Many associate philosophy with the study of abstract theories of logic, human nature or the universe. But for University of Notre Dame philosophers Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko it is also a practical approach to the issues of everyday life.
Philosophy, they say, offers a sustainable, holistic and battle-tested approach to setting goals and finding meaning.
In their new book, “The Good Life Method: Reasoning Through the Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning,” Blaschko and Sullivan examine how the tenets of philosophy can help readers chart their course and ultimately determine what it means to live a good life.
“Aristotle thought he was teaching his students the most practical subject on earth — how they could become better at being human by learning to direct their lives toward worthy goals,” they write in the book’s introduction. “Following in Aristotle’s path, we’ve dedicated our careers to helping our 21st-century students view their ‘good life’ problems through this philosophical framework, and it resonates with them deeply.”
The book is based on an immensely successful Notre Dame philosophy course created by Sullivan, director of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study and the Wilsey Family College Professor of Philosophy. God and the Good Life, now in its sixth year, has been offered to more than 3,000 Notre Dame students. Through a partnership between Notre Dame and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the course is also being shared as a curricular model with universities nationwide.
Sullivan and Blaschko, an assistant teaching professor, soon realized that the big questions they grapple with in the class — from how to allocate money to how faith figures into a meaningful life — are not unique to undergraduate students and began working to bring the Good Life methodology to a wider audience.
“There is a tremendous need among people our own age for help reflecting on happiness and meaning,” Sullivan said. “We also started thinking systematically about how we were personally wrestling with these very same questions about happiness and direction, and we thought maybe it was time to try out the exercises we give our students. Working on this book has also helped us start deeper conversations with our loved ones about the good life.”
In “The Good Life Method,” Sullivan and Blaschko seek to help readers develop a philosophical apology — or a reasoned argument — about how they will live a good life in response to questions such as how to manage finances, how to come to terms with suffering in the world and how to love family and friends attentively. Throughout the book, they also share personal examples from their own apologies.
The authors emphasize the importance of contemplation when facing the most complex threats to the good life. Many of our most prized experiences are actually deeply contemplative, they note — whether it is the awe-inspiring recognition of beauty in nature, being absorbed in a favorite song or poem or finding oneself fully present in a conversation or activity with friends and family. All have contemplative elements that are deeply meaningful.
“One of the insights we can take from philosophy, then, is that we need to build up our ability to engage in this kind of contemplative activity,” Blaschko said. “In the face of personal trials, it’s this mode of engagement that we fall back on. Contemplation is a way of resisting quick explanations and making room for a deeper understanding.”
While the book provides a philosophical blueprint, Sullivan and Blaschko emphasize that readers must do the work of actively and continuously writing their own good-life plans. The authors also encourage readers to share that vision with those closest to them.
“Invite them in. Ask them for wisdom and insights. Make the philosophical questions part of how you pass the time waiting together, how you structure conversations at dinner or in the car,” they write. “This drive to find a goal proportionate to life, and to seek to know this goal with others is, for virtue ethicists, what the good life is all about.”