CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WESTERN ANTIQUITY – PART V (continued)

We began last time looking at the blueprint for contentment developed by Epicurus. Like Aristotle, Epicurus also emphasizes friendship as essential to a happy life.

“He who desires to live in tranquility with nothing to fear from other men ought to make friends. Those of whom he cannot make friends, he should, as much as possible, avoid rendering enemies; and if that is not in his power, he should, as much as possible, avoid all dealings with them.”4

So we see on the one  hand friendship aids contentment by increasing one’s social support network in a world of unpredictability. On the other hand, virtuous and prudent conduct to others diminishes the likelihood of them to harbor ill will or consider harm to oneself. Again simple common-sense logic guides behavior conducive to contentment.

Epicurus offers a basic formula, the tetrapharmakos or four-fold cure for anxiety: (1) Do not fear the gods, (2) Do not fear death, (3) Goods are easy to obtain, and (4) Evils are easy to endure. Just as one does not choose food based on the largest portion, a wise person seeks to enjoy the time which is most pleasant not simply the longest. He urges us to remember that the future is not “wholly ours nor wholly not ours.” Ataraxia is the goal – absence of physical pain and trouble in the soul. His words again:

“Exercise yourself in these and related precepts day and night by yourself and with a like-minded friend, then neither in waking or in dream will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among men. For man loses all semblance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings.”5

And one more unforgettable quote – Will Durant paraphrasing the teaching of Epicurus:

“Because he controls his appetites, lives without pretense, and puts aside all fears, the natural ‘sweetness of life (hedone) rewards him with the greatest of all goods, which is peace.”6

It is unlikely that any thinker in history has more logically or more elegantly formulated an avenue to contentment open to all than Epicurus.

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4Durant, Will, The Life of Greece.  Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966. ISBN 0-671-41800-9, page 649.

5Letter to Menoceous (close) – available on line classics.mit.edu. I would argue this is the greatest letter ever written by a philosopher… or perhaps anyone. The reader will benefit greatly from taking time to read this four page epistle.

6 Durant, Will, The Life of Greece.  Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966. ISBN 0-671-41800-9, page 648.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WESTERN ANTIQUITY – PART V

“Lathe biosas.” – Motto of Epicurus.1

In our search for contentment, we have already considered the ancient Greek systems of Plato, Aristotle, the Cynics, the Skeptics, and the Stoics. However no Western philosophy, ancient or later, addresses contentment more directly than Epicureanism. Its founder, Epicurus spent one year at the Plato’s Academy, but developed his philosophy after exposure to the Cynics. He is mistakenly seen as a proponent of pleasure-seeking, but  his philosophy is more sublime; happiness comes from diminishing anxiety by forgoing the pursuit of pleasure, attaining only physical necessities such as food, water, and shelter, and averting unease. He clearly is not a proponent of later Hedonism which bases happiness on maximizing pleasurable experiences.

The ethics of Epicurus is based on his materialist metaphysics: we can know nothing of the supra-sensual world, reason is limited to sensory experience, the will is free, the soul dies with the body, and there is no interaction between humans and gods should they even exist. Philosophy exists to guide us in our search for happiness within this reality. For Epicurus this consists of a life “exempt from every kind of disquietude.” Even virtue is not an end in itself, but rather an indispensable means to contentment since it is not possible ultimately to have a pleasant life without behavior that is prudent, honorable, and just.

In his own words:

When therefore we say that pleasure is the chief good, we are not speaking of the pleasures of the debauched man, or those that live in sensual enjoyment…But we mean freedom of the body from pain and of the soul from disturbance. For it is not continued drinking and revels, or the enjoyment of female society, or feast or fish or other expensive foods that make life pleasant, but such sober contemplation as examines the reasons for choice and avoidance, and puts to flight the vain opinions from which arises most of the confusion that troubles the soul.”2

Here we have not Hedonism, but a rational approach to tranquility and well-being through the avoidance of pain and grief. For Epicurus, wisdom is the great liberator, freeing us from bondage to the passions, fear of the gods, and dread of death and teaching us how to bear misfortune. Wisdom alone offers lasting pleasure from the simple goods of life and the quiet pleasures of the mind. Consider how little is needed to a wise content – fresh air, the cheapest foods, a bed, a few books and a friend.  Likewise the wise person does not burn with ambition or lust for fame nor envy the good fortune of others always avoiding  “the fevered competition of the city and the turmoil of political strife.” Instead the wise person seeks the calm of the countryside and tranquility of body and mind.3

(continued next post)

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1”Live unobtrusively.” from Durant, Will, The Life of Greece.  Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966. ISBN 0-671-41800-9, page 645.

2Ibid., page 647.

3Ibid., page 648.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WESTERN ANTIQUITY – PART IV

“It makes me furious! How mortals blame the gods! For they say that their troubles come from us; but they incur pains on their own beyond their allotment, because of their wickedness.” – Homer, Odyssey 1.32-34.

 

In our perusal of ancient Greek and Hellenic philosophy, we last looked at contentment in the teaching of the Skeptics, particularly Pyrrho. Like the Cynics, peace for the Skeptics comes in part from limiting involvement with and concern for society. Developing in parallel with Cynicism and Skepticism was Stoicism, the most enduring of the Hellenic traditions possibly because, unlike the others, it accommodated, even encouraged continued societal participation including in the fields of business and politics.

Stoicism as a school started with Zeno of Citium who was a student of Crates in turn a student of Diogenes the Cynic. He set out the arguments for his positions while walking in the Painted Porch or Stoa Poikile – hence the name Stoicism for his philosophy. His basic metaphysics is that the world is divinely ordered and humans have free will, but actual outcomes of action are determined by providence meaning a divine force. Zeno considered his teachings the “art of living,” emphasizing a control over one’s emotions and an understanding of nature and the cosmos as a unified whole. Reason and the overcoming of passions are for Zeno the supreme achievements of humans.

Stoicism developed a largely psychological approach to tranquility – somewhat like modern cognitive therapy. The first key principle of Stoic conduct is apatheia which refers to acceptance of and detachment from the results of action and circumstances in the environment, quite unlike the more negative word ‘apathy’ of current English usage. The logic is simple; the chain of causes and effects is an unbreakable circle such that things happen as they must under the supervision of providence. Apatheia involves a voluntary surrender to the divine will such that the mind can be secure against the attacks and vicissitudes of fortune, pity, or love.

The second key principle of Stoic conduct is euthymia or well-being attained through four virtues – intelligence, bravery, justice, and self-control. Later Stoics impose another virtue, duty to promote the cosmopolis or rationally ordered world. Stoic contentment is further reinforced by the Stoic understanding of evil. If evil comes to a good person, it is only temporary and integrated with the greater good of the whole. One should live in harmony with nature and accept one’s place within it. Stoics substitute for a master an apprenticeship to wisdom and the imitation of a wise man.

In brief form, contentment for the Stoic is found in a rational adjustment of one’s aims and conduct to the purposes and laws of the universe. Next we look at Epicureanism; join me then.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WESTERN ANTIQUITY – PART III

“Ouden mallon.” – Skeptic mantra.1

So far in our examination of contentment as depicted in ancient Greece we have looked at Plato’s dialogues, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and the legacy of the Cynics. Plato highlights virtue and ordering of the soul, Aristotle virtue, self-sufficiency, and contemplation, and the Cynics extreme self-sufficiency through strength of mind to want nothing, consideration of a guide, and purpose from modeling cynical virtue. We take on next the second Hellenic tradition, Skepticism.

It is worth noting that I reviewed this branch of philosophy in an earlier blog on certainty.2 We saw then that the ancient Greek word, skeptikoi, means ‘inquirers’ or ‘investigators’ which is more distinctive of its later form. In its earliest form, called Pyrrhonism after its founder, Pyrrho of Elis, it was a quest to achieve Eudaimonia or “happiness in the conduct of life” and ataraxia or untroubledness. Pyrrho offered no system or method as, in fact, he questioned the truth of all philosophical or religious beliefs and saw them as the very source of much of humanity’s uneasiness. Instead he offered an agoge or way of living, based on utter apathy to objects, dangers, and pleasures, tranquil moderation, and indifference to intellectual dogmatism. His ‘system’ then merges agnosticism common sense.

His movement, eventually became known as skepticism because of the continuing inquiry of his successors as to whether truth is possible. Nonetheless contentment continued to be seen as freedom from anxiety about philosophical and religious pronouncements paired with an embrace of the ‘Practical Criterion of the Skeptics,’ which states one should follow “the guidance of nature, the compulsion of the feelings, the traditions of laws and customs, and the instructions of the arts.”3

To reiterate, for the Skeptics, ataraxia is not paralytic anesthesia, but peaceful living according to the institutions of one’s country and dictates of one’s own feelings, experience, and common sense. It seeks a peaceful life, not an imitation of death.By suspending judgment in philosophical matters, conflict is averted and contentment is facilitated.

The weakness of skepticism is that in its extreme or radical form,  tranquility is thwarted or diminished by the uncertainty of every belief or presumed fact. David Hume points out this quandary in the 18th century – noting we must live as if some uncertainties are fact (e.g. cause and effect, science). For instance living as if everyday dangers are dubitable will lead to a precarious existence (Pyrrho’s disciples were known to follow him around to be sure he would not step into a hole, off a ledge, or in front of a moving cart).

Nevertheless Pyrrhonic skepticism is a potent means to contentment. Doubt and suspension of belief about philosophical, religious, and I would add political, dogmas plus common sense moderation offer a simple method for calming one’s anxieties and achieving satisfaction with oneself and one’s circumstances. In reality this is the most common path followed in our time at least in the West, although it is unclear how successfully by most of us.

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1 “No more likelihood that this is true than that that is true.” Quoted in Hallie, Philip P. (editor), Sextus Empiricus. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge,1985. ISBN 0-87220-006-X, p 9.

2 See post on this site titled Certainty – Skepticism dated 6/5/2020.

3 Hallie, Philip P. (editor), Sextus Empiricus. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge,1985. ISBN 0-87220-006-X, p 7.

4Ibid.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WESTERN ANTIQUITY – PART II

“Time makes even bronze grow old, but thy glory, Diogenes, all eternity will never destroy. Since thou alone didst point out to mortals the lesson of self-sufficingness and the easiest path of life.” – Ancient Greek Memorial to Diogenes of Sinope, according to Diogenes Laertius in Lives of the Philosophers.1

 

 

 

Last time we examined contentment as a piece of the meaningful life in Plato’s dialogues and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Instead of withdrawal, meditation, and the guidance of a master as professed in the East, they invoke virtue, self-sufficiency, ordering of the soul, and contemplation.  However on the whole the earliest Greek religion, literature, and philosophy are surprisingly quiet on tranquility and contentment. After the Macedonian conquest of Greece, philosophers pivot and contentment and tranquility rise in importance, perhaps in response to being subjugated to military authority with its reduction in liberty. It is as if philosophers are seeking a psychological means to cope with this change in political reality.

Four philosophical “systems” – Cynicism, Skepticism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism – appear after Socrates, all of which to some extent claim the mantle of his teaching. We will start with the Cynics whom I introduced in the section Suffering, subsection Asceticism.2 This quasi-school of philosophy began with Diogenes (known as “the dog” or cyn in Greek) who was a student of Antisthenes who in turn was a student of Socrates. Virtue for Diogenes and  the Cynics is recalibrated from the four classic virtues to four new ones: self-sufficiency, freedom, detachment, and moral toughness and endurance. For the Cynics, poverty and simplicity are the paradoxical avenue to peace and contentment. The rational person abandons the artificial values and material goods of society and embraces the benefits of living naturally and unabashedly.

For the Cynics contentment originates in strength of mind to want nothing and to lack nothing. It is further reinforced by purpose in modeling cynical virtue for others to follow. The pursuit of knowledge endorsed by Socrates and the contemplation of truth espoused by Aristotle are considered superfluous. Cynicism is more practical and active than these earlier teachings. However the Cynics recognize a desperate life on the street requires training and the inexperienced should seek assistance from an experienced Cynic. In short, the contentment of the Cynic diverges from Plato and Aristotle and mirrors somewhat the Eastern tradition with detachment, through ascetic practice but not societal withdrawal, and endorsement of a guide in its practice.

Next we look at the Skeptics.

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1   Henderson, Jeffrey (editor) Diogenes Laertius II. Loeb Classic Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1931. ISBN 987-0-674-99204-7, page 81.

2 See post on this site titled Suffering – Asceticism – Part IV – The Cynics.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WESTERN ANTIQUITY – PART I (continued)

Last time we ended on contentment as presented in the first of two dialogues by Plato, the Phaedo. In the second dialogue, Republic Book IV, Socrates responds to Glaucon’s doubt that the just man is happier than the unjust one, Socrates taking him via a long road comes at last to the following statement:

“But in reality justice was such as we were describing, being concerned however, not with the outward man, but with the inward, which is the true self and concernment of man: for just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any other, or any of them to do the work of others;  – he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself; and when he has bound together the three principles within him…but has become one entirely temperate and perfectly adjusted nature, then he proceeds to act, if he has to act, whether in a matter of property, or in the treatment of the body, or in some affair of politics or private business, always thinking and calling that which preserves and co-operates with this harmonious condition, just and good action, and the knowledge which presides over it, wisdom, and that which at any time impairs this condition, he will call unjust action, and the opinion which presides over it ignorance.”2

The lessons of Socrates and Plato are further processed by Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student and one who eventually rejected much of his thought. Aristotle comes across as more pragmatic and less spiritual, devoting more thought to the notions of happiness, never mentioning tranquility of the soul. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that most men erroneously seek happiness in pleasure while in fact the highest essence of man is reason. He determines that a life of virtuous activity in accordance with reason will be the happiest, and it turns out the activity most in accordance with reason is contemplation of truth within self-sufficiency – ideas seemingly suggestive of contentment and serenity of the mind. Consider the following:

“Perfect happiness consist in the life of thought or contemplation of truth, in which we approach the life of God. But, with his composite human nature, man finds a secondary happiness in external things and in the practice of the moral virtues in his relations with other men.”3

We see then that for Socrates and Plato, contentment comes from virtue and ordering of the inner self, perhaps combined with belief in an immortal soul and the pursuit of knowledge. Aristotle also emphasizes virtue, but highlights contemplation and self-sufficiency rather than ordering of the soul per se. None of the three stresses withdrawal or renunciation or the need for a spiritual guide. However, contentment is only addressed obliquely in their texts even if it is implied throughout. The West had to wait for later Hellenic philosophers to see a more systematic analysis of human contentment. We pick up there next time.

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2Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), The Dialogues of Plato. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 7, pages 354-355.

3 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics  in On Man in the Universe. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, N.Y. for The Classics Club, 1943. Page 224.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WESTERN ANTIQUITY – PART I

“What is opposed brings together; the finest harmony is composed of things at variance, and everything comes to be in accordance with strife.” – Heraclitus (quoted by Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics)

 

We have just examined the paths to contentment conveyed by four Eastern philosophical traditions. They emphasize withdrawal or at least detachment from ordinary life, meditation on eternal truths, benefits of a guide or master, and de-emphasis on worldly purpose. Today we change continents but continue with ancient thinkers as we look at the wisdom of Western sages mainly from ancient Greece and Rome.

We might begin with an observation – the earliest Greek philosophers and the polytheism of that time seem to neglect the search for contentment, though of course we have only fragmentary texts for most of the pre-Socratics. What we know of their religion and from the most complete texts of that time, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, seem strangely quiet on the hope of human satisfaction and tranquility. The world is pictured tragically, with mostly indifferent of hostile deities, unending human strife, and an afterlife of dark, stagnant, misery. Happiness is mentioned, but only as temporary and superficial. We can only guess that this pessimism springs from the precarious life in this land of relatively low crop fertility and of isolated city-states, constantly threatened with invasion by more powerful neighbors. It is perhaps no surprise that Heraclitus, one of the great early philosophers of that region of the world, sees God as an eternal fire and reality as like a river, which is never the same when one steps in it twice. Pythagoras comes the closest among the pre-Socratics to the ancient Eastern sages in his demonstration of contentment by example through an ascetic lifestyle of strict vegetarianism and celibacy – practices he may have adopted from the East.

Contentment appears first in ancient Greece with Socrates through the dialogues of Plato, two of which I will use as examples. The earlier of these is the Phaedo which tells the story of the death of Socrates. There is perhaps no more poignant example of human equanimity as Socrates when he accepts his unfair death sentence and drinks the poisonous hemlock without hesitation. He explains to his attending disciples that his tranquility is based on his belief in the immortality of the soul, his pursuit of knowledge, and the arraying of the soul “in her own proper jewels, temperance, and justice, and courage, and nobility, and truth…”that is to say through wisdom.

(continued next post)

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1Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), The Dialogues of Plato. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 7, page 250.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WISDOM OF THE EAST – PART VI (cont’d)

Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zen seem to offer two avenues to contentment and perhaps enlightenment: the path of the monk and the more tenuous journey of the lay person. Taoism does not appear to differentiate as much encouraging all to align with the Tao. For our purposes as practical philosophers, the non-monastic path is likely the only option (presumably persons choosing to be monks would not be consulting this site), and the existence of a lay approach is thus encouraging.

Regarding contentment, none seem to emphasize purpose (remember I argued that completion of social or cosmic purpose was a near-prerequisite to contentment1) though Taoism sees action through inaction and Zen reinforces physical labor and contact with the world. Alternatively if completing a life purpose is not essential to contentment, Eastern traditions are more optimistic vis-a-vis contentment. However there remains an ambiguity on their account as to whether life can be fully meaningful without purpose beyond their practices.

Last, all of these traditions appear to suggest a parallel path for contentment and the experience of ultimate reality or enlightenment, a refreshing hope for any lost souls. In this regard, as we will see later, they are similar to Western religions which often tie supreme contentment to the experience of the divine or ultimate reality.

In conclusion, we can learn much about achieving contentment from Eastern traditions. Withdrawal, renunciation, or non-intervention, recognition and meditation on eternal truths, the reading of scriptures and texts of the great thinkers, and perhaps guidance from a gifted spiritual teacher are excellent guiding principles even for those of us who do not embrace these specific dogmas. It is reassuring to discover that one need not be a monk nor overly concerned about accomplishing some lasting purpose. In any philosophical system we are likely to find the path to contentment is parallel to or intertwined with the path to ultimate reality. Peace it turns out comes not from the direct seeking, but from letting go of worldly concerns and individual desires, and unmasking the truth of reality.

Next time we pick up with thoughts on contentment described in Western antiquity.

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1See post on this site titled Contentment and The Meaningful Life – Distinctions dated 3/30/22 and 4/1/2022.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WISDOM OF THE EAST – PART VI

“The man who casts off all desires with no thought of mine or me enters the peace.” – The Bhagavad Gita.

After ten blogs on Eastern paths to contentment, this summary will contrast and correlate their wisdom. The reader should be forewarned that what follows is a superficial and patently over-simplified account of these quite complex and variegated philosophies.

In seeking contentment, all of these philosophies require a degree of withdrawal or renunciation – more so in Hinduism and traditional Buddhism which favor complete detachment, less so in Taosim which promotes quietude over withdrawal, and perhaps least of all in Zen where focus on enigmas involves at least a temporary retreat from the world.

Contentment in all of them depends to some extent on meditation, though for Taoism contemplation may be a more appropriate term. Meditation or contemplation is focused on eternal truths rather than a divinity or prayer as is more typical in the Western religions. However, the key truths differ among the four traditions: (1) for the Hindu, the identity of one’s inner self or Atman with the whole of reality or Brahman, (2) for the traditional Buddhist, life as suffering due to conquerable desires and the non-self or no-mind, (3) for the Taoist, the Way and nature as the realm of opposites, and (4) for Zen, the non-dualist grasping of reality as a unity.

Each of these ideologies provides scriptures or texts which the seeker should consult. Hindu thought is presented in the Upanishads. The Bhagavad Gita, and the Yoga Sutra among others. Buddhism offers texts recorded by disciples of the Buddha and the Dhammapa plus the writing of countless later practitioners. Taoism is well expressed in the Laozi and Zhuangzi and the texts of later Taoists. Zen offers a large body of texts and parables from numerous prior masters. In addition, Hinduism, and Buddhism recommend seeking a master for optimal practice.

(continued next post)

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WISDOM OF THE EAST – PART V (continued)

But Suzuki warns us that even satori has its degrees. What we seek is a thorough-going and clear-cut turning-point in life, a complete mental revolution founded in extreme effort that allows us to “drink deep of the inexhaustible fountain.”8 The greatest chance of success seems to come from focusing on a koan so intensely that one neglects sleep, eating, other thoughts, wrapping of one’s entire existence continuously in that single question9 until one achieves a state of tranquility and purity.10 Suzuki’s description:

“When thus all mentation is temporarily suspended, even the consciousness of an effort to keep an idea focused at the center of attention is gone – that is, when as the Zen followers say, the mind is so completely possessed or identified with its object of thought that even the consciousness of identity is lost as when one mirror reflects another, the subject feels as if living in a crystal palace, all transparent, refreshing, buoyant, and royal.”11

And yet there is one more step – an explosive awakening from that spell of concentration on a kaon to the truth of Zen, the seeing of one’s true nature and the oneness of things. The earlier ‘equilibrium tilts for one reason or another. A stone is thrown into a sheet of water and spreads all over the surface. A sound knocks at the gate of consciousness so tightly closed, and it at once reverberates through the entire being of the individual.”12 This then is satori, a state of enlightenment and perpetual serenity.

Of course all of this is fascinating, but in achieving contentment, Zen in general and Suzuki’s interpretation in particular remain problematic for many of us. There is the requirement of tutelage of a master, extended time focused on seemingly trite puzzles, even physical assaults. When one is older as I am, the idea of supplicating to a master seems retrogressive, even juvenile. On the other hand I have found remarkable (if temporary) tranquility in contemplation not of trivial or commonplace issues, but (following Aristotle) of more profound questions such as the metaphysical (e.g. “What is free will?”) or ethical (e.g. “Do any ends permit treating another person as a means?”). I remain open-minded, but suspect that the real lesson of Zen may be that intense concentration on fundamental truths of reality is a vital piece of achieving contentment, rather than conformity to specific practices.

Next time I will pull together the path to contentment revealed in the various Eastern traditions we have examined.

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8Barrett, William (editor), Zen Buddhism; Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki. Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, NY, 1956. Page 97.

9Suzuki offers as an example the case of one student who spent eight years pondering the question: “Who is he who cometh towards me?”

10Ibid., page 101.

11Ibid., page 102.

12Ibid., page 102-103.