Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Broken Man

My first series of posts will help explain the problem that the rest of this blog will be designed to solve.  Specifically, what is wrong with people?  The first point is a logical one.  We would not seek happiness unless we were, at least to some extent, unhappy.  There is something that we are missing in our lives that causes us to try to improve them.  What exactly are we missing?  The answer to this question will be the same as the answer to another question: what is happiness?

The second point, though, is a deeper one, and one on which ancient philosophers had a great deal to say.  We need to understand not only what we are missing, but also why we are missing it.  What is it about human life that puts us in a situation where we are incomplete.  The Greeks believed that the gods are happy, along with perhaps some of the celestial bodies.  They exist in a state of joy, which is part of the reason Socrates was so upset about the stories of wars among the gods.  We, however, are in some sort of incomplete state.

After this second point, there comes a third, more disturbing question: why are we so hard to fix?  Several of these questions revolve around the question of why we have not yet discovered an art of living.  At the time of the Greeks, they had developed clothing, medicine, cooking, vehicles and a host of other artifacts.  Now, we have developed airplanes, nanotechnology and transparent aluminum.  However, no teachable, systematic craft whose product is human happiness has yet been developed.  What makes fixing human beings, which would be the most and, in some strict sense, the only useful craft to us, so far beyond our reach?

We are then left with three questions, which may or may not be answered by the same sorts of explanations:
  • What are we missing?
  • Why are we missing it?
  • Why are we so hard to fix?
How one answers these three questions will deeply affect not only what one believes the good life to be, but how one will go about seeking it. It is precisely these questions that ancient philosophers were trying to answer.

Without these answers, we have little chance of becoming happy.  Unless we have some sense of what it is we are seeking, beyond a vague sense that one will "know it when one sees it", it is unlikely, even impossible, to find happiness.  Philosophy can contribute to this understanding by asking what kind of things human beings are and what will fulfill them.  The different groups I discussed yesterday had very different explanations of what it is that will fulfill human beings, and spend centuries developing arguments for which position is correct.

Yet, the ancient philosophers' deeper insight was the ways in which human beings are profoundly broken.  Reason, passion, appetite, states, families, gods, error, senses, truth, pleasure, need and desire tear against each other in such a way that, somehow, we have become profoundly difficult to correct.  Each of the groups had its own views about where these conflicts come from and why they are intractable parts of being a human being.  Then each provided some sort of prescription to escape from the difficulty, at least in so far as possible.

Some groups believed that perfect happiness was impossible, at least in this life.  In those cases, there is something about being human that includes some unhappiness as a necessary component.  Given our limited nature, we will always be able to conceive of happiness greater than we can attain, and they highlighted the ways in which this is true.  Others believed perfect happiness is possible but rare, so rare that it seems like their conception of the happy person is more of a thought-experiment than an exhortation.

In this first series, then, I will look at the ways in which the ancient philosophers believed happiness is so difficult to attain.  The various reasons they give will provide the distinct challenges that any ancient art of living would have to overcome.  Collected together, the effect might seem quite discouraging, but the purpose of this blog is to examine the kinds of solutions that they offer to their own difficulties.

Sculpture: "Light of the Moon" by Igor Mitoraj