The Good Life
While Tom and Barbara were darning socks and sowing radishes, Margo and Jerry were holding dinner parties and buying the latest mod con. Watching the show, you can’t help but admire the ideals (and the tenacity) of Tom and Barbara, but how many of us would really want to be in their shoes (or perhaps more accurately, their wellie boots)? Certainly, Tom and Barbara seem to have fewer worries than Margo and Jerry, though when a crop fails or a vital piece of machinery breaks down their world unravels fairly rapidly.
This yearning for a simple pastoral life goes back a long way. The Greek poet Theocritus is credited with creating the pastoral idyll in the 3rd century BC. His influence has been far-reaching and has included poets such as Virgil, Milton and Pope. The genre produces an image of the countryside which is heavily idealised, but at its heart there appears to be a desire for a different way of life – a good life.
It is a desire which I was reminded of by two novels I read over the Easter holidays: Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree and Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal.
Under the Greenwood Tree was published in 1872. Its pastoral credentials are strong and these were noted even from the very earliest reviews – in the year of publication Horace Moule called the work a ‘prose idyll’. The story focuses on a small hamlet in the West Country where the local folk lead a simple life with few possessions. Although the world is modernising around them and this has an impact, the tone is largely optimistic. The depiction of the characters is of people who make the most of their situations, don’t appear to want for anything, have a strong sense of community and know how to have fun. They do have responsibilities and they take these seriously. It is obviously an idealised picture, but Hardy was certainly not presenting a view of a world which was alien to him. He knew these communities well.
Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal was published this year. One of its three narrative strands focuses on a Canadian senator, Peter Tovey, who has recently become a widower. On a whim he buys a chimpanzee with whom he has apparently made a connection at an animal research laboratory and, determining that he can’t live with the creature in his Ottawa apartment, decides to move to the high mountains of Portugal. There, he lives in a small village where the villagers still grow all their own produce, where outsiders are a rarity and where modern conveniences are minimal. He lives a simple life without a telephone, a television or any of the modern contrivances we are used to, and he lives with this chimpanzee, Odo. To Peter’s surprise Odo teaches him another way to live, one that is very different from his former, busy life in politics. I was particularly struck by the following quotation which neatly sums things up:
‘Peter has learned the difficult animal skill of doing nothing. He’s learned to unshackle himself from the race of time and contemplate time itself. As far as he can tell, that’s what Odo spends most of his time doing: being in time, like one sits by a river, watching the water go by. It’s a lesson hard learned, just to sit there and be. At first he yearned for distractions. He would absent himself in memories, replaying the same old movies in his head, fretting over regrets, yearning for lost happiness. But he’s getting better at being in a state of illuminated, sitting-by-a-river repose. So that’s the real surprise: not that Odo would seek to be like him but that he would seek to be like Odo.’
The themes of these books, with their concentration on a simple life, reminded me of a Greek philosopher, Epicurus, whose view of life I have always much admired. Very little of his writing survives, but Epicurus had clear views on how we should live our lives. Of the fragmentary remains which have made their way through time to us, I think the quotation which best illustrates his thoughts is this:
‘It is better for you to be free of fear lying upon a pallet, than to have a golden couch and a rich table and be full of trouble.’
For Epicurus living well was more likely to be achieved through a simple life. Those people who spend their time desiring wealth are always disappointed. They always want more; they eat and drink too much and then suffer for it the next day (and later in life); they worry that they will lose their wealth; they worry that they will be robbed. If you have little to lose and if you desire little, you are not often disappointed.
This simple life, this good life is similar in a way to mindfulness, which Mr Bennett has been leading at school and which I mentioned in my January blog. Mindfulness is about removing the clutter from our lives, focusing on the here and now, and on what we can control.
It is for similar reasons that people move to Cornwall as well. I regularly meet parents who are considering moving to our county for a better life. They want to leave behind the rat race in the South East and are prepared to do it at great financial cost to themselves. They want that often-mentioned, but sometimes elusive, work:life balance.
The desire of these parents fills me with hope because it can be so easy to take no pleasure in the simple things of life: the sun on your face, breathing the fresh air, the sand between your toes. We mustn’t forget to enjoy these things, to put down the mobile phone, to do nothing for a few minutes, but to just enjoy being.
This simple approach is by no means a simplistic one. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t think, that you shouldn’t contemplate the meaning of life and how to live a meaningful life. Without thinking you do not truly live. In the 17th century the French philosopher, Descartes, wrote ‘je pense, donc je suis’, which is more often seen in its later Latin incarnation of cogito ergo sum – ‘I think therefore I am’. His point, in very crude terms, was that it is through the act of thinking that we can prove our existence.
Back in the ancient world the Greek philosopher Socrates is supposed to have claimed to the jury which would eventually condemn him to death, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ What the philosopher might have been getting at is summed up by A. C. Grayling, who writes:
‘He meant that a life lived without forethought or principle is a life so vulnerable to chance, and so dependent on the choices and actions of others, that it is of little real value to the person living it. He further meant that a life well lived is one which has goals, and integrity, which is chosen and directed by the one who lives it, to the fullest extent possible to a human agent caught in the webs of society and history.’
So, what’s my point, you might be asking.
It is twofold. Firstly, we want the pupils of Truro High School to unclutter their minds, to focus on what is important and on the things they can control. Given the pressures on young people, about which I have written previously, this is vital for a happy life. Secondly, we want pupils to reflect on how they live their lives. The importance of doing so should not be under-estimated. As A. C. Grayling puts it, ‘A human lifespan is less than a thousand months long. You need to make some time to think how to live it.’
The good life can mean many things, but at its heart is surely a biological imperative which drives us to pursue a happy life, free from anxiety and fear. This is what we should be striving to achieve for ourselves and our children.