We often hear the phrase, “That’s what it’s all about” in reference to honor, taking care of our families, winning, doing the best we can, or whatever – even in songs: “You do the hokey pokey, and you turn yourself around, that’s what it’s all about.” And when we say or hear “That’s what it’s all about,” we understand that “It” probably isn’t ALL about winning, or the hokey pokey (or whatever.) That said, is it reasonable to ask: “What is ‘It’ really ‘ALL’ about?” Wise men and women have indeed given this question a lot of thought over the millennia.
The Holy Grail in moral philosophy is a single principle that serves as a touchstone for resolving all moral dilemmas, and thereby offering us a glimpse into that elusive ‘meaning of life.’ Classical philosophers (St Augustine, Cicero, St Thomas, among others) called this single principle the “Summum Bonum” or the highest good, that which is good in and of itself, contains all other goods, and from which all other goods are derived. The Summum Bonum is the purpose, the goal, the description of the life best lived. In their quest for this first principle, different philosophers and religious thinkers have arrived at various versions of what they believed to be the Summum Bonum.
Over the years, I’ve made a list of different visions of this source principle I’ve encountered in my reading and studies. This is where my list stands today, and I offer it as a simple man’s necessarily over-simplification of some very nuanced ideas, which I can only pretend to understand. But here is what I’ve found:
Excellence/Fulfillment/Wisdom – Aristotle
Moral Duty – Immanuel Kant
Quality – Robert Pirsig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)
Power (properly applied) – Frederick Nietzsche/Robert Adler
Pleasure (broadly conceived)– Sigmund Freud
Enlightenment – Buddha
The moment (suspending rationality) - Zen Buddhism
Dignity/Honor – The Stoics
The greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number – Jeremy Bentham/John Stuart Mill
Authentic and passionate commitment – Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger
Don’t Worry. Be Happy – Meher Baba
Self-Actualization – Abraham Mazlow
Self-Actualization thru one’s work – Karl Marx
Beauty - James Joyce, Friedrich Schiller
Kindness/compassion/love - Dalai Lama, Buddha, Christ
You’ll note that some of the ‘first principles’ on this list are oriented toward self-development, while others are oriented more toward how we relate and interact with others. There is clearly much overlap in these different approaches, but there are also clearly values, life choices and life-styles unique to each. Each speaks to a different perspective on what makes us human and what human excellence looks like.
Some will argue that God has to be on this list, since a relationship with God or Christ or another religious leader is the Summum Bonum in most religious traditions. I agree, but I choose to separate matters of faith from matters of the mind and reason. For the theist, the Summum Bonum is necessarily a reflection of God’s will; for the atheist or agnostic, it is arrived at through reason and empirical observation. I contend that these two perspectives are not mutually exclusive.
Probably my favorite interpretation of ‘what It’s all about’ is from the Roman poet Lucretius. In his search for the key to the life well lived, he studied all of the great thinkers and philosophers of his era, and distilled what he learned into two maxims: “It is better to love than to hate,” and “Live life fully, even if imperfectly.”
For many of us, this may be simply a theoretical question of little ‘practical’ import. For others, and for the individuals and traditions associated with the different first principles listed above, this is a life-defining, existential question: What is the one most important value I stand for, live for, strive for, and am willing to die for? Why am I here? It is a question that many of us consider more and more as we get older. But had you asked me that question as a young man, I would have responded with a wry smile, “What’s it all about? That’s easy: Eat. F$@#. Skydive!”
Hmmm….. Maybe “Having Fun” also needs to be on that list. You know: “You do the hokey pokey, and you turn yourself around, that’s what it’s all about.” :)
Note: This list of different interpretations of the ultimate good reminded me of the list of different religions’ versions of the Golden Rule . Or more amusingly, the list of different religions’ interpretations of Shit happens . (click hotlinks)