Topical Guide 382
Life: The Nature of It, and Ways One Might Live One’s
They wanted some kind of plan, something that would show that there was a future for them, but it was too soon for them to see it. You know how it is — when we’re young we don’t know how we want to live. We don’t even know what there is to want. We only know conventional names. We only recognize commonplace models. It takes years for us to see how many ways there are to live.
Herb ’n’ Lorna, Chapter 17
I have revelled in my littleness and irresponsibility. It has relieved me of the harassing desire to live, I feel content to live dangerously, indifferent to my fate; I have discovered I am a fly, that we are all flies, that nothing matters. It’s a great load off my life, for I don't mind being such a micro-organism— to me the honour is sufficient of belonging to the universe — such a great universe, so grand a scheme of things. Not even Death can rob me of that honour. For nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time.
Aristotle distinguished three ways of life (bioi) which men might choose in freedom, that is, in full independence of the necessities of life and the relationships they originated. This prerequisite of freedom ruled out all ways of life chiefly devoted to keeping one’s self alive. … The remaining three ways of life have in common that they were concerned with the “beautiful,” that is, with things neither necessary nor merely useful: the life of enjoying bodily pleasures in which the beautiful, as it is given, is consumed; the life devoted to the matters of the polis, in which excellence produces beautiful deeds; and the life of the philosopher devoted to inquiry into, and contemplation of, things eternal, whose everlasting beauty can neither be brought about through the producing interference of man nor be changed through his consumption of them.
Given this irredeemable state of affairs, given a life we were given we know not how and will lose we know not when, given the ten thousand chess games that make up the struggles of life lived in society, given the tedium of vainly contemplating what will never be achieved […] — what can the wise man do but beg for rest, for a respite from having to think about living (as if having to live were not enough), for a small space in the sun and the open countryside and at least the dream that somewhere beyond the mountains there is peace.
We are great fools. “He has spent his life in idleness,” we say; “I have done nothing today.” What, have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations. . . . To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.
Life is rather like a tin of sardines: we’re all of us looking for the key.
Alan Bennett, “Take a Pew,” from Beyond the Fringe
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