Living Well Really Is The Best Revenge

Gerald and Sarah Murphy at their home Villa America on the Riviera


Now there is a five dollar word, if ever there was one.  It is Greek and one English translation is “flourish”.  Not any flourishing, but human flourishing.

According to Captain Jean-Luc Picard, in the future, money will not be a motivator, but self-improvement.

No feelthy capitalists?

(I think the writers of ST:TNG went too far in decrying “money”, since it is a nice convenient medium of exchange.  But, I digress.)  How is this played out in the series?  We see the officers of the enterprise reading classic books, playing musical instruments, exercising – usually some martial art – engaging in cosplay on the holodeck, playing poker (dealer’s choice), and drinking prune juice, a warrior’s drink.  Here is plenty of evidence for what Aristotle and the other Greeks meant, but what exactly the 24th Century may mean by it is a tad less certain, other than that they don’t know what TeeVee was.

So, not looking with nostalgia at the future, let us ponder what it would mean for today.

The human person may be divided into three components, the Body, the Mind, and the Soul or Spirit.

With the Body, the obvious thing to do is to make or keep it healthy, to Strengthen it.

With the Mind, to improve it, to fill it with the tools and material to do what it was designed for – think.

With the soul, or Spirit, again, the direction is obvious, to enrich it.

Of course, the hairy question is, how do you do all those things, especially, how do you do them at once?

In Star Trek, especially TNG, we are not often shown what life is really like back on earth, or among the lower ranking crewmen of the Enterprise.  Only once or twice do we see Picard on his family farm, and learn that for all the lack of cash, people still grow grapes and make wine.  “Best Vintner in Picardy”.  Perhaps everyone else but the few, the proud, the Star Fleet, sits back in their overstuffed recliners, grossly overweight, keeping fat, drunk, and indulging in holo-porn all their days.  But I don’t think so.  A future which defeated Kahn and Colonel Green wouldn’t be a layabout culture.

The goad for status and reputation as an improved social unit can be as driving as any financial greed ever was. St. Paul remarks that athletes work hard and deprive themselves in order to win a silly wreath of leaves.  How much more the more important things of life.

But, one might say, what are the elements of this utopian fantasy?  How do you get from generalized platitudes to this shining city on a hill you tout? 

To be perfectly honest, there may be many paths to get there.  Here, I will sketch out one possibility.

To Strengthen the Body

Exercise.  Walk, at least a mile a day. 

Play a sport (Do not just watch!)

Eat the right things (potato chips and marshmallows are not really all that good, now are they?)

Have proper hygiene, bathe, take care of your teeth, etc.

Have some vin ordinaire from time to time, for your stomach’s sake (but not too much, damnit!)

Follow the admonitions of Theodore Roosevelt for a strenuous life.  Teddy, suffered from a number of ailments in his childhood, asthma being not the least of which, and he overcame his weaknesses by hard effort, in a time before inhalers and steroids.  (To be sure, he died relatively young, but the doctor’s  predictions were that he wouldn’t get past his 21st birthday so he did all right.)

To Improve the Mind

Read.  Good books.  Especially, The Great Books.   I suggest, a minimum starter diet, would begin with the Iliad, then the Odyssey.  On to Plato’s Republic, Symposium, and Death of Socrates trilogy.  After that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, with his Poetics and Rhetoric.  (Much of Aristotle is dated, you will notice at once, but it serves the purpose of getting you to THINK!)  After that, works of Virgil, Cicero, Seneca, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare.  If for nothing else, read the King James Bible for its construction – it was designed to be read aloud, and no greater rolling thunder has ever been spoken in the English language saving only Shakespeare.  More modern works should be easy picks after one has waded through these.

There are endless lists of books which people will tell you what you ought to read.  Some of them are even good lists.

The venerable How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler, the founder of the Great Books of the Western World is not bad.

Better is The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman.  This one shows you how books are related, as the Aeneid looks back to both Iliad and Odyssey and forward to The Divine Comedy.

Play some mind-challenging game, like Chess or Go. (Not Angry Birds!)

Learn another language, Latin and/or Ancient Greek.  Spanish, Mandarin, Farsi, whatever.  Each language capsules a map of reality, and each language you know gives the ability to look at the world a little bit differently.

To Enrich the Soul

Music for the soul, primarily. My own taste is eclectic, from Beatles to Bach to Berlioz (with a pause at Bizet) to Bluegrass, and from The Doors to Daughter of the Regiment.  Some music causes your spirit to soar.  Go with that, not the sort that rattles your brain.  Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Rachmaninoff’s 18th Variation on a Theme by Paganini (you will recognize it), even the opening theme to the first Superman movie.  Uplift, not downgrade.

Visit an art gallery.  Visit a museum.  Visit a botanical garden.  (Visit a park, take off your shoes, and dance on the grass.  Just be careful you don’t get arrested.)

Drama, storytelling, has been a staple of humanity since the tribal elder would relate tales of the Great Hunt or other myths.  This evolved into the stage play, and to the movie.  This cuts across to improving the mind (as with Shakespeare), but it is here because the act of entering into a drama along with the protagonists will elevate or depress your spirit.  Choose wisely.)

About religion.  Some cultured people despise religion, not least because of certain of its practitioners.  But that is a faulty prejudice.  It is in the nature of humans to be religious.  We are genetically hard-wired that way, and if we do not move in a more traditional world, we will find something, from science-ism to sex, as a substitute.  It is better to be a grim-faced Pilgrim than a sad-faced debauchee.  But don’t, by any means, “shop around”, or go transferring allegiances every year or so, as the mood strikes.  Pick one, even rationally, knowing its flaws, and abide by it.  In the long run, especially when in older age, you will be amazed how it will have helped you along the way.  (Not the least of which helps will be the tendency to make you less awful than you would ordinarily have been.)  As Shepherd Book told Captain Reynolds, “I don’t care what you believe, just believe it.”

Keep a journal or diary, so you can keep track of how you are doing.  It further helps to write down (in longhand, need it be said) your thoughts on various subjects, as a means of clarifying them for yourself.

 And if you have no near relations, or even if you do, taking care of a dog or a cat will also help your soul.  This is so ingrained in humans, that it need not be elaborated upon.

One may have noticed my preference for Western canon.  This is not to disparage that of the East, but to indicate that I am a product of Western Civ, and am more familiar with it.  If anything from the East speaks to your mind or soul, by all means, take advantage of your knowledge.

There are many other ways of living a flourishing life.

A couple named Gerald and Sara Murphy found one. Their story was published in The new Yorker in 1962, and subsequently became the subject of several books. The title of the original piece was, appropriately, “Living Well Is The Best Revenge.”

It helped for the lifestyle they lived, that the Murphy’s had money. But that is not a prerequisite.  And their idyll had a tragic end.  None of which matters.  

To return where we began, to Star trek, Captain Kirk once remarked, “Our species can only survive if we have obstacles to overcome…Without them to strengthen us, we will weaken and die.”  And what greater challenge can  human beings have than to better themselves?