The Good Life

Tomb of Qabus in Gonbad-e Qabus

Half a century has passed since I studied Plato under the guidance of my revered teacher, Prof. Alexander Fuks. I’ll never forget how, early in the course, he told the class—just five or six of us—that all philosophy is an attempt to answer just two questions. First, what the nature of things is; and second, what the good life is and how to lead it. I won’t go so far as to say that the first without the second is worthless. Study is, and for me has always been, its own reward. But there is no doubt that one of its main purposes is to serve the second and more important one.

At that time I was twenty-one years old and a graduate student in Jerusalem. I lived in a rented room on less than $ 100 a month, walked to the university each day, and had a girlfriend. For recreation I played tennis and went long-distance running. Once a fortnight I would take the bus to visit my parents in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. Life was as good as it has ever been before or since.

Prof. Fuks is long dead. Now that my seventy-second birthday is only a few weeks away, though, I thought I would write down a few of the things I think I have learnt about what the good life means. Trying to do so, I quickly realized that the task is beyond my powers. Partly because there are so many of them. Partly because many of them contradict each other, and partly, because it seemed impossible to put them into any kind of logical order. So I decided to submit, by way of a somewhat belated New Year greeting to my readers, the thoughts of another man. I came across him by accident while reading, of all things, William Murray’s History of Chess (1913).

Qabus bin Washmgir (976-1012) was ruler (Emir) of Gurgan and Tabaristan, southeast of the Caspian in what is now Iran. He was not exactly a nice guy—very few rulers are. He spent most of his life fighting for the throne, gaining a reputation for cruelty on the way. Not that his contemporaries were less cruel; as is shown by the fact that his men, after having deposed him, ended up by freezing him to death. Still his poem struck an echo with me. I hope it will do the same with you.

Here goes.

The things of this world from end to end
are the goal of desire and greed.

And I set before this heart of mine the
Things which I most do need.

But a score of things I have chosen out of
the world’s unnumbered throng.

That in quest of them I my soul may
Please and speed my life along.

Verse and song, and minstrelsy, and
Wine full flavored and sweet,

Backgammon, and chess, and the hunting-
Ground, and the falcon and cheeta fleet;

Field, and ball, and audience hall, and
battle, and banquet rare.

Horse, and arms, and a generous hand,
And praise of my Lord and prayer.