Posts Tagged ‘Epicurus’

Pyrrho, Epicurus, Blackburn, Sandel

January 29, 2013

That’s the menu today in CoPhi. A deep skeptic, a seeker of simple pleasures and happiness, an anti-relativist, and an anti-doping anti-perfectionist (with the world’s most popular course on justice.)

But first a quick follow-up on Plato and Aristotle. Check out this version of School of Athens.

As for Aristotle’s eudaimonia, in some ways it anticipated Epicurus’s garden and what Jennifer Michael Hecht calls “graceful-life philosophies” that proclaim in all simplicity: “we don’t need answers and don’t need much stuff, we just need to figure out the best way to live.” Then, and only then, will we be happy.

As for Pyrrho: If you’d asked him Who rules the Universe?, he might have replied: Lord knows. Cats, again. And pigs.

pigReminding us of Pyrrho’s famous pig, who impressed Montaigne by riding out a storm at sea with much greater equanimity (and, crucially, much less comprehension) than his human shipmates, and of J.S. Mill’s declaration that it’s “better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” Hecht comments:

“This whole pig-versus-philosopher debate is pretty hilarious, yes?”

Yes. But I agree with Spinoza and Hecht. “The happiness of a drunkard is not the happiness of the wise,” though of course there are happy occasions when it has its place too. Bottom line: “Knowledge and wisdom are worth it,” it can be everything to have found true love and meaningful work, and both– all-– can end in a flash, without warning. Stay on your toes, but don’t fret too much about the storm.

piranhaOne more little animal image for Pyrrho, whose name I prefer to pronounce compatibly with this mnemonic trick: just remember that a pyrrhonic skeptic is like a piranha fish, toothily devouring every proposed candidate for belief. Cats and pigs too, probably.

And as for Epicurus:

Jennifer Hecht‘s got his number. It’s listed.

For an Epicurean, somewhere there are beings that are truly at peace, are happy… The mere idea of this gentle bliss is, itself, a kind of uplifting dream. After all, we human beings know a strange thing: happiness responds to circumstances, but, basically, it is internal. We can experience it when it happens to come upon us; we can induce it with practices or drugs; but we cannot just be happy.

No, we must work to “solve the schism” between how we feel and how we want to feel. Happiness is a choice and a lifetime endeavor, and though it comes easier for some than for others there are tips and tricks we can use to trip our internal happy meters and achieve ataraxia, peace of mind, simple contentment, “tranquillity, or the freedom from disturbance and pain that characterizes a balanced mind and constitutes its first step toward the achievement of pleasure.”

Stop fearing the harmless and remote gods, Epicurus said. Stop fearing your own death, it’s not (as Wittgenstein would echo, millennia later) an event you’ll ever experience. “Life is full of sweetness. We might as well enjoy it.”

That’s Alain de Botton, author of a text I used to use in this course, and controversial proponent of religion for atheists. (Don’t confuse him with Boethius.) His interview with Krista Tippett was instructive. Like Jennifer Hecht, he wants us to use philosophy to enhance our bliss and sweeten our dreams.

Pyrrhonian deep skepticism and moral/cultural relativism share a common root. Simon Blackburn voices the right reply to those who say we can function without beliefs, or without discriminating between better and worse beliefs, when he points out that this is simply impractical and socially dysfunctional. Not only might you get run over by a racing chariot or step off a cliff, you also scatter seeds of discord within your community and perhaps even your family.

So I too “would defend the practical importance of thinking about ethics on pragmatic grounds.” To pretend  with “Rosy the Relativist” that we can all simply have and act on our own truths, our own facts, without confronting and negotiating our differences and critically evaluating our respective statements of (dis)belief, really is “farcical.” Lord knows.

Last time we had this discussion in CoPhi, Groups 2 and 4 were also unintentionally echoing one another across the room. One discussion was about Epicurus and happiness, the other Michael Sandel‘s objections to performance enhancement in sports and elective genomic enhancement in general. He’s concerned, ultimately, that we’ll design ourselves right out of the possibility of accomplishing our own goals and, ultimately, achieving meaning in our lives. Lance Armstrong must be feeling a pretty big meaning-deficit these days.

I’ve been thinking some more, btw, about a student’s question whether Oprah is a philosopher. I’d say she has philosophical moments, sometimes asks the hard questions, and is indeed seeking to have and share a “graceful” (if opulent) life. So, sure. Same for the poets (like Whitman) who let us off the hook for contradicting ourselves (“I contain multitudes.”) I don’t think the Philosophy Club should be exclusive or restrictive. Many of my colleagues would disagree, amongst themselves, at their annual association meetings and in their ivory towers. They’ll never give me a car, either.

Anyway: we won’t suffer a meaning deficit, though, if we live simply and naturally in the company of friends who’ll help us conquer our fears and address our many questions about life, the universe, and everything. That’s the Epicurean way, when we decide nature’s already provided enough for our peace of mind and our contentment. That’s ataraxia.

So finally there are these dots, connecting Epicurus and Pyrrho:

Epicurus, though no friend to skepticism, admired Pyrrho because he recommended and practiced the kind of self-control that fostered tranquillity; this, for Epicurus, was the end of all physical and moral science. Pyrrho was so highly valued by his countrymen that they honored him with the office of chief priest and, out of respect for him, passed a decree by which all philosophers were made immune from taxation.

Tranquility and a free ride: now that would make me happy.

Advertisements

Connecting dots

September 11, 2012

It’s already the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.  I’ll ask students today where they were, that brilliant horrible historic morning. Most of them were probably in the 1st grade.  Older Daughter was in Ms. Bellar’s kindergarten class at Brookmeade. My wife called the school when the first tower fell, to ask if and how the news was being conveyed to the kids. The secretary was an unworldly lady, her generation’s version of an unsophisticated isolationist. “What’s that got to do with us here in Nashville?”

One of our discussions last week touched on the relevance of space exploration, and a similar sentiment was expressed. What’s space got to do with us here on Earth?

Simple, I said. It’s home. It’s not “out there,” and people who live as though the stars and galaxies were remote and irrelevant to our day-to-day concerns have isolated themselves in a bubble of false security. They’re lost in the cosmos.

Interesting that peace and security were also centerpieces of our discussion yesterday in EEA. Paul Hawken’s “blessed unrest” is blessed precisely because, amidst the chaos and trouble of our times, he finds seeds of hope for a more peaceful and secure world in the unorchestrated coalescence of so many local movements devoted to securing the conditions for life for our kids and their world.

They’re emerging against a backdrop of real progress in human history: we really are a less violent, more secure species than we were not so many centuries ago. It’s hard to realize that, as regional wars and sectarian conflicts rage without end around the globe and 9/11 rolls around once a year to remind us of our capacity for carnage and cruelty. But it’s so. Read and watch Steven Pinker, on our better angels. “We are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”

But then there’s football. Here’s the Gladwell link I keep telling people about. I hope everyone reads it. (The surprising defenders of MMA are probably going to be harder to reach, with this message, than I first realized.)

Well, I could go on about that and tomorrow probably will. For now, I’m pleased to notice one of the more gratifying aspects of my work as a teacher: I’m the connector of dots, the one who’s supposed to point out the unanticipated ways that various events and ideas and philosophers can come together and cast needed light.

Talking yesterday in class, for instance, it dawned on me that groups 1 and 3 were barking up the same tree: Pyrrhonian deep skepticism and moral/cultural relativism. Simon Blackburn voices the right reply to those who say we can function without beliefs, or without discriminating between better and worse beliefs, when he points out that this is simply impractical and socially dysfunctional. Not only might you get run over by a racing chariot or step off a cliff, you also scatter seeds of discord within your community and perhaps even your family.

So I too “would defend the practical importance of thinking about ethics on pragmatic grounds.” To pretend  with “Rosy the Relativist” that we can all simply have and act on our own truths, our own facts, without confronting and negotiating our differences and critically evaluating our respective statements of (dis)belief, really is “farcical.” Lord knows.

Groups 2 and 4 were also unintentionally echoing one another across the room yesterday. One discussion was about Epicurus and happiness, the other Michael Sandel‘s objections to performance enhancement in sports and elective genomic enhancement in general. He’s concerned, ultimately, that we’ll design ourselves right out of the possibility of accomplishing our own goals and, ultimately, achieving meaning in our lives. We won’t do that, though, if we live simply and naturally in the company of friends who’ll help us conquer our fears and address our many questions about life, the universe, and everything. That’s the Epicurean way, when we decide nature’s already provided enough for our peace of mind and our contentment. That’s ataraxia.

So finally there are these dots, connecting Epicurus and Pyrrho:

Epicurus, though no friend to skepticism, admired Pyrrho because he recommended and practiced the kind of self-control that fostered tranquillity; this, for Epicurus, was the end of all physical and moral science. Pyrrho was so highly valued by his countrymen that they honored him with the office of chief priest and, out of respect for him, passed a decree by which all philosophers were made immune from taxation.

Tranquility and a free ride: now that would make me happy.

Gentle bliss & an uplifting dream

September 10, 2012

We’re talking Epicurus (among others, Lord knows) today in CoPhi. Jennifer Hecht‘s got his number. It’s listed.

For an Epicurean, somewhere there are beings that are truly at peace, are happy… The mere idea of this gentle bliss is, itself, a kind of uplifting dream. After all, we human beings know a strange thing: happiness responds to circumstances, but, basically, it is internal. We can experience it when it happens to come upon us; we can induce it with practices or drugs; but we cannot just be happy.

No, we must work to “solve the schism” between how we feel and how we want to feel. Happiness is a choice and a lifetime endeavor, and though it comes easier for some than for others there are tips and tricks we can use to trip our internal happy meters and achieve ataraxia, peace of mind, simple contentment.

Stop fearing the harmless and remote gods, he said. Stop fearing your own death, it’s not (as Wittgenstein would echo, millennia later) an event you’ll ever experience. “Life is full of sweetness. We might as well enjoy it.”

That’s Alain de Botton, author of a text I used to use in this course, and controversial proponent of religion for atheists. (Don’t confuse him with Boethius.) His interview with Krista Tippett aired yesterday again. Like Jennifer Hecht, he wants us to use philosophy to enhance our bliss and sweeten our dreams.

The dream of restorative environmentalism growing from the grassroots also continues in EEA today. We begin with Rachel Carson’s Silent SpringIt’s serial publication in 1962 was greeted by one reader with the claim that “we can live without birds and animals” but not without business.

Many of our fellow Americans still believe, with Mr. Mitt, that corporations really are people too. Not just legally-contrived “persons,” but individuals with rights and dignity and grace and a capacity for bliss in their own right. Dream on.

“The Swerve”

December 23, 2011

The Swerve may sound like another baseball book, like a secret hidden pitch, but in fact it’s the story of the “hidden natural explanation for everything that alarms or eludes you,” namely atoms: it’s all “atoms and void and nothing else.”

But “nothing else” is very misleading. Stephen Greenblatt‘s account of how the fifteenth century rediscovery of LucretiusDe Rerum Natura modernized and humanized the world is chock full of unexpected atomic configurations. One of them is Montaigne‘s cosmic speculation about going around the wheel more than once. It’s an intriguing, demystified, naturalistic intimation of Nietzsche’s version of the ancient hypothesis of eternal recurrence:

“Since the movements of the atoms are so varied,” he wrote, “it is not unbelievable that the atoms once came together in this way, or that in the future they will come together like this again, giving birth to another Montaigne.”

And if you can believe that, is there much you can’t believe?

But it’s far truer to the spirit of Lucretius’ hero Epicurus (and to his heroes Leucippus and Democritus) to recognize the incredible improbability of the swerves that resulted in you and me. The fundamental humanist insight is that we probably go around just this once and had better grab our gusto while we can.

I do love the way Greenblatt concludes, with Thomas Jefferson’s proud, fearless, under-sung declaration: “I am an Epicurean.”

Aristotle, skeptics, & stoics

February 15, 2011

We have about 600 years of new philosophy to cover today, from Aristotle to Aurelius. But we’re going to have to take some time, first, to process the absurdity of yesterday’s campus lockdown, prompted by yet another gun incident. We went ahead with class, pretending to a semblance of normalcy while with one eye monitoring email updates from President McPhee. Eventually we learned that the ricochet shooter had been apprehended and we could go about business as usual. Fat chance.  Strange Valentine Day, memorable birthday. [DNJChronicle]

I’d just been musing poetically about the improbable details of my personal end, in grudging recognition of time’s arrow and where it’s dragging us all eventually. But that wasn’t quite serious, until the helicopters started to circle our building. Now, inevitably, some benighted state legislator likely will attempt to resuscitate last year’s stupid proposal to place firearms in my hands and those of my colleagues. Sure, that would have made us all feel better yesterday.

The passage of time itself is what will really make us feel better. Maybe that’s the problem. But it does feel good to vent.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: continue to disregard the printed syllabus until further notice. Today we’re reading O 16-26, next time it’ll be PW 40-49. Also next time, let me know your plans for the midterm: your general topic, as much summary as you can give me in a sentence or two, and whether it’ll be a presentation or an essay.

Main point about Aristotle: if Plato’s the urrationalist, he’s the primordial empiricist. His Lyceum would have been a perfect choice for me (better even than Vandy), with all that peripatetic walking-about.  His syllogism is a powerful instrument, but maybe we don’t want to assume that everything meaningful fits its pattern. That’d be a terrifically informative conclusion, though.

He opposed Plato’s view that Forms (Ideas, Universals, Essences) are transcendent, contending instead that forms are in particular objects, in the very things Plato called shadows. They’re articulated and exhausted by formal, efficient, material, and final causes. The final cause behind everything, the ultimate purpose, goal, or telos, is the notorious philosophers’ god, aka the Unmoved Mover.  Scientists nowadays don’t have much use for that, but they do still invoke efficient causation.

He came close to facing the same charges that did Socrates in, but chose to leave Athens. Do we think the less of him for that? I don’t.

Through no fault of his own, he became the Unquestioned Authority of medieval philosophy. We shouldn’t hold that against him either.

His “metaphysics” is simply “after physics,” just a rung up the abstraction ladder. Nothing too “woo-woo,” in fact it mirrors his body language in “School of Athens“: pace Plato, forms (lower case “f”) are not transcendent and outside our terrestrial “cave,” they’re as particularized and individuated as we are.

His logic is basic and comprehensive. (But is it exhaustive of reality? A meta-metaphysical question, perhaps.)

His emphasis on potentiality also distinguishes him from his teacher Plato: Becoming is more important, certainly more formative, than Being. An acorn is a potential oak. A student is a potential teacher. But it’s important, too, not to see development of this sort as more teleological or purposive than it is. “Goals” are typically the possessions of individuals or cohesive, intelligently-directed groups, not of nature per se.

His Unmoved Mover is an unmoving “Philosopher’s God.” (No wonder so many of us are irreligious. Blame Aristotle, among others.)

His ethics is a constant quest for the middle ground, the mean, splitting the difference between extremes. This works, arguably, for courage, and charity and pleasure-seeking (etc.), but what about honesty?

His politics makes a strong case for the middle class. But why didn’t he challenge slavery? (Does this show that even the most sophisticated philosophy is trapped in its time & place?)

Our text today includes a nice graphic of the library of Alexandria (founded by Aristotle’s most ambitious, but possibly least ethically-reflective student), the sacking of which remains one of the great unwashed stains on our species. It was a great cosmopolitan mecca, and its destruction remains one of our species’ lowest moments.

“Eureka!” That must have been a wonderful moment for Archimedes…

Aristotle’s Lyceum successors were sceptics (our author’s a Brit, hence the “c” in place of my “k”) who renounced the quest for truth. Pyrrho was their most salient and extreme spokesman. (But we’ve just about forgotten his predecessor Chrysippus, thanks to the aforementioned legions of Caesar who burned the library that housed his works.)

Then, the contemptible/contemptuous Diogenes, a dog-like “cynic. (My pooches are insulted by the comparison.)

Rome was grand but mostly not too reflective. They did sponsor some impressive public works, though.

Then came the ill-fated Seneca. [“Seneca falls“… “dead stoics society“…”philosopher walks“…”premeditation“…”per aspera“…”self-sufficient“] You can read all about him in de Botton’s Consolations. And, watch this:

Not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.

And don’t forget the pleasure-seeking Epicurus [“Back to the Garden“], or the slave Epictetus. We have much still to learn from them both, about freedom from ignorance and superstition, and the free will such freedom makes valuable.

And don’t forget Hecht’s Doubt, full of insight on the Greeks in ch.2 and the Romans in ch.4. Cicero in particular deserves a lot more respect than he’s gotten from other sources.

Epicureans, Stoics, & Skeptics

September 30, 2010

There are three obstacles to happiness, Epicurus said– fear of death, fear of pain, and fear of the gods– but all can be removed easily enough.

Death is no problem because when we are alive we are not dead and when we are dead we don’t know it… Fear of pain is worse than pain itself. Accept the pain, embrace the sting… and you’ve vanquished your worst foe, the one in your head.” (J.M. Hecht)

Strike one, strike two… and since any gods there may happen to be, out there in the empty spaces between the stars, are quite evidently “totally unconcerned with human affairs,” fear strikes out. Be happy.

Seneca‘s end was not so happy, but it was more or less consistent with his life. He did not strain against the leash of perceived necessity. But does he illustrate the limits the of therapeutic acceptance, and cross the line into defeatist resignation? [text… J-L David painting]

Other Stoics are better role-models. Cicero‘s De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) is a neglected classic. Bottom line: “If you want truth, you have to avoid making up anything.”

Marcus Aurelius had a cold unblinking eye for harsh home-truths. He poses a question never more timely than right now, for a celebrity-besotted society like ours:

He who has a vehement desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will also die very soon… But suppose that those who will remember are even immortal, and that the remembrance will be immortal, what then is this to thee? And I say not what is it to the dead, but what is it to the living?

Not enough to live for, is what. But the Philosopher-Emperor finds life worth living all the same, for those who cultivate a properly-stoic sensibility. Contented are those who learn to comprehend the universe,

by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every several thing, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution.

Our time is brief, but  so then also is our pain. From this perspective, the trite modern phrase about not sweating the small stuff (because it’s all small) can become meaningful and profound.

The skeptic Sextus Empiricus offers an interesting observation on anthropomorphic God-projection, as Jennifer Hecht summarizes: divine virtues are thought to be “fully realized versions of human virtues.” But “that did not make sense unless God had our weaknesses.”

Weaknesses like impotence, fallibility, and ignorance: whose acknowledgement by us is also our greatest strength. So, says Sextus, your God is too small.

But of course, as a skeptic, he must always add: for all we know.

back to the garden

February 15, 2010

Epicurus, the widely-misapprehended philosopher of simple pleasure and trouble-free living, was the original “Life is Good” spokesperson. Not lavish, not a bed or roses (though quite cultivable, like a garden), and not forever. But good, and not merely “good enough” in the privative Lake Wobegon fashion either.

Simon Critchley has already told us Epicurus is his favorite dead philosopher, and we know he framed the “problem of evil” David Hume found insoluble. Now we get Alain de Botton’s angle, beginning with as un-Epicurean a “Happiness acquisition list” as can be.  Opulent houses, penthouse apartments, personal aircraft, sumptuous comestible delicacies, pointless luxury goods… versus friends, freedom, and thought.

At the heart of Epicureanism is the thought that we are as bad at intuitively answering ‘What will make me happy?’ as ‘What will make me healthy?’ Insatiably-high levels of consumption and interminable acquisition definitely won’t, in either case. Gross appetitive indulgence generally won’t, for most of us. Expensive stuff is mostly a distraction and hollow compensation for the real goods, most of which can’t be bought at any price. Fame, celebrity, and power belong to some of the most notoriously shallow and dissatisfied people we know. Nothing satisfies him who is not satisfied with a little. Better free your mind instead.

Epicurus noted that two things impede man from living happily: fear of God; and fear of the horrors beyond the grave. It was necessary, therefore, to have a physics (metaphysics) in which there would be no further reason for the existence of these fears. The universe, the Epicureans said, is infinite and in the infinity of space worlds are formed and dissolved by the same law. Between one world and another there are empty spaces. In these spaces the gods, made up of atoms, live happily among themselves, unconcerned with the world of men…

The human soul is also formed of atoms which are separated at death. No thought, therefore, of death and of the time which will come after it enters the Epicurean teaching. Similarly, we should have no thought of the time before our birth, for then our soul in its original state was dissolved into atoms… In a world of this kind, where there is no fear of the gods or of the life beyond the grave, man, governed by mechanical laws, must strive to live as best he can.  Radical Academy

A life free of mental anxiety and open to the enjoyment of other pleasures was deemed equal to that of the gods… prayer for the Epicureans consisted not in petitioning favors but rather in a receptivity to this vision… Nor is such pleasure difficult to achieve: it is a mark precisely of those desires that are neither natural nor necessary that they are hard to satisfy. Epicurus was famously content with little, since on such a diet a small delicacy is as good as a feast, in addition to which it is easier then to achieve self-sufficiency, and “the greatest benefit of self-sufficiency is freedom.” SEP

Oinoanda was built on the top of a high mountain in the ancient province of Lycia, which is now modern southwest Turkey.   Toward the end of his life, the second- century AD philosopher Diogenes presented to his city a large inscribed limestone wall conspicuously located in an open area generally referred to as the “Esplanade.”  The inscription proclaimed the wisdom of Epicurus, who had lived five centuries earlier.  This unique text, rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, has attracted many modern readers.

“…we ought to make statues of the gods genial and smiling, so that we may smile back at them rather  than be afraid of them.”

Lucretius: “Mankind is perpetually the victim of a pointless and futile martyrdom, fretting life away in fruitless worries through failure to realize what limit is set to acquisition and to the growth of genuine pleasure.

So… a revised, much more modest (and more reasonable) acquisition list concludes: the obstacles to happiness are not primarily financial. Or material, or supernatural.

What will it take to get us finally re-thinking our relentless national obsessions with economic growth and eternal salvation? The writing is on the wall.

INTRO STUDENTS: CLASS CANCELLED TODAY, the roads are unsafe We’ll double up and do both Epicurus and Seneca on Wednesday.

specious happiness

November 10, 2009

[NOTE to Happiness students who missed the email memo: we’re not meeting today (I’m “in studio”). Your assignment: read Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, & Seneca* in Part One, & Part Two on pleasure and satisfaction.]

Heading into our course’s last laps with the Cahn/Vitrano anthology Happiness: Classic and Contemporary Readings

The editors pass along an important reminder in their brief introduction: “there is no single thing that it feels like to achieve eudaimonia [in the Aristotelian sense of happiness-as-flourishing], since everyone’s potential is different… it is not clear who is to be the judge of what one’s full potential is.”

This observation echoes Jennifer Hecht’s myth-busting and reinforces both her and  Sonja Lyubomirsky’s customized approach to “happiness activity”-seeking. If it’s not clear who should judge one’s potential, surely the onus of doing the work of self-discovery and self-realization devolves upon, who else, oneself.

But whether that work is fundamentally, Platonically rational is still an open question. This question came up in discussion Monday: can a “bad” person be happy? Plato wants to say no: undetected bad behavior reinforces the brutish, vicious element in human nature that is at war with the “whole soul”… and its “best nature.”

Plato_Seneca_Aristotle_medievalAristotle harmonizes with Plato to a greater extent with regard to this question than to most others, going so far– too far, if my own experience of philosophers and their temperamental dispositions is any guide– as to to conclude that the reason-intoxicated philosopher will be happier than anyone. Not the most amused, but the most fulfilled.  “Everything that we choose we chose for the sake of something else– except happiness, which is an end.”

Then there’s Epicurus’s famous overstatement: “Death is nothing to us…” Hecht, again, dealt deftly with that one.Epicurus LXXVIIIr

Then Seneca* goes too far: when you adjust your attitude, refine it to a freeze-dried state of Stoic indifference, you lift yourself  to a new high, “not yet free, but still as good as.” Sounds more like freedom as nothing left to lose. Good song, disappointing lifestyle. I’m not buying it.

(Alain de Botton has written many books, all of them about happiness in one form or another. His latest is on work, and success.)

Wayne Davis offers a  “definition of epistemic happification” according to which you need not be happy every time you think a thought that typically makes you happy, so long as you still have a tendency to be happy when you think it.  Not sure I see the profundity here, but it’s clear enough. Is it true? Or non-trivial?

Daniel Haybron addresses another question that came up in class yesterday: “Why Hedonism is False.” He says it’s because hedonism fails to distinguish psychologically deep and (typically) lasting events that impinge on our happiness (the death of a child, for example) from shallow events that can ruin your afternoon (like a flat tire). It reduces happiness to claims about the pleasantness of  experiences. “That my experience is now [un]pleasant says next to nothing about my propensities for the future.”

John Kekes is thinking about tomorrow too. You’re not really happy now unless it’s “reasonable to believe and unreasonable to doubt that this judgement will continue to hold in the future.”

(What would Matthieu Ricard say? Or Wendell Berry?: “We can do nothing for the human future that we will not do for the human present… [he] who works and behaves well today need take no thought for the morrow.”)

Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz is also preoccupied with our relation to the future, and to the past. Most of us “are indifferent to the remote past” and “unconcerned about the distant future, but the importance of tomorrow is equal, if not greater for them, than that of the present day.” He’s right about this, no? The present moment may be specious and impossible to spread out and live in, but give me 48 hours. There’s nothing spurious about the transitory pleasures and momentary satisfactions of a great weekend. Today was hectic, but tomorrow… let’s go to the dog park!

dog park

Money

October 29, 2009

“Everybody knows that money doesn’t buy happiness.”

The Series has begun, please indulge my pet metaphor: Jennifer Hecht’s next pitch rides up and in, crowding “Everybody” with the retort that smart philosophers “really don’t all say this.”

Aristotle, for instance, acknowledged that happiness “requires a degree of comfort.” But only a small degree, “abundance does not correlate with happiness” to anywhere near the degree that poverty correlates with unhappiness.

It’s commonly, winkingly noted that the roots of our material culture in America run from Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” back to John Locke’s “life, liberty, and property (estate).” The insinuation is that Jefferson was importing a crass idea under cover of a pretty, idealized euphemism.

Less often acknowledged, and much more intriguing, is Jefferson’s Epicureanism. He admired its naturalism– he so despised supernaturalism that he snipped those parts out of his Bible— its  secularism, and its happy vision of simple, virtuous pleasure. “Epicurus ran a coed, hedonistic philosopher’s retreat called the Garden,” encouraged serious reflection for its own sake, and valued personal freedom and independence above institutions, congregations, and confederations.

For his part, Jefferson valued his own “garden” at Monticello— a commune-like compound, staffed by slaves who we now know were as good as family, if not quite accorded the status and dignity of friendly equals in the Epicurean sense. But we also now know that money was a problem for him, too. He sold his books to create the library of congress, not only as a public-spirited act of generosity but because he really needed the dough.

Hecht: “There are obvious happiness advantages to having some money,” and not only for those with little. “The difference between a phenomenal wheelchair and one that is just good enough is not trivial.” Nor, during the Series, is the difference between an ordinary TV and a crisp-&-pretty hi-def model.

But let’s not get carried away. The road to hell is paved with obsessive, self-righteous  monomania.

good life

October 26, 2009

michelangelo_moses_264pxCurtain call for the law-giver, exodus-leader, and alleged miracle-worker Moses. He anchors the morality chapter because he purveyed the commandments to his people, and was thus esteemed an agent of righteousness. But like others to come down a mountain with prophetic and unsparing words– Zoroaster and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra come immediately to mind– that burning look in his eyes raises eyebrows. Has he really brought good news? Does he in fact know the way to freedom and the good life in a land of milk and honey, or will he lead his followers astray?

Alleged miracles, prophecy, and goodness, I say, because it’s not enough merely to receive and memorize the rules, one must grasp and absorb the virtue they purport to defend before they can be credited with allowing the dutiful rule-follower to commence and keep a good and moral life.

Yesterday’s post implied a criticism of most childhood religious education as a form of indoctrination: it seems to be all about mastering and memorizing the rules, much as we learn to mumble our allegiance to a flag before we’ve learned the meaning of most of the words, recited by rote, supposed to impress a tradition’s gatekeepers.

The title of this chapter needs some explaining, in an American context, and Moses symbolizes part of the problem. Those of us raised in a religious environment because our elders thought that was the best, perhaps the only, way to instill a sense of values and virtue, may still be accustomed to thinking of morality mainly in terms of rules, commandments, and “thou shalt nots.” We may or may not, then, get around to asking for the rationale behind those rules in particular. It can’t just be that they’re “in the book,” or on the stone tablets, or from the horse’s (or even Moses’) mouth. That may seem to be authoritative, but it’s not conclusive or reasonable. It is, in fact, a fallacy to settle a question by invoking an authority.

We were just talking about the Holocaust, and freedom. William James called free will “the moral business.” Clearly there’s a crucial connection between morality, goodness, and the freedom to actually pursue and possibly attain the good life. This is one game you can’t win through intimidation, Adolf.

There’s much to be said for Immanuel Kant’s reason-and-duty-bound approach to the moral business. But there’s also the historical reality of Kant’s heirs, who thought it their duty to defend the Reich and its Fuhrer. What were they missing?

Epicurus thought the good life was about pleasure. But don’t be fooled: “The pleasant life is not the product of one drinking party after another or of (sex or food)” or other sensual delights. “On the contrary, it is the result of sober thinking.” Hmmm.

Kant was no Epicurean or hedonist, but you don’t have to be a hedonist to reject deontology– a fancy name for duty that disregards consequences. They matter.

Aristotle was closer to right in saying that pleasure is the happy residua of activities worth doing for their own sake, not something you can hope to plug into without effort or risk of disappointment. Life in a happiness box would not be intrinsically rewarding, in Aristotle’s sense.

What about “success” as the core of the good life? Depends on what you mean by that. Too many of us have slipped into the error of meaning something shallow, with a price tag but possibly little real value. “The exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success is our national disease.” That was true over a century ago. Isn’t it still?

Asceticism, the life of simplicity and self-denial, carries connotations of deprivation and poverty from which most of us have been carefully taught, in this consumer paradise, to recoil. Cynicism has a better, hipper rep. But Diogenes the Cynic had simple needs. “Move over, you’re blocking my sun,” he told the Emperor. Who needs glory, fame, riches, or power?

Aristotle on happiness. What we all do need, according to Aristotle, is an integrated and balanced life of virtue in community. “Happiness is nothing less than an entirely good life,” a life of sustained excellence that is transparently good and nourishing in every respect, not just because it conforms to an inherited tablet of invariable moral rules. Genuine happiness, eudaimonia, living well and doing well, flourishing… that’s the highest good, desired for its own sake.

swallow“The Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue…Moreover this activity must occupy a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy.”
Nicomachean Ethics

After reading a flock of midterm essays in Happiness 101, I can confirm our text’s observation that most of us nowadays have drifted far from the old Greek notion of happiness as a public and shared social experience towards a more insular and interior sense of personal satisfaction. If we’re content with ourselves and our own situation, we tend to think, that’s as happy as we can ever hope to be. There’s a hard-bitten stoicism in the modern view, mixed strangely with elements of hedonism and fatalism and resignation. What can I do? What, me worry? But Aristotle’s Greeks would have considered someone who felt contentment amidst public misfortune “insane, not happy.”