2004 Academic Convocation

The Good Life

Professor Walter Lowrie, history

On this occasion we pay well-deserved tributes to you highly accomplished Puget Sound students. Tomorrow many of you will receive your diplomas; others of you will return to campus in late summer to continue your studies. All of you are among our most successful undergraduates: with your brains, with your academic training, with your demonstrated resolve and self-discipline, you can confidently look forward to an interesting, quite possibly exciting life post Puget Sound. There is much reason to believe that, for each of you, life will be envisioned as a good life.

But, what is it? Here’s my conceptual definition: to make a life, not just a living. The way one conceives and the way one pursues the good life establishes one’s identity, defines one’s excellence.

My remarks today are divided into two sections: an historical overview, and an exhortation.

During the four-plus decades that I have been studying and teaching history, I have found that one of the most persistently interesting inquiries is the way societies define the “good life.”

Definitions undoubtedly go back a long time before that epoch historians define as the onset of Civilization, civilization developing more than five millennia ago in the river valleys of the ancient Near East. From this point we have written records; and from the beginnings, the cultural paradigms and the economic circumstances of these, and all subsequent civilizations, have established the possibilities for the good life. Now, for the vast majority of humankind, the range of possibilities has been limited: enveloped in life-long economic struggles to keep self and family alive, most people lacked the leisure, lacked the education that might expand their view of the good life. For most people, for most all time, the good life was, is, a full stomach, a circumstance that was, is, far from certain.

Thus, until relatively recent times, as a sophisticated construct, the good life was defined by a numerically small proportion of the population—elites. These elites convinced themselves that, because of their superior birth, that is, their ancestry, only they were capable of achieving excellence through their defining of and pursuing the good life. The vast majority of their populations—the popular classes--whose status was determined by their supposedly low birth, were deemed incapable of defining, let alone achieving, individual excellence by pursuing the good life. And this was the way it was. For fifty centuries, the elites maintained their economic and their political and their military domination, thus ensuring the survival of their privileged status and elitist conceptions of the good life.

I must note in a semi-aside, that these same elites, in the Western tradition, were never completely closed groups. There was some movement into and out of the status, and this movement was, I believe, a dynamic element in the Western tradition. A significant factor in ensuring that, for the most part, societies in the West were not culturally ossified.

Yet, while elites shaped the dominant cultural patterns, in most societies there were several models of the good life, sometimes competing models of individual excellence within these same societies. Some of these models can provide much food for thought, for many are relevant not simply for elites, but to the human experience in any age. They deserve our study.

Into this historical sketch within Western civilization, we must note the development of three great religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Each has challenged the idea that the good life is defined and owned by elites. Now, very complex indeed is the social and intellectual role of religiously based definitions of the good life. Institutionalized religions often came to be appropriated by traditional elites, and institutionalized religions developed their own elites. Often these old and new elites used the religious establishment to perpetuate their interests, their perspectives. Nonetheless, these three religions traditions have provided and continue to provide conceptions of and models for the pursuit the good life for all people. A huge contribution to civilization.

So, like our ancestors, we are the inheritors of rich secular and religious traditions of conceiving and pursuing the good life. But, what’s new (historically speaking) is a democratic tradition and the much more broadly based material prosperity characteristic of contemporary American society. All of us here—and tens of millions of others—possess the possibilities of defining and pursuing the good life in complex, multi-faceted dimensions. But, I add, we must not lose sight of the fact that millions even in our own prosperous USA are still struggling to obtain sufficient quality food, and adequate shelter. We have an unfortunate tendency to blind ourselves to what we do not wish to see. We must not blind ourselves. We must engage our empathetic understanding of those for whom the good life is at best a visionary dream. And for vast areas of the globe my remarks directed to this UPS audience would be seen as irrelevant: for these people basic survival is a daily challenge. In fact, as I shall subsequently argue, a criterion for the good life must include a strong commitment to the public interest.

I often tell my fall freshman class that they are economic parasites. My way of getting their attention to their remarkable circumstance: they have four years in which they are free to pursue self-development. And of course my message is essentially: don’t blow the opportunity. Since we graduate a very high percentage of our entering young women and men, clearly they seize the opportunity. And, as I said at the onset of my remarks, you recipients of honors and awards have most admirably seized the opportunity.

Another opportunity awaits you. Of making a life, not just a living. Self-development is an on-going project. Each of you will define the good life. You will do so in a society that provides unprecedented social and intellectual freedom for such definition.

Inappropriate would it be for me to lay out a blueprint, but I am willing to make some suggestions. These suggestions appear in almost outline form. Each of the following ideas requires much development and elaboration Nonetheless, I hope that the points will stimulate thinking.

  1. Certainly we are dealing with process: defining and pursuing the good life is a life-long process. As Harvard College chaplain Peter Gomes has thoughtfully written, “The good life may well be the life lived in constant search of the good life.”
  2. Since antiquity religious and secular thinkers have reminded us that the quality of the soul determines the quality of the life. If “soul” sounds too religious, try “inner self.” However great a reputation we establish in this world, it’s our inner self—or soul—that ultimately defines our individual excellence. Such is bedrock for the good life.
  3. The good life is not comparative with the lives of other people. The good life is self-defined, it is measured by what one does with one’s own life, and it does not require external—social—validation.
  4. Two essential characteristics that I hope your undergraduate education have reinforced are a sense of (a) private probity (such an easy word, so full of profound meaning) and (b) responsibility for public good (what we actively do for humanity, and for the earth). Both characteristics are essential if the good life is to be defined in terms other than self-indulgent, narcissistic pursuits. Since antiquity we have been reminded that equating success with the amount of one’s possessions, one’s investment portfolio, etc, is to limit one’s horizons. To define the good life in such restricted terms is smotheringly narrow. Yet, it’s a lesson that has to be learned over and over and over.
  5. Also, do consider that defining and pursuing the good life may be based on more than scientific materialism, what many observers have called the religion of the modern age. Few if any of us would want to live in world devoid of the remarkable scientific and technological advantages of our time, and I stand before you as one living with a bovine aortic heart valve, witness to the wonders of technology. Nonetheless, I suggest that the good life may also mean pursuing spiritual understanding, insight. We live in a world in which to posit the existence of the soul is often looked upon as, at best, quaint; and more frequently intellectually flabby, scientifically naïve. Well, maybe. But perhaps we have become less sensitive, or even estranged from, additional ways of understanding.
  6. Finally, I remind ourselves that seeking and defining the “good life” not only is a life-long process, but our lives are indeed finite. The process of seeking and defining ought not to be put off as a future leisure time activity. Defining and seeking the “good life” is, or should be, an integral part of our daily lives.

Let us embrace the quest to define ourselves not simply by the way we make a living, but by the quality of our lives.

Thank you for allowing me to share these thoughts, very ordinary thoughts indeed. But, thoughts that each of us needs frequently to consider.