This Beauty

A Philosophy of Being Alive


By Nick Riggle

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An acclaimed philosopher and new father argues that engaging with beauty can make life worth living

You didn’t choose to live this life, in this body, in these conditions—this delicate and difficult life. Yet when you consider that your existence is fleeting, an inspired sense of urgency can spring forth. Say you often hike with a friend. One day, they propose that you skydive instead. You’re wavering, and they insist: Come on. You only live once! And soon you’re flying through the air. Why embrace a life you did not choose?

In This Beauty, philosopher Nick Riggle explores the beauty of being alive by investigating the things we say to inspire ourselves and each other: seize the day, treat yourself, you only live once. These clichés are at best vague, at worst stupid. They imply that you should do something wild with your life because your life is precious, a little like saying you should go swimming with your grandfather’s watch because it is irreplaceable.

Drawing on insights from aesthetics and his experiences as a professional skater and new father, he develops the thought that beauty—the beauty of this day, this body, this moment, these people—can make life worth embracing, worth engaging with and amplifying as beautiful. Insightful and deeply humane, This Beauty is a searching inquiry into the mystery of life’s beauty and a call to create and share it.


Chapter 1


One day I sort of woke up and found myself here. Not here, writing this book, right here and now. But here. In the biggest sense. Here on planet Earth. With a beating heart. With a warm, animate body. Consciousness alight. Time ticking. I had been alive for a while. All of a sudden I was awake.

I didn’t ask to be here. I didn’t consent to this life. No one spoke with me before all of this to see whether I would mind being a bounded, conscious, material thing thrust into a delicate, short life on some spinning space orb. In some galaxy. In some universe. In some… place. Yet here I am.

And there you are.


I was thirteen years old when I woke up, just finishing the eighth grade, about to enter, and drop out of, high school.

The early years of my life had passed. My dad was an explosive Vietnam War veteran with undiagnosed PTSD. He couldn’t keep his cool, struggled to keep his jobs. Mom held an early-morning newspaper route and worked at Domino’s Pizza and our church. Neither of them had college degrees. Together, they had four boys.

I knew, from an early age, that I didn’t want to spend time in my home, a den of tensions and uncertainties. I spent hours alone in the mysterious backyard, crouching low among crowds of dandelions, eating some, marveling at the blast of acid and waves of saliva—my three-year-old drool a fine distraction from the bursts of anger and confusion inside. Outside, I could mold dirt, build forts, shoot my slingshot, hang with my imaginary friend Van, and lose myself in fantastical tasks and worlds. Inside, there was no hiding from the trembling reality of love trying and failing to shape our nascent family into something coherent, to express its beautiful self—of love bruised by paroxysms of anger and fear.

All that time in the backyard, playing guns with neighborhood kids, riding bikes, catching crawdads, going to the Boys & Girls Club, I wasn’t just a boy being a boy. I was a boy building a world he could agree to because it was one that he made to his own liking. By age thirteen I had already spent the best part of a decade building and inhabiting my own world.

Then I woke up.

I realized that I hadn’t agreed to this wholeass thing. And I didn’t really like where I had ended up. I was still too young to understand that I was, only in a cosmic sense, fucked.

A man in India, Raphael Samuel, planned to sue his parents for giving birth to him. He didn’t consent to being born, so he figured he deserved lifelong compensation for all the suffering he had, and would have to, endure. His parents, both lawyers, pointed out that if they could have asked him if he wanted to be born, they would have. They couldn’t have, obviously, so they aren’t to blame for failing to do something they could not have done.

But if you could reasonably expect that your child would agree to existence when you are able to ask, then would that be agreement enough? You would have to make very sure they’d agree. And with what confidence would you do that?

Some think that confidence is assured because life itself is a wonderful gift.

The poem “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins compares a young boy’s sincere gift to his mom of a plastic lanyard to the gift of life itself. Parents give us life. They nurse us, love and comfort us. They teach us to walk, swim, talk, and read. They teach us how to eat, how to dress, how to clean up and help out around the house. They introduce us to the world. And in return for this immense gift, little Billy offers his mother the worthless plastic lanyard that he “wove out of boredom” at camp.1 The poem ends by offering another gift: the admission that as a boy he was absolutely sure that the useless lanyard would be sufficient repayment for life.

The poem plays with the thought that the gift of life is the most immense, the gift of all gifts, that nothing can repay. The confident offering of a plastic lanyard for life itself exposes the infinite distance between the two, and this exposes the bond, across that distance, between a knowing, loving parent and their precious, innocent child. In this way, the sincere giving of the lanyard is the perfect gift. Anything more would close the gap, and so would be less, and anything less than a plastic lanyard would be nothing.

If life is a gift, it is one that requires more giving. Parents also nurture that life, shape it into something, and hopefully offer their child the most precious gift they can give: some idea of how to live the life they were given.

But the idea that life is a gift given by parent to child is curious. Gifts needn’t be repaid. That’s the whole idea of a gift. It is gifted.

If life really is a gift, then, you would seem to owe your parents nothing. But, as parents tend to point out, you don’t owe them nothing; they expect rather a lot for having given the gift of life—at the very least, that you live your life and make something of it. And if life is not only a gift but such an immense gift that it can never be repaid, why expect payment?

From the child’s perspective, it becomes very clear very fast that this “gift” comes with several caveats and burdens. And you learn early on that gifts like that aren’t very good.

It seems that both parent and child are not entirely comfortable with the thought that life is a gift.

Some think that the metaphor of a gift suggests too generous a mode of exchange. Arthur Schopenhauer writes, “Far from bearing the character of a gift, human existence has entirely the character of a contracted debt.” But any debt has to be legitimate, and if I did not consent to my existence, then whom or what could I be indebted to? Schopenhauer tries to explain:

The calling in of this debt appears in the shape of the urgent needs, tormenting desires, and endless misery brought about through that existence. As a rule, the whole lifetime is used for paying off this debt, yet in this way only the interest is cleared off. Repayment of the capital takes place through death. And when was this debt contracted? At the begetting.2

Schopenhauer has a talent for turning what you thought were good things (begettings, music) into bad or strange things (debts, the most direct expression of Will itself). But how is your coming into existence a debt contracted when nothing in your coming to be can serve as the most essential element of a contracted debt, your agreement? Debts, gifts—metaphors for what you owe for your existence falter.

I am becoming a father. As I write this, my wife is pregnant with our first child, a boy. I asked him if he consents to existence, and, despite yelling, do you consent to existence? at my wife’s belly, I didn’t get a response. He kicks a lot, and we wonder if that means he wants out (in one sense or another).

ME: Hey, fetus, do you consent to existence?

FETUS: Um, are you rich?

ME: No, unfortunately.

FETUS: OK, well, where do you live?

ME: San Diego, California. The weather is perfect, so when you come out, you’ll be very pleased, specifically in terms of thermo-comfort.

FETUS: Are you aware of fetal thermo-comfort? It’s literally perfect in here. And no one ever complained about the weather in Nonexistence.

ME: Fair point. You’re smart, which will be helpful if/when you exist. Your mom and I are pretty cool and nice, and we’ll want to hang out with you all the time and always ask after you and… I’m now realizing how this sounds. Well, for the first few years we’ll dress, clean, and feed you. You won’t have to do a thing.

FETUS: What about after that?

ME: Well, then it’s up to you. It would be weird otherwise.


ME: You’ll see if/when you exist.

FETUS: The intrigue is unbearable. What about after that?

ME: Well, you’ll learn lots of things and meet lots of people and love some of them and eat a lot and grow up and be good and before long you might want to have this exact conversation with your very own fetus.

FETUS: That all sounds very… cyclical and odd.

ME: Too bad—it’s happening anyway!

I cannot write this book as if I am not becoming a father, as if I won’t hand it to my son one day.

Why would I want, even slightly, to have consented to my existence? The fact is that I couldn’t have consented to my existence. I would have had to exist, at least a little, at least as a disembodied consenting mind, in order to consent to existence. But nothing can exist before it exists. So what I want seems impossible to have.

That might make my problem seem incoherent, but to me it just makes it worse. Not only didn’t I consent, I couldn’t have consented. And not just as a matter of difficulty. It’s impossible. For a moment I thought that might be a relief. “It’s impossible to get what you want, so what’s the issue? Let it go.” But that is no solace to someone who really wants their plight to be different. I also cannot change the past, but I have wanted to. And what is more human than wanting the past to be different? For my family to have been better. To have been more centered and self-reflective. To have held on more tightly to those special people. To go back and stop my friend from doing that. I want to relive that dinner party, that night, those feelings. But I can’t.

And this is the world I woke up in—this world, this life, this body, this time, these people, these conditions. I woke up and found that I can agree and disagree. I consent and contract. I have these special opposable thumbs that go up or down. I have a mouth: it says yes, please and no, thanks and let me check my calendar. I have a motivational mind and a mobile body backing me up and jetting me through worlds of things and thoughts.

I am, at my core, the very thing I could not be in order to become what I am. I just had to wake up one day.

The weirdest thing is this: even if I could have consented to being alive, what would I have consented to? What the exact fuck is all of this? My heart, my tongue, my limbs and thumbs? The Earth? The stars? You? No one really knows what this is. It is all one great mystery. However I might imagine my consent, I cannot imagine my informed consent.

Why am I on this orb with feet and a mind rather than disembodied in some ethereal substance or back in the empty nothing whence I came? People run around speaking of gods and spirits and planets and heaven and hell, but as far as I can tell, they don’t really know what they are talking about. I wish they did. I wish I had some good and clear and definitive answer.

But they just remind me of my younger self in my backyard, running away, building fantastical worlds when they’re too scared or alienated or puzzled or betrayed by the one they are really in.

I did not agree to any of this, and I don’t know what the fuck it is anyway. That’s the predicament I am in.

You are too.

Hi again.

Why should I care about or value this thing that I simply find myself with, this life that was simply given to me, as me, even if it is valuable?

If someone randomly walks up to me and hands me a plain old rock, I don’t think for a second that I should care about it. I might admire the whimsy of the person who did that or wonder about their sanity. But goodbye, rock. Now suppose that they handed me something everyone agrees is valuable—say, the keys to a Ferrari. Why should I value it? I don’t mean: why should I judge, along with everyone else, that it is good? I mean: why should I want it, love it, care for it, make it mine? Not because it is indeed very valuable. It is not true that I should value everything that is very valuable. Assuming there are many such things, caring for all of them is impossible. And what if I don’t want a Ferrari? The Ferrari was imposed on me. I didn’t ask for a Ferrari, and owning one is, yeah, maybe fun, but a pricey hell of a burden. You have to learn how to drive it; it’s extremely delicate and finicky, has a rocky suspension, needs a garage, regular tuning, frequent cleaning; and it garners way too much attention—dumb jokes, requests to take a picture, every tricked-out Subaru revving its engine at the red light.

I didn’t ask to be here, I didn’t consent to being alive. One day I woke up and found myself here. And so what? Why should I value this life that I simply find myself with?

This question, this thought—I think of it as The Question—is not about death or suicide. Nor is it about the many other ills that plague us: the climate disaster, the death of the planet, literal plagues, the potential end of humanity due to global war or famine, gratuitous pain and suffering in children, natural disasters, systemic injustice, cancer, oppression, and so on.

The Question arises prior to those concerns. It is about birth, about coming to be the kind of thing I am, in the kind of world I am in. To me, the most puzzling thing about being alive is not that one day I won’t be—that I will die, we will die, everything will die and end up nowhere, as nothing, just as before—but rather that I came from nothing and know fundamentally nothing about where or what I am. And yet I am told that life is worth living. The day is worth seizing, the moment worth embracing. You only live once. So what?

If I could answer The Question, then many questions I have about death would fall away. When I know the answer, then I will know that I should do this or that. One day I will die. And then, just as before, I’ll do nothing, become nothing.

To be aware of, and to love, being what I am—an embodied, thoughtful, conscious being for whom understanding and agreement are everything but, at the beginning, nothing—that is the situation I need to confront, the feeling I have to address. It is not the feeling that death haunts me or calls my life into question. It is not the worry that I will be kidnapped into nothing. It is the feeling of having been abducted from nowhere.

Is there an answer to The Question? If there is, that answer will not come in the form of some story about the cosmos and gods, or about some heaven or hell that awaits me when my life is over. It will come, if at all, in the form of an idea about how being alive can justify itself despite this strange and basic predicament that you and I are in. If I could somehow feel that I belong here, deeply, importantly, repeatedly, not even certainly—if I could feel at home in this life and own that feeling, cultivate it, repeat and propagate it—then I could love this life and not merely live it out.

What could do that? That is what this book is about.

You and I—we are delicate. We are flesh. We attract dirt. We sweat and stink. We can burn and boil. We are puncturable, destructible, crushable, explodable. Being so close to death means death can easily nudge us into its arms in the form of a strong wind, a small bacterium, a dumb mistake. Weak and omnipresent gravity draws everything into itself, from a Kleenex to an entire culture.

I have known this my whole life, from the series of fat lips I had throughout childhood, from so many misadventures, scabs, and bruises. If there was a tree, I was in it, seeing and ignoring the hint of death in the allure of the highest branches. If there was something I could jump off, I did. Learning to ride a bike was learning to bunny-hop, wheelie, skid, and fly headfirst over the handlebars. Between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one, I was a professional skater, my body littered with scabs, fractures, stitches, concussions, and contusions.

From the moment you were born, you lived on the brink of easy destruction. There is so much that must happen, and then so much you must do, to keep your little heart beating, to maintain homeostasis, to preserve your fleshy body and keep the blood flowing.

And yet this is not the thought that tends to occur to me when, in a certain mood, I think about my one and only life, or about my day as I wake up and it stretches out before me, or about this very moment, or about my living, breathing body as I feel my heart beating softly and regularly. I do not think about preserving my delicate, precious life. Quite the opposite: I think of launching myself into life. I think of boldness, experimentation, adventure, and spontaneity. There are times when the value of being alive seems to jump out and speak to me, in different moments, different registers: I might be moved by thinking of my life as a whole, or in the context of a single day, or of this exact moment.

Why? If I am this delicate and precious being, if life is so fleeting and limited, the moment so elusive—why shouldn’t I protect and preserve the one precarious and shining thing I was unwittingly given? There is only one precious, irreplaceable, playable Stradivarius guitar in the world. Nobody plays it.

Yet the thought that you only live once does not move me to preserve the one delicate life I have. I don’t feel the impulse to protect and preserve my beating heart. I want it to beat faster. I want it to beat harder, wilder. And I know I’m not alone.

The thought that you only live once hints at an answer to The Question. I want to know why this life I have been unwittingly given is not only good but worth my engaging with its goodness. Worth embracing it, loving it, amplifying it, repeating it. I experience glimmers of an answer through the media of lived life: in the feel of a moment, in the cadence of a good day, the rush of inspiration, the recognition of beauty, the love of my family, the bonds of my community. I think that the day must be seized, the moment embraced, the body adored—you only live once and this is it.

These are things many people tell themselves and each other in affirmation of their lives. These clichés are printed on throwaway coffee mugs, dreadful wall art, styleless T-shirts, and every other book on Live like there’s no tomorrow. YOLO: you only live once. Seize the day. Get the most out of life. Live in the moment. What does it mean to “seize the day,” to “live like there is no tomorrow,” to “live in the moment,” or to be moved by the thought that you only live once?

These phrases are “existential imperatives” that direct you to embrace life in certain ways. But whatever promise they might seem to possess is tempered by the strangeness that appears as soon as you put a little pressure on them. Despite their power, prevalence, and social and cultural importance, they are puzzling. In fact, a little scrutiny shows that they are conceptually odd,


  • “Lyrical...refreshingly off-beat...A performative case for beauty’s power to render life not just worth living, but worth savouring.”—Times Literary Supplement
  • “Accessible and motivating…How inspirational to think of life being 'animated by beauty.' This convivial guide for the questioning is perfect for readers of Rob Bell and Alain de Botton." —Shelf Awareness
  • "A beautifully written philosophical ode to existence.”—L.A. Paul, Yale University
  • “What is there to live for? What does ‘YOLO’ mean? And what are we doing when we try to ‘seize’ the day? Nick Riggle gives us a big, radiantly heartfelt, and deeply thoughtful answer in a philosophical letter to his infant son. We are here for beauty, and this beauty is not just an inner experience, but a profoundly social one. The meaning of life is in the beauty that connects us.”—C. Thi Nguyen, University of Utah
  • “A rewarding take on beauty’s central role in life.”
     —Publishers Weekly
  • “Short but wide-ranging, elegant but unpretentious, casual in style and sweeping in conception, This Beauty goes far beyond our traditional philosophy of art and places aesthetics at the very center of life. It is an ambitious and brave book—and a wise one. Read it.”
     —Alexander Nehamas, Princeton University
  • “[W]ith equal parts humor and gravitas, and lovingly peppered with personal anecdotes from his own life, Riggle weaves a poignant, autological guide to better understand not only ourselves and our inner machinations, but one that serves to help us navigate existence at large."
     —San Diego Union Tribune

On Sale
Dec 6, 2022
Page Count
240 pages
Basic Books

Nick Riggle

About the Author

Nick Riggle is associate professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego. The author of On Being Awesome, he regularly lectures at top philosophy departments internationally. His work has been published in McSweeney’sAeon,and Hyperallergic, among other outlets. He lives in San Diego, California. 

Learn more about this author