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Who’s Got the Best Life? Clement of Alexandria says who…(Part 1)

In Friendship on February 26, 2013 at 10:33 am


It would seem that ancient philosophers wouldn’t have anything insightful to say to us in the post-modern, Information Age.  The things of the classical world have been apparently  debunked and are no longer relevant to the modern man.  However, we cannot fall for such “chronological snobbery” because the Third Century philosopher and theologian Clement of Alexandria’s remarkable insights from his book The Miscellanies also known as Stromata, in Chapters 21 through Chapters 23 (Orthodox Ebooks) give an historical overview of some of the most brilliant philosophers of his time which sound very familiar now.

The Pleasure Paradox: “Happiness is Pleasure”

Clement addresses the most popular, default answer first, that happiness is pleasure.  He says, “Epicurus, indeed, and the Cyrenaics, say that pleasure is the first duty; for it is for the sake of pleasure, they say, that virtue was introduced, and produced pleasure…[And] for these expressly said that to live pleasantly was the chief end and that pleasure was the only perfect good..(p.742) Aristotle debunks this notion of pleasure in his Nicomachean Ethics by saying that pleasure comes through the senses and that it constantly needs to be repeated for that “happiness” to continue.  It is devoid of the steadiness that the “happiness of soul” retains over a long period of time.  Whereas, Clement notes that Epicurus raised the importance of pleasure to a duty.  Though it is true that pleasure is naturally tied to bodily functions needed for self-sustenance, such as food and drink for oneself, et cetera, which one could call “duties.”   But, unfortunately, there are people who take this “duty” to the body to the extreme, persons known as hedonists think that more physical pleasure will bring more happiness.  These people, like the Cyrenaics, insist on their own right to pleasure and that others should not forego their due of pleasure either.  Such persons, who put off pleasure or abstain from a certain type of pleasure all together, from the hedonist’s perspective, is actually immoral and unnatural in his abstinence   Whereas, the hedonist misses the whole point of the person who abstains from pleasure, for a higher cause, denying the body for the sake of the soul, for the sake of purity of mind, heart and body.  What the hedonist misses is that the ability to abstain from a pleasure is quintessentially human, person qua person, since it requires a self-consciousness that is self-reflective which can deny a natural bodily impulse for the sake of a higher cause, not just avoidance of pain.  For more on this insight, see Max Scheler’s book The Human Place  in the Cosmos and also Jacques Maritain’s, Man and the State.  So, with this in mind, extreme Epicureans may have completely misunderstood the nature of pleasure and in the process degraded the very nature of the person who can willfully deny his body for the sake of the soul.

Clement corrects another erroneous idea about pleasure from Epicurus again.  Epicurus claims that the aim of virtue is pleasure since one does receive pleasure from a  virtuous acts.  Therefore, for Epicurus, one should be virtuous for the sake of the pleasure gained.  This perspective does not account for the notion of virtue that even Socrates debunks in Plato’s Protagoras.  In that dialogue, it is said that Protagoras thought the greatest virtue to be courage.  Socrates shows Protagoras that his conception of courage is really just that of a person who calculates his actions to gain the most pleasure and avoid the most pain, which has nothing to do with courage whatsoever, rather his notion of courage was really cowardice.  Instead, Socrates points out that the true virtue of the courageous person is that he will “face the terrible” incurring pain, even death, for the sake of a higher cause or to save another person.

Clement also addresses another variation of a similar idea of Epicurus.  He says that, “Epicurus also says that the removal of pain is pleasure…”(p. 741)  This also seems to be true but proves to be false when the pain experienced, though unpleasant temporarily may be for a greater good, such as enduring a distasteful medicine for the sake of one’s health, or surgery for the sake of one’s health.  In other words, one may have to add pain, by a taking a medicine or going through a medical procedure, experiencing pain in the process for the sake of a greater good.  So, the removal of pain, in such an example (by not going through with the medicine or procedure) may in fact be a relief from pain and therefore pleasureful but at the cost of jeopardizing one’s overall health, a greater good, for example.

Clement also another somewhat short-sighted view of life and happiness.  He says that “Metrodorus, in his book …says: What else is the good of the soul but the sound state of the flesh, and the sure hope of its continuance? (p.743) Many people in California are strong believers of this, that physical health and longevity means “happiness of soul.”  One might say that Metrodorus’ is like the early explorers who sought the “fountain of youth” and that health for the sake of longevity, for the sake of more experiences from a longer life equaled happiness.  But, we can see that this is a fleeting sort of state of “happiness” because if this type of person becomes ill, he  really loses a significant source of meaning and therefore life becomes unhappy, even futile for this person.  So, it seems that true happiness would have to somehow weather the storms of the ups and downs of health and the pangs of old age in one’s lifetime.

The Not So Wise Life: Indifferentism and the like

Clement of Alexandria considers the road less traveled by most, analyzing the logic of Aristo.  “Why should I mention Aristo?  He said that the end was indifference; but what is indifferent simply abandons the indifferent.”(p. 742)  It would seem that “indifference” may be the most painful of all means to the happy life.  The indifferent person has to abandon every and any attachment to any notion or principle of being that would sustain himself, his community, his identity and indeed humanity.  He’s indifferent to everything.  We could think of the Buddhist negative metaphysics which says that since all being is a source of suffering, then things that cause suffering are evil, so for happiness we have to be totally detached and indifferent to everything. Well, if this is so for Aristo and any other school of thought, one can imagine that this type of thinking would cause all kinds of problems for any kind of relationship, whether marital, fraternal or communal.  How could anyone be indifferent to all things, including oneself, others and things?  Clearly, happiness does not mean no suffering whatsoever.  We can think of Victor Frankl’s “will to meaning” which says that if a person could just sustain his will to meaning in his life, he’ll have a will to live for someone or something greater than himself which will make his soul happy while enduring the pains of the present.  So, in this way, we can see that suffering and happiness are not logical contradictions.

Clement then looks at the Atomist, Heraclitus.  He says for, “Heraclitus the Ephesian, [happiness is] complacency.”(p. 741)  It seems that the complacent person is most self-satisfied type of person, he is blinded by his pride.  The complacent person is even self-satisfied in the face of future trouble.  One can say that the complacent person is one of the most ignorant types of persons because of his bliss in a false sense of truth, that nothing needs to be searched for, so he is unmoved, unmoved to change, to move toward any principle or person or being or thing higher than himself.  The complacent person is doomed to failure because he cannot learn or grow, and therefore cannot experience happiness because he lacks the desire to act not necessarily to know.

Clement expounds upon a seeming variation of indifferentism from Diodorus.   He says,“Diodorus…pronounces the end to be to live undisturbed and well.” (p. 741) This seems to be the life of the wealthy coward or the lazy user who quietly chooses himself over helping others in everything.  Helping others is distracting, it can be stressful at times, it could even cost you your life, quite a disturbance.  Disturbances are part of life everyday but they are entirely worthwhile if we see them as opportunities to do what is good and just.

The Impossible Life: Always Winning

Clement of Alexandria entertains another idea of Epicurus.  He says that for “Epicurus, happiness was victory.”(p.741)  Now, this is not entirely that far fetched of an idea.  Take professional athletes for example, many live for winning.  Take persons in legal profession, for example, they seek to win their case.  Take politicians, for example, they generally want to win their elections and have their policies passed by other legislators et cetera.  The entire careers of many people can be inappropriately based upon this notion of “victory,” whether implicitly or explicitly.  But does winning always equate to happiness?  No, because of course, you can’t win everything all of the time, which means that when you lose you still have to live with yourself and others and you can’t remain unhappy until the next win. Consider those who put so much emphasis throughout their career on a winning record.  How must they feel when they decide to end their career with no more competitions for “happiness”?  But also, what if one loses the last competition before retiring?  One could face years of bitterness, even for an entire retirement reminiscing over a final defeat.  Certainly, victory couldn’t be happiness to those who have ended their careers that way.  Even for those who have a successful career or end on a winning note, the honor is fleeting, the joy elusive, the “happiness” fades with the passage of time and with successive generations.  It seems unlikely that victory is happiness.

The Idealized Life: “Science is happiness”
Next, Clement of Alexandria looks at the scientists quest for happiness.  He says, “Shall I bring forward the opinions of Herillus?  Herillus states the end to be to live according to science.  For some think that the more recent disciples of the Academy define the end to be, the steady abstraction of the mind to its own impressions.”(p. 742) This Herillus sounds the most modern of all of the philosophers mentioned so far.  A certain aloofness from reality in the realm of abstraction for the scientist could be contemplative.  However, when we think a little more closely about the context of Herillus’s statement, this is in ancient times where knowledge was much more hierarchically diffused and different schools of thought were associated with the cultural geography of a region. Plus, science back then largely meant “natural philosophy” which many of the Presocratics engaged in (the study of the “whatness” of nature) and they did not limit themselves to a single discipline like a modern chemist or physicist might have by training today but rather they had entire cosmological perspectives of their school that included cosmogonical views as well.  Existential questions could be answered by the “natural philosopher.”  In this way, Herillus could conceive of “science as happiness” because phenomenologically, its epistemology was more expansive containing more explanatory power than the modern scientist’s narrow training.

What’s the problem with science as the source of happiness?  Well, what if your abstractions or theorems are wrong? What if those ideas are not in accord with reality but you enjoy spending a lot of time contemplating them, only to find out its your imagination?  What if your science is the “old science” Thomas Kuhn speaks of?  Could there be happiness found in the science that is found to be incorrect, the stuff not in accord with the truth of reality because some new discovery or invention that causes a paradigm shift?  It seems that scientists and their followers would preference science over all other founts knowledge.  For these especially, this is the risk the scientist takes, and it can be a worthy risk.  However, for someone to rest one’s entire “happiness of soul” on the correctness or not of one’s scientific knowledge seems irrational.  For further elucidation on this point, see Edmund Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences and Phenomenology on the scientific path to the certainty of scientific knowledge as it relates to “common sense” from the universal experience of the apprehension of sense data and happiness.

The Skeptical Life

Clement of Alexandria considers some more skeptical approaches to happiness.  Regarding one school from the Thrace region, he says that “The Abderites also teach the existence of an end.” (p. 742)  Now when one considers this notion, that there is an end to be sought after, it really is quite positive, much more so than some other groups of thinkers, such as the Cynics who thought there was nothing worth searching for or the Epicureans who thought the end was pleasure.  Their vagueness as to what happiness is, leaves them open to a dual interpretation of what they mean when they say that “there is an end.” This school of thought didn’t think that any knowledge was certain for sure.  But at least these Abderites seemed to have surpassed the Stoics by making a positive claim that there was an end or a goal to life, whereas the latter claimed that the search itself was the end.  So, though simple and somewhat vague, the Abderites teaching could be seen as progress.  Although, in defense of the Stoics, one could say that the phenomenon of searching itself, that if one “brackets” the search as an entire entity, as one being, one could say that that is an end too.  In other words, both schools thought there was an end, though it is unclear for the Abderites what end they thought to be the true end.

So who really does have the best life?  To be continued…


Early Thought of Karol Wojtyla on the Dignity of the Human Person

In Dignity of the Person on February 17, 2013 at 6:03 am



It would seem that the dignity of the human person is not important to everyone.  Consider the millions of people willing to deny the dignity of the human person due to the unborn child.  Consider the number of nations that are now legalizing euthanasia around the world.  Now, if we consider that many people, even many very well educated people, are willing to deny the unborn and the terminally ill their most basic of human rights, the right to life, then one might suppose that these same people are willing to deny also that there is any effect of these unjust actions on the aggregate sum total of the dignity of the humanity globally.  Well, it might behoove such persons of naive intellection to consider the thought of a man who passionately loved the world by expending his entire life in defense of the dignity of every human person through his faith and reason, Karol Wojtyla, the late pope, Blessed John Paul II

In the book Person and Community: Selected Essays of Karol Wojtyla (Trans. Theresa Sandok OSM; Peter Lang: NY, 2008), the essay by Wojtyla “On the Dignity of the Human Person” is particularly striking because he speaks about that sum total of the dignity of the human person as often overlooked by many people.  Wojtyla says, “Human beings do not live for the sake of technology, civilization or even culture; they live by means of these things, always preserving their own purpose.  This purpose is intimately connected with truth, because the human being is a rational being, and also with the good, because the good is the proper object of free will.”(p.179)  To be connected with the truth is the purpose of the human person.  To be connected with the good, that is the purpose of the human person.  Well, one might ask, “Isn’t technology, or civilization or culture true and good?”  Again, Wojtyla points out that these things are exactly that, things; things are means not ends, persons are not things, persons are not means.  He clarifies this by saying, ” The human being holds a position superior to the whole of nature and stands above everything else in the visible world…Our distinctiveness and superiority as human beings in relation to other creatures is constantly verified by each one of us, regardless of how inferior we might feel because of our physical or spiritual deficiencies.”  (p.178)  The human dignity of every person is inherent in his very essence in spite of his human failings, which is why capital punishment and war are against the interest of human dignity as well.  As a phenomenologist, Wojtyla was interested in all sources of knowledge that led to the truth, including the very obvious sources of knowledge, that our actions as persons, our normal, everyday interactions all verify the dignity we afford each other in family and civic life.  With this in mind, we can think of his further encouraging words, “It follows that the matter of the dignity of the human person is always more of a call and a demand than an already accomplished fact, or rather it is a fact worked out by human beings, both in the collective and in the individual sense”  (p.179)  In other words, each and every person has a critical role here and now, in the present moment, in the life of the world of actively substantiating and fortifying the dignity of the human person through our actions and our ideas.  We have to actively work out the preservation of human dignity in the world and in our own mind and heart.

As mentioned previously, there are many people who are willing to deny affording the dignity of the human person their due, the right to life.  Any creature or created goal, such as, the protection of the environment, are inferior ends trumped by the superior end, the right to life of every human person which protects human dignity writ-large.  Why?  For Woytyla, the answer is simple and profound: “To acknowledge the dignity of the human being means to place people higher than anything derived from the visible world…There is no  way to acknowledge the dignity of the human being without taking this purpose and its thoroughly spiritual character into account.”(p.178-179)  Well, persons who deny the right to life of innocent unborn persons or of the rights of the person undergoing euthanasia, not only deny that particular person their most fundamental human right, to life, but also deny the very core of their personhood, their immaterial spiritual nature.  Wojtyla says something very beautiful and life affirming, “…through religion God confirms the personal dignity of the human being.” (p.179)  In other words, we can put our trust, our faith, our very personal dignity into the hands of God, affirming our own sense of the ultimate purpose and dignity to our lives.  Wojtyla continues, “The dignity of the human person finds its full confirmation in the very fact of revelation, for this fact signifies the establishment of contact between God and the human being…God becomes a human being; God enters into the drama of human existence through the redemption and permeates the human being with divine grace.”  God did not have to “contact” man, or reveal Himself, but because He desired all persons to know the source of their spirituality, the truth, the good and the genuine value of their own person, He revealed Himself for man to know his-self.  Wojtyla continues, “For those of us who are believers, this is where the dignity of the human person finds its fullest confirmation; this is where it is, so to speak, brought to surface.”(p.179)  God raised the dignity of all persons by becoming human in Jesus Christ while remaining God, entering human history so that all persons could appreciate his or her own infinite individual value as a person while attributing that  same infinite value to all other persons through love.

Wojytla points out another aspect that of man that gives rise to his dignity, the intellect and freedom.  He says, “Intellect and freedom are essential and irrevocable properties of the person.  Herein also lies the whole natural basis of the dignity of the person.” (p.178) With these statements, one may think of the many philosophers who parsed up “the intellect” into pieces with separate functions, but Wojtyla, as a personalist phenomenologist speaks of the intellect and freedom as two parts of one ontological whole being, the human person. One might be reminded of the dignity of man that Gregory of Nyssa attributes to the person from the Fourth century (long before Pico de Mirandola or the French Philosophes). In Gregory’s doctrine on man, De hominis opificio, Gregory says that,

“Man has been created after all the rest because all the rest has been created for him.  Unlike other creatures, he was created in the image of God.  This can be gathered from the shape of his body, but still more from his soul, to which man owes his truly royal dignity.  Man is masterless; he does everything of his own accord;  he governs himself, so to speak, with supreme authority ; in short, he is a king.  Man is not a king unto himself only, but with respect to the whole world.  He is in the image of God, because he is a king as God is a king. The beauty that shines in God also shines in man, whose destiny it is to share in an ineffable beatitude through virtue, and thus to become still more similar to his Creator.” (Etienne Gilson. History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages.  Random House: NY. 1955. p.56,57)

These are very powerful words from Gregory of Nyssa.  In other words, with his intellect and his freedom, God has created man to be sovereign over his own thought and life through the aid of virtue and faith.  With his mind, man can choose how to react to his-self’s experience of life and others experience of him with his own mind and with his own freedom, provided he is constantly seeking dominion over himself through all the virtues (human and theological) while assenting to the knowledge that faith bequeaths to him as a creature.  In this way, man can have certitude about the morality of his decisions and of achieving his destiny, closing the knowledge gap through faith and reason, which is true freedom, as Blessed John Henry Newman speaks about with his “illative sense.”

Finally, Wojtyla points out that the dignity of the person is a priori to his contribution to society or any anthropological conception of his origin or value. Wojtyla says, “Neither the concept of homo faber nor the concept of homo sapiens, understood in a purely functional way, will suffice here.”(p.179)  Those perspectives, one might say, of homo faber typified by Hannah Arendt and homo sapien by Charles Darwin respectively, both gravely neglect the reality of the spiritual dimension of man, both are intellectual leftovers from the absolute secularism of the Enlightenment, seeking pure pragmatism, a materialist understanding of the person.   The consequence of this is a degradation of the human person based purely upon his or her utility, like that of any thing, as espoused by Karl Marx, Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Malthus.  Wojtyla counters this notion saying, “Who the human being essentially is derives primarily from within that being.  All externalizations–activity and creativity, works and products–have here their origin and their cause.”‘ (p. 178) In other words, the origin of all of our action, all of our creativity, all of our work in the material external world is spiritual in origin.  Because this spiritual cause is immaterial and unique to each individual person, it is unrepeatable by nature and makes the ordinary activity of every person in the life of the world historical in the ordering of all being toward its Creator.   Wojtyla asks “Can the dignity of the human person be fully preserved?  And it must be preserved!” (p.180)  With this, we return to the beginning of the life course of all human beings, in the womb.  There, we see that, in order to fully preserve the dignity of the human person globally, as Wojtyla goads us to do, then the very first, most important step is to end the most barbaric degradation of the most innocent of human persons by ending all abortion.