Friday, December 21, 2018

Gratitude and Wonder

Q:“When I was young, I was interested in everything, and the world was full of wonder. But adulthood has worn me down. With each passing day I feel more like Oscar Wilde’s paradigmatic cynic: ‘A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ This change in attitude happened while I wasn’t looking, and I’m not happy about it. The only people I know who seem unjaded and reasonably content with their lot are religious believers, but the faith of my youth seems to have flown the coop. I’m bone-weary of the snark and cynicism that pass for social intercourse these days, especially on the internet. How can I take a step back, get a fresh view, and rekindle wonder in my life?”
A:“Any one thing in the creation is sufficient to demonstrate a Providence, to a humble and grateful mind. Not to instance great things, the mere possibility of producing milk from grass, cheese from milk, and wool from skins—who formed and planned this? ‘No one,’ say you. O surprising irreverence and dullness!”

-Epictetus (AD c. 55-135), Discourses 1.16

Epictetus raises so many currently unfashionable ideas here—God (Providence), humility, reverence—that it's hard to know where to begin. For secular moderns, his expression of wonder at the seemingly miraculous origins of milk, cheese, and wool can easily provoke a smile of condescension, perhaps even a sneer. The primitive naïveté! What can such a worldview—bound by the limits of first-century cosmology, ignorant of today's materialist, scientistic gospel and the “blind” inexorability of natural selection—have to offer that could be of any use to iPhone-Age Man?

We can’t read far in Epictetus without recognizing his belief in God. It’s also impossible to imagine a topic in current culture that has been so thoroughly mangled, misrepresented, and misunderstood. “The God question,” mankind's inherent itch to grapple with the ultimate mystery of existence, has, in recent years, played out on the internet, and in the publishing world, with all the subtleness and intellectual acuity of a Three Stooges pie fight. In the process, humanity’s most complex, fertile, culture-shaping force—rich in wisdom traditions, creative arts, ethical thought, and psychological insight, and, for many, positively crackling with intimations of the transcendent—has been reduced to a tiresome shouting match, with doctrinaire literalists on one side and scorched-earth anti-theists on the other. To call this state of affairs regrettable doesn’t begin to cover it.

I’m happy with Epictetus’s theistic leanings. But whether or not we believe in God, it’s important to guard against the occasional impulse, when we’re sifting these ancient ideas, to toss out both baby and bathwater. History is replete with philosophies and belief systems that, despite arguable doctrinal details, have provided wisdom and ethical guidance to men and women in every era and culture and at every point along the IQ bell curve. If you’re one who finds God talk troubling, all you need to muster, in order to benefit from Epictetus’s advice, is some level of appreciation for finding yourself alive in a cosmos you did not create and in which you are given, along with your share of trouble and strife, bountiful opportunities for wonder and joy. If Epictetus, a crippled former slave who lived under some of Imperial Rome’s most treacherous rulers, found cause for, and wisdom in, adopting a fundamental position of humility and gratitude toward the universe, there is every chance that we, too, can benefit by embracing these attitudes.

Humility is a tricky subject, if only because it’s impossible not to sound laughably pompous when recommending it. Look here, you: Be humble! But that’s not it. We're not talking about personal humility of the kind that can be so treacherous if pursued head-on, the sort that easily warps into conspicuous, Uriah Heepish self-abasement that’s the opposite of what it pretends to be. No, we're after a broader, more foundational humility, a mindset that grasps our status as utterly dependent beings and that has absorbed, fully, the fact of our mortality. We want a humility not of groveling self-negation, but a clear-eyed recognition that every moment of our existence, as well as everything we have and are, is a gift. The mortality-humility connection is a natural one, and it is even reflected etymologically: Our word humility derives from the Latin humus, meaning soil or earth—the ground from which humankind arose, from which we draw our sustenance, and that will ultimately reclaim our bodies. We needn’t take it to morbid lengths, but occasional reflection on life’s contingency and brevity can provide a humbling perspective, one that can be both calming and a spur to greater engagement with life in the time left to us:

“Pass then through this tiny span of time in accordance with Nature, and come to your journey’s end with a good grace, just as an olive falls when it is fully ripe, praising the earth that bore it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.48. C. R. Haines, translator

“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.56. Gregory Hays, translator

Through humility then—the acceptance of life as an unearned gift—we arrive at gratitude. One of the simplest and most ready-to-hand balms for a muddled life is the age-old remedy of counting our blessings. Granted, life’s bright spots can sometimes be hard to recognize, obscured as they often are by our day-to-day difficulties, by the usual dire headlines, and by the ongoing challenge of keeping our minds clear and our thinking straight. But when we can manage it, when the clouds part long enough to give us an objective glimpse of all we have to be thankful for, our gratitude can prove a strong antidote to the corrosive effects of cynicism, anger, sadness, and life’s accruing jumble of petty disappointments. And by reminding us of the often-unrecognized abundance in our lives, it can help to temper the grasping acquisitiveness that sometimes seems to drive us, even against our will. Finally, as Epictetus suggests, gratitude can help us regain our lost sense of wonder.

This is not just Epictetus’s idea. Gratitude is a virtue that enjoys high standing among the Stoics generally. Seneca, in On Benefits, says, “He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.” The first book of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is a poignant and grateful accounting of his indebtedness to family, friends, teachers, and others. Cicero called gratitude the greatest of the virtues, and “the mother of all the others.”

If you’re like the rest of us, bringing gratitude to the fore in your life will likely require a conscious effort. If you regularly pray, meditate, or practice some form of reflection focused on self-improvement, an easy step might be to add a minute or two to explicitly acknowledge those things, people, and events from your day for which you are particularly thankful. It’s not difficult, and once you get started, the number of good things happening in your life, even within the space of a single unremarkable day, may surprise you; they will certainly encourage you. In addition to recalling specific moments—the pleasant encounter with the shop clerk, the encouraging email from a friend, the old car that started and ran smoothly despite the bad weather—you might also remember those broader circumstances of your life that apply:

  • the presence, or the happy memory, of loved ones
  • a rational nature, a mind built for learning
  • the ability, and the will, to rise above challenging circumstances
  • good health
  • meaningful work
  • kindness from unexpected quarters
  • the capacity for doing good
  • nature: its power, beauty, and endless variety
  • ...and so on

Regular practice with this exercise can grow on you. If you’re the journaling type, you can keep a written record of your reflections. You might even choose to follow the example of Marcus Aurelius and write about the people in your life to whom you are most grateful for help in shaping your character, providing for your education, and encouraging your spiritual/philosophical growth. Keep these notes and reflections to yourself, though; blasting them out to the world via social media can be a species of ego-stroking and will only sap their power. Marcus's Meditations were not written for publication; they were a tool for self-improvement and a form of spiritual exercise.

Once you’re established on the gratitude wavelength, you can begin to notice its impact on your daily life—lengthening your patience, recalling your attention to life’s smaller pleasures, and generally improving your resilience in challenging times. Humility and gratitude may or may not lead us to faith in God, but they can go a long way toward reawakening wonder and hope in even the most jaded adult.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

How Happiness Finds Us

Q:“By many objective standards, 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 inside, though, my 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 1.13

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 performs 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, the virtues of thought, 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 those concerned with our character. They help us fulfill our role as a well-functioning member of the human community, and they 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 mantel. 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 1

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 psychology—one that can take decades to correct—is the belief that the world must 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.