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What is a good life?


What is a good life? Everyone has their own definition and it seems these days, the differences can be pretty extreme. For a suicide bomber, it might mean martyrdom, murder, mayhem rolled into one. For certain Wall Street bankers and capital market players, it could mean destroying the world's economy for their own individual gain.

I don't think most of us would accept either of those definitions of what constitutes a good life. Instead, maybe we'd look for something along the lines of Aristotle's definition of the golden mean -- finding a balance between extremes. (The photo above is a fragment from Raphael's School of Athens fresco in the Vatican Museums, imaging Aristotle and his teacher Plato in conversation)

Of course, who talks about Aristotle these days? He lived and died more than 2,300 years ago, so how is an old, dead Greek philosopher relevant today?

Canadian author Annabel Lyon tries to tackle that issue in a pretty interesting and certainly compelling novel The Golden Mean, which imagines Aristotle's life during the period when he was tutor to Alexander the Great. Aristotle's relationship with his wife, his father, his friends (who are few) and especially with the rather scary young Alexander, make for an interesting storyline.

Admittedly, the novel is a bit dry in places and Lyon's efforts to bring the philosopher down to earth seem a bit strained at times. Aristotle suffers depressions, he thinks women are feeble imitations of men, and he's embarrassed at his bookishness, especially in a world where the soldier or action figure is the ideal man (which sounds a little like today!)

Lyon, in an interview late last year, tried to explain why Aristotle and his philosophy are just as relevant now as at the time when Alexander was attempting to conquer the globe.

She explained that after her university days, she found herself still turning to Aristotle's philosophy in times of stress. (Frankly, I do the same) One of those times was Sept. 11, 2001 when the terrorists attacks on the United States left her questioning many things about the world.

“I went through what I think a lot of people in the arts went through — I just wasn’t quite sure of the importance of what I was doing, the relevance of what I was doing, and stopped reading fiction for a little while,” said Lyon, who now teaches at the University of British Columbia.

“But I found that I could read my Aristotle because the questions that he poses there just remain so relevant and so current: ’What does it mean to live a good life, and what does it mean to avoid extremes, and what does it mean to be a good citizen?”’

That helped her to decide to write a fictionalized version of the 7-year period in Aristotle's life when, at the request of his old friend Philip of Macedon, he taught Philip's son, the young Alexander the Great.

Comments (12)


Very thought provoking post, Sandra. I must give some thought to what my answer would be to that question. And I love Raphael's School of Athens, I was so thrilled to see if in person when I visited the Vatican museums.

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Sandra, I really enjoyed reading your post this morning. As Anne said, very thought provoking. It is interesting how questions raised by Aristotle 2,300 years ago are just as relevant today. The Golden Mean sounds like an interesting read.

Thank you so much for writing this interesting post. Have a great day today!

Sounds like a very interesting book, and the question of "What is a good life" is definitely thought provoking. I studies Aristotle's philosophy in college, and although it seems simple to understand; applying it can be pretty hard.

Thanks for the food for mind post.

Super post for thinking -- I have always found Aristotle and his band of philosophers intimidating. I work with a few experts in philosophy so that doesn't help either. But, it's an interesting question, and, I think, because of where we are in a civilized society (timeline and culture), it makes the question even more thoughtful for an intrinsic meaning. m


Thanks, Anne -- and isn't the School of Athens fabulous? I usually make a beeline for the Raphael Rooms because I just love this fresco in particular. (Espy the brooding Michelangelo!)

Hi Kathy, I find it fascinating that in so many ways, human nature hasn't changed much over thousands of years. The world has certainly changed, but I'm not sure we really have.

Candi, you might like this book, as bit of an idea of what Aristotle might have been like. It gives the impression that even he found it hard to put into practice his ideas of how to live the good life (and of course, he argued that it wasn't enough to have good prinicples; they had to be put into practice to have value.)

Hi menehune, this book did help to make Aristotle a little less intimidating (although The Big Subjects of philosophy certain are!)

Great question, especially with all that is going on in the world right now.

One of my favorite classes in high school was a Greek Mythology class. It is amazing how wise Aristotle was and how his thoughts and questions are still relevant 2,300 years later.

What a fascinating premise - imagine a return to a world where intelligence (bookishness) wasn't seen as a weakness? One can only hope I suppose . . .


Hi Girasoli! It seems that our society is so geared towards speed and keeping up with the very latest in everything -- latest news bite, latest gadget, latest fad. Sometimes we forget that there's enormous value in history, too.

Jerry, well put! It seems that Michael Ignatieff's staff are coming to the same conclusions.

Thanks for the review - it sounds like an interesting novel. Not sure exactly what a good life is, but I know that I have one!

Brad'll Do It:

Regarding your comment to Girasoli... sounds like a reason to love Italy, the antidote to speed/keeping up with the latest, as well as the sense of history. Or should I have said ANOTHER reason to love Italy?

Barb Cabot:

Thank you for such a thoughtful post. Food for thought to start my day with.


Hi Annie, it sounds to me like you have very good balance in your life -- volunteer work, travel, lots of interests as well as your career. I think that's a good life!

Excellent point, Brad, another reason to love Italy (as if we need more reasons!!!)

Thanks, Barb!

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