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A Life Philosophic

Condemned by the good life

Maybe it’s a sign of age, but last week I went to my third funeral in six months. Ray died on Christmas Day, a week before he would have turned seventy, on New Year’s Day. His death came both too soon and not soon enough. Ray had been suffering from motor neurone disease and everybody who loved him took some comfort from the fact that his suffering didn’t get even more terrible and prolonged.

Ray Beecher

The eulogy testified to a life well-lived. It may be a cliché too say someone loved life, but Ray really did. He was also a good, decent man. When I went to Bramley in Rotherham for six months to work on Welcome To Everytown he made me welcome and became a friend for life.

The funeral itself was a tremendous tribute to the man, led by a wonderful celebrant, David Hayes. The turnout was enormous: there wasn’t even enough standing room for all the guests, many of whom spilled out into the courtyard adjacent to the chapel.

Everyone there could see Ray’s was a good life. And yet, when I think about what philosophers have said about the good life, it’s not clear Ray’s ticks their boxes. Think of Socrates’s old saw, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Really? I’m not sure Ray went into much philosophical self-examination. He just got on with it. If Socrates was serious he’d have to say Ray’s life was not worth living. And if he had an ounce of humanity he would find himself unable to do so. Ray, and millions like him, refute Socrates by example.

Or take the account of the good life offered by my old teacher and friend John Cottingham. Cottingham says a good life requires achievement, virtue and a transcendent, spiritual dimension. I can agree worth the first two, but only if we understand that life is bloody hard for most people and that getting through it with common decency intact is achievement and virtue enough. But the transcendence requirement seems too much and unless it is defined so thinly as to meaningless, again it would entail that too many lives fall short of goodness for my liking.

Philosophers make two different mistakes when prescribing the good life. First, they don’t distinguish between the ideal and the good. Perhaps the best life is indeed one in which we use the intellect to its greatest capacities, or where transcendence is achieved in some way, but that doesn’t mean that if we don’t rise so high our lives aren’t good.

More importantly, however, I worry philosophers create a model of the good life in their own image. Isn’t is rather convenient that people who spend their lives ratiocinating believe that the life of the mind is the best life to live? A more objective observer might conclude that there are many other ways of being “fully human”: having good relationships, using our bodies to their full potential, cultivating plants, appreciating food and drink, making music, and so on.

These mistakes are part of the wider phenomenon of intellectual elites looking down on “ordinary” people, often without even realising they are doing it. John Carey wrote about this brilliantly in The Intellectuals and the Masses. Carey focused on the early twentieth century but the same dynamic recurs in different guises in different times and places.

I suspect elite disdain for the masses is at least in part a way of distancing oneself from the less attractive slides of human nature. By identifying irrationality, herd-like conformity and crude animality to others, we deny these characteristics in ourselves, allowing ourselves to believe we are more rational, unique and elevated than we really are.

To prevent philosophers either setting the bar for a good life too high, or simply setting the wrong bar, I propose the Ray test: if your theory doesn’t vindicate his existence then your theory is wrong. Not just wrong, but deeply misanthropic, since by implication it condemns vast swathes of humanity to meaninglessness.


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