Where Is the Good Life?
Making the Humanist Choice
by Paul Kurtz
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 3.
What is the good life, and is it achievable? People have sought for happiness, and they
have explored the ends of the earth for its realization, but in different ways: the quest
for the Holy Grail; a life of service; the delights of pleasure and sensual consummation;
or of quiet withdrawal.
Happiness is, no doubt, available in many forms; different individuals and cultures
have endowed diverse objects with value. Perhaps not everyone will wish to be engagé,
fully involved, creatively exercised; they may wish, instead, repose and quiet, peace and
security, a life of leisure and retreat. Yet, without overemphasizing the point, the very
essence of life - human life - is creative achievement.
We are defined as persons by the plans and projects that we initiate and fulfill in the
world. The humanist saint is Prometheus, not Christ; the activist, not the passivist; the
skeptic, not the believer; the creator, not the conniver.
As I see it, creative achievement is the very heart of the human enterprise. It
typifies the human species as it has evolved, particularly over the past forty to fifty
thousand years: leaving the life of the hunter and the nomad, developing agriculture and
rural society, inventing industry and technology, building urban societies and a world
community, breaking out of the earth's gravitational field, exploring the solar system and
beyond. The destiny of humankind, of all people and of each person, is that they are
condemned to invent what they will be - condemned if they are fearful but blessed if they
welcome the great adventure. We are responsible in the last analysis, not simply for what
we are, but for what we will become; and that is a source of either high
excitement or distress.
The tasks that emerge in human civilization are for each individual and each society to
forge his or her, or its, own destiny. Human life has no meaning independent of itself.
There is no cosmic force or deity to give it meaning or significance. There is no ultimate
destiny for humankind. Such belief is an illusion of its infancy. The meaning of life is
what we choose to give it. Meaning grows out of human purposes alone. Nature provides us
with an infinite range of opportunities, but it is only our vision and our action that
select and realize those that we desire.
Thus the good life is achieved, invented, fashioned in an active life of enterprise and
endeavor. But whether or not an individual chooses to enter into the arena depends upon
him or her alone. Those who do can find it energizing, exhilarating, full of triumph and
satisfaction. In spite of failures, setbacks, suffering, and pain, life can be fun.
To achieve the good life is an accomplishment. It involves the development of skills,
the proper attitude, and intelligence. The first humanist virtue is the development of
one's own sense of power - of the belief that we can do something, that we can
succeed, that our own preparations and efforts will pay off. The courage to excel
- the courage to become what we want, to realize what we will - is essential. It is in the
process of attainment that we thrive: Sisyphus is not to be condemned; there are always
new mountains to climb, new stones to heave; and they are never the same.
However, in order to have a sense of our own self-power, it is necessary to be able to
live in an ambiguous world of indeterminacy and contingency. Nature is not fixed, nor is
our destiny preplanned. We can build new monuments and discover new theorems; there are
new worlds to be conquered and created. We must not let ourselves be mastered by events,
but we must master them - as far as we can - without fear or recrimination.
If cowardice and fear are our nemesis, so are gullibility and nincompoopery, which must
be controlled by the use of reason. To use reason is to demand evidence for our beliefs,
and to suspend belief wherever we do not have adequate grounds for it; it requires that we
not be deluded by the purveyors of false wares, but that we base our desires, as far as
possible, upon the reasonable grounds of practiced reflection. There is a constant
tendency to fly from reason to a paradise of perfection or quietude. There is no easy
salvation for humans, and it is a delusion to think that we can find it. Life is restless
and outgoing. It can never be content with what is; it is always in the process of
becoming. It is the new that we worship, not because it is better, but because it is a
product of our own creative energy.
Our actions are mere random impulses until they are organized in creative work. It is
the unity of effort and energy that gives vent to our dreams. Thus the good life uniquely
involves creativity. This is the great source of joy and of exuberance. It is in our work
that we best reveal ourselves, not in idle play, or leisure - as important as these things
are - but in the mood of seriousness. Yet creative work is a form of play and, if
coterminous with it, can be among the highest forms of aesthetic satisfaction: planning a
project, teaching a class, constructing a road, and performing a symphony are all forms of
creative endeavor. Those who do not work lack the key ingredient of happiness. The
"sinners" are the lazy ones who cannot, or do not, have the creative impulse.
Though the joys of creativity are legion, pleasure needs to be experienced and enjoyed
in itself and for itself. The hedonic-phobics cannot let themselves go. They are
imprisoned in a cell of psychic repression. One needs to open the doors to the delights of
pleasure, to the many wondrous things to do and enjoy: food and drink, art and poetry,
music and philosophy, science and travel. But merely to seek pleasure without any serious
lifework is banal. And to focus only on physical pleasures - important as they are - is
limiting. One needs an expansive view of life, to enjoy many things, to cultivate one's
tastes for the variety of life's goods. Robust hedonism is a form of activism; the world
we live in and have created offers splendid opportunities for our enjoyment.
Among the finest pleasures of life are the joys of sexual passion and eroticism.
Celibates have committed a sin against themselves, for they have repressed the most
exquisite pleasure of all: the full and varied sexual life that is so essential to
happiness. We must, therefore, be open to the multiplicities of sexuality. We ought to act
out and fulfill our fantasies, as long as they are not self-destructive or destructive of
others; and we ought to be free to enjoy the full range of pansexual pleasures.
Important as individual audacity, courage, intelligence, self-power, and the
fulfillment of one's personal dreams and projects are, the good life cannot be experienced
alone, in isolation. The richest of human plans and joys are shared with others. Love in
its truest sense is nonpossessive, a cooperative participation; and friendship is the
noblest expression of a moral relationship. We need to develop love and friendship for
their own sakes, as goods in themselves.
But we cannot focus on inward ends alone, for the world intrudes in our domain of
interests. We should develop a wider moral concern for those beyond our immediate contact,
for the community, the nation, and the world at large. A person's creative work can and
should involve others, and a sense of our moral obligations and responsibilities should
develop that enlarges our horizons and enhances our universe. A beloved cause can give
meaning and content to one's life. Though one works hard for progress, one should have no
illusion about the possibilities of utopia; a willingness to tolerate ambiguity, even
imperfection, is the mark of maturity.
Finally, each person must face death: life has meaning only if we realize that it will
end. It is in viewing one's life as a complete whole that one sees it for what it is: what
I accomplished and did well; whether I fulfilled some of my dreams and plans; whether I
enjoyed life, made friends, fell in love, worked for a beloved cause, and so forth. I
should have no false hopes about death, but I should do what I can to ward it off. Indeed,
health is a first condition if one is to live well. We must not be deluded by a belief in
immortality but should face death realistically. A free person worships the creative life
as the ultimate good. But when death comes, he or she will accept it with equanimity, if
with sorrow; and he or she will realize that in the face of death the only thing that
really counts is what has been the quality of life, and what has been given to or left for
Thus we may ask, Can we achieve the exuberant life? Yes, to some extent, but not by
following the path that most philosophers and theologians have advised. The key to a full
life is to open up to life - not suppress it or flee from it, but to give vent to our
creative endeavors, to allow our imagination and creativity to have free play. We need to
have confidence in our own power and to live audaciously. We need to be critical and
skeptical of premature claims of truth or virtue, to use our common sense based upon
reason and experience. We should not be afraid to enjoy pleasure or sexuality. Yet, at the
same time, we need to develop love and friendship with others and a genuine moral concern
for a better world. These are some of the ingredients that I have discovered contribute to
the richness of life.
Each day, each moment, can be an adventure, pregnant with opportunity. With so many
good things to do and enjoy, life can be interesting, exciting, and energizing. The full
life is the goal. Though one has cherished memories, one need not look back; nor should
one remain fixated on the present, indecisive and afraid to act. We need always to look
ahead to the future: life is open-ended possibilities. We are not only what we are now,
but also what we will choose to become. That is the faith and the optimism that has
inspired me. Whether others will also find joy in the strenuous life of challenge is, of
course, up to them. It is there simply awaiting one's action. The point is that it does
not depend simply upon nature or society, destiny or God, but on what each person chooses.
Paul Kurtz is Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry and Chairman of the
Council for Secular Humanism. Among his many books is Exuberance,
from which this article is adapted.