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…


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