Philosophy
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Episode 69
Featuring Rebecca Goldstein
The question, “what makes life worth living?” is one that has concerned humanity since time immemorial. This week, we search for answers by considering what some of our most ancient and celebrated philosophers and poets had to say on the question of life's mattering.

In this week’s episode of Hidden Forces, Demetri Kofinas speaks with renowned philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein, about the philosophy of mattering and what makes human life worth living.

 

The question of “what makes life worth living,” is something that human beings have been grappling with since time immemorial. Perhaps, nowhere did this question pose a more existential imperative than in ancient Greece, which provides the setting for this conversations. The show begins with an anecdote from “The Histories of Herodotus,” where the ancient historian recounts the story of King Croesus, the late ruler of Lydia, who governed the lands of western Anatolia in the mid-sixth century B.C. At the height of his reign, Croesus was visited by Solon, the lawgiver who had just laid the foundations for Athenian democracy. "Stranger of Athens,” inquired Croesus, “we have heard much of thy wisdom and of thy travels through many lands, from love of knowledge and a wish to see the world. I am curious therefore to inquire of thee, whom, of all the men that thou hast seen, thou deemest the most happy?" Croesus, expecting to hear the sound of his own name sung from Solon’s lips, was angered by the Athenian's reply. Solon proceeded to extol the virtues of otherwise “ordinary” men who lacked the trappings of wealth and power that Croesus so readily possessed. Seeing the king’s dissatisfaction, Solon responded with words that would come to haunt not only Croesus but which would obsess the whole of Athenian society for decades to come: «μηδένα προ του τέλους μακάριζε». Solon’s message was clear: Let me see your life’s ending. Only then I can know if you lived a good and happy life. Only then I can know if you lived a life worth praising.

 

Not long after Solon’s visit, Croesus’ kingdom was invaded and conquered by Cyrus the Great, ruler of the Persian Empire. Condemned to death, it is said that Croesus yelled out Solon’s name three times from the flaming pyre atop which his body burned. It was not until that moment that he understood the message that Solon had so dutifully delivered. Croesus believed himself to be the happiest man, because of all the material wealth and power he had accumulated. But we cannot judge the happiness or the worth of a human life until it is over. A good life requires a good death, and learning how to live requires that we wrestle with our own mortality.

 

The question of “what makes life worth living” therefore, was another way of asking: “what justifies life’s suffering?” Unlike for the Christians who succeeded them, there was, for the Greeks, no easy answer. It’s why they would congregate every spring in the amphitheater to laugh and cry and work out their grief over the pitiless predicament of human existence. 'Fairness’ was as foreign a concept to the Greeks as fate is to us. The stories of Croesus, Minos, Oedipus, Agamemnon, and the like were not only reminders of how the fortunes of the fated turn; they were also evidence for the futility of relying on present circumstances for evaluating the merits of existence. It is no surprise, therefore, that this obsession with deriving meaning from one’s own life independent of the whims of tempestuous Gods or of fated circumstance manifested itself in Greek philosophy. Its open-endedness posed an existential imperative then, as it does today.

 

Producer & Host: Demetri Kofinas

Editor & Engineer: Stylianos Nicolaou

Join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at @hiddenforcespod

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and novelist. She is presently Visiting Profesor of Philosophy at New College of the Humanities in London, England. She graduated from Barnard College and received her Ph.D. in philosophy of science from Princeton University. She has published seven works of fiction, the latest of which was 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, and three of non-fiction: Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel; Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity; and Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. She also delivered the Tanner Lectures in Human Values at Yale University in 2012, which have been published as The Ancient Quarrel: Philosophy and Literature. She has been awarded visiting fellowships at Yale University, the Santa Fe Institute, the Radcliffe Institute, and Dartmouth College.

 

Her books have won numerous awards, both for fiction and scholarship, including, in 1995, a MacArthur, and in 2006, the Koret International Jewish Book Award in Jewish Thought for her work on Spinoza. In 2005, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 2006, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 2008 she was designated a Humanist Laureate by the International Academy of Humanism, and in 2011 was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association and Freethought Heroine by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. In 2015 she was given the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in a ceremony at the White House.

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