Sunday, December 16, 2018

How Happiness Finds Us

Q:"By any objective standard, my life is going well. I have a family that loves me; I have a roof over my head, good friends, a decent job, a big television, a ridiculously over-qualified telephone in my pocket. Viewed from the inside, though, life could be better. I am, in a fundamental and seemingly intractable way, unhappy. My outward circumstances and material success notwithstanding, this gnawing dissatisfaction keeps me off balance and unfulfilled, too often leaving me cynical, anxious, angry, or sad. Why is simple, lasting happiness so hard to find?"
A:"Happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue."

Aristotle (384-322 BC), The Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle's little nugget, dry and semi-opaque as it may appear, is a conceptual cornerstone of western thought and is deserving of careful consideration by anyone seeking a happier, more fulfilling life.

To begin, some linguistic housekeeping:

1) Aristotle's word found here as "happiness" is the Greek eudaimonia. I don't know Greek, but most sources on the subject take pains to tell us that "happiness," though a common English translation of eudaimonia, is insufficient. "Human flourishing" is said to be a better rendering. However translated, eudaimonia was considered by Aristotle to be the answer to the question "What is the aim of human life?"

2) What about "soul"? Simply put, for Aristotle, soul is the life principle. Things that are alive have this "life stuff," everything else doesn't.

3) "Virtue" is a translation of the Greek arete. Virtue is a fine word, but arete can also be helpfully understood as "excellence." Specific to the present context, virtue can be read as "excellence at being human."

With this understanding, let's try a clarifying revision of Aristotle's thought: A happy life—a flourishing life—is one lived in pursuit of virtue, i.e., human excellence.

So far so good. The next move, and you'll have seen it coming, is to define human excellence. What does it mean to excel at being human? It is to nurture and make good use of those capacities that are uniquely ours as human beings. Here is Aristotle's reasoning: Things in this world have specific functions—knives cut, plants bear fruit, homes protect us from the elements, etc. We judge a thing as excellent when it perform its particular function well. An excellent knife cuts easily and reliably, an excellent plant bears high-quality fruit, an excellent house is sturdy and comfortable and provides good shelter.

As human beings, we, too, have a function that is specifically our own: We can reason. We share a lot with the beasts—we are physical creatures, with all the biological operations and limitations that implies—but mankind is also endowed with the power of abstract thought and higher reason. Since reason is our uniquely human function, then, just as an excellent knife is one that cuts well, an excellent human is one who reasons well. And the highest aim of man (and the source of our happiness and flourishing) is to live a life in accord with reason.

Next step: What does living in accord with reason entail? As a species, we apply our reasoning power to all sorts of things, from choosing our breakfast to solving obscure problems of quantum physics to fulfilling our responsibilities as friends, neighbors, and members of society. Aristotle proposed that this broad variety of thoughts, decisions, and activities that make up our day-to-day lives can be categorized based on the types of excellence (virtue) at which they aim and that, fundamentally, they can all be slotted into one of two main categories: intellectual virtue and moral virtue.

Among the intellectual virtues, Aristotle named scientific (empirical) knowledge, wisdom (both theoretical and practical), and craft know-how (such as skill employed in the arts). Our rationality gives us the capacity to develop these kinds of virtues, and they are imparted to us mainly through instruction.

The moral virtues are concerned with practical living—getting along in the world—and include courage, friendliness, justice, prudence, self-discipline, and others. We are not born with these virtues, but, as Aristotle says, "we are adapted by nature to receive them" (i.e., our rational nature helps us recognize their wisdom and utility), and they develop in us only by conscious habit. We must foster them.

Happiness, then, consists in steering our lives toward intellectual and moral excellence. (It's not a question of having to attain perfection; the fundamental orientation is the important thing.) Our minds are powerful, and we will find our fulfillment only in using them to the best of our abilities. To settle for less—to live, like less rationally gifted creatures, only at the level of appetite and physical pleasure—is to stop short of claiming our full inheritance as Homo sapiens ("wise man"), which is why our species' stubbornly brutish penchant for clawing after happiness in the form of wealth, fame, pleasure, or power, while it might make for absorbing television, is notoriously unsatisfying and, ultimately, destructive.

Also note that Aristotle says happiness is an activity. It's not a prize to go in search of, something we can discover and thereafter carry around with us or have stuffed and mounted to display above the mantle. Eudaimonia is, rather, something we do with our lives, a way of living that recognizes and works to fulfill the conditions for human flourishing. In other words, while we may not be able to pursue happiness directly, we can live in such a way that happiness may well find us.

Monday, December 3, 2018

We Are Not Out of Control

Q:"Nothing goes my way. My job sucks—our customers are as annoying as my co-workers, and my boss is a moron. Things aren't any better at home. My spouse doesn't trust me; my children don't respect me. And the wider world is barreling hellward like a runaway train. The cesspool of popular culture is an affront on every level. Corporations and governments have the system rigged; only the rich get ahead. Politicians gorge themselves at the public trough and pander to every demographic but mine. I'm the wrong gender. I'm the wrong race. I'm the wrong age. I am powerless and I am angry. How am I supposed to shape a meaningful and free life when so much of reality is clearly beyond my control?"

A:"Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

"The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you."

Epictetus, AD c 55-135, Enchiridion

Epictetus's point is a simple one: Our influence in the world extends only so far. We cannot, except in sharply limited ways, control our health, others' opinions of us, the weather, the culture, the actions of our family members and neighbors, etc. A fundamental error of human perception—one that can take decades to correct—is the belief that the world should conform to my will. Demanding that life go entirely my way, and whining or wallowing in self-pity when it doesn't, is the essence of immaturity. It is also the surest path to a lifetime of misery, dissatisfaction, and lazy cynicism, killing any hope of achieving reasonable levels of happiness and equanimity in life, to say nothing of wisdom.

But there is good news: We are freer than we know. Where it really matters, we do enjoy control, power, and freedom: in our attitudes, our thoughts, our beliefs, and our actions. However roughly we may be visited by those elements of reality that lie beyond our control, our response will always be up to us.

Stoicism, the philosophy that Epictetus practiced and taught, places supreme value on living in accord with reason and virtue, the pursuit of which lies entirely within our own power. The French historian of ancient philosophy Pierre Hadot draws the threads together nicely: "...it is not up to us to be beautiful, strong, healthy, or rich, or to escape suffering. All these things depend on causes which are external to us.... There is one thing, and only one, which does depend on us and which nothing can tear away from us: the will to do good and to act in conformity with reason.... The will to do good is an unbreachable fortress which everyone can construct within themselves. It is there that we can find freedom, independence, invulnerability, and that eminently Stoic value: coherence with ourselves." (What Is Ancient Philosophy?, 2002)

But if I cannot control anything beyond the end of my own nose, is there any point to pursuing positive change in the world? Is this a call to apathy and capitulation? Far from it. First, our influence may extend farther than we know. Second, by the Stoics' own teaching, we are all charged with doing our best, bounded by our reason and our abilities, to care for others and devote ourselves to the common good. The world, or fate, may thwart our efforts, but such a result is beyond our control and—per Epictetus and the Stoics—is not our concern.