How to Live a Good Life | Massimo Pigliucci

Summary of: How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy
By: Massimo Pigliucci


In the quest for a fulfilling life, ‘How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy’ by Massimo Pigliucci delves into the wisdom of ancient and modern philosophical schools from around the world. The book uncovers intriguing insights from Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and various religious and theistic traditions. Designed for users across diverse age groups, this summary will provide a comprehensive understanding of the nuances of these diverse philosophical approaches, the common threads that bind them, and their impact on our pursuit of happiness and purpose.

Buddhism’s Ethical Stance

Owen Flanagan, a Buddhism expert, asked the Dalai Lama whether it’s ethical to assassinate an evil figure like Hitler. The Dalai Lama’s response, “It’s ethical to kill such a person. But don’t be angry.” Buddhism values ethics above all, and a Buddhist’s goal is to minimize overall pain and suffering while maximizing happiness. The Buddha rejected the notion of a permanent essence, emphasizing that everything is impermanent, and that we should aim to obtain nirvana by leading good, selfless, ethical lives. Ultimately, Buddhism isn’t about personal serenity, but rather the good one can do for the world at large.

The Interconnectedness of Eastern Philosophies

Eastern philosophies such as Confucianism and Daoism highlight the importance of recognizing one’s place in the world and being aware of our interconnectedness with others and nature. Confucianism emphasizes the significance of maintaining relationships, while Daoism teaches us to act in harmony with the world. Both philosophies reject the idea of denying the self and instead encourage its integration into our surroundings. The key message here is that Eastern philosophies focus on inner peace, acceptance of reality, and finding success in the midst of challenges.

The Aristotelian Philosophy of Flourishing

Aristotelianism is a philosophy that encourages individuals to flourish by realizing their potential and achieving their goals, but also acknowledges that external factors play a role in this pursuit. Due to this, it recognizes that a simple rulebook-like philosophy is not enough on its own to achieve a eudaemonic life, which is Aristotle’s concept of a good life. The philosophy emphasizes on aiming for balance and maximizing one’s abilities and strengths in various areas. While external factors may hinder the pursuit of a eudaemonic life, Aristotelianism accepts this complex truth and encourages individuals to strive for flourishing as best as they can.

Focus on Indifference vs. Pleasure

The Classical world gave rise to two contrasting philosophies: Stoicism and Epicureanism. Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium, emphasizes leading a moral life guided by four virtues: practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Stoics also strive to attain ataraxia, a state of tranquility, accepting that some things are beyond their control. They divide external factors into preferred and dispreferred indifferents, acknowledging that wealth, for instance, doesn’t determine virtue. Stoicism encourages focusing on indifference to avoid negative emotions, allowing positive emotions like joy and love.

Epicureanism, founded by Epicurus, revolves around feeling good, primarily pleasure. Epicureans practice hedonic calculus, weighing whether something will lead to long-term pleasure. They recognize that seeking immediate pleasure isn’t always beneficial, and that some major decisions may entail temporary discomfort but yield lasting pleasure. They use this calculus to determine the most pleasurable course of action. Epicureanism doesn’t provide universal solutions to moral questions but instead focuses on the most pleasurable solution. Pleasure-seeking is the fundamental principle.

Ancient Ideas in a Modern Context

Hinduism believes that good or bad events happen in life based on the accumulation of positive and negative karma from one’s actions. The ultimate aim is to break out of the cycle of birth and rebirth and achieve good karma. In contrast, Islam has a modern interpretation through Progressive Islam, which upholds social and gender justice. The reinterpretation of ancient scriptures in a modern context is particularly important to drive forward an understanding of Islam today. Both Hinduism and Progressive Islam offer wisdom that is relevant to modern times.

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