“The point of looking at the history of philosophy lies in the recognition that most questions have been asked before, and that some intelligent answers to them have been given in the past.” – Bertrand Russell, Wisdom of the West.
We have at last come to the focal point of this site’s mission – using the wisdom of the great thinkers to guide one’s life; specifically a life that meets the dual goals of happiness and meaning. I thought I would offer the history of how I came to the approach that follows. Starting over in middle age forced me to rethink the path I had taken – career, family, accumulation of wealth and friends, and what amounted to the hope for fortuitous fulfillment and meaning.
I could not risk that my second and likely last opportunity to find fulfillment and meaning would occur by chance. However, my search for practical guidance proved fruitless, so I resorted to the slow, but rewarding, process of reading the great thinkers of human history to uncover a basic framework of Eudaimonia or a flourishing life. After a few years of reading, I began to see a pattern; the incredibly complex teaching of the great philosophers and spiritual teachers could be distilled into four basic principles that lead to human happiness. Here is a brief review of what I found.
Socrates, the Greek stoics, Confucius, Kant, and others place the greatest emphasis on virtue. Consider Democritus who once said, “Even if you are alone, neither say nor do anything bad; learn to feel shame before yourself rather than before others.” Epicurus, the Hindus, the Buddha, and others seek mainly contentment, not pleasure or elation, but freedom from pain, tranquility and satisfaction – a state called Ataraxia by the ancient Greeks. Others such as Aristotle, the Roman stoics, and the philosophes find the greatest value in purpose. For example, Lucian tells us, “Pursue one end alone – how you may do what your hands find to do, go your way with never a passion and always a smile.” Last, and perhaps most frequently, thinkers such as Plato, Lao Tze, Aquinas, Spinoza, and Tillich focus on ultimate reality – the Forms of Ideas for Plato, the Tao for Lao Tzu, God for Aquinas and Spinoza, and Being for Tillich.
Interestingly each thinker, despite honing in on one of the four components, usually ties in the other three in seeking the ideal life. In summary the interlocking puzzle pieces of the summum bonum – happiness and meaning – are Virtue, Contentment, Purpose, and Ultimate Reality. In the next four sections I will expand on this basic framework while forging them into a unified whole. We will begin with virtue next time.