I have given away almost my entire collection of philosophy books, which at one time numbered more than a thousand. I have kept maybe 75 books, mostly ones that I had written or had been gifted to me with inscriptions, or that had special meaning to me.
Surprisingly one that I still possess is a book I reviewed for a professional journal more than 25 years ago—the first such review I had ever done. That book was titled, A Thinker’s Guide to Living Well by Dennis Bradford. The review, which appeared in The Modern Schoolman, LXX, January 1993, I reprint here with minor editing.
Dennis E. Bradford’s book provides a plan for living well. “Providing a good plan that works is what this book is all about.” (p. 3) He recognizes that others have attempted this—Confucius, Socrates, Aristotle, and Ben Franklin among others—but he wants to show how this can be done in “present-day North America.” (p. 3) The author claims that a good life is one of health, wealth, and wisdom. Wisdom is especially concerned with living well, but although you can have wisdom without health or wealth, it is better to have all three, “just ask anyone who is either unhealthy or poor.” ( p. 4) He also claims by being informed by modern medical science and technology, his plan has advantages over previous attempts to describe the good life.
The author has some informative things to say about health. He emphasizes how important health is to the good life, (not a sufficient but a necessary condition) and the importance of things like choosing a qualified physician, have regular physical exams, receiving appropriate vaccination, keeping up with health care developments, a practicing preventative medicine, and learning basic first aid techniques. While such advice may seem mundane, it is important nonetheless.
Habits are the next topic. Good habits increase the chance of success in one’s project–defined as one’s most important activity—and bad habits decrease this chance. In Chapter 3 he focuses on eliminating bad health habits, particularly smoking. “Your smoking habit began voluntarily and can be stopped voluntarily.” (p.39) And, it turns out, Bradford is a former smoker himself. “Think of curing dried leaves off a bush, shredding and blending them rolling them into a piece of thin paper, lighting one end, and sucking the resulting smoke into your lungs. The whole sequence is preposterous.” ( p.44)
Chapters 4 & 5 focus on creating good health habits. These habits aren’t identified as those leading to pleasure and besides “it is false that pleasure is the only abstract good.” (p. 52) Eating, for instance, may be pleasurable but is purpose is to contribute to one’s health. Bradford offers some suggestions about a healthy diet but defers to nutritional experts for specific advice? As for exercise, he recommends walking for beginners and he provides a detailed explanation for a gradual training program.
The author considers knowledge to be intrinsically valuable, and he advises getting as much education as possible. Bradford also argues that work is intrinsically valuable. Unfortunately, many people don’t have the opportunity to engage in satisfying work because of social and economic conditions. But as this is not a treatise in political philosophy, the issue is not explored. He does recommend that individuals pursue formal education and strive for financial independence. But he reminds his readers, that financial independence is a means to an end. To live well and engage in one’s most important project is the end and financial independence is the means to that end. Benjamin Franklin exemplified this approach. His business success provided him the means to pursue his project—scientific activities. Still, “Financial independence is not the meaning of life.”
( p. 179) The question now becomes, “What is?”
The last chapter, entitled “The Meaning of Life,” probes this question. Bradford argues that “Nothing done by any human … will have any permanent significance.” ( p. 184) He doesn’t believe that we have any cosmic significance and that the burden of proof rests with those who suppose we do. Those who believe that we have a special cosmic significance should present evidence. “Where is that evidence? I know of none.” ( p. 185) But our cosmic insignificance implies that we can do with our lives what we want. We can give them meaning and significance through our projects. And what do worthwhile project entail? He argues they must be: 1)capable of withstanding rational scrutiny, 2) directed toward a valuable end; 3) moderately challenging; and 4) a source of lasting satisfaction. He offers two examples of such a project—a life of service exemplified by someone who helps house the homeless, and a life of inquiry exemplified by a medical researcher.
Is there any way to decide which life is most valuable or which one should we choose? Such questions lead to considerations of the relationship between facts and values. The author believes that the “value-facts” exist but are difficult to determine.” ( p. 208) Value-facts derive from a consideration of human nature. Because of our nature, health, knowledge, friendship, wealth and wisdom are all intrinsically valuable.
Bradford’s book echoes much of Aristotle’s writing on the good life. As such he fills in a lot of details that Aristotle could not. And he concludes by stating that he wrote the book “for the satisfaction of communicating something useful to other passably intelligent people.” I believe he has succeeded.