After struggling for hours to write a paper for my Eurasia class, the only things I had were a blank Word document, a pounding headache, and eyes glazed-over with confusion; at one-thirty a.m., I decided to call it quits.
“I’ll never understand Eastern philosophy!” I wailed melodramatically. “I still have three other classes to study for finals, and the rest of the night’s pretty much shot. I’m going to bed. Maybe in the morning I’ll be able to muddle through this philosophical mumbo-jumbo.”
Half an hour later, the Hanover clock chimed two, and just as I felt myself dropping off into a dreamless sleep, I felt someone watching me and jerked awake. An ethereal-looking man in a bed sheet was standing at the foot of my bed.
“Hey, why are you here?” I asked.
“That, young one, is what we are here to discuss,” he said.
“No, I mean, how did you get in? Men aren’t allowed in the women’s dorms!”
“I’m Aristotle, the great philosopher,” he said, “and you are inciting me to crossness with your adulteration of my ideals! I felt an overwhelming desire to visit you and mend your misconceptions.”
“Great!” I chirped. “Then I can pick your brain for my Eurasia paper. For starters, how did it feel to be married to Jackie?”
“Argh. I can see I have my work cut out for me. Anything else?”
“Well,” I said, consulting my syllabus, “Professor Carrell talks about “the good life” all the time. What is that?”
“Ahhhh, eudemonia. A fair question, indeed. The good life is the only human value that can be considered the ultimate goal. The good life is ultimately a life of study.”
Confused, I queried, “How can someone ‘achieve’ this “good life,” then?”
“Live a life of happiness and well-being, with all your goings-on governed by reason, prosperity through logic,” Aristotle explained. I wasn’t convinced.
With a look like one given to a belligerent toddler, Aristotle tried again. “To be happy and live a good life, you must fulfill your function as best you can, according to the virtues. For instance, a cow that eats grass and gives milk fulfills her purpose. She lives the good life.”
“So people are like cows?”
“I have not finished. Man has that which beasts do not possess: Reason. Man should use reason to decide to be virtuous.”
“But what determines “virtue?” I prodded.
“Virtue is the mean between one extreme and another. For example, take the virtue of courage. On one end of the spectrum, you have too much, and you are foolhardy. At the other end, there is a lack of courage, cowardice. Balance, and the mean of all virtues, determines what is good."
“Virtues such as...?”
“Generosity. Beauty. Bravery. Magnanimity. Happiness is gleaned through such things. Anything else is mere pleasure, which cannot last.”
“This is all so confusing! All this philosophy is gonna kill me!” I bellowed.
“Nonsense.” He waved away my protests with a wave of his hand. “Philosophy never killed anyone,” and as an afterthought added, “Well, except for Socrates.”
With that, he turned and faded into obscurity. Musing upon the words of Aristotle, I found myself drowsing into a deep sleep. As the Hanover clock struck three a.m., I was awakened to yet another strange man at the foot of my bed.
“Gaaah!” I screamed. “Where in the hell are you all getting in?” Seemingly ignoring my query, he launched into a stoic introduction.
“I am Lao Tzu, teacher of Daoism,” he informed me in a thick Chinese accent. “I, like Aristotle, have gotten word of the error of your ideas about my beliefs.” As with Aristotle, I explained my confusion regarding “the good life,” which upon hearing, Laozi exclaimed, “Ah, wuwei! A topic with which I am familiar. The ultimate good is found in complement. Just as there is dark, there is light. As there is the earth, so there is sky.”
“Like boys and girls?” I asked.
“Yes, I suppose so. Everything must have its complement. It is logical necessity. Good cannot exist without its complement. Just as there is good, there must be evil. In order to eradicate evil, one must also eradicate good. To obtain the good life is to be ever desireless. Do not be “good” or “evil”—merely be.
“Like Yoda!” I cried. “’Do’ or ‘do not.’ There is no ‘try’.”
“Exactly. Only when you have no desire can you see the world as it actually is.”
“But how?” I asked.
“When we look at the world through a filter, which is our desire, it is like looking through muddy water to a fish swimming at the bottom. The fish may in fact be golden, but because it is clouded by the dirty water, the fish appears ugly. So is the world when we see it as we desire. When you overlay our desire over what is actually there, there is conflict. You will want the world to be a certain way, it will not be, and thus the conflict. If you accept the world for the way it is, therein lies truth.”
“Wait. Let me get this straight. So once you’re finally able to perceive truth, you will have eliminated the desire to do so?”
“Ironic, is it not?”
“Yeah, like jumbo shrimp!”
“That’s an oxymoron,” he said, rolling his eyes.
As he too left, the things that I had heard from the wizened Laozi caused me to ponder about “the good life” and what it entailed. Maybe there was more to “the good life” than crossword puzzles, Spaghettios, and my boyfriend. My head spinning, I quickly fell into a troubled sleep once more. As the Hanover clock chimed four, I was little surprised to see another figure in unfamiliar clothing at the foot of my bed.
“Let me guess, the Ghost of Christmas past, right?” I said sarcastically.
“Alas, no. I am Epicurus, and I have come to complete your training on “the good life.”
“Again, let me take a stab at the reason. I’m bastardizing your ideas and you’ve come to set me straight?”
“Precisely,” he shrugged. “I am loathe to use the phrase ‘Whatever makes you happy,’ but it works. In essence, anything that is valuable to one’s own pleasure is valuable, period. However, I recommend a life of moderation. Plain living, and a perfect union of body and soul, can bring you happiness, and the good life.”
“How do you mean?"
“The aim of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear; and once we have attained this, all the storms of the mind are calmed, seeing that the living creature has no need to go in search of something that is lacking nor to look for anything else required to fulfill the good of mind and body. When we are pained because of the absence of pleasure, then, and then only, do we feel the need of pleasure; but when we feel no pain, then we no longer stand in need of pleasure. Therefore we call pleasure the beginning and end of a blessed life. Pleasure is our first and closest good. It is the starting-point of everything we accept and everything we reject, and to it we come back, as we make feeling the rule by which to evaluate the good of everything.”
“Whoa. So you’re telling me that the only reason that pain hurts us is because it’s an absence of pleasure?”
“Okay, let me break this down and see if I understand what you’re telling me. You’re saying that to live well you must remove all pain, and thus all sources of pain, from your life. To do this you must live a life wisely, safely, justly, honorably, and all the rest. You must keep your life in balance to avoid as much pain as possible and to gain as much pleasure as possible?”
“Close enough. The greatest good is the pleasure of the self.”
“So is it for each person to decide for themselves?”
“More or less.”
“Okay,” I shrugged. “Thanks for the help.”
He turned as if to go, and remembering something, turned to me. “Oh, and Erin?” I perked up to hear what strange and wonderful wisdom would come from the mouth of the ancient philosopher. “I wouldn’t mind in the least if you mentioned some of the things you’ve learned tonight in your Eurasia essay. And I’m sure that Laozi and Aristotle wouldn’t mind if you incorporated their ideas into your paper, either.” As he turned and vanished, under his breath, I could’ve sworn he muttered, “Couldn’t be worse than the drivel
she was writing before we visited,” but at four in the morning, one tends to hallucinate.