Me: Hey Cicero, I have been doing a lot of thinking lately on a topic that has been bothering me, and wanted to know if you could provide some insight on the matter?
Cicero: Surely, what is bothering you?
Me: Well, it seems that today many people are struggling with their lives because they feel directionless. A nihilistic world view with a hedonistic life style seems to be the default mode for many people. This doesn’t seem right to me though, that just seems empty. There must be something else, right?
Cicero: Well lets start with this, what do you think, in general, all people want for their lives in the end?
Me: Well I think that the vast majority of us would agree that we want to live a good life, a fulfilled life. A life that we can look back on and say ‘Yes, that was a good life, I am happy with what I accomplished. I can leave now without any regrets’.
Cicero: Yes indeed, so there it is. That is your end goal, that is the direction in which you should head.
Me: Sure, but that is easier said than done. The problem is, many of us disagree on what exactly a ‘good life’ consists of. Some people think that simply means experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain. In fact the default view promoted to most Americans is that we should seek pleasure, fame, money, love, and that when we have all these things, we will be happy.
Cicero: I see, well lets take a look at money and fame. Can you think of anyone who is very wealthy or famous, in the past or present, and yet is miserable?
Me: Well yes, I can think of many people such as famous celebrities or historical figures who were wealthy or famous, and yet very unhappy with their lives.
Cicero: From this example I think we can say then that money and fame, by themselves and even together, are not sufficient for a good life.
Me: Sure but those things aren’t typically sought out as intrinsic goods. Money can only be used as a means to get you other things. Sure some people might think fame is intrinsically good, but others would question that, and only see it as a means to some other end as well. Pleasure on the other hand, is sought out for its own sake.
Cicero: Let us take a look at pleasure then. Can you think of people who simply sought lives of pleasure, and have reported that at the end of that path there is nothing but a hollow emptiness?
Me: Yes, I can think of a few people like that. But couldn’t we say that those people simply sought out too much pleasure to the detriment of other things? That they were excessive?
Cicero: Yes indeed, but what would tell them that they are slipping into excess? Pleasure itself would not be able to tell them. Would it not be wisdom that tells them when they have gone too far?
Me: Ok, I think I see your point there. But what about love? Some people would contest that all you actually need in life is love, that love conquers all, etc…
Cicero: This case is no different from the rest. Can you not imagine a case where two individuals lost themselves in mutual love for each other? Do you not recall instances where it is said that people are ‘madly’ in love with one another, or that love has blinded them? Do you not recall the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet? Do you not think that some additional wisdom on their part would of produced a better outcome in the end for the both of them?
Me: Hmmm ok, then your point here is that everything we do, if we wish to do it correctly, is beholden to wisdom?
Cicero: Yes that is quite my point. Wisdom itself is necessary for happiness, for a good life. Wisdom is useful wherever you are, no matter what situation you find yourself in. The same cannot be said for the rest of these things.
Me: But what do you really mean by wisdom? And how does one become wise? Talking about wisdom like this seems all well and good, but this is all so very abstract. I still have no clue as to what I am actually supposed to do!
Cicero: Your concerns are valid, I will refer you to my friend, Epictetus. He is known for his ideas on practical wisdom, and will be able to answer your questions about this matter more effectively than I could.