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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

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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…

On the Mystery of Christmas from Edith Stein

In Friendship on December 23, 2012 at 8:14 am

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Edith Stein, the philosopher, nun and saint, recommends in her essay “The Mystery of Christmas” in a spiritual yet practical way that it would be good to live our daily life with a constant awareness of the awesomeness of the true meaning of Christmas, as found in the book Writings of Edith Stein (Trans. Hilda Graef.  Peter Owen Limited: London. 1956).  She says, “We have time for so many useless things: we read senseless rubbish in books, periodicals and newspapers, sit in cafes and chat for a quarter or half an hour in the street.  All these are distractions by which one wastes time and strength.”(p.29)  It seems that her point here is not that socializing is bad at all, but that people who claim not to have time to contemplate God in their life, freely spend their time in other ways.  She continues, “Should it really be impossible to save an hour in the morning in which one is not distracted but recollected, in which one does not spend oneself but gathers strength sufficient to carry one through the whole day?”(p.29) Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, and we can think here, what better way to make one’s life worth living but by spending time daily examining it in communication with God?  She says, “Thus, being a child of God means to become small and at the same time to become great…The sacrifice of the Mass impresses on us time and again the central mystery of faith, the pivot of the world’s history, the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption…The Christian mysteries are an indivisible whole…If we become immersed in one, we are led to all the others…from the crib to the Cross.”(p.31)  The mystery of the Incarnation is the central mystery that gives meaning to our lives: God is in us.

Stein expands on the mystery of the Incarnation saying, “If God is in us, and if He is love, then it cannot be otherwise than that we love the [our] brethren.  Therefore our love of men is the measure of our love of God.”(p.29)  Man is not the measure of all things as Protagoras said, but rather what Stein is saying here is that God’s love is the true measure of all things and our love for God is judged by our love for all people, including unborn persons.  She distinguishes between natural love and Christian love saying, “But it [God’s love] is different from the natural love of men.  The natural love is given to this or that person who is united to us by a blood relationship or is near to us because our characters are akin or we have common interests.” (p.25) In other words, we often put limits on our love, we naturally tend toward the persons whom we prefer for whatever preference we may have.   Stein compares this to how we might sometimes act, saying, “The others are ‘strangers’ who do not concern us, whose character we may even loath, so that we keep them as much as possible at a distance.  For the Christian there is no stranger.”(p.25)  During Christmas the Christian remembers the radical love to which he is called: to be concerned for all persons daily.  Stein continues, “Whoever is near us and needing us most is our ‘neighbour’; it does not matter whether he is related to us or not, whether we like him or not, whether he is morally worthy of our help or not.  The love of Christ knows no limits.”(p.25)  Human natural love puts up limits, whereas God’s love is unlimited.  Stein says, ” It never ends, it does not shrink from ugliness and filth.  He came for sinners not for the just.  And if the love of Christ is in us, we shall do as He did and seek the lost sheep.”(p.26)  We are the lost sheep every time we fail to love God as we should, which is why we needed the Incarnation.  Stein gives us hope saying, “If we place our hands into the hands of the divine Child, if we say our Yes to His Follow Me, then we are His, and the way is free for His divine Life to flow into us.  This is the beginning of eternal life in us.”(p.24)  We should try to have appreciation, gratitude, for all things in this life whether good or “bad,” they are all Providential and for our eternal benefit, if we try to love like God to the best of our ability all of the time.   Stein says, if we do this, “It is not yet the beatific vision in the light of glory;  it is still the darkness of faith; but it is no longer of this world, it means living in the kingdom of God.”(p.24)

The person of faith lives in the world physically but understands the meaning of the events of his life from a transcendent spiritual perspective of the Divine Will.  Stein continues saying that, “This kingdom began on earth when the blessed Virgin spoke her “Be it unto me,” and she was its first handmaid. The divine life that is kindled in the soul is the light that has come into the darkness, the miracle of the Holy Night…God in us and we in Him, this is our share in God’s kingdom, which is founded on the Incarnation.”(p.24)  The Incarnation inaugurated the beginning of a new chance in human history for all persons to learn to love like God by imitating Jesus Christ, by loving without limits, without strangers, and without fear.  As Stein says, “For this is the marvelous thing about the human race, that we are all one.”(p.24) Christmas is the season to reflect more deeply upon the mystery of God becoming human so that we may be at peace with each other on Earth and that one day we may share in eternal life, in eternal happiness, with Him, forever and ever, in Heaven.

Augustine On Happiness

In Friendship on October 8, 2012 at 7:22 am

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It would seem that most people know naturally what makes them happy or not.  Given this, why would someone who is already happy inquire about happiness any further, and if someone is unhappy isn’t he actually happy about having freely chosen what makes him unhappy?  Augustine, in his Confessions (Trans. Garry Wills. NY: Penguin Books. 2002) gives a very biographical sketch of his search for happiness, and his successful discovery of it, in God.

Augustine begins with the quest for God, man’s search for ultimate meaning.  He says, “Men go out to wonder at mountain heights, at immense sea surges, the sweep of wide rivers, the ocean’s range, ‘the stars’ revolvings’- and neglect [the spectacle of] themselves.” (p.220) Augustine points out here that we are always searching the exterior world to find happiness, to find God, when God is within us.  He asks himself, “But how, Lord, do I look for you?”(p. 230) This is such a good and simple question from Augustine.  In one sense, it is a prayer, a cause for contemplation.  How do we look for God?  In what do we seek God?  Where do we find God?  In one sense, whether directly or indirectly, we are all seeking God in all things throughout life. Our soul has an infinite capacity and infinite desiring; God is infinite.  All of our human pursuits are finite, they have an ending point, especially our own personal bodily death.   Our soul however, with its infinite capacity, actually yearns for the fulfillment of this infinitude with great pining, unending longing, which only God is big enough to fill.  Augustine says, “In looking for you, I seek the happy life.”  La dolce vita!  We all want the good life, and the good life is the happy-life.  But what makes us happy?  Augustine says, “It is ‘life for my soul I look for,’ since you vivify the soul as the soul vivifies the body.”(p.230)  All that we know is our experience of life, but we do know changes in our levels of happiness from our experience.  So what is this “life for my soul” that Augustine says?  The Greeks had a term, eudaimonia, roughly defined as “happiness of soul.”  This is the happiness that lasts forever, we can say, when our soul is happy, then we are truly happy.  This is the intimate contentment that we experience when we are happy because we know we are doing the will of God, not necessarily what we want.  Augustine says, “How shall I look for this life of happiness?  I do not yet have it, or I could say: This is all I need.”(p.230)  Truly, a happy soul is all we need, conversely, if we had a sad soul, or no happiness, all that we would desire is the fulfillment of that desire for happiness.  But how?  Augustine very honestly and bravely approaches happiness as an epistemological question, “Or is it an unknown thing some instinct for knowledge prompts me to discover—a thing unknown entirely, or unknown in the sense that I no longer remember having forgotten it?”  Is our desire for happiness merely an instinctual desire for more knowledge? Augustine implies that this is possible because, truth, happiness and God are all linked together.  We need them all.  He says, “What is a life of happiness but what all men want, what man can not want?”  In one sense, nobody wants unhappiness.  Nobody actually wants to be unhappy. Then, like Socrates, he humbly admits he doesn’t know but says, “Somehow, I know not how, we do want it.”  This sort of vague knowing, moving forward, pursuing happiness, seems to be part of who we are, our character, part of our development over the life course.

Interestingly, Augustine ties happiness to memory.  He says, “…I am what I am remembering, my own mind.”(p.226) In other words, we could say, its not that I need only joyful experiences of life so that I can be happy by remembering my life as full of joyful memories.  Rather, he says that our memory is like a “kind of mental belly” just as we can no longer taste food in our stomach, so too, we cannot really be happy or sorrowful about memories of our past, rather they simply exist, they are there in our memory, but part of our life experience but out of reach, no longer “taste-able.” He says, “All have the concept of happiness, and all would answer yes if asked whether they want it—which could not happen if happiness and not merely the word for it, were not remembered.” (p.230)  This is a good point, in our pursuit of happiness, we can lack clarity about what exactly we want or what we are calling “happiness,” our identifying it, remembering what it looks like, so to speak, but everyone wants it, everyone has an idea of what it is, and everyone has a word for that phenomenological experience they term “happiness” or “being happy” when they glimpse it.  Augustine smartly points out that we may be trying to retrieve a whole time period in our life, where we were “happy,” a time we remember.  Well, it is likely that this time is in childhood, in our youth, feeling lucky and care free.  But again, Augustine, ever wise points out that though we may have been joyful in our past, happiness comes from God. He says, “Let me not, Lord, in this my heartfelt testimony to you, accept as happiness every joy that I encounter.” (p.232)  In other words, as we seek happiness in this life, we may have joyful experiences, which are good, but we should remember in those moments that this joy is not the total fulfillment that we seek with God in Eternity.  He says, “This is true happiness in life, to take joy in you, for you, because of you—this, nothing else, is happiness.   Those who do not know this pursue their joy elsewhere, and though it is no true one, yet they cannot wrench their desire entirely free from some representation of that joy.”(p. 232) In one sense, Augustine is saying that we should exhaust all of our energies in the pursuit of God, because this pursuit is really the only pursuit in life that is worthwhile. It is the only goal we can set for ourselves that will fulfill our infinite desires and never leave us empty or with that fleeting sense of joy, because everything else that is not God, is less than God, more finite, a mere representation, a copy, and therefore incapable of our satisfaction, thus leaving us unhappy.

Augustine shows the connection between truth, happiness and God.  He straightforwardly explains, “Yet when I ask anyone if he prefers to find true joy or false, he is as quick to say he wants the true one as he is to say he wants happiness—yet happiness is itself a joy in the truth, and that is a joy in you, God, who are the truth…”(p.232)  Everyone wants to know the truth and everyone wants to be happy, just as no one wants to be lied to and no one wants to be unhappy.  Augustine takes this a step further saying, “…happiness is itself a joy in the truth…,” meaning that the truth is good to know by itself and the truth makes you happy to know it.  He continues on the importance with which we all naturally treat the truth, but points out the shortcomings of people who deceive that, “They love a supporting but not ‘a rebuking truth.’  Because they hate to be lied to, but like to lie, they love to find things with the help of truth, but hate to be found out by it.”(p.232)  In other words, because a person who lies still wants to be happy and still wants to know the truth in spite of his lies, hates the experience of being corrected for his lies and runs from his discovery and the consequences of it.  So, Augustine concludes that the liar cannot be happy saying, “To this, even this, is the human mind reduced, to this blind, weak state, that it wants to hide its foul vileness from others, but wants nothing hidden from it.  But truth turns this upside down—so that the mind does not hide the truth, but the truth is hidden from it.”(p. 232) Augustine says that the mind of the person who lies or lives a lie has the truth hidden from his mind because he refuses to discontinue his love for what is not truth and what is not God, and therefore he remains devastatingly unhappy.  Instead, Augustine affirms what took him so long to discover, “You are the happiness that everyone desires, the only happiness”(p.231).  The saint, who spent a good part of his life running from God, famously said, “Late have I loved you Lord,” was grateful to discover God later in life, rather than not at all.

Max Scheler On the “Order of Love” (Part 2)

In Dignity of the Person, Friendship on October 1, 2012 at 7:11 am

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Max Scheler uses one of Pascal’s theses on love as a philosophical foundation for his idea of “ordo amoris.”  Pascal’s famous quote is “Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point,” (The heart has reasons that reason does not know). Scheler says, “The heart is itself a structured counter-image of the cosmos of all possible things worthy of love; to this extent it is a microcosmos of the world of values.” (Selected Philosophical Essays Max Scheler. Ed. John Wild et al., Northwestern University Press: 1973, p.116) It is only through the heart that we understand the true meaning of the person and the person’s place in the universe, the meaning of the universe itself and where he finds himself in relation to God.  Scheler believes Pascal’s point to be that the mind formulates its reasons, but so too does the heart formulate its own reasoning, its own understanding, both are autonomous, but the heart’s reasons are based upon moral values not strict logic.

Scheler says that if you have the ordo amoris of a person, you understand the person, because within the parameters of his values paradigm, there is a range of his behavior which he is wont to follow.   Scheler says, “Where his ‘heart’ is attached, there for him, is the ‘core’ of the so-called essence of things…His actual ethos, that is, the rules of his value-preference and value-depreciation, defines the structure and content of his world-view and of his knowledge and thought of the world…This is true of individuals and of races, of nations, of cultural circles, of peoples and families, of parties, of classes, of castes and of professions.”(p.111)  The ordo amoris is transcultural, everyone universally experiences value instantiation in their life from their culture and this is the window out of which they view the world.  Scheler continues, “Within the world-order which is valid for all men, every particular form of the human is assigned some definite range of value-qualities.  Only the harmony of these, their fitting together in the structure of common world-culture, can display the greatness and expanse of the human spirit.”(p.111) Scheler seems to be saying that each culture has a series or system of values that it emphasizes, and taken aggregately, the whole of the world’s mix of cultures creates a tapestry of the one world’s soul, this is the world’s spiritual magnanimity.  Somehow if awareness of this commonality is promulgated successfully, then the world will experience greater peace.

How about the ordo amoris at the personal level?  What if we don’t want others to depend on us or us on them?  Well, that’s not going to work according to Scheler, it simply isn’t reality.  Scheler emphasizes the fact that as persons, we are all intimately interdependent upon each other, not just for resources and community life, but even to the point of influencing each other’s individual eternal salvation.  In other words, from a spirit perspective, Scheler says that not only is there a macrocosmic universe that God is ordering based upon love, but that each individual person’s destiny is tied to all other persons.  If each person’s life is a universe and mystery unto himself, and each person’s individual destiny is a story of salvation, then the billions upon billions of persons who make up the history of humanity from Adam and Eve to the last person at the end of human history and beyond into the afterlife of eternity, all people constitute the central part of the macrocosmic drama of salvation history, or Time, into Eternity.  With this in mind, we all have a duty to serve the interests not only of our own salvation but that of all others persons we come in contact with everyday of our lives.  Our life experience with another person is part of that individual’s salvation history which is directly tied to the macrocosmic end of the universe and eternity.   No act is small when it is done out of love because it is an integral part of all of the ordo amoris.

Why is Virtue So Unpopular? (Part 1)

In Friendship on September 17, 2012 at 7:12 am

 

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It would seem that virtue is not a very popular topic for the Modern or Postmodern person, why is this?  Max Scheler, brings up this topic in his essay “On the Rehabilitation of Virtue,” (Trans. Eugene Kelly. 2005, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 79, No.1) mentioning how strange this is historically because the whole idea of virtue was “center stage” for the Greeks, the Romans and throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.  So many of the most important philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Philo, Cicero, Boethius, Augustine, Abelard, Aquinas, all had works on virtue and even in literature, morality plays of the Middle Ages tended to center around some virtue.  So, why is this the case now in philosophy and modern society?  Well, Scheler offers several answers to this question and then gives reasons for its renaissance.

Put quite simply, in the Modern Age many people tend to see virtue as just plain: difficult.  According to Scheler, “We understand it rather as a mere dark unfathomable ‘disposition’ and as a natural ability to act according to some perceived rules.  And it has become so unattractive because not only the achievement of virtue, but virtue itself is considered by us to be so difficult.”(p.22)  In one sense, there are so many barriers in the Modern mind, so bent on getting things done quickly, efficiently, and with immediate gratification, and with ever shortening attention spans it seems, to stay focused on developing a virtue over a lifetime just seems way out of reach for people bustling about in the world.  Additionally, as a consequence of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, the Modern person has become accustomed to thinking and behaving very independently, both privately and publicly and thus very skeptically, even cynically, about perceived “rules of behavior” suggested by anyone besides himself or herself.  And, who doesn’t want to do things according to whatever is “convenient for me”?  Scheler alludes to Kantian deontology as a source of the modern man’s discontent with virtue as something that always has to be done independent of the individual’s desire to do so, the Categorical Imperative.  However, Scheler says that nothing can be further from the truth, “…in fact only the lack of virtue, or vice, makes goodness a difficult and bloody affair, while its possession gives to every good action the free and spontaneous appearance of a graceful bird.”(p.22)  In other words, it is the virtuous person who is the most free!  The virtuous person lacks the predictable faults that make life boring and instead, the virtuous person has the power to be genuinely spontaneous and creative in each and every moment of life to achieve the good.  Scheler says that virtue “is the extreme opposite of all habit, and only the measure of virtue’s inward nobility can oblige us at all.”  The Greeks saw virtue as attractive as beauty, and that it was a skill of one’s inner character as a person, a quality to be sought after, not belittled like in the Modern Age.  Scheler says, “Its inward weight impelled one to an ever widening extension of responsibility, so the person who possessed it to its highest degree, that of holiness, quietly felt himself responsible for everything that happened in the entire world.”(p.23)  The very virtuous person becomes very holy because his or her entire life is oriented around Divine Service, service to God, according to Aquinas (Summa Theologica II:II:81.8) and a noble self-emptying to the service of others.  One might say that a virtuous, holy person has a genuine personal concern for each and every person he or she serves or could have served better.

Another curious thing about virtue today is that people seem to have forgotten that it is actually a power, a quintessentially human power.  Scheler says, “virtue…is a living consciousness of the power to do what is good, quite personal and individual.”  That said, it would seem that such a power would be extremely attractive to the Modern person.  Machiavelli was transfixed by power, but Machiavelli was only interested in the appearance of virtue, and when it was used for the sake of power, then that appearance was a “virtue” for him.

Fortunately, Scheler seems to be saying something very different, that virtue is a personal power unique to the individual person, not for anyone else or possible by anyone else.  He says, “Duties are transferable; virtues never are.”(p.23)  Other persons can do our duty for us, for example, when you call in sick to work, someone else may be able to do your job at work.  However, how well that person does his or her duty in your place is dependent upon his or her virtue ultimately, not simply their knowledge and experience.  Virtue is the power to do the good in each and every situation in life that you find yourself.  Scheler continues, “With the growth of virtue the effort becomes less, and with that it loses the ugliness lying in all strenuous effort.  Goodness becomes beautiful by becoming easy.”(p.23) People in the Modern or Postmodern Age are still interested in beauty, and arguably, beauty is more popular than ever, thus Aesthetics.  So, it seems that a solution might just be to just help people see that a beautiful soul never ages; and, if we just grow in patience, becoming virtuous gets easier and then the beauty of our goodness will endure into Eternity, where virtue is very very popular.

Can Happiness Be Lost?

In Friendship on September 10, 2012 at 6:53 am

220px-Thomas_Aquinas_by_Fra_Bartolommeo

 

It would seem that happiness cannot be lost.  It seems that if you just make a lot of effort to keep a positive attitude, perhaps you can avoid losing happiness in life.  However, it seems kind of hard to always keep a positive attitude no matter what happens in life, so maybe one can even lose happiness when one stops maintaining a positive attitude? Well, indeed, there are a number of ways one can lose happiness according to Saint Thomas Aquinas.  Firstly, Aquinas says, that a person “…will no longer be truly happy if some evil exists in him.”(Treatise on Happiness, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Trans. John A. Oesterle. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983. P.59 from Summa Theologiae Question V. Art. 4)  That seems easy enough, no one wants to be unhappy, so the extrication of evil in oneself seems possible and everyone working on maintaining a positive attitude probably already realizes that they have their own faults which cause themselves or others to be negative around them.  So, that seems kind of evil, personal faults are negative and negativity can sure wreck a positive attitude so maybe happiness can be lost by the negativity brought on by faults, alone?  Well, not really.  According to Aquinas, in order to have true happiness, a person needs “an assured belief that he will never lose the good which he has.”(p.59)  In other words, a positive attitude is not sufficient, because a positive attitude rests upon “an assured belief.”  So, how can one lose happiness? According to Aquinas, happiness can be lost through a false belief.  He says, “…it is evil to have a false belief, for what is false is an evil for the intellect just as what is true is good for it.”(p. 59)  Well, this seems easy enough, nobody likes to be fooled by some false belief, and as Aquinas says, a false belief is evil for one’s mind, then it makes sense that in order to attain true happiness, all of our beliefs need to be true in order for us to be truly happy in life.  This seems true and not true at the same time, because true happiness is not found in this life alone.  Aquinas says, “The present life is subject to many evils which cannot be avoided:  the evil of ignorance on the part of the intellect, the evil of inordinate affection on the part of desire, and the evil of much suffering on the part of the body…”(p.57)  So, as “assured belief” pertains to our question of happiness being lost, so too we should be assured that just as this life is constantly changing, this constant change is an indicator of this life not being the perfect life which is not subject to time and change, which means that, as such, happiness can be lost in this life by false beliefs, excessive desires and lots of bodily pain.  He says, “A man’s will can change so as to fall into vice from virtue, in the act of which happiness principally consists.  Even if virtue remains untouched, external changes can disturb such happiness insofar as they hinder many acts of virtue; yet they cannot wholly take away virtue, so long as there still remain that act of virtue whereby man bears such adversities nobly.”(p.58)   Here, Aquinas makes it clear that virtue is key to all happiness and the total loss of virtue into vice assures us of unhappiness, lost happiness .  So, since everyone wants to be happy, it seems important that we should have assured belief and virtues to sustain us.  However, Aquinas adds to this and says, “All things seek to be conformed to God, as to an ultimate end and first principle”(p. 19) and that “…God cannot be in error…”(p.18), therefore, we can say that seeking God as a person’s unchanging ultimate end is the assured belief we would need in order for us to be truly happy. Well, what about this life?  Can we be truly happy now?  Aquinas says, “…what is good in the present life is transitory; for life itself, which we naturally desire, passes away, and we would like to hold on to it for ever, since man naturally shrinks from death.”(p.57)  The fact that the things of this life are fleeting is ever evident, wealth, health, joy, sorrows, loss of family members and friends in death, but Aquinas says “Some participation in happiness can be had in this life, but true and perfect happiness cannot be had in this life.”(p.57) Another big problem with true happiness in this life is that everyone is naturally scared to death of death which can be a huge distraction to maintaining happiness and a positive attitude.  However, the point of life is not to get hung up on the certain truth of our own personal death, which really is only a brief part of the experience of life, (and even Socrates made peace with his own death and with God before he died and he died basically peacefully even though he was poisoned to death).  Aquinas says “…the desires for good cannot be fully satisfied in this life, for man naturally desires the good he has to be permanent.” (p.57) This makes all kinds of sense, no one wants to lose happiness and the reality of death assures us of the reality that happiness in this life has a definite end point.  As Aquinas says, “…man naturally desires to hold on to the good which he has and to have the assurance of keeping it, otherwise he will be distressed by the fear of losing it or by sorrow in the certainty of losing it.”(p. 59) However, when we have assured belief, death is not a problem, merely a transition to, if we earn it, eternal happiness, a happiness that can never be lost, this is what Heaven is.   Aquinas says “the vision of the divine essence fills the soul with every good, since the soul is united with the source of all goodness.”(p.59)  Since the soul is filled with the very source of all goodness, this contemplation of the wisdom of God is what makes a person permanently happy, then we have to be free of every error in our character and every false belief in our mind in order to be intentionally united to the ineffable wisdom of God.  When we have this unity, it cannot  “…be taken away by another agent, for the mind united to God is raised above all other things and no other agent can separate the mind from that union.”(p.59)  Well, as we were speaking of earlier, it seems that it is the evil in us which makes us lose our happiness and as a consequence, we could be stung by the fear of losing the things we prefer to have in this life and then we are struck by sorrow with the definite loss of those things because of our attachment to them and not God.  But fortunately, no one else can take away our happiness if we are intentionally united with God’s will, only our attachment to our own will can cause us to have a false belief which is an evil that will make us unhappy.  So, assured belief is attachment to God’s will and, therefore, it is our own personal assured belief that is a necessary basis for our positive attitude in the first place because of the hopeful possibility of the total fulfillment of happiness in the next.  This is great news, assured belief in this life prevents us from losing imperfect happiness in this life and leads to happiness forever in the next life because of the union of our mind with the will of the omniscient God, now and forever.

Too Many Friends? Aristotle and Aquinas on why it is actually virtuous to limit the number of your friends

In Friendship on August 15, 2012 at 5:27 am

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In the Information Age where social media thrives and the possibility of creating new connections with many people is quite easy (even automated), it might be wise perhaps to consider what Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas have said about friendship.  In Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Aquinas comments that Aristotle begins to doubt how others should be loved when Aristotle says [Book Nine, Chapter 10, 1170b 20-23, (Dumb Ox Books: Notre Dame, Indiana. 1993)] “Should a man then make as many friends as possible?…or perhaps it will be fitting in friendship that a man should be neither without friends nor with an excessive number.”  Aristotle, the classical defender of ‘common sense’ asks the very obvious, humble and practical question, whether it is good to make as many friends as one possibly can? Our pride  might say, “Of course, I want many friends in my life because this is a sign of my goodness!”  or one might equate the quantity of persons in one’s social media contact list with one’s own personal sense of self-worth and value to others, based upon the utility they provide you and you provide for them.  However, the key idea here may be Aristotle’s use of the phrase “…in friendship…”, possibly meaning that in true friendship an excess of friends or a lack of friends is not good for a person (this seems to be pointing to a definition of what Aristotle means by friendship, a concept which will be referred below).  Although, Aristotle continues, “This statement seems to be quite applicable to those who make friends for utility.  For it is burdensome to repay the services of many people and a man’s life is not long enough for the task.  Therefore, more friends than are sufficient for our own life distract us from noble living, and there is no need for them.”   Aquinas comments on this by saying, “Therefore, if a man’s useful friends are more numerous than necessary for his own life, they distract and hinder him from the blessings of a life which consists in virtuous activity.  The reason is that while a person gives extra attention to the business of others, he cannot properly care for himself.  Evidently then a man has no need of many useful friends.”  So it seems that both philosophers are here distinguishing between what is true friendship and “useful friends.”  In other words, a person doesn’t need many “useful friends” because they cause him to forget to take care of himself and his own affairs since he is spending so much time attempting to repay their favors, causing him to forget to work on growing in virtue himself and spending his time away from his true friends, his spouse and his family.  The “defender of common sense” says, “…and a man’s life is not long enough for the task.”  This is so obviously true even if we think of the multitude of benefits we receive from so many people just in a single day both directly and indirectly, let alone an entire lifetime.

So, what is Aristotle’s definition of a friend?  He says in a prior book (Book Eight, Chapter 3, 1156b911) that “…people who wish good to friends for their sake are the truest friends; they do this for the friends themselves and not for something incidental.”  Something incidental, such as, the utility a friend brings or the pleasure, such as, being funny.  In other words, a true friend wants the good of that friend as a person, and does not treat that person as a thing from whom one can receive pleasure or finds useful.

So, how does one behave like a true friend?  Aristotle says, “Perhaps then it is not well to seek as many friends as possible but as many as are sufficient for living together…Indeed love is a kind of excess of friendship, and this is possible with one person only, or with a very few.”  Aquinas comments on this very passage saying that, “…it does not seem possible for a man to be very friendly to great numbers…since achievement of the highest perfection cannot take place in most cases due to a multiplicity of defects and hindrances.”  In other words, with many people, the sheer quantity of personal defects, flaws or faults multiplies beyond one’s ability to pursue perfect friendship with the group and there are hindrances, time schedules, for example, distance, availability, preferences, among so many other possible obstacles.  In conclusion, it seems for Aristotle that actually “living together” (not on-line, not virtually) is the true test of true friendship.  If we include this idea of “living together” with the other idea of having time for one’s own self-improvement, our virtuous improvement of those with whom we live and their improvement of us, we can see readily that this is a lot of time consuming yet joyful work.  But, in reality, with whom would we prefer to do all of these things with?  Our true friends whom we love of course!