After teaching thousands of students in God and the Good Life Class (GGL) over the course of more than six years, professors Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko decided to take the message of this class to a wider audience. This month, Penguin Press published their book, “The Right Way to Life: Reasoning Through the Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning.”
The book seeks to make philosophy more accessible, asking questions relevant to everyday life – questions that Sullivan and Blaschko believe they can answer by turning to philosophy.
“We ask questions like how much money do I have to make to be happy? Do I owe my colleague an apology for that mean but honest email I sent her? ordinary navigation. But in fact, they are questions of control, freedom, forgiveness and moral responsibility. Spending time thinking about philosophical questions can help you find better answers than you only have. find out for yourself,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan, a professor of philosophy and director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Advanced Study, recalled answering a phone call in March 2019 while giving a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology based on her first book, “Temporal biases.”
“I had noticed that when we started teaching God and the good life it started to get attention as an interesting way to teach philosophy and I was getting all these invitations to give one-off GGL-style talks in other universities to adult groups who just realized they wanted to talk about philosophy, but didn’t know where to start,” Sullivan said.
The phone call, from a Penguin editor, urged Sullivan to expand the conversation beyond Notre Dame undergraduates who might take the course through a book.
She pitched the idea to Blaschko, an assistant professor of philosophy, who worked with Sullivan developing the course when he was a graduate student. Blaschko signed on and the two began writing the book together. The process began with hours spent working together at Starbucks before the pandemic and shifted to Zoom meetings and outdoor walks on campus during the pandemic.
The book, divided into two parts, resembles the GGL class in many ways. “The structure of [the book] is quite similar to the structure of the course,” Blaschko said. The first part is called “The Good Life”.
“We do a basic introduction to virtue ethics and talk about a few particular areas of everyday life that we think readers will be interested in with a view to identifying virtues in those areas,” Blaschko said.
The second part is called “God and the good life”. “This is where we address some of the most important and profound existential questions about faith, suffering, meaning and death,” Blaschko said.
The writing of the book over the past few years has changed the authors’ outlook toward the GGL method in some ways. “The way we teach the class is much better now,” Sullivan said.
For example, the book only mentions Immanuel Kant in the introduction while describing exactly the Philosophy 101 approach which represents everything that GGL is not.
“It seems wrong to teach [Introduction to Philosophy] without going into Immanuel Kant. You should know Immanuel Kant. We realized while writing the book that intellectually Immanuel Kant is an interesting philosopher, but if he just doesn’t talk about the issues we face in our lives, he just doesn’t,” said Sullivan said.
This approach led Sullivan and Blaschko to point out certain voices that might not play a role in a standard introduction to philosophy.
“Iris Murdoch has great ideas about love and tries to be a better person by caring about others. We find her really moving, and we’ve added more of those kinds of talks to the class and maybe had a little more courage to ask ourselves if we have learned the right way to teach these famous dead philosophers,” Sullivan said.
During the writing of the book, Blaschko and Sullivan did the apology homework they assigned to the class each semester.
“[We’ve] given the duty of philosophical apologies to thousands of students. But we never had to sit down and write one for our lives, with our families and our moral puzzles. And we did that for the book, which includes sections from each of our apologies. And it was deep,” Sullivan said. “We realized it was a lot harder than we thought when we were grading them,” she added.
Blaschko talked about meeting students and readers where they are.
“We see our job as teachers of philosophy as making the most relevant and wise ideas accessible,” he said. “Often this conversation is just hidden behind translations and different versions of texts and systems etc.”
Blaschko said he believed that once a person had tools to overcome these distractions, the effect was transformative.
“Read the chapter on work, for example, and see Aristotle, Karl Marx and Josef Pieper have something to tell me about burnout. And the way it actually shows up in my life,” he said.
Both Blaschko and Sullivan see “The Good Life Method” as emerging only at Notre Dame.
“Part of that is informed by my upbringing as a Catholic and being in a Catholic environment. Philosophy for Catholicism is like an operating system, isn’t it? You constantly question yourself and try to figure out what the reasoning behind your beliefs is,” Blaschko said.
“This book would look totally different if we tried to write it at another university,” Sullivan said.
“It wouldn’t be as funny,” Sullivan added, referencing a class discussion about whether CrossFit is a religion that appears in the sixth chapter.
“We had so many conversations with our students at Notre Dame. And they gave us so many great ideas, insights and options,” Sullivan said. “We are extremely grateful to have had these students at Notre Dame and our colleagues here who were willing to speak with us about this and understand why we care so much.”
“For me, one of the best things about the class is this community. Building this community of dialogue with our students. Being able to open up this community is one of the most interesting parts of the book,” Blaschko said.