Only citizens and leaders with eyes wide open to the real, big questions at play in public debates will avoid misunderstanding the stakes of our policy debates. We need them to be capable of deliberating about those big questions and willing to do so, rather than just digging in their heals and shouting until they get their way or get pushed out of the way. Thus, somewhat counter-intuitively, retreating from reflection on what makes life worth living turns out to be exactly the opposite of the response that social pluralism calls for.
Pluralism calls for the hard work of deliberating about what really matters and what we ought to be pursuing in our common public life, not just how to get things done. Teaching the course "Life Worth Living" gave us good reason to be hopeful about the prospects of intentional, profound reflection on what constitutes a good life.
The students were phenomenal, not just in the way that nearly all Yale students are unnervingly good at seemingly everything, but in a deeper sense. They were thoughtful, patient, and courageous. They were eager to learn from each other and from the texts we study, to let their experiences of the class question their lives, and to change if they concluded that change was called for. The outstanding students aside, two features of the class stood out to us as useful for future discussions of what makes life worth living.
First, the core of the class was engagement with key texts from great religious Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and philosophical utilitarianism and Nietzscheanism traditions of imagining the good life. These traditions have oriented the lives of billions of humans for centuries, and they offer deep, fertile resources for our reflection on what matters and why.
Second, the course embraced its pluralism: the course took place at a pluralistic, secular university, and students and professors hailed from various religious and non-religious backgrounds, and yet we were able to discuss and often debate together the great normative traditions' visions of the good life. The call to consider what makes life worth living doesn't have to be a call into homogeneous enclaves.
As human beings and citizens, we can't afford to be only experts in means but inept amateurs in the weighty ends toward which these means should be employed. We need to develop the habits and skills that equip us to deliberate seriously and respectfully about the great public issues of our day.
What Makes Life Worth Living
We need to make room for the question of what makes life worth living not just on the college curriculum, but in our individual and common lives. Tap here to turn on desktop notifications to get the news sent straight to you.
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Latino Voices. Asian Voices. Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything.
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It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims. For Camus, the question of meaning was closely related to that of happiness — something he explored with great insight in his notebooks. Zaretsky writes:.
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Camus observed that absurdity might ambush us on a street corner or a sun-blasted beach. But so, too, do beauty and the happiness that attends it. All too often, we know we are happy only when we no longer are.
CCHU9065 – A Life Worth Living
Perhaps most importantly, Camus issued a clarion call of dissent in a culture that often conflates happiness with laziness and championed the idea that happiness is nothing less than a moral obligation. Dressed in a trench coat, he flashed his mischievous boyish smile and proclaimed into the camera:.
Today, happiness has become an eccentric activity. The proof is that we tend to hide from others when we practice it. But his most piercing point integrates the questions of happiness and meaning into the eternal quest to find ourselves and live our truth:. Complement it with Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons , then revisit the story of his unlikely and extraordinary friendship with Nobel-winning biologist Jacques Monod.
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