What is It REALLY all about?

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

     QualityRobert Pirsig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

     Power (properly applied)Frederick Nietzsche/Robert Adler 

     Pleasure (broadly conceived)– Sigmund Freud  


    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)
Cartoon stock hokey pokey

12 thoughts on “What is It REALLY all about?

  1. I enjoyed this latest blog very much – even although it’s so profound I could barely understand it! I think Lucretius expresses it very succinctly and I also would choose his interpretation as my favourite.. I am almost ashamed to admit that despite having studied Latin for four years (more years ago than I care to remember!), I have never read any of the poetry of Lucretius but perhaps I should think about it now. My personal philosophy is one which I learned as a child in a book by Charles Kingsley called “The Water Babies” and it is “do as you would be done by”.

    Keep up the good work with these thought-provoking blogs!


    • Sandra – thanks for your response. I really struggled to get that one into my target of 800 words. You would enjoy hitting the hotlinks to the different versions of the Golden Rule and Shit Happens.
      Probably the best ‘First Principle’ I’ve studied is Kant’s “Never treat another person as a mere means to an end, but also as an end unto themselves” – meaning always respect their human dignity the way you would want yours respected, NO MATTER WHAT they may have done or may do in the future (that’s the hard part).
      After being very intrigued by his two maxims, I also picked up Lucretius book On the Nature of the Universe and I might suggest that you not. I would instead go on-line and you’ll find it there, read bits and pieces of it and I think you’ll find that will suffice. It is not nearly as elegant or succinct as his two maxims! Bob


  2. Bob,

    I really like your list or summary of bona (or bonae, is it feminine?) Certainly none of theses things are bad, in fact all of them are good. At the risk of being bland, I might say that a complete human life should contain elements of all. Which one we emphasize is a matter of free will and might depend on circumstance or personality. The different stages of our lives might have an influence. Is youth the primary season for beauty, middle age for duty and fulfillment, old age for enlightenment? You and I have talked about how stoicism may be especially useful to the military person.

    Maybe the bona/ae are like the tools in a tool kit or tool belt. Don’t be without your wrench, even if it looks like you’ll be hammering nails for awhile. The pursuit of one good may also strengthen our grasp on another. Will the enlightened person have a surer sense of duty than the one who is merely dutiful?

    The great moral ideas may be said to converge exactly in proportion to the degree that they are great, assuming that they address the same reality, and that one believes in such a thing as moral truth.



    • Reed – excellent points. And I agree with you – but I also struggle with the idea of making an absolute ‘relative’ to context and other factors. In fact I’ll share with you a paragraph I deleted from my essay (it was painful to delete it, but I need to try to keep these within 800 words, and this, as do most of my essays, tries to address a huge topic).

      “It is reasonable to ask whether this might it be an exercise in futility – to reach agreement on a single absolute that is valid for all people at all times. Indeed. But even if consensus is unachievable, I believe it is still worthwhile to ask the question. We recognize that in fact, what we strive for at any given time and place is very much a function of where we are on Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, or Erickson’s Stages of Life, or Kohlberg’s stages of Moral Development, or what our culture has taught us since childhood that we should strive for. But the idea of the Summum Bonum goes beyond these conditions and contexts. It seeks to identify a single fundamental value that all humans share, as an ideal purpose of an entire lifetime. It assumes a certain degree of fulfillment of basic needs for life and survival, as well as a certain sophistication in intellectual and moral development. It also assumes that, at least for humans, there is a good beyond fulfilling primal needs and desires, and it has to do with how we – all of us – best live together.”
      Thanks again for your always thoughtful and insightful comments. Bob


  3. “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. ”

    “To separate your faith from your mind, you have to cut off your head.”

    I want to share with you a quote from a summary/commentary on a book you may be familiar with:

    “Ecclesiastes challenges the naive optimism that sets a goal that appeals to us and then goes after it with gusto, expecting the result to be a good life. The author’s cool skepticism, a refreshing negation to the lush and seductive suggestions swirling around us, promising everything but delivering nothing, clears the air. And once the air is cleared, we are ready for reality – for God.”

    The Meaning of Life is what we were designed for; a relationship with our Creator. If you understand the nature of faith, you know that you cannot separate faith and reason… they work hand in hand for those that love God. But to understand that, you have to have a loving relationship with HIM. Just think, how well would your kids understand your perspective and insights if they never had a relationship with you?

    Looking forward to seeing you and Mary Anne in 2014!
    Mike & Keeley


  4. I often find that I can measure the satisfactions of my life through Bob’s Blogs. Whenever he posts something new, and particularly when it occurs early in the week it seems to make things go so much better – I often find myself stopping what I am doing every now and then to go back to read what he wrote over and over – savoring the words like a fine French wine and trying to understand the nuances.

    This blog was no different. I, too, have often wondered the meaning of life and not sure I will ever know the answer. It is elusive and changes as I age, and I can say that whatever it is, I want more (meaning and age).

    Interpreting the meaning of life is an individual thing and can be done in so many different ways; As humans I believe it defines and purposes us, and our lives. And makes want to get more and more. Life would be pretty empty without some meaning, IMHO.

    One of my favorite journeys to discover life’s meanings remains The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I won’t begin to try to describe the many elements in this fascinating story other than to say it includes Slartibarfast a planetary coastline designer responsible for the fjords of Norway, a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings, a computer named Deep Thought who works for millions of years to calculate the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, and ultimately, the number 42.

    Whether this solves anything or is the real meaning and answer to life, who knows, but 42 is good enough for me.

    And in speaking of numbers, I believe that today, May 10, 2013 is Bob’s birthday. If I have missed it by a day or two, no matter, it is the thought.

    No, he isn’t 42 (although he looks it, dang him) but a little older than that, perhaps a bit wiser, and certainly every bit as charming as any 42 year old ex-SEAL might be.

    So, let’s wish him a heartfelt Happy Birthday, he’s earned it, and let’s hope we get to read many more of his Blog’s in the years to come.

    Happy Birthday Bob!


    • Rich – if your intent was to embarrass me, it worked. THanks for your kind compliments and HBD wishes.
      I’ve heard a lot about Hitchhiker’s Guide, and will check it out.
      Regarding Meaning of Life, I read an interesting quote (in the stall at NOLS HQ in Lander Wyoming) that the question should not be ‘what is the meaning of life?’ rather ‘what is your meaning IN your life?’ I like that, since it individualizes the question – which appeals to my existentialist sentiments – ie, that it is up to us to choose our own meaning, and that is our primary function in life. Like Gandhi’s famous quote: “My life is my message.” Isn’t that true of all of us? And it is an awkward question to ask: “What message is MY life?” Because our kids are watching (and wondering.) As are others. And if we don’t know, what does that say about us? Just more grist for the mill, food for thought, fodder for the cannon. Do the Hokey Pokey and turn yourself around? Eat, Fuck Sky Dive? He who dies with the most toys wins?
      Thanks for your thoughtful response, and let’s get together and BS sometime soon and maybe figure this out.. 🙂 bob


  5. A good friend of mine sent me an email in which he stated the following, and which I think deserves a wider audience:

    “I really thought the ‘Don’t Worry; be happy’ philosophy came from Bobbie McFerren, the Jamaican Rasta. What a shame that he pinched it from someone else! Actually, that leads me to a list I have on my office wall (but I don’t even know where I got it):

    ‘The Five Keys to Happiness’
    1. Don’t worry
    2. Don’t hate
    3. Live simply
    4. Give more
    5. Expect less”

    I really like these 5 keys. We all need simple touchstones to help us in times of trouble and confusion, and this is a pretty good list, that is helpful in dealing with many of the challenges that come our way.


    • The “Five Keys to Happiness” list reminded me of an article I read years ago written about an old married couple. The man was 105 years old and the woman 103. They were interviewed by a journalist doing a story about how to achieve happiness and longevity in marriage. The couple’s advice was, “lower your expectations of people and maintain a good sense of humor.”

      But, more to the point of your first post, I have always liked the philosophy that the act of seeking the answer to the question “What is it all about” Is actually the answer. Life is about the journey of living; the struggle itself is why we exist. Why is that? You will never know.


      • Thanks Joe – great advice from the old couple. The antidote to ‘aim high,’ or ‘go big, or go home’ is ‘lower your expectations and you’ll never be disappointed!’ Certainly there are instances when both approaches are appropriate. But keeping your sense of humor is almost always a good idea, except when watching others suffer. So maybe the sense of humor should primarily be addressed to our own foibles! That provides enough fodder for laughter! Thanks for the insight. Bob


  6. I’m surprised that a SEAL would overlook the teachings of the Stoic Epictetus. Here are just a couple of his gems.

    “To accuse others for one’s own misfortunes is a sign of want of education. To accuse oneself shows that one’s education has begun. To accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one’s education is complete.

    “The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.

    Couple Epictetus with Western thought, particularly the Judeo-Christian belief that there are things that are absolutely right and absolutely wrong, and we are accountable for our actions, that there is a judgment day, and you have a pretty good roadmap, should you opt to follow it.

    Nothing above should startle anyone.

    Our present global problems derive from conflict with a culture that does not believe in individual accountability or absolute right or wrong outside of the confines of the “tribe.”. Our present problems also derives from our fear of critiquing that conflicting culture in any way or endorsing the strengths of our own culture.


  7. Pingback: A Personal Ethos? | Bob Schoultz's Corner

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