The only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves something, namely trying to see whether one can live in accordance with it, has never been taught at universities: all that has ever been taught is a critique of words by means of other words.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations
This site collects all versions of “Living a Good Life,” a team-taught course at Wesleyan University that integrates philosophical ideas and principles with the everyday experience of our students’ real-world lives. By providing an introduction to a variety of approaches to the good life from the ancient world to the present day, and from a diverse range of cultures and traditions, our vision for this course is that students learn to think deeply, critically, and in a historically-informed way about their beliefs and values, as well as those of others.
Reflection on the good life occupies a key place in every field of humanistic study and has a history that spans a wide breadth of periods and cultures. Recent scholarship in philosophy has taken up this topic in relation to the idea of philosophy itself as a way of life under the rubric of the “care of the self,” drawing on the prevalence of this notion in Greco-Roman thought. In the last decade, the field has grown further by attending to the idea of philosophy as a way of life in non-Western traditions, such as Confucianism, Buddhism, and Africana thought, and in later periods in the history of philosophy.
Most recently, the task of holistic thinking about the good life has been invoked in efforts to promote political change and social justice causes. In a variety of formulations and across several traditions, practices of self-care and reflection on the good life have been seen as continuous with a robust engagement with others and sociopolitical involvement. Indeed, for many thinkers and activists throughout history, a commitment to people and causes beyond the individual self demands a certain degree of self-work. This demand resonates in the modern period with the thought of Mohandas Gandhi and the care of the self that features in his satyagraha movement, as well as with Nelson Mandela’s use of ubuntu philosophy for anti-apartheid purposes, but it finds equal expression in the premodern world in the outward-facing requirements of Stoic virtue and in the self-cultivation that the Confucian philosopher Mengzi recommends in nurturing the sprout of benevolence.
The application of philosophical thought to lived practice is a cornerstone principle of “Living a Good Life.” A key goal of this course is to present philosophy not only as an intellectual discipline with the aim of understanding the world around us, but also as a way of living a better life through intentional practice. To achieve this, in addition to conventional academic readings, lectures, discussion, and essay assignments, the course includes a series of units that involve week-long immersive exercises inspired by different approaches to the good life from diverse classical traditions. We’ve found that such a pedagogical model allows students to discover for themselves how theory can bear on practice (and vice versa) in ways they find illuminating and at times transformative. For the most recent version of the course, see here.