At Eastern Kentucky University, philosophy professor Mike Austin has spent his career exploring, as he puts it, the “quest for life.” In his classes, and books whose titles include Being Good and Running and Philosophy: A Marathon for the Mind, Austin dives into the human journey for meaning and purpose.
Austin is a Christian, and much of his own research comes from a religious perspective, yet in the last few years he has offered a course with a different approach. It’s called “God and the good life,” and pushes students to explore if God needs to exist -- or if they need to believe in God -- to experience satisfaction.
“I’m interested in our quest for life. We want happiness, contentment, a life with meaning and purpose, but we don’t know how to get it. Or if we do know, we often struggle to experience such a life,” said Austin, who assigns students readings from Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics), Søren Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling), Friedrich Nietzsche (On the Genealogy of Morality), and Erik Wielenberg (Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe), among other authors and philosophers.
I’m interested in our quest for life. We want happiness, contentment, a life with meaning and purpose, but we don’t know how to get it.
The professor spoke with The Huffington Post about how he encourages students to explore and come to their own understandings of the good life.
How did this course come about?
I heard about a new grant program from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Enduring Questions, and thought about what kind of course I could design that would benefit students, and came up with the idea of a course focused on the question, “Do we need God for the good life?”
There were about 25 students in the course each time I taught it. I taught the course a couple of times, and plan to teach it again in the future. I still address this question in the context of the larger question, “What is the good life for human beings?” in several of the courses that I teach.
What are students' perceptions of what "the good life" means as they come in, and how do you complicate that? How do you define it?
Most students seem to assume that the good life is one in which they have enough material wealth to be comfortable, a family, and a job they enjoy or at least that pays well. They often equate the good life with this kind of success. Others are fairly religious or spiritual, and would include that as a central element in their view of the good life.
Most students seem to assume that the good life is one in which they have enough material wealth to be comfortable, a family, and a job they enjoy or at least that pays well.
I start the course with Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Iylich, which is about a man who realizes as he is dying that his self-centered pursuit of wealth, power and pleasure was all wrong, and has an epiphany on his deathbed coming to faith in God. Ivan realizes that he should have been more committed to loving his family, rather than his own comfort and empty goals, and as he dies he regrets this but his newfound faith in God has radically changed his perspective on the good life.
I believe the good life is one of character, virtue and relationship with God. However, my job in the classroom is to help [students] think through these questions for themselves, rather than adopt the views I have on these issues. As a teacher, I try to help them see the best arguments for and against each view, so that they are equipped to judge for themselves where the truth lies.
How do students change between day one and the last class meeting?
That is a difficult question. My hope is that whether or not their view of the good life changes, they come to see that there are many answers to this question that are worth considering. They get to grapple with the thoughts of some of the greatest minds of history, and think hard about what I think is one of the most important questions we can ask.
My hope is that whether or not their view of the good life changes, they come to see that there are many answers to this question that are worth considering.
One way that they change is that they see this is a question that can be considered rationally. That is, it is not just an issue of preference or opinion, but one of truth. I believe we should seek the truth, wherever it lies, and that on this question we must examine the arguments and go where we think the evidence leads us.
Why is this an important area for them to study?
This is important because while I think that college should prepare students for a career, it should also help to prepare them for life as a human being. These issues and the questions surrounding them are perennial ones for human beings. There is something about our human nature that leads us to consider these questions, and to have some sort of answer to them.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.