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Posts from — June 2015

Human Flourishing

Human Flourishing

In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle holds, along with Socrates, that happiness is attained through living virtuously and thus is a function of one’s character, but he departs from the Socratic view in adding that this is conditional—that is, that happiness to some extent also depends on outer conditions. Even a virtuous man cannot be happy if he is starving or otherwise in the grip of dire circumstances, and so in Aristotle’s view, worldly conditions are not entirely irrelevant, as Socrates maintains they are, to achieving happiness. We can only imagine that looking back, Aristotle must have come to regard his teacher as idealistic in the sense of failing to consider certain practicalities, while Socrates, if he could have looked ahead to the direction his pupil would take, might have shaken his head with resignation at how ready even great thinkers are to assign the world more importance than it deserves. We could point out that Socrates was a Stoic, and Aristotle, a patrician—but these facts would only serve to introduce ad hominem arguments into the discussion and distract us from considering the Socratic and Aristotelian positions on their own merits.

The issue is not just an academic one. How much our happiness depends on our worldly circumstances is as timely and central a question today as it was when Socrates and Aristotle trod the dust of Athens two and a half thousand years ago. On one hand, it seems obvious that we cannot be happy if we’re not right with ourselves. Mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual disorders may take many and diverse forms, but one thing they seem to have in common is the state of misery they inflict on the person who suffers from them. Socrates even went as far as to say that if we manage to obtain the various things that most people count as necessary for happiness, but our soul is not “well ordered,” then those things (he called them “non-moral goods”) will prove to be curses, not blessings. In other words, where generally desirable conditions seem to contribute to or enhance a person’s happiness, it is only because of the virtue—the groundedness and clarity and other attributes of good character that such a person embodies—and not because of the conditions themselves, which are inherently neither good nor evil, but will serve to amplify and mirror either our inner integrity or whatever deficiencies of character we have not yet addressed and corrected in ourselves. Point Socrates. On the other hand, we might wonder if people living, say, in a concentration camp, wouldn’t find their happiness at least deeply sullied by the horrific conditions around them. It seems almost heartless to hold in such a case that happiness is entirely an “inside job,” and that our circumstances play no part in it. Point Aristotle.

Perhaps it is a matter of balances. In a consumerist society, we would seem to have strayed too far into the Aristotelian camp, and might even find ourselves using Aristotle’s position to justify an extreme he never meant. When we are defeated by conditions, when we live for them, when the slightest disappointment or adversity sends us into spasms of reaction, we have lost the wisdom of the Socratic view. We may allow, as Aristotle did, that the world is not irrelevant to the state of our soul. Human beings are creatures, after all, and creatures do not live “by spirit alone.” In our time, however, the instruction we need to recollect seems to belong more to the Socratic transcendence of the world and the self-work through which we can become better people, more truthful, more responsible, clearer, more trustworthy, kinder and more compassionate, more mindful, more just, more grounded and present, humbler before the many forces we cannot control, and so on. The clarity, poise, and self-possession that characterize the well-ordered soul are enormously rewarding in themselves. Furthermore, as Socrates cautions us, unless such inner standards are met, the non-moral goods that we manage to obtain will work against us, often to some tragic end that we forge unwittingly in the fires of hubris.

There is a further point here. The Greek word eudaimonia, loosely translated as “happiness,” finds its better translation in the phrase, “human flourishing.” Even a cursory examination reveals that our flourishing does not depend upon our being happy, because flourishing humanly often and inevitably involves inner victories and transcendences whose roots go far deeper than happiness as we usually think of it. Socrates was flourishing even as he drank the hemlock, because he lived and died in the service of truth and virtue, knowing he knew nothing, not even enough to be afraid of death, which as he said may be the greatest good that can come to us. Those who do not let themselves forget how little we know can take refuge in this not-knowing. They are more open to mystery than those who pretend to know what they do not know, and so by that measure more equipped to meet mystery, even when it knocks at the door. The point is that Socrates’s execution was anything but a happy occasion; on the contrary it was one of great loss and sorrow. Yet humanly, it was a triumph, the last marker in a life so brilliantly well lived, that these many centuries later, we still talk of Socrates and study his teachings, and are humbled by the depth of his commitment to truthfulness, even to his last breath.

This eudaimonia, this human flourishing, allows us to live “well in our skin” regardless of our situation, and at least in this, Socrates seems to have been onto something more fundamental and farther reaching than was Aristotle. Many of the world’s spiritual traditions agree that the fulfillment of human life can’t be found in outer conditions, but only by means of an inner shift through which one “overcomes the world.” Whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves, our inner life determines how experience shapes up for us, whether we move with the forces at hand or against them, and so whether we endure or succumb. Even in the nightmare-world of the concentration camp, reports Viktor Frankel, founder of logotherapy and himself an Auschwitz survivor, many prisoners found life-affirming value and meaning in the final act of placing their hands on the electrified fence as a rejection and repudiation of their captivity at the hands of the Nazis. The courage of these people is almost beyond imagining, yet we can understand that this choice to say no to a life that had become meaningless and intolerable represents a triumph of character over conditions. Each of us may face the same choice many times in a day under far less severe circumstances. Happiness may seem to be unavailable for the moment; certainly the conditions that we may have come to think of as the bringers of happiness may be absent. Even so, we are free to transcend, to refuse to be victims or hostages, to call upon a deep solidarity with the best in us. There is, in this, a happiness of a different and more enduring sort.

June 27, 2015   Comments Off on Human Flourishing