Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ancient Happiness

Today, I begin my second chapter of "The Craft of Living": "Ancient Happiness".  The last section, "The Broken Man" provided the bad news, supplying the reasons why the various ancient schools believed that happiness is difficult.  Such an introduction was necessary lest we confuse positive thinking with happiness.  Of course, however, such an approach is incomplete without a concrete expression of what exactly the ancient philosophers believed that happiness is.  They had just as varied answers to this question as they did to the question of what makes happiness difficule.  Therefore, in this section, I will go through the various visions of human happiness provided by the different groups.

For all ancient Greco-Roman philosophers, happiness is the purpose of ethics.  This is quite distinct from the modern view, which generally construes justice as the purpose of ethics.  We tend to think that "the right thing" is the just thing, and sometimes what is good for our well-being and what is right come apart.  The Greeks simply didn't hold that view.  The goal of our lives is to be happy.  If justice and happiness come together, this is very good, but if they come apart, happiness wins.  One of the fundamental debates in ancient ethics is why we should be just at all.  The Sophists, for example, believed that justice is often a suckers' game, and that being just takes away from our happiness.  Fortunately, most of the ancient philosophers did not believe they come apart.  Justice is usually construed as a condition, component or result of happiness.  However, it is still logically distinct from and secondary to happiness.  Perhaps the greatest intuitive obstacle to studying ancient ethics is to recognize this priority of happiness over justice, but appreciating it is essential to understanding what the ancient philosophers are doing.

So, then, what is happiness?  While the different philosophers had different content to happiness, they by and large had the same definition, taken from Aristotle and the Peripatetics.  Happiness is the goal of life.  Whatever it is that we should aim for in our lives, this is what constitutes happiness.  You'll notice right away that this doesn't map on especially well with the English word "happiness", which often refers to a state of mind.  Another phrase that translates the Greek "eudaimonia" well is perhaps "well-being", referring to a state of existing well, or living a good life, or even something like flourishing.  The term captures not simply mental states, but our entire vision of the kind of life we'd like to live.  Except for the Epicureans, all the ancient philosophers believed that we want more than just pleasure or even pleasant feelings.  What we want is to live a life of nobility, success, honour, influence, wisdom and so forth, none of which are simply reducible to pleasure.  This overall flourishing life they called "eudaimonia" or "beata vita", and I will call happiness.

How does one determine what is happiness?  Here again we see some differences between modern and ancient ethics.  According to modern ethics, to look to nature to determine action would be to commit the "naturalistic fallacy", as the decrepit and literally meaningless modern notion of "ought" cannot include natural properties.  In ancient ethics, what constituted happiness is largely determined by looking to human nature.  If one wants to determine what will fulfil something, one needs to look to what it is and what capacities and desires it has that need actualizing and fulfilling.  Here is where the disagreement between the philosophers starts to appear.  They had different views not only of what motivated human beings, but also what role in the cosmos human beings played.  As we will see throughout this section, the kind of thing that the ancient philosophers believed that human beings are shaped what they believed made human beings happy.

This section, then, serves as the positive counterpart to the "Broken Man" section.  I will provide the different visions of happiness provided by the various philosophers and the different arguments they provided for that definition.  Please enjoy.

Detail: Eros and Eudaimonia, Source Unknown

Monday, January 18, 2010

After the Fall (Christians on the Broken Man)

In this final post on the theme of "The Broken Man", I will discuss the Christian beliefs concerning why happiness is so difficult for human beings.  I will primarily focus on the writings of Saint Augustine.  The Christian view was in some ways more hopeful and in other ways more pessimistic than that of the pagan philosophers, which perhaps says something about the limitations of the categories "hopeful" and "pessimistic".  On the one hand, the problem is far worse than any of the pagan philosophers believed, except perhaps the Stoics.  On the other hand, there is a solution available to everyone, something none of the other groups believed except perhaps the Epicureans.  In this section, I will discuss what they believed the problem is, and I will discuss the solution elsewhere.

Like in Aristotle, human beings suffer from two defects: there is both natural limitation and unnatural defect.  Human beings, even if there was no Fall, would still be incapable of reaching God, which constitutes their ultimate fulfillment.  Human nature is limited, and without the Fall, human beings would not have been able to reach God by their own power.  This does not mean that they would lack the natural virtues.  For instance, human beings could be just, temperate, wise and courageous, even without God's further help.  Moreover, without the Fall, they would have been immortal, able to live in a naturally perfect state.  However, this naturally perfect state is not the highest possible end for human beings.  That is to be unified with God.  Therefore, even perfect human beings would require God's help for supernatural virtues such as faith, hope and love.

However, there is something further wrong with human beings: we are no longer perfect.  After the sin of Adam, human nature became broken in significant ways.  Specifically, our desires, reason, language and relationships have all been damaged.  With the advent of the Fall, vice, incontinence and even continence entered the world.  This came to be known as the "fomes" of Original Sin, the distortion of our desires following the Fall.  Whereas Aristotle believed that matter itself is responsible for defects in particulars, Christianity held that, without the Fall, there would have been no natural defects.  The defects in our human nature come specifically from the sin of Adam, and as a result, our desires are not broken.  Note that they are still there, and still essentially good, but they are distorted.

This Fall is more pervasive than Aristotelian vice.  Aristotle believed that some people could have virtue, and that there are virtuous people.  These virtuous are virtuous by their own power; they are simply actualizing their potential.  However, according to the Christians, no one can be virtuous without God's help.  This does not simply refer to God's continuing creation of the world.  What this means is that virtue is impossible for everyone, pagan or Christian.  Pagans can come to some approximation of virtue, but even that is through God's grace, even if they don't recognize it.  However, if this approximation of virtue is distorted by a pride that undermines it without God's help.

Christians, then, believed that human happiness is impossible for humans alone.  The Fall has broken human nature, which accounts for the difficulties in human nature noticed by the pagan philosophers.  These difficulties are extremely pervasive, making even natural virtue impossible for human beings without God's grace.  Our human nature is still basically good (though limited), but we are incapable of virtue on our own.

Painting: "Adam and Eve" by Lucas Cranach

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Descent and Ascent (Plotinus on the Broken Man)

Today's article will deal with the causes of unhappiness in Plotinus.  Before I begin, I must make a quick confession.  I largely believe that Plotinus is a faithful interpreter of Plato, so there isn't any (or at least very few) substantial disagreements between the two authors.  However, this does not mean that they say the same things in the same ways.  Instead, I consider Plotinus a systematizer of Plato.  As a result, in reading Plato, I will often focus on a single dialogue (as I did on the Phaedo earlier).  When reading Plotinus, I will instead focus on the system as a whole.

Since Plotinus' view of unhappiness is a part of a much larger system, some preliminaries are neccesary.  I will discuss Plotinus' metaphysics in detail in future posts.  For now, I will simply introduce the system and how it works.  Basically, reality is divided into a hierarchy, with the following parts:

The One -> The Intellect -> The Soul -> The Body -> Matter

Each part "emanates" from the previous part, and serves as an instantiation of the earlier part that serves as its paradigm.  For example, the intellect includes all of the forms.  All of the forms are a unity (they have a oneness).  Therefore oneness serves as a paradigm for the forms in the intellect.  Perhaps an unrelated example might be clearer.  Brad Pitt serves as the paradigm for all photographs of Brad Pitt.  In a sense, these photos instantiate Brad Pitt, as they are pictures of him, and he is the paradigm of these pictures, in that they are good photos of him in so far as they actually resemble him.

Notice the curious position of the soul in this hierarchy.  It lies between intellect and body.  However, it has different relationships to both intellect and body.  Intellect serves as its paradigm.  The soul becomes more like that of which it is an image the more it comes to understand.  Conversely, the body is a principle of instantiation of the souls (or at least part of souls), allowing there to be different people living different lives.  However, the bodies are not the paradigm of souls; they are mere conditions of the soul.

In other words, we (our souls) are stuck in the middle of a cosmic hierarchy.  We are not identical with the one and we are not identical with the forms.  Nor are we identical with the body or matter.  The one, the principle of all unity, is the good.  Matter, complete formlessness that exists as a condition of body, is evil.  (Note that Plotinus never says the body is evil, just matter).

We can never change our nature and take a different place in the hierarchy.  Part of that nature is that we have desires related to our bodies that drag our souls away from our intellect whose fulfillment is understanding.  These bodily desires can never be completely rooted out, as the body is a condition of our soul's existence.  In effect, we have two sorts of desires.  The first are those intrinsic to our soul's own nature, that is, desire to know, which is the desire to attain the principle of our own understanding.  The second are those extrinsic to our soul's on nature, the bodily desires that we have by virtue of our bodies that are a necessary condition of our individuation.

We therefore are in a constant struggle between the intellect, the paradigm of our own existence, and our bodies, a necessary condition of our existence.  This conflict can never be escaped by us or by any other soul, as we will continue to have a middling position on the cosmic hierarchy.  As a result, happiness will always be difficult for human beings.

Painting: The Ladder of Divine Ascent or The Ladder of Paradise. Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Drowning in a Foot of Water (Stoics on the Broken Man)

This article in "The Broken Man" series will deal with the Stoics and their arguments concerning the difficulty of attaining happiness. Stoic ethics is fairly complex and often presented in a deliberately intuitive manner. The Stoics presented their ethics in paradoxes, phrases that are contradictory on all but the correct interpretation. Therefore, presenting Stoic ethics is tricky, but I will do so by putting forward the Stoic claims, and showing that the paradoxical conclusions do, indeed, follow:

Only things that are always good are good: The Stoics believed that there are certain goods that we might today call "instrumental" or "conditional" goods.  These are goods that can be misused, such as wealth.  For example, if I am wealthy, I can use my money to buy more drugs, or bribe a police officer to kill someone.  Wealth is only conditionally good: it is only good if I am virtuous.  However, this implies that it isn't really good.  Therefore...

Virtue is the only good:  The only thing that is unconditionally good, therefore, is virtue itself.  It makes everything else good, and only in a derivative way.  Further, the Stoics believed that the world is composed of a material reason that orders everything.  In so far as we are rational, we manifest this material reason.  (I will discuss Stoic physics in other posts).

There is only one virtue: What is meant by this is what is traditionally called the "unity of the virtues".  On this claim, virtue is all of a piece.  One cannot be brave, but not wise.  The brave but not wise person is actually reckless, not brave.  Bravery requires wisdom.  In fact...

Virtue is knowledge:  Virtue is identical with a kind of science ("episteme") or craft ("techne").  Since our virtue is what enables us to use conditional goods well, and what allows us to use conditional goods well is a kind of knowledge, virtue is a form of knowledge.  It is what Socrates called the "knowledge of good and bad", and directs all of our actions.

There are no degrees of knowledge: Stoics allow for no degrees of knowledge, as do most epistemological theories.  "Knowledge" is the term reserved for the state of complete understanding of something.  Without it, one might have opinions, even correct opinions, but knowledge itself admits of no degrees.  One either knows something or one doesn't.


There are no degrees of virtue:  Unless one is perfectly virtuous, one is not virtuous at all.  One might behave, in most respects, like someone who is virtuous.  However, if one deviates from virtue at all, one has no virtue.  After all, if virtue is one, and virtue is knowledge, and virtue has no degrees, it would be impossible for someone who had virtue to err at all.  The image used to capture this by the Stoics is that one drowns in a foot of water as easily as at the bottom of the ocean.  Someone who usually acts correctly might have largely right opinions, or good habits, or have been born with a fortunate disposition.  However, even the slightest deviation from virtuous action indicates that there is no virtue at all.  The truly virtuous person is the Stoic "sage", and it was a point of debate among the Stoics whether there had ever been such a person.  In other words, the Stoics believed that there may never have been a single virtuous person.

Two specific obstacles get in the way of attaining this perfect virtue:
  1. People are inclined to confuse conditionally good things with really good things.  We have a tendency to believe that things like money and health are really good.  It is true that the virtuous person persues these things, but if he or she fails to attain them, he or she is not saddened, because it is the virtue that is the ony true good.  Most of us believe that the conditionally good things are really good and are saddened.
  2. People have "pathe" or emotions as a result of bad things happening.  However, the world is perfectly providential.  While we pursue things in the future looking to nature as a model, we cannot know we will succeed.  However, when we look at events in the past, we can know that they were fated by the perfectly providential cosmic reason.  Most of us, though, feel sorrow about things that have happened.  Instead, we should positively rejoice.  The pathe result from a failure to know this fully.
The Stoics, therefore, believed that virtue is especially difficult.  They were one of a few groups to positively believe in a "craft of living".  However, they believed that such a craft is perhaps unattainable.  There are no degrees of virtue and vice, and almost no one is virtuous.

Painting: "Ophelia" by Paul Albert Steck