuries later, this proposition can no longer be unquestioningly, or easily, upheld. Alongside the political ethos and slogans of freedom, so widely and often automatically affirmed, much of 20th-century thought and observations of ‘human nature’, as well as brand new twenty-first-century investigations into the nature of human nature, have served to complicate and even to reverse Rousseau’s dictum. Indeed, in the light of much twenty-first-century theory and science, it would be more accurate to say that we are all born in a dependent and slave-like position and that a sense of personal freedom is only slowly, and then not universally, attained. 

Perhaps the most tangled knots of complication have come from psychoanalysis – the discipline which has given us systematic observations of human subjectivity and the most precise probes into the processes of individuation and development. It is one of the seminal insights of early psychoanalysis that, far from being a ‘natural’ given, the self is constructed and that a strong self depends on a strong inner structure. The child arrives in the world in a condition of total dependence and the early patterns of its psyche are to a large extent determined by its intimate and helpless attachments to its parents and its non-conscious instincts, struggles and conflicts. It is a further insight of psychoanalysis that a separation from such early bonds happens only gradually and often with great difficulty. 

The problems of development are most evident in conditions of neurosis or other mental disturbances. In people suffering from such syndromes, the pressure of their early experiences continues to be unconscious and unremitting. ‘Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences,’ Freud famously proclaimed. By this, he meant that hysterical symptoms (non-somatic blindness, paralysis, loss of speech) were actually expressions of repressed memories. Such suffering can be acute and helpless. The neurotic patient would want to be different – less anxious, less depressed, happier, freer – but the repressed past has him or her in its thrall, causing continuous conflict and anguish. This is the prison-house of self, the most confining jail of them all and the most difficult to break out of. 

The spell of the unconscious past makes real, internal freedom – the ability to feel pleasure in one’s independence or to act with a true sense of agency and therefore choice, impossible. 

Pathology offers clues to the normal and what Freud’s pioneering observations suggested is that even under the best of circumstances, the development of a full and strong self requires the gradual formation of a strong, internalised psychic structure (in Freud’s model, much modified and elaborated since then, the id, the ego and the superego). Moreover, in this vision of development, the best possible outcome of maturation is not to achieve some splendid liberation from all bonds, or notional self-sufficiency, but rather to develop the capacity to form autonomously chosen relationships with which to replace early, dependent attachments and to be able to make conscious interpretations and, therefore, choices of one’s experiences in place of unconscious impulses and fantasies. In this paradigm, even in the most normal psyche, freedom is never total and total freedom is never desirable. We are deeply formed by our internalised experience and we profoundly need connection with others; a true sense of autonomy depends on acknowledging both. 

Moreover, as we emerge from childhood, we are also formed by our larger, social and cultural environment: its institutions, codes of conduct and assumptions. In later stages of development, a sense of identity is attained and strengthened through the incorporation of wider cultural values and norms, until they become part of the fabric of the self and deeply internalised ‘ego-ideals’. Of course, we may sometimes find ourselves in tension, or disagreement, with cultural or societal givens; but even the perspective needed for such disagreements cannot be arrived at without inner structure and strength. 

A sense of conscious purpose, which is such an essential component of the good life, cannot be attained without a stable self; and such a self, in turn, cannot develop without a matrix of containing structures and sign- posts, which form each culture’s mapping of fundamental elements of existence: assumptions about forms of relationship or family configurations, about sources of guilt or happiness, about honourable or shameful behaviour. 

But such mappings are precisely what are missing in today’s democratic, multicultural societies. These are truly ‘open’ societies – so open as to preclude containing frameworks of common meanings, loyalties or obligations. The openness of contemporary democracies is intended to serve the aims of tolerance and a kind of political pleasure principle: each citizen presented with a cornucopia of choice, each free to follow his or her preferences in everything from food to beliefs. But the results have often been very different: social and psychological fragmentation, aimlessness and contemporary forms of alienation. Postmodern societies increasingly define themselves by their dysfunctions – a congeries of symptoms and syndromes, ranging from anorexia to ADD, obesity to widespread depression, which has led to great expansion of the therapeutic professions and massive consumption of psychotropic drugs. 

The pervasive anomie suggested by such disturbances is mostly a malaise of the relatively prosperous, rather than the dispossessed; in other words, it cannot be analysed in purely economic terms. But some of the paradoxes of permissive affluence were acutely examined by commentators in the US, where the ethos of self-gratification and ‘free-to-be-me’ individualism made its appearance earlier than elsewhere and reached one of its peaks in the 1960s and 1970s, within the baby-boom counterculture. For example, in The Culture of Narcissism, his brilliant psycho-political analysis of decadent individualism, Christopher Lasch observed that an ideology grounded purely in the self in a condition of free-floating liberty is an inadequate foundation for individual development or strength. In his diagnosis, the ideal of self-gratification leads, with an ironic inevitability, not to that self’s flourishing but, rather, to its fragmentation and neurotic misery. 

The reasons for this are really quite simple: we are social beings, who cannot thrive without a sense that we are connected to others in a vital way. We are meaning-seeking animals, but just as we cannot have an entirely private language, so we cannot create meanings in isolation. We are deeply shaped by others and by the worlds we come into; without such frameworks, we risk internal as well as social dissolution. This was certainly the formative lesson of my own emigration – that culture is not only something that exists ‘out there’ and that we use – but that it exists within us and that we are literally constructed by it. Shared cultural assumptions, ethical codes and teleological beliefs provide a scaffolding for the formation of the psyche and of identity. An entire absence of moral and existential frameworks is a recipe not for the pleasurable exercise of in- dividual will or whim, but for societal divisions and internal incoherence. 

What then, can be done? Democracies, perhaps more than all other forms of society, need citizens who can understand the uses and practices of freedom and whose psychological formation can cope with its demands. At the same time, secular democracies cannot oblige their members to follow a prescribed set of moral rules or beliefs. Therefore, if we are to discover common aims and values, if we are to create spheres of solidarity so necessary to our own well-being and the cohesion of the societies we live in, we have to arrive at them together, through mutual understanding and the airing of our differences. In other words, we need, on every level, lively, robust, candid conversation. 

Conversation of the intimate, private kind is of course one of the pleasures and achievements of civilisation, a form of intellectual play and improvised creativity and a way of arriving at knowledge of others and of ourselves. A leisurely dinner with friends, during which talk wends its way spontaneously from subject to subject and after which we feel our own insights refreshed and deepened is, surely, one of the salient elements of the good life and a regular trope in literature on the subject, from Plato’s Symposium to Trollope’s Palliser novels. 

But particularly in our highly diverse societies, in which we cannot count on a ready-made consensus, we also need a public space – an agora – in which we can talk vigorously and truthfully across our larger differences. In multicultural democracies, those differences are often quite radical and fundamental. They are differences between religions, histories, moral systems and what might be called internalised cultures. More than ever before, we live in close proximity to groups with different pasts and visions of the world; and, possibly, cross-cultural dialogue is a useful metaphor for other kinds of exchanges between sharply different others. 

As any immigrant can tell you, such dialogue – if it is going to involve a real attempt at understanding and entering another culture’s inwardness – is a strenuous process, requiring considerable energy of consciousness and imagination and some courage in confronting different others. I think it almost goes without saying that, in such exchanges, a recognition on the part of each interlocutor of the other’s legitimacy and dignity is a prerequisite for any conversation; without that, nothing much can happen. But if dialogue is going to comprise more than anodyne exchanges of niceties, or obligatory expressions of self-esteem, it also calls for something more risky and entangled – something closer, perhaps, to the process of translation. Like literal translation, cross-cultural interaction requires a receptivity to another culture’s subjective language – its unstated codes, affective preferences and subliminal assumptions – as well as a strong sense of one’s own. And like literal translation, such dialogue calls for a kind of cross-checking between the two ‘languages’, or forms of sensibility – remaining conscious of what needs to be understood about each other, as well as alert as to what we don’t understand. In order to grasp another culture’s inner life, we need to develop some empathy for its tonalities and textures, its expressive palette and affective norms. At the same time, one’s original language has to retain some stability as a point of reference: a place from which to speak and to make oneself intelligible 

to one’s interlocutor. 

Indeed, if dialogue is to be more than a synonym for a palliative exchange, it needs to include the possibility of disagreement. Just as there are sometimes untranslatable fractures among texts, so I think it has to be recognised that some differences in the language of values may be unbridgeable, or non-negotiable. In confronting these, it seems to me it is neither salutary nor sufficient to collapse one’s own cultural identity or idiom into ‘the other’ – to delegitimise oneself, so to speak, in the name of concord or good manners. For one thing, to give up on one’s own convictions or perceptions too readily is to lose the vantage point from which differences can be perceived in the first place. But also, a superficial accommodation to beliefs one doesn’t really agree with violates the dignity of the other, as well as one’s own. One wants to give one’s interlocutor the respect of truthfulness – however tactfully expressed – and the possibility of an equally truthful response, whatever risk this incurs. But it is also possible that if we pursue dialogue far enough, we may arrive at a common ethical vocabulary, a repertory of human memes, which underlies cultural specificities and which can enable broad consensus on social values. We need the process of dialogue and vigorous engagement in order to understand both what divides us and what we may have in common: ultimately, what kind of society we may want to share. It is only through such conscious process that we can arrive at consciousness of common aims, so that we can uphold shared values – and initiate others into them – more robustly and confidently. 

We need, then, to cultivate the practices of candid conversation, in the agora, no less than in the common room or the salon. But in order to decide how we want to shape our lives, we need also to be able to reflect on and interpret the existential, as well as social, aspects of our own experience; our human, as well as our political, condition. Here, institutions and groups dedicated to the development of knowledge and understanding – universities, think-tanks, the creative and intellectual classes – have a particular role to play. 

I’m not sure that the postmodern intelligentsia has always lived up to this high task. The governing discourse of the intellectual world in the last few decades – particularly in the humanities and social sciences – has been that of deconstruction; and the theoretical imperative within it has 

been to ‘decode’, ‘unpack’ and ‘demystify’ texts, meanings, beliefs and other objects of scrutiny, often not so much in order to understand them, as to expose their putative hypocrisies and hollowness. Within this critical universe, subversion has been the privileged attitude and a more affirmative analysis of institutions, values or needs has been too often regarded as a form of credulity, or sentimentality. 

Of course, the questioning of cultural assumptions or forms of power is a legitimate and necessary critical activity. But the rhetoric of undoing and dismantling and the often facile scepticism underlying this form of analysis has, to my mind, amounted to a kind of trahison de clercs – the betrayal by artists and intellectuals of their obligation to help us interpret our experience, to reflect on the nature of human strivings and desires, to grapple with the basic affective realities of attachment and conflict or love and loss; to acknowledge the longing for beauty, or even transcendence; to understand the meanings of dignity or responsibility; most of all, to recognise our urgent need to construct meanings and values as well as to deconstruct them. 

Within the discourse of deconstruction and its corrosive ironies, the very idea of ‘the good life’ becomes untenable. But theoretical discourses have their day and our understanding of ‘the human condition’ has been undergoing, in the last two or so decades, a profound alteration. The extension or expansion of knowledge and understanding also happens through dialogue – with colleagues, with traditions of scholarship and with other disciplines. Today, one of the most intellectually fertile and truly exploratory conversations taking place within academia is the interplay between CP Snow’s putatively separate ‘two cultures’ – the humanities and the sciences. Interestingly, it is within the pioneering life-sciences – genetics, chronobiology or neuroscience – that many of the questions which traditionally belonged to philosophy, or even theology, are increasingly being asked: what is ‘human nature’ and what is specifically human in the human animal; what is consciousness and how can we understand the relationship between mind and brain; what elements are emotions made of and what are the links between the mind and the brain, the body and the psyche? The findings within these emerging areas are still nascent and inconclusive, but it seems to me that they amount to a kind of Copernican revolution in our understanding and that they may deepen and modify the insights we have garnered from the humanities. 

Perhaps with some irony, it is also from these pioneering disciplines that the turn towards more constructive – in every sense of the term – ideas about human experience may come. Increasingly, the news brought to us by deep probes into the body and brain is that such supposedly intangible entities as emotions, memories, altruism or empathy have a solid reality; and also, that on every level of our constitution – from genes, chromosomes and dendrites to the brain and processes of emotion, we are formed both through given structures (the genetic code, the constituent parts of the brain) and through openness to experience. On every level, if we are to function and feel well, we need both construction and flexibility. If we don’t achieve sufficient structure – if, for example, the brain’s parts are damaged – then mental and psychological plasticity is severely impaired. On the other hand, if we can’t be modified by external stimuli – sensory and informational input, environment, relations with others – we stop learning and developing. 

These are very suggestive discoveries and they come from forms of inquiry that are closely bound up with ideas of freedom. The empirical (as opposed to religious or ideological) approach to the study of ‘the human’ has been one of the hallmarks of Western Enlightenment and it depends on the cultivation of individual freedom, liberty of thought and unprejudiced observation. The life-sciences are the newest advances in this thread of endeavour and it seems to me that an increasingly precise and microscopic investigation of the person is one of the central and pioneering projects of our own time. How the elementary particles of human biology – genes, dendrites, proteins and chromosomes – add up to consciousness and human striving is still mysterious, but it is an area of genuine exploration and discovery, both of which are so crucial to the liveliness and dynamism of any civilisation. 

At the same time, I think it’s important to infuse scientific inquiry with humane – indeed, humanistic – knowledge. It is surely one of the responsibilities of academia to teach the rich heritage of the humanities as widely and rigorously as possible. These are, after all, the best achievements of free societies – and they fill with exciting content the idea and promise of freedom. 

It is in such ways that the legacy of civilisation can help us reflect on who we are and who we want to be; on how to shape our purposes and choose our responsibilities; on how to contribute to the common good and what informs our own sense of self-worth and dignity; in other words, on what freedom is for and how we can try to live lives which we experience as meaningful. The good life is a life which makes sense. 

Beyond the heritage of our own cultures, we are, today, inescapably connected to other societies and civilisations, not only through the interdependence of economies and markets, but through a kind of globalisation of perception. We are more transparent to each other than ever before – and this is also a condition we somehow have to accommodate to the conception of the well-lived life. Throughout most historical periods, the very possibility of the good life has been limited to privileged and insulated enclaves (the court, the aristocratic country house, the eighteenth-century French salon, the Bloomsbury bohemia) and thought to be the prerogative of ‘we happy few’. Such insulation is no longer possible. If we are at all sentient, we are inescapably aware of the world at large, with all its great share of miseries, inequalities and disasters; and this means that it is very difficult to enjoy our privilege innocently. What we make of that is highly personal, but I think we have to allow this information to filter into our consciousness, to understand that we exist in a variety of relationships with other societies and parts of the globe and that this might affect our decisions about how we conduct our lives (or, indeed, how we vote). 

We live simultaneously with a multiplicity of meanings and a close connectivity of actual worlds. This makes orientation and questions of choice difficult. At the same time, connection to many cultures and parts of the world is surely one of the exciting features – and privileges – of our time. Lucky are those who have useful work to do which brings them into interaction with other societies and which may be helpful to those who need help: that is a genuine goal within our contemporary world. 

But even without such concrete purposes, there is a great expansion of consciousness in the realm of global connectivity – a kind of reaching towards the intuition that, despite our differences, we may be, after all, all human and only human. And perhaps a better, or a fuller, understanding of our humanity in all its aspects and possibilities is finally both the basis and the ultimate aim of the good life. 

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Some Reflections on the Good Life Today’, in ‘Civilisation: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar 2013’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

Eva Hoffman

Eva Hoffman emigrated from Poland to Canada and the United States in her teens. She has worked as an editor and writer at The New York Times, has written several books and has lectured on subjects of exile, historical memory, human rights and other contemporary issues.

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