How to Live a Life

Sean Donovan is a sophomore currently majoring in biology. He is from Wildwood, Missouri. He wrote this paper for Middle Ages and Renaissance Humanities Sequence class, responding to a prompt on how different works from this time period address the subject of how people can best live their life.

Living life as a human, on planet Earth, is a phenomenon that anyone who is ever written a single word has perfect experience with. It would be impossible not to. For better or for worse, we all share the same fundamental experience. Separation in space or time can certainly alter how two people view the world. The overwhelming consensus, however, whether revealed through science, or the vast array of parallels in our art, religion, and literature, point to one fact. We are vastly more similar to one another than we are different. Of all these similarities, one would be hard pressed to find some more striking than the reoccurring stories we have told each other over the vast course of our history.

Whether the tale of a hero on a journey of self-discovery, a ballad of a legendary and nation-defining war, or the tragic hymn of two doomed lovers, our stories reveal to us who we are as a collective people. But while the subjects of the stories are certainly enlightening, it is why we tell our stories that truly define us. A story is simply an avenue through which to deliver a message, and the message that we, as a people, seem most fond of conveying, is how others should live their lives. After all, it is our individual life, our individual journey that we all share at the most basic level, and how to live that life in the best way possible is something we all naturally seek.

Truly, what else is there to talk about? However, this question, the question of how one should live one’s live, does change from time to time, and region to region. The only thing that certainly is shared is that there is an accepted way. Among the various works of the medieval time period, this way is one that focuses on significant pre-existing meaning to one’s life. The essential idea that the works of the Middle Ages share with one another is the message to accept and pursue a higher meaning to one’s life than what initially appears.

Through his Confessions, Saint Augustine conveys the idea that one must pursue an eternal, infinite existence over a finite life of worldly successes in order to attain true meaning and happiness. For Augustine, the way, the only way for a pure, complete life is to shun the typical and pursue the transcendent. For him, and for most people of the same time and region, this way was attained exclusively through the Christian faith. For Augustine, an even stricter requirement is emphasized, that of being a baptized Catholic minister. As revealed extensively in his Confessions, to Augustine this life pursuit is not simply the best way to live one’s life; it is the only way to pursue an acceptable life of any respect or purpose.

Yet far more than a personal goal for him, this relatively restricted, specific way of existing is truly the only path any individual can hope to pursue if they wish to attain true happiness. The strict dichotomy between the transcendent element of life and the mundane or earthly element is essential to this philosophy of Augustine’s. The most frequent form of this worldview is the belief in some highly evident supreme and ultimate presence in the universe, typically referred to as ‘God’. Through this belief, it is easy to find the justification for living one’s life in constant pursuit of this presence, as it is the concrete, supreme existence, authority, and good of the world.

For one pursuing a purposeful meaning in life, it’s perfectly logical that this is the only respectable conclusion, as it is quite visibly the highest target one can shoot for. Augustine spent nearly half his life exhaustingly pursuing the highest philosophy, the highest reason, and the highest truth, expressing his desire by declaring, “Let us concentrate exclusively on the investigation of the truth. Life is a misery, death is uncertain. I may suddenly carry us off. In what state shall we depart this life? Where are we to learn the things we have neglected here?” (Augustine, 1991, p. 105).

So it is only natural that once he found what he considered to be the one true religion, he would go the maximum amount in his devotion to it, becoming a bishop. For Augustine, life was a constant search for the supreme truth, in every sense of the word. The normal, secular accomplishments and pursuits of life became wholly dissatisfying for him, as he expresses, “Why then do we hesitate to abandon secular hopes and to dedicate ourselves wholly to God and the happy life?” (Augustine, 1991, p. 105). Augustine desperately sought what lay at the ultimate end of life and the universe, and in the Catholic faith he found it. It was this truth that he would then devote the rest of his life to, the truth that he then undertook to convey to other individuals. Augustine, through the enlightening experience that defined his life, found meaning in the transcendent, and conveyed his discovery to others so they may also find what he found in this seemingly supreme way to live one’s life.

Contrasting with this viewpoint is the notion that the true meaning of life comes from personal glories in the present life, and that these glories help define you in a higher life. This notion is highly evident in the epic poem Beowulf and Usama Ibn Munqidh’s Book of Contemplations. In Beowulf, the focus is on a culture that values personal achievements and triumphs in life as the greatest goal one can hope for. The poet, while Christian, still glorifies the ideals and way of life of this pre-Christian society, recognizing an inherent, applicable truth in the way they live. True, the poet still makes numerous references to the Christian ideal of the pursuing of a higher form of life, but it is the achievements in the mortal life that are viewed as the pathway to this higher life.

Rather than the pursuing of a largely indescribable, infinite existence beyond that of human perception, the primary lesson of Beowulf is the living of a satisfying and responsible life in the existing world. As Hrothgar preaches to Beowulf, “O flower of warriors, beware that trap. Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part, eternal awards.” (pp. 1758-1760), the reward of an eternal existence after death just comes as an added benefit. A similar philosophy on life is presented in Usama’s Book of Contemplation, in which the greatest way to live one’s life is considered to be absolute focus on one’s actual life.

Throughout Contemplations, Usama focuses nearly exclusively on the various events and undertakings he has pursued throughout his life, and how these have come to define him has a human being. In fact, despite being a clearly religious person with a strong faith in the existence of a God, Usama barely touches on the idea of an afterlife at all, seemingly considering it not significant to include in the analysis of his life and experiences. When recollecting on the countless battles and circumstances he has come through unscathed, Usama mourns, “Indeed, the result of my escape from those frights is something more daunting than all those earlier battles and fights. Far easier is death at an army’s head than the taxations of a lingering life of pain and dread. For the passage of time has removed, from my life’s long measure, all objects of joy and gentle pleasure.” (Munqidh,  p. 179).

Usama realizes how a life of old age, despite being peaceful and seemingly free of struggle, is actually filled with physical and emotional suffering as his life of action and glory comes to an end. Clearly, Usama despises the inactivity of old age, lamenting on the lost joys of his former life, and going so far as to suggest it would have been better to die “at an army’s head.” Through this valuing of previous experiences over his current existence, it becomes evident that Usama values the joyous experiences of life above simply being alive. The events he chooses to relate through his Contemplations are not some vague musings on supreme existence, but rather the relatively small, everyday experiences and joys of his time in the world. It is reasonable to assume that what a man chooses to relate to the world before his death is likely very telling on what he considers the best view on life to be. Through this choice, Usama reveals that it is not supreme existence and truth that he finds to most useful in living a life, but simple existence. Both these works, recognizing the fragility of life, convey how the ideal way to live one’s life is in focusing on the accomplishments and experiences of everyday existence.

In Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the concept of pursuing a higher ideal is taken to the ultimate iteration by illustrating the entire universe designed in a manner defining this pursuit. Some believe that pursuing a supreme, abstract ideal and devoting one’s life to it completely is the optimal way to live one’s life, while others focus more on pursuing the available victories, accomplishments, and experiences in one’s existing life.

The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri, in many ways ties these two philosophies together by illustrating a worldview where the joyful experiences of life compose and represent the ultimate good. The Divine Comedy is, at its heart, a story of a journey through suffering to reach love and enlightenment. However, the enlightenment Dante seeks and attains is not an enlightenment of philosophical truth, but enlightenment to pure love, the love that Dante chooses to call God. Finally reaching the greatest of all heights and catching a glimpse of God, Dante writes how, “my vision made one with the Eternal Good . . . I saw within Its depth how It conceives all things in a single volume bound by Love, of which the universe is the scattered leaves” (Alighieri, pp. 81-87).

This vision is essentially the ultimate revelation and truth of the entire Comedy, and to Dante, the entire universe as a whole. By arranging his travels as actual physical travels through the universe, Dante further conveys this truth as, rather than an internal revelation, an actual objective truth about the external universe. God existing as supreme love at the apex of the universe ultimately sets the stage for the entirety of the other realms of existence, including Hell. By being the absolute furthest away from Love’s source, the sin that Hell contains is illustrated to be nothing more than the lack of love.

Furthermore, because all love is derived from the eternal love of God, as evidenced in Dante’s final observations of the poem, sin is also the absence of all forms of love, including those found within everyday life. By illustrating God and love as one and the same, Dante provides a view that accepts both supreme good and the good of everyday existence as one and the same. Thus, through this view, Dante provides a way of living that not only allows both the devotion to an ultimate truth and enjoying and prospering fully in life, but also portrays these ways as self-complementary. Through the deeply personal yet universally applicable journey that he weaves, Dante conveys a way of life in which the pursuing of goodness and love, both absolute and everyday, is the ultimate goal.

Living a life is not an easy thing. What’s the best way to go about it? Is there really any meaning to it? What about death? What about suffering? What’s the point? Questions can destroy a person. They can make one doubt his most basic assumptions and fall into misery, without any guidance on how to handle his own existence. The human race has been driven by, more than any other thing in its history, the quest for answers. Thankfully, there are, with every generation, people who provide answers. These answers vary over just as great of range as there are personalities and ideas in the world.

However, there are always those that rise to the top of the masses, and provide people with some form of satisfaction. In the Middle Ages, there were many answers given, among them those proposed by Saint Augustine, Usama Ibn Muqidh, and Dante Alighieri. While Augustine viewed life as a veil of tears only truly escapable through complete devotion to the absolute truth of God, Usama focuses just as prominently on the mundane experiences of a mortal life for fulfillment. Dante’s view combines these two in a way, illuminating how the absolute good can be attained through the acceptance of that which is synonymous with this good, everyday love. While the argument whether any of these paths have any inherent truth to them may be too high a goal to achieve, one perfectly acceptable truth is that all of these ways, or none of them, are attainable ways to experience one’s existence with satisfaction. They are ways to live a life.


Reference List

Augustine, S. (1991). Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.

Bewoulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: W.W. Norton and Company Inc.,

Mundiqh, U. I. The book of contemplation, Islam and the Crusades. Trans. Paul M. Cobb. New York: Penguin Group. Print

Alighieri, D.. The Divine comedy. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: Penguin Books. Print