Live a Good Life: Lessons From Filoli Gardens

“The sundial’s truth: Time began in a garden and never truly departs.” —Jessica Yaffa Shamash

The “L-I” in FILOLI: The Good Life

A few weeks ago Linda and I visited Filoli Gardens south of San Francisco. Filoli is a beautiful estate of 23,000 acres on a slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Christened “Filoli” by the creator William Bourn, it is a made-up word taken from the first letters of his personal motto: FI-ght for a just cause; LO-ve your fellow man; LI-ve a good life. Living an abundant, good life is our goal.

The ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle had much to say about living the good life of greatest happiness. He suggested that as we journey through life we may discover or even acquire the knowledge of what happiness is. It is a life of activity and is an end and not the means to an end.

Aristotle says a life of joy, abundance and happiness should not be confused with the pleasure of the poorer class of people nor honor from politics, or wealth of the affluent, but a contemplative life built on developing moral virtue that leads to human excellence or happiness. This means an acquaintance of the cardinal virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and prudence. Then developing the habits of choosing the mean between two extremes. As in the case of courage the extreme on one end is overzealousness or recklessness. On the other end cowardice or paralysis.

After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and fires many of the wealthy migrated south to the peninsula to escape the city ruin. New railroad tunnels made the commute easier, large estates soon became the fashion in the Hillsborough and Woodside areas. Thus Filoli was built with steel girders to protect against the home being built just a few hundred yards from the San Andreas Fault by the Bourn Family. As it turns out it straddles the fault with the Pacific Plate on one side and the North American Plate on the other.

About FILOLI’s Creator: William Bourn

William Bowers Bourn was born in 1857 and raised a wealthy son in post-Gold Rush San Francisco. His family had ownership or a significant stake in the Empire Mine in the Nevada City Area in the heart of Gold Country of Highway 49. The miners were asked to drill even further down in the mine. To accomplish that they imported miners from Europe skilled in burrowing deeper than any thought possible. They encountered a vein of gold that was a huge money maker. Thus, they had the resources to build this fantastic self-sustaining country estate. The land reminded them of Muckross Estate in Ireland near the Killarney Lakes. This was also purchased in 1910 by William and Agnes Bourn as a wedding gift for their only daughter Maud and became a place of refuge and beauty and gave them the idea for such an estate on the peninsula 30 miles below San Francisco.

William said, “My idea is to devote the afterglow of my life, this is the next 40 to 50 years or so, in personal supervision of its development. There I hope to grow young.” What sets this beautiful estate apart from others was the creation of the gardens and love of flowers, trees, and shrubs in all their varieties that are raised on the property. It is like eye candy everywhere. It’s a stunning sight to see so much variety in color. Or as expressed by John Ruskin a Victorian-era art critic, “Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty.” May is that time of year to enjoy the April showers that bring May flowers.


Gardens were the English word for flowers, which is a derivative of the word flourish. The primary sense is to open, expand, enlarge, or to shoot out, as in glory. We fell in love with the name and the idea of Aristotle’s living the good life by fighting for a just cause and loving our fellow man. These ideas seem to go hand in hand. There were also several pithy quotes inset into the landscape that gave it character as well. Here are two more:

“Dappled light shines through Each branch a puzzle of Sun The leaves glow chartreuse.”—Rachel Matzke

“Bee clothed in pollen Gathering what will become Honey for my tea.” —Jessica Chen

The “F-I” in FILOLI: Finding Your “Just Cause”

What is your “just cause” you would live for, fight, or die for? A young shepherd named David asked this rhetorically when challenged by his older brother who thought David was being brash when he expressed his courage to accept the invitation of the giant Goliath.

“And David spake to the men that stood by him, saying, What shall be done to the man that killeth this Philistine, and taketh away the reproach from Israel? for who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God? And the people answered him after this manner, saying, So shall it be done to the man that killeth him. And Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spake unto the men; and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, Why camest thou down hither? and with whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know thy pride, and the naughtiness of thine heart; for thou art come down that thou mightest see the battle. And David said, What have I now done? Is there not a cause?” ( The Bible, KJV, 1 Samuel 17:26-29)

There were several causes listed by him. He would fight for his family, liberty, and community.

The “L-O” in FILOLI

The middle of the Filoli sequence is to LO-ve your fellow man. The rest of this story helped fulfill this vision when the estate passed to the Roth Family in 1937 some 20 years after the estate was built. Lurline Roth took a special interest in the garden. She later donated the house and garden to the National Trust for Historic Preservation by stating: “Filoli is too beautiful to be private.” Thus sharing her love of fellow man by donating this beautiful estate into trust for all of us.


All of this can perhaps be summarized this way:

“To be what is called happy one should have something to live on, something to live for, something to die for. The lack of one of these results in drama. The lack of two results in tragedy.” —Cyprian Norwid

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education®. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

One thought on “Live a Good Life: Lessons From Filoli Gardens

  1. Profound and energizing words – your joyful countenance and positive demeanor are evidence that you are a happy man. Thanks for spreading sunshine wherever you go.

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