How to Live a Good Life — Two Examples

Below is the abstract of a paper I co-wrote with my friend Skye Cleary about the value of philosophies of life. We present two examples in some depth: Stoicism and Existentialism. The full paper can be downloaded here. More on philosophies of life in the book that inspired this essay: How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy of Life, ed. by Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary & Daniel Kaufman (Vintage, 2020).

What is a philosophy of life? And why should people examine both their own and those of others? We present an operational definition of philosophies of life as constituted of three components: (i) a metaphysics, i.e., a view of how the world works; (ii) an ethics, i.e., a view of how we should behave in the world; and (iii) a set of practices. We also argue that examining and comparing philosophies of life is conducive to more tolerance of others and to a more fulfilling life path for oneself. We then present two examples of life philosophies—Greco-Roman Stoicism and contemporary existential- ism—as case studies.

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Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

10 thoughts on “How to Live a Good Life — Two Examples”

  1. That looks like a great book, I’m definitely going to pick it up. I don’t suppose there’s a plan to have it translated into Italian? I bought one of my Italian Skype chat partners your how to be a stoic book in italian and she is devouring it.

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  2. One trivial point, and one serious difficulty. The trivial point is invoking the 10 Commandments. Have you read them lately? The first one (or the preamble; the division into 10 is post-biblical) is the acceptance of YHWH and his role in the Exodus. Yet very few serious biblical historians now regard the Exodus as an actual historical event, although many such historians are devout Christians (and, indeed, Jews). I suppose this is a good example of how religion depends on a coherence, rather than a correspondence, concept of truth.

    The serious difficulty, which arises whenever one attempts to evaluate an ethical system, is regress. You require a philosophy of life to be useful. But what does usefulness consist in? Genghis Khan’s philosophy of life was extremely useful to him and his followers. Rather less so to anyone who happened to get in the way, but since it did not include cosmopolitanism, that is not a coherent objection.

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    1. Paul, ethical regresses are halted at the meta-ethical level. For instance, Stoicism is – meta-ethically – a type of naturalistic ethics, meaning that it looks at the facts about human nature and uses them as axiom to reason its way through what counts as a good life for a human being.

      This excludes Khan, since his “philosophy” included murdering and enslaving people, both of which, the Stoics would say, are “contrary to nature.”

      It is no objection to say that Khan didn’t work, as naturalistic ethics is not founded on something analogous to the laws of nature (e.g., gravity), but on what Philippa Foot called conditional imperatives: IF you want to be a thriving and respected member of human societies THEN you don’t go around killing and enslaving.


    2. If not regression, then, perhaps, circularity. You say “IF you want to be a thriving and respected member of human societies THEN you don’t go around killing and enslaving”, but Khan and followers, I imagine, respected each other and considered themselves to be mightily thriving. Not your idea of thriving, perhaps, but that’s not the point. Or if it *is* the point, you have smuggled in what you wanted to establish.

      I know I’ve raised this kind of issue before, but feel frustrated at my own lack of a way forward from this point.

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    3. Paul, no circularity, only different axioms between the Stoics and Khan. But the Stoics argue that – empirically speaking – it is a biological truth that human beings thrive in cooperative, social groups. So Khan is empirically wrong on what counts as a human good.

      Of course, the only way to deal with him is to kill him.

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  3. Thanks for the fascinating paper!

    There’s one critical element of philosophies of life that is too often neglected: our scope of moral consideration. Some call it our “moral circle”. Even otherwise compassionate, thoughtful worldviews can enable awful suffering if some are excluded from our consideration. This is obvious with respect to excluding or deprecating groups of humans – compassion isn’t that helpful if you only apply it to “people who look like me”. It’s less obvious when we consider that humans aren’t the only beings that can experience suffering – are sentient. Yet most “philosophies of life” tacitly or explicitly assume that only humans matter.

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    1. Thanks Massimo. Me too. Sadly, most Stoics, existentialists and humanists disagree with us. That’s why I think our scope of moral consideration needs to be clearly specified in any philosophy of life. Looking forward to discussing this with you on Tuesday for the Sentientism podcast!

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