HOW SHOULD WE LIVE?
For years Philosophers all over the world have pondered over the idea of evil. This brings up another extremely essential question, how should we live? Because we know that evil is existent in our world, does that mean we must live with the knowledge, accept it and conform to society s ideal that only the cunning survive? Or do we keep our original identity of purity and goodness at heart in our everyday lives. The three pieces of literature that we read all deal with this dilemma in different ways. And like in all good stories, good prevails over evil.
The first play that we will discuss was my favorite. It is entitled The Good Woman of Setzuan written by the German author Brecht. This story is about a woman that was too kind for her own good. Her name is Shen Te. In the beginning of the story she is a prostitute but at the end she becomes a successful tobacco shop owner, fianc and mother-to-be. Shen Te also creates another character that displays her deceitful and greedy side, or the side of her that could survive in her society, Shui Ta. He is a brash and brutal young man who drives spongers away.1 Yang Sun is an unemployed airman that Shen Te saves from committing suicide. He is a big creep that later admits that he has no intention of marrying her and is after Shen Te s money.
The story starts off when three gods come to earth in search of a good human being. Unless they discover at least one, the world would cease to exist. After traveling from town to town they arrive in Setzuan. No one in the town would let them stay the night except Shen Te, who was then the town prostitute. The gods realize that they have found their one good human and repay her kindness and hospitality with a large sum of money. After the gods depart, the townspeople all flock to Shen Te in hopes of receiving some of her money. This is when she is forced to disguise herself as Shui Ta, her crude male cousin. She then falls in love with Yang Sun who she saves from suicide. After they plan to get married, Yang admits to Shui Ta that he is after Shen Te s money and does not plan to marry. Soon after she realizes that she is with child and that she needs to restore her fortune. When Shen Te is allegedly away, Shui Ta reappears. The two become business partners. Wang, the water-seller, becomes concerned with Shen Te s long absence and suspects Shui Ta has murdered her. The gods then return to judge Shui s trial. At this point She reveals her true identity. She explains that only under the mask of ruthlessness and greed could the good woman of Setzuan ever hope to provide for herself and her unborn child. For the good cannot live in our world and stay good. 2
The gods are relieved that their one good mortal is still alive, preoccupied with this they float away into the heavens ignoring Shen s pleas for help. They simply say that she will manage. The epilogue points out the incompleteness of the story. We see the curtain closed, the plot unended. In your opinion, then, what s to be done? Change human nature or-the world? Well which? 3 This is an extremely intelligent question because a world that the good can not live comfortably in is in desperate need of change.
But is this the answer to the infamous question? Should we live as someone we are not in order to survive? Do only the good and generous prosper? Should we live in fear of greed? Do we trust no one? With all of this play s incredible insight we still do not have our question answered.
The second play is called The Madwoman of Chaillot by Jean Giradaux, a French playwright. This is yet another story about the battle between good and evil, but in a different setting and situation. The setting is mainly in a little Parisian caf in the district of Chaillot. The madwoman that the title refers to is Aurelia. She is called the “madwoman” because of the eccentricity. This play has many odd characters such as a ragpicker, a flower girl, a sewerman and a shoelace peddler. Two other rather main characters are Irma, a sweet and innocent dishwasher, and Pierre, a similarly characterized young man. And of course we can t forget the villains, the prospector, the president, and the baron.
The play begins in the coffee shop with the villains discussing ways to scam the public when the prospector announces that he tastes oil in the water. This is when the trouble starts. In realization that oil pumps and derricks would destroy Paris beauty, they plan to carry through with it anyway in seeing the huge profit that they would make. Aurelia and the rest of the bizarre group at the caf are appalled at the idea of destroying the city. They get together to form a plan to crush the greedy men. It is at this point that they run into a dilemma. Pierre bounced a check and is now being blackmailed by the businessmen by forcing him to participate in their oil rigging plans. Pierre, wanting rather to die than participate in this, attempts suicide but is rescued just in time. Aurelia convinces him that life is worth living, instilling in him a new inner strength. It is at this point that Aurelia calls upon the help of some of her friends. The first is Constance, the madwoman of Passy and Gabrielle, the madwoman of St.Sulpice.4 These three women adorned in their extravagant clothes think of a plan to rid the world of all evil men. They think on an ingenious plan to trick the man to come below the surface into the sewers to see all of the oil. One by one the men are tricked into the trap. Once they are all in, she closes the sewer door, thus eliminating all of the evil men in the world, at least to them. Aurelia then states to Irma that they have evaporated, that wickedness evaporates .5
How simple that would be if all evil evaporated into thin air. This play lets us ask ourselves if we should live how we want to, eccentric or boring? Does it rally matter how we act or how we dress? Does our fashion tell how much evil we have inside us? What would happen if evil were to disappear on it s own? Like the countess said, What a bore for them [cats] if humanity had to be saved every afternoon. They don t think much of it as it is. 6
The final play that we read was entitled Major Barbara. George Bernard Shaw wrote this play. Three of the main characters in this story are Barbara (Major), Andrew Undershaft and Cusins. Barbara Undershaft is a strong-willed woman who is very involved with the Salvation Army and helping those less fortunate. Her father, who is just referred to as Undershaft, is a very different kind of person. Although he too is kind, he works to help himself and the economy. Cusins is Barbara s fianc . His life revolves mostly around Barbara and her needs and wants. He is very unselfish to his own demands.
Undershaft preaches the gospel of materialism at almost any price. Needless to say this father and daughter have very differing opinions on the state of the economy. The father is a working man that feels that how a man appears to his fellow man and how much he works is entirely how he is perceived by others. He does not have any tolerance for the needy. Barbara on the other hand lived her life to help those less fortunate and break down those barriers that keep the prejudices on the poor locked in to society s mind. Undershaft truly sees poverty as a crime.7
This play presents real conflicts of ethics. Many of the evils that are described seem to be seen through the narrow-mindedness of Undershaft, thus Barbara is the one interpreting the evil. She sees that money is not the answer to everything. His argument is I have given them money therefor I have given them happiness. 8 Her argument is Their souls are hungry because their bodies are full.
After analyzing three great works that discuss the ideals of good and evil and the right way to live, do we answer our question? Do we live a spiritually fulfilled life like Major Barbara or are we only happy with material possessions like her father? Do we find an absence of evil in good will? Or is there even the presence of evil in material happiness?
Even though this question of how we should live is attributed to Plato, it was around way before him. Many others have tried to answer his questions as well; we ll start with the person that taught Plato most of what he taught us and more, Socrates. Socrates had a huge influence on Plato s life and thus ours. Socrates felt that each person had good will deep down inside them. He felt that if a person had the knowledge that one choice was right above the other than the person would choose the right thing whether they did it consciously or not. He thought that by ignorance we may stumble onto a good deed, but without the knowledge of good, we can not claim to do good deeds. And bad deeds in turn arise from the ignorance of us and our purpose in life. The play that I think can most relate to Socrates view is Major Barbara. This play s main focus was on the importance of good deeds and how the simple bliss of helping others can cancel out the evil and leave you a better person.
Aristotle s views are another philosopher s that I would like to examine. The key word for him is happiness. He states that all other things in life are stepping-stones to something else. Happiness is the only thing that is wanted purely for its total worth, therefor it is the final goal in life. It supplies both the needs to the body and the soul, fulfilling one s every desire. You can achieve this happiness by being virtuous and good. And taking the right actions on things is free from both force and ignorance. This can definitely relate to The Madwoman of Chaillot. Aurelia was willing to do whatever it took to reach her final destination and accomplish her final goal, which was happiness for herself and others. She came about this not by force or ignorance, but by intelligent planning and little help from destiny. The Countess true naivet may have been the innocent cause that led to her happiness. No evil in any form was displayed, just a group of sweet people trying to achieve their goal (and Aristotle s) of true happiness.
The last philosopher that had an impact on this question was Jesus. More than a philosopher, Jesus was a leader and a king for many. The reason that he came to mind when I was reading The Good Woman of Setzuan was because Shen Te would have been a person that Jesus would have loved. Even though He loved all people, Shen Te did what He would have done. Jesus main rule for how to live is to treat others how you want to be treated. He said those who fed the hungry fed him, those who gave shelter to the homeless gave him shelter too. This is exactly how Shen Te acted. The fact that she was a prostitute did not matter. Jesus loved everyone and he taught us that we should do the same.
Now putting my own opinions after three great philosophers and three great morality plays seems rather trivial, but I have thought a lot about How we should live? We should live however makes us happy. Whether you are happy with yourself can make the difference between true bliss and false amusement. You need to take time out of your day to do one thing that pleases you. Not something that anyone else but you likes to do, for if you are not true to yourself you can not be true to others. Recently one of my good friends father died. We all had the same question-why? He was still young and there was no warning at all. Because of that I have been able to look at things more in the long run. Are the trivial things that upset me everyday really worth the effort? No, they are not, I need to live each day to the fullest and be thankful for what I have. Each person needs to sit down and look at what makes him or her happy and that is how we should live.
Shen Te lived to care deeply about others over herself, Aurelia lived to save humanity in one afternoon from evil, Barbara lived to help the needy and keep material possessions in perspective, and to bring us back to the beginning of my paper, Adam and Eve lived to eat apples. What do you live for? HOW SHOULD YOU LIVE?