The world is in a constant flutter of change. In the past few decades alone such inventions as cellular phones and the Internet have drastically altered many lives. Globalization is indeed, global, and with it, everything changes. Because of these facets, and sometimes perhaps in spite of them, humanity's definition of a good life, or a life well lived changes constantly as well. Today, one's ability to simply connect to the Internet opens, literally, a world of possibility. For many, such a simple connection represents an ideal life.
Yet there are still others who believe in wealth and power as the primary definitions of a good life, which are more classical ideals. There are a number of pieces that also elucidate these ideas, and portray this wish of a good, beautiful, easy and satisfying life at various times in history, in various cultures. These pieces give only a glimpse into what a good life meant in the past, yet this glimpse is enough to see just how much this definition has changed from one decade or one century to another and when compared to the present, and also demonstrate how differently this idea was seen by different cultures. In order to examine the various definitions of a life well lived, this paper will undertake the examination of five pieces of literature which will be presented in five sections below and which will all detail the various authors' ideas of a life well lived.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
In order to truly show how all these various authors experienced and described the 'meaning of life' and how each saw quality of life and/or decided upon what a life well lived meant one must begin by presenting each work chronologically. This section will thus focus on the earliest work to be discussed here, that of William Shakespeare. In one of his most famous plays, Hamlet, the author describes various opinions on life. Yet no one dialogue or monologue is more famous that that of Hamlet himself in "To Be of Not To Be." This soliloquy is so powerful because it examines what life means, what death can bring, and what exactly a life well lived means as well. This latter concept is expressed by the following lines:
"…there's the respect/That makes calamity of so long life;/For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,/The pangs of despised love, the law's delay…" (The Phrase Finder, 2012)
Through these few lines Shakespeare aims to show the pains of life, but also the fact that it is through these pains that a life well lived is engendered. The entire soliloquy, now so famous, is pondering the answer of whether it is better to live or die, and in finding the answer the author examines all the pains of life, yet also all the uncertainties of death. Again, it is though the pains of love, of scorn, of being wronged and of awaiting justice, that one can truly squeeze the bitter sweetness of life out of one's existence. Perhaps this is a paradox for most who live in today's world, but it is a reality of life for the author.
For Shakespeare, this reality was significant of how precious life is, and this is why he does not answer the question mentioned above, for he believes life is worth living, with all its pains. Furthermore, through the speech, one can see that for the author and for people of that time, and even for many today, quality of life and a life well lived must, above all, experience the joys and pains of life, and all their consequences.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
In the following tale to be examined here, the reader is presented with a different picture of what 'a good life' may mean. The novella by Tolstoy does not necessarily talk about human emotions, though it does examine, as Shakespeare does, the question of life and death for a clear psychological standpoint. But in fact, this story is concerned with Ilyich's struggle to accept death, for he believes, until close to his own demise, that he has lived a very good life, given his status in society (i.e. he has money and power). This lack of acceptance of death and his thinking of its unfairness is, again, reflected in a quotation, rendered below:
"When I am not, what will there be? There will be nothing. Then where shall I be when I am no more? Can this be dying? No, I don't want to!" (Classical Library, 2001)
What Ilyich does not realize, however, until the very end of the story, is that his life was not a very good life, in fact. Whereas the author had heretofore advocated a life well lived through privilege and power, his notion here seems to change as he suggests a good life is the product of caring for others, and not just for oneself. This is reflective of the author's own sociological beliefs and of the condition in Russia in the 1800's when the novella was written. Tolstoy was concerned, for instance, with the life of serfs, and this can be seen in the moral questioning of Ilyich's own life by his own conscience and his final revelation that a good life is marked by compassion and sympathy, and not just self-interest and selfishness. It is, then with this thought that the author lives his readers.
The Dubliners by James Joyce
This particular collection of stories, just as the tale above, is more concerned with the political and sociological aspect of the times, which was one of Nationalism in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century. For this reason, Joyce's opinion of what a good life means is drastically different from both stories that precede this analysis and both of the ones that follow it. In fact, his whole emphasis is on a moment of 'clarity' or an 'epiphany' that is experienced by each of the characters in his 15 stories, at one point in time. (Project Gutenberg, 2010) Thus, his opinion of a good life is one where, simply, one knows where one's place is and one truly knows himself and can thereby enjoy his or her own life. In the historical context of the times, of course, this was a very important question to be answered, for Ireland, again, was being pulled in different directions by various political, economic and social forces. Thus, knowing one's identity could serve well when establishing the identity of one's country. Thus, the goal of the author was to elucidate a good life by emphasizing that it is an ordinary life in which an individual truly knows where he or she belongs that gives it its 'good' or 'well lived' quality.
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
'Snow Country' is the first non-Western tale to be examined here, or rather non-European. It is the story of a man who falls in love and has an affair with a Japanese geisha in a remote hot spring town in Japan in the early part of the 20th century, specifically in the 1930's. The novel examines Japanese traditions and customs, as well as existential questions, as all of the previous tales have. Yet in stark contrast to the previous products of an author's time, in this story, the author looks to old traditions and emphasizes them as more righteous, which is both in stark contrast with modernity, and also an evidence of what this particular story details as a life well lived. Despite the tragic ending to the love story presented within, it is in these traditions that one can find comfort and go on with the pains of life, which are ever-present. The geisha is thus a symbol of Japanese traditions and also an acceptance of a strange morality whereby a husband can be with other women whilst not truly believing he is cheating on his wife. (Schneider, 2010) Thus despite the many unanswered questions in this story, one thing rings true: a life well lived is one in which tradition is respected above modernity, and one in which a man is superior to a woman and often, to his own morals.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Brick Lane is the most modern book to be examined here and one which combines exasperation with humor and daydreams. In this novel, yet another regular life is presented, and the character in this particular book is one who lives in a western culture, but who has come from India, with a different language, different notions of life and a different outlook on life. (Ali, 2010) Her current life seems to be thrust on Nanzeen without her wanting it to be as such, but she succumbs to it regardless, finding pleasure in the most mundane things. A life well lived, in this novel, seems to be one in which a person can find himself or…