What’s the best way for you to live, if you want to live a fulfilled life? Perhaps you might think that the goal of good living is to get as much pleasure and enjoyment out of life as possible, through things like eating, drinking and sex? On the other hand, perhaps you think that the way to live well is to amass enough money so that you can satisfy any of your desires or whims, at any time? Or, then again, perhaps living well is about cultivating the trappings of power and prestige, in such a way that other people will see you as someone particularly special and important, as someone to be respected, and maybe even feared?
At the core of Ancient Greek philosophy is this practical question about how we should live, in order to be fulfilled. Both Plato’s Socrates, and Aristotle, thought that all of the ideas about the good life just mentioned should be rejected. They thought that none of those things makes you genuinely fulfilled. Their answers are challenging in what they seem to expect and require of us.
You live well when you have acquired a range of characteristics (or ‘virtues’) such as wisdom, justice, courage and temperance, when you have enough self-discipline not to be led astray by desires for bodily pleasure, and when your actions over the course of a life manifest your knowledge of how to exercise these virtues in the right place at the right time and in the right amounts. Socrates’ commitment to a life of personal self-discipline and integrity of character was such that he was willing to die for it.
Even if we are not willing to go that far, we can learn something from the fascinating debate about these questions with which philosophy began, and which so much contemporary philosophy is still in dialogue with. As well as introducing Plato’s and Aristotle’s views about the nature of knowledge and reality on this course we examine the elusive fragments of Heraclitus of Ephesus and Parmenides of Elea, to try to understand their meaning, and to try to fathom their connection with what came before and what came after.