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


  1. HI, Lawrence Speke Laudly here,
    Enjoy your blog. Great information.
    I was always struck by how central a role desire and the control or sublimation or diminishing of desire plays in achieving a good life. NOt only in Greek Philosophy--but also in
    Christian and Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
    Generally, limiting your desires produces contentment------I don't think "happiness" is quite the right word---and a simple life.
    Live in a barrel like Diogenes; cut the ties of obligation that are unecessary. Do your duty
    but disdain extravagance as Marcus Aurelius.
    Don't allow your desires to distract you from
    your natural felicity--as Epictetus.
    Ramana Maharshi, the indian sage, thought that
    desire fulfilled was satisfying only because the disturbing provoking desire was quieted for
    some short time and the natural quiet and completely content nature of being was revealed --until desire begins again to agitate and drive one restlessly. Buddhism stresses developing a "mind that clings to naught" including especially, desires.
    Overcoming the desires of the flesh, of the senses was central to Christian ascetic practices and mysticism.
    I found it a common theme in all I have read of
    these traditions that the proper attitude toward
    desire is of the greatest benefit.
    And the correct approach to desire, rather than creating contentment or felicity simply allows a native contentment or transcendence or detachment or peace or some such --to be revealed.
    Stoicism is not so much a plan to make contentment as it is a program to overthrow those
    habits, especially as relate to desire, which preempt an internal satisfaction
    that is already untouched by circumstance. Epictetus especially, exemplifies this. And indeed, getting rid of old habits of thinking---is central to all these traditions, east and west.
    I hope you will continue to add to your blog
    more information on the ancient thinkers.

  2. I, too, enjoy the information in your several blog posts, Dan. Would love to see you resume them, perhaps with modern philosophers, particularly Kant.

  3. Happiness is an important goal but not the sole one.