For centuries philosophers have asked what is the good life? Lately I’ve been learning there’s likely a better question.
A few weeks ago a good friend asked how I imagine “the good life.” He’s a thoughtful believer. He appreciates how I think in pictures. I sent him an image. He replied with some good thoughts, suggesting we write something meaningful on the subject. I was all in—until I remembered where the phrase “the good life” comes from.
Bruno Snell, a classicist in Greek literature, writes that the phrase “the good life” comes from the Greeks. He adds that Greek thought and literature tends toward abstractions. One example is the Greek language inventing the definite article (“the”) and placing it in front of an adjective, turning a definite noun into an abstract idea.
Take the adjective “beautiful.” Everyday Greeks would describe some specific thing (noun) as “beautiful.” Greek philosophers added “the” to “beautiful” and spoke of “the beautiful,” turning a particular noun into an abstraction, like a thought bubble.
Greek philosophers had lots of thought bubbles. They discussed “the good” more than discerning whether a specific thing is good. They spoke of “the true” more than seeking people and things that are true. These thought bubbles form Plato’s idea of society’s highest virtues: “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” It’s why Greek philosophers spoke of “the good life.”
God doesn’t talk this way. Jason Poling, another good friend, recently reminded me of how, in John 3:16, the Greek houtos means this is the way God loved the world. There are many ways God could have demonstrated his love for his creation. He chose to do so by giving this—his only begotten son.
Older church traditions call this “the scandal of particularity.” John Duns Scotus (c.1265-1308) wrote that God deals in particulars and people, a quality he named “thisness.” Christ coming to earth as a flesh-and-blood human being is one example. Annie Dillard writes that it “occurred improbably, ridiculously, at such-and-such a time, into such-and-such a place.” Love—God incarnate—always begins with particulars: this adulterous woman, that Roman centurion, this tax-gatherer. Love is always this and that.
The scandal is how particulars often humiliate us. They uncover our true loves. The rich young ruler is an example. He came to Jesus seeking eternal life. Jesus told him to do the commandments. I’ve done them, the ruler replied. Jesus knew he hadn’t (no one can) so he told the rich man to do this particular thing—sell all your possessions and follow me. The young man walked away. He was exposed. The scandal of particularity.
This is an occupational hazard of the rich or powerful. By the world’s standards, I’m rich. I can too often stay at the head level, professing to love “humanity” but actually loving a comfortable lifestyle more than my neighbor. Greek thinkers were guilty of this. They luxuriated in a comfortable world built on slave labor. They asked what is the good life? but didn’t to do much about it. Lactanius’ indictment of paganism (“no more than worship by the fingertips”) applied to Greek thinkers as well. The Greeks’ “good life” had a vagueness about it that ignored a slave’s short life expectancy.
Years ago, this and that specified particulars. Today we’re Greek. Ask someone “What are you doing today?” “Oh, just this and that.” Pretty vague. “If nature abhors a vacuum,” Christian Wiman writes, “Christ abhors a vagueness. If God is love, Christ is love for this one person, this one place, this one time-bound and time-ravaged self.”
This is the 50-day period between Easter and Pentecost. It is during this time that Jesus meets these women, that man, this group of men of the road to Emmaus, and so on—over 500 this and that witnesses. They meet the embodiment of goodness.
Greek thinkers did get part of the story right. They knew “the good” included civic duty—community, or the wellbeing of the city. In scripture, wellbeing is shalom, or flourishing. Since we’re to seek the flourishing of all (Jer.29:7), the better question is what does flourishing look like? There is a good image for this. I’ll share it next week.
 Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature (Dover Publications, 2012)
 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper’s Magazine Press: 1974), 80.
 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religion in the Western World (HarperSanFrancisco Edition, 1997), 206.
 Lactanius, Divine Institutes 5.23, 1964 ed.
 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2013), 121.