CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – DISTINCTIONS

“He who is not contented with what he has would not be contented with what he would like to have.” – Socrates.

Last time I settled on the definition of contentment as being satisfied with what one is and has and having ease of mind. Today we delve deeper into my use of this word in the philosophical sense. First this kind of contentment must have an enduring quality much as Aristotle intends when he uses the word “happiness.” Of course one does experiences a level of contentment on eating a favorite dessert, finishing a book, or driving a new car, but it is folly to expect such contentment to be more than ephemeral. In fact, common pleasures, accomplishments, and material goods offer little in the way of enduring contentment. Instead the contentment forming a part of the meaningful life is a sustained, and preferably permanent feeling of satisfaction and peace of mind.

One close synonym is the word “tranquility” especially when a continuing feature of one’s life. Likewise  a persistent state of “calm,” “serenity” and especially “peace” in the internal sense approximate the meaning of philosophical contentment . However deep satisfaction – particularly regarding one’s virtue,  life course, and purpose – must be combined with lasting tranquility to fully describe contentment for the practical philosopher. We conclude contentment required for a fully meaningful life is best defined as lasting tranquility combined with internal satisfaction regarding one’s way of life, virtue, and purpose.

On the other hand contentment is not to be confused with pleasure which is admittedly a more dynamic feeling , but as such unstable. One can have too much of almost any pleasure, but never an excess of contentment or peace of mind based on genuine satisfaction with oneself and one’s circumstances. Joy too has dynamic connotations  as a positive emotion distinct from the even nature of contentment. On the opposite end of this spectrum is ‘relief” which has negative connotations – the mere relief of pain or worry does not lead to contentment which by comparison has a more positive nuance. Leisure also connotes an absence, in this case of toil, but is at best a platform for contentment, though it is not essential. Clearly one can be profoundly content within a framework of ongoing even demanding purposeful work.

(continued next post)

Share this post:

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – INTRODUCTION

Men begin by seeking happiness, and are content at last with peace.” – Will Durant, Caesar and Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

We have seen that the first two ingredients in the recipe of a meaningful life are virtue or moral excellence and multidimensional purpose. We come now to the third, contentment. Webster defines contentment as “the state of being contented, satisfaction, ease of mind” where the word content is defined as “satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more of anything else”1 In this section, I will be investigating the nonreligious usage of the word, which is to say I will exclude the contentment of spiritual or mystical practice which will be discussed in the next section on relationship to ultimate reality. However the reader is likely to detect significant overlap as in fact true of all four of these components. This interrelatedness of the four ingredients of a meaningful life will be addressed later.

Like the former sections, this one will break down into a series of essays and following the outline presented below:

  1. Introduction
  2. Synonyms and distinctions
  3. Opposites
  4. Variations
  5. Traditions:
    1. Ancient Eastern
    2. Ancient Western
    3. Later Thinkers
    4. Clinical
    5. Summary
  6. Place of asceticism
  7. Place of silence / solitude
  8. Classical illustration
  9. Synthesis

This introduction will be followed by two posts on clarification of close synonyms and a parsing from similar, but distinct terms.  Then we will see how opposites further reveal the nuances of philosophical contentment. From there we can better understand variations on the idea of contentment such as ataraxia and mindfulness. However the bulk of this section will examine a series of concepts and traditions of contentment. In the East, we have Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and Zen varieties; in the West, we have the Stoic, Epicurean, Skeptic, and Cynic schools of antiquity and the later approaches such as described in the writing of Arthur Schopenhauer, the Transcendentalists, and  the Existentialists.

I will also address briefly scientific or clinical solutions both psychological and medicinal. In this critique we will return to asceticism and discuss solitude and silence as features potentially integral to contentment. Before closing I will analyze a classical illustration of a real life path to contentment in the writing of Horace. I will conclude by pulling all the pieces together into a synthesis of the value and means of achievement of contentment in the journey to a meaningful life.

Join me next time as we consider synonyms as one means to deeper understanding of what we mean philosophically to say one is content.

————————————————

1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, p. 439.

Share this post:

CURRENT READING – ON DEATH by MILTON MAYER – PART V

HOW TO DIE

In the concluding segment, Mayer suggests there are three ways to prepare for death – denial, gritty determination, and self-reassurance that everything will be all right afterwards. He hypothesizes that mundane virtues which carry us through life may carry us through death as well, and persons with the four cardinal virtues (fortitude, temperance, justice, and wisdom) in life are unlikely to lose them at death. It is childish to mitigate the fear of death with the hope of eternal bliss; the mature person can accept life’s ending as such.

Besides the horrors of damnation make the believer dread death more than the agnostic. He notes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin doubts God would create a useless hell of eternal suffering; rather nonexistence or simple separation from God is more reasonable. Paul Tillich argues there is little scriptural evidence for an afterlife at all. Resurrection seems untenable, but mere spiritual persistence seems too intangible for orthodox Church dogma. In contrast, he reminds us that William James thought we believe in immortality because we believe we are fit for it and deserve it. Science with its pointless view of life and death fails to meet human needs, so. Carl Jung concludes, “As a physician, I think it is hygienic…to discover in death a goal to which one can strive; and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal that robs the second half of life of its purpose. I therefore consider the religious teaching of a life hereafter as consonant with the standpoint of psychic hygiene.” 19

Mayer arrives at last at his synthesis: ‘If Death cannot be cheated, maybe he can be talked into making it a little easy…Nearly everyone is agreed that the best way to die is not to shuffle and lag, but to be hurrying to do something useful (or something else useful), or at least something urgent that preoccupies the putative victim.”20 And if we die of natural causes and not suddenly, we experience one of life’s supreme experiences. Since it cannot be prevented one might as well view it as an opportunity. By suffering the “sense of dying” one learns about “the conduct of life and the demeanor of its close.”21 He offers two examples: Oliver Wendell Holmes who said “To live is to function. That is all there is in living.” and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu “It has all been very interesting.”22 Since we must die, we should practice it in the death of others and by seeing ourselves as dying.

He closes, “We do not know that there are no worse things than dying. We do know that it would be nice to be rid of the blemishes of this life…Death takes us down a peg or two, too, and cuts us and our furnishings to size; probably not a bad thing for most of us, and maybe the best thing that ever happened to us. Who knows?”23

Seneca could not have said it better!

——————————————

19The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Page 147.

20Ibid.

21Ibid., page 148.

22Ibid.

23Ibid.

Share this post:

CURRENT READING – ON DEATH by MILTON MAYER – PART IV

THE LOVE OF DEATH

In this section Mayer demonstrates how the negatives of life produce a desire for death. “That living should grow no more perfect with our practice of it – and, unlike in all our other undertakings, be most difficult when we have had the most practice of it – is enough to touch every satisfaction with conscious or unconscious unease, every joy with evanescence.”12 Life is indeed universally seen as difficult, full of sorrows, increasing pains exceeding any pleasure, the grind of labor, and worst perhaps, a weary monotony. He quotes an unnamed university president, “The aim of life is to get through it.”13 Even a life of delight looks forward to one incapable of it. Still nearly all hold on for dear life instinctually so it seems.

Death in his view is the failure of a system of systems, not ultimately natural as proved by unicellular organisms; nonetheless human immortality is “untenantable in no time”14 “It is the prospect of death that gives life its form and meaning.” 15 Time is essential to the movement of our lives; it is within us; we, not time, march on. It isn’t even clear we need more time given our tendency to ‘kill time’ or concede we have ‘spare time.’ Freud considered the death instinct (the need, not the desire, to die) stronger than the life instinct and claimed it as the reason for death’s eventual success. “Death is the only cure for what ails us all.”16

THE FEAR OF DEATH

However Mayer recognizes a universal fear of death which he suggests is not in fact the fear of dying, particularly for modern individuals where science eases the suffering of it. And yet we are still afraid. He notes Epictetus thought death was not terrible, only our thoughts about it. Santayana saw a positive in this, “The radical fear of death…is the love of life.”17 Plutarch disagreed seeing the fear of death as just that. Mayer thinks this remains debatable, but we can agree that the source of our dread is our conceptualization of death as eternal night, unimaginable incorporeality and nonsensitivity, and the knowledge one will exist no more. “While I am, reality is. The world began when I was born. It ends when I die. And die I do, and this is unbearable, and I shall bear it.”18

(final continuation next post)

——————————————

12The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Pages 134.

13Ibid.

14Ibid., page 137.

15Ibid.

16Ibid., page 139.

17Ibid., page 142.

18Ibid., page 143.

Share this post:

CURRENT READING – ON DEATH by MILTON MAYER – PART III

THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY

In this section, Mayer grasps at a hodgepodge of items in trying to understand death. He notes all people want to live on in some way, through their children, the memories of friends, or fame. In fact they will die to feel they will live on in these ways. Fame is problematic however; by how many people and for how long? It is uncertain both in occurrence and value, and worst of all, one gets no enjoyment of it after death. Also infamy may be more enduring: “There is more immortality in burning Rome than in saving it.”10

Supposed communication with the deceased and stories of ghosts offer limited evidence of survival of the dead, though a surprising number of people believe in them even in our time. Some think life can be extended through frozen storage though there are few healthy takers. Physicians tell us dying is at last easy – similar to falling asleep – often preceded by a willingness to die. Still there is no returning, so falling asleep every night is no practice at all, and everyone is a novice in dying.

There are two kinds of mysteries in this world – the Unknown and the Unknowable – and death seems to be the latter. However we are reasonably sure being dead entails no physical pain or pleasure. In the absence of resurrection, death should be “eternal rest.” Still most of us would delay death even for a day. Death we know is also the end of all change. He ends with a paradox; life is most devalued in societies with the greatest levels of comfort – perhaps we are bored to death by luxury. But if we risk life we should know “the value of the end and the choice of the means”11

 THE LOVE OF LIFE

In a secular world, life should be dearer given its brevity and the disavowal of an afterlife. Still life requires an objective valuation, presumably based on its meaning or one’s happiness.  Mayer notes this merely pushes back the appraisal to what makes life meaningful or happy. A separate calculus  assesses the value of another person’s life versus that of our own. In this vein we come across a paradox; we are all unavoidably killers (through commission or omission), but we go to great length to deny it. Perhaps this explains sanctions against euthanasia and suicide.

Then there is the matter of the value of the life of an old individual compared to that of a young one. Older people have no less desire to continue to exist while young people are so unconcerned about distant death that comparative valuation is moot – rather life simply bubbles forth in the young. It is not until perhaps age 45 that the reality of death sinks in and life is consciously valued. Nonetheless while life expectancy has increased over time, prolongation comes at increasing cost with advancing age. Moreover the human life span seems fixed, and the rapid speed of human progress has diminished the value of the wisdom of the elderly due to unavoidable obsolescence.

(concluded next post)

——————————————-

10The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Pages 121.

11Ibid., page 126

Share this post:

CURRENT READING – ON DEATH by MILTON MAYER – PART II

IMMORTALITY

Mayer believes death has a different meaning for us if we survive it versus if we do not; but this difference is an empirical problem for which we have no empirical evidence at all. There simply are no probabilities either way; we either do or we don’t and even an agnostic view imposes some risk for our understanding on life and death. One’s opinion is in effect an extension of one’s worldview; that is, a sensible universe holds a promise of immortality while a purposeless one does not.  He concludes “Death, and death alone, is at once a totally objective and a totally subjective reality.”5

He then examines various perspectives. Our ancestors hoped for salvation in a then unchallenged matrix of religious belief. In contrast Paul Tillich, the modern Protestant theologian, argues the tragic consequences of truth revealed by science do not justify its denial, transforming the question into whether humanity can find sufficient meaning in a diminished place in the cosmos or will turn to newer ‘theologies’ such as Fascism or Communism. Erich Fromm thinks that psychoanalysis can reconnect us to the unconscious which in turn is associated with religious feelings and frees us from individuation in favor of the All. The great existentialists such as Jean Paul Sartre think each person must seek on their own “freedom-toward-death” and liberation from terror in order to achieve “authentic existence” as an individual.

Instead of modern pessimistic notions of life as absurd we may choose instead to circle back to ancient pre-Christian philosophies of happiness in harmony of the soul, virtue, and the secular ‘blessedness’ touted by Aristotle. If these possibilities are real, then death “even as the end of the ‘biological entity’ may still crown something more than a farce.”6

BURY THE DEAD

Man, thinks Mayer, is defined by his burying of the dead – as opposed to our reaction to the deaths of thousands, or millions – but by the seriousness symbolized in the funeral procession. But humans also the only animals to celebrate death, seeking splendor in the deceased through ritual. He quotes Patrick O’Donovan on funeral rites, “It is a gesture made over and over again…a proud, half-conscious assertion that man is not an animal that dies alone in a hole.”7 Moreover he notes a paradox; supernaturalists and naturalists agree on this ‘half-conscious assertion’ – whether one believes in immortality or not, one believes in the ritual; even though neither should logically attach significance although for opposite reasons.

Bereavement is another feature of humanity. As         Freud tells us, we assume a special attitude to the dead, suspending criticism and recalling only that which is favorable to their memory. Freud tells us “consideration for the dead, who no longer need it, is dearer to us than the truth, and certainly for most of us, is dearer also than consideration for the living.”8 This attitude towards death according to Freud impacts our own lives. Life is impoverished and uninteresting when life itself may not be risked, but when death occurs “not one by one, but many at a time…Life has, in truth, become interesting again; it has regained its full significance.”9

(further continued next post)

——————————————-

5The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Pages 113

6Ibid., page 115

7Ibid., page 116

8Ibid., page 117

9Ibid.

Share this post:

CURRENT READING – ON DEATH by MILTON MAYER – PART I

“Immortality is the hinge on which death hangs. – Milton Mayer.1

 

 

Several years ago my wife gave me The Great Books series as a birthday gift, and shortly thereafter I was at a local charity’s fundraising book fair where a collection of the annual updates, The Great Ideas Today (1961-1993), was for sale for $1.00 per volume. These precious books offer an immense amount of traditional and contemporary writing filling over 10,000 pages, including this 40-page essay in the 1965 issue.

Milton Mayer (1908-1986) was a journalist by trade, reporting on executions, murder and suicides in Chicago. By age 30 he was teaching at the University of Chicago and by 1965 was a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts. He claimed “in all modesty to know as much about death as any man alive.”2 While I cannot confirm the validity of that statement, his thoughts seemed worth a few hours of reading and three or four blogs.

He divides his essay into eight parts: an introduction, Immortality, Bury the Dead, The Undiscovered Country, The Love of Life, The Love of Death. The Fear of Death, and How to Die.

Is your interest piqued yet?

INTRODUCTION

He starts, “Death is the one idea that has no history…Only death stands unmoved by man’s relentless compulsion to know.”3 In fact, he believes we don’t even know what death is other than as the negation of the idea of life and as such “an irremediable deprivation, possessed of no trace of existential reality”4 There is no report of the experience of death, but he thinks poets understand it best. Three aspects of modernity impact contemporary thinking on death – longevity, secularization, and total war. On the one hand, we may be able to extend life with science, however we remain certain death cannot be prevented. The demise of religion is likewise the downfall of the afterlife, and as such humanity turns from God’s work of ‘Life and Death’ to man’s work of ‘A Better Life.’ In opposition are recent historical events such as the carnage of the first World War, the mass exterminations in Nazi concentration camps, and the annihilation of entire human populations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki – events which suggest that death instead is the work of humanity and deprive it of individuality. In the end, death, and so life, are seen as absurd leaving only the futile hope of  a modicum of dignity in our dying.

(continued next post)

————————————————–

1The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Pages 113.

2Ibid., page 109

3Ibid., page 107

4Ibid.

Share this post:

PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – SUMMARY (continued)

It follows without great difficulty that the purpose of relationships (proximal purpose) is to facilitate these internally deduced purposes for each other,  The subtlety here concerns differences that various types of relationship impose on each party. Different relationships entail different degrees of reciprocal support for each other’s internal purpose; while some types involve unique roles. Romantic love offers one form of extreme intimacy, including physical and spiritual interconnectedness, metaphysical wholeness, experience of the beautiful, and perhaps even transcendence of space and time. Romantic love of course also is the common means for biological continuance through reproduction. True friendship offers a second type of extreme intimacy with another – this free of the burden of physical desire – including an enduring mutual altruism, a unique quality of pleasure in association, growth of the self, and a metaphysical confirmation of the other in reality and of the universe in the finite.

Family purpose includes belonging to a group with shifting roles throughout life, informing one’s sense of identity, ethics, and fate, providing psychological sanctuary, and for some, experiencing a divine or transcendental understanding that one can extend to all of humanity or even all living things. Acquaintances, while of mixed value, fill a nearly universal human need for the companionship of other humans. Strangers offer purpose in learning to overcome psychological obstacles of unsociability and prejudice, the experience of diversity and the opportunity for novel relationships of greater breadth.

Societal and cosmic purpose are perhaps more precarious than internal and proximal purpose, requiring a more analytical approach considering personal and environmental factors. Nonetheless they represent our more common notion of what is meant by purpose. They serve in multiple ways to assure a purposeful life by being our source of subsistence, self-fulfillment, authenticity, direct benefit to humanity or to Nature or to the cosmos, and our hope for an enduring legacy that symbolizes a kind of immortality.

When one asks what is the purpose of life, particularly one’s own life, the answer is complicated and must be addressed at these four levels of reality – internal, proximal cultural, and cosmic. Anything less is incomplete and ill-fated.  We simply must adopt a lifetime commitment to all dimensions of human purpose remembering at all times that if virtue is the result of practice and habit, purpose is the result of planning and persistence.

Share this post:

PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGUL LIFE – SUMMARY

“No living person can give genius the power to shoulder the meaning of the world. Yet, what are we to say about this problem if even Jung, who always relied on God, could still faint away with the burden of life? Probably in the last analysis only this: that all men are here to use themselves up and the problem of ideal illusion doesn’t spare any man from that. It only addresses the question of the best quality of work and life that men can achieve, depending on the beliefs they have and the powers that they lean on. – Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death.1

In this section we have seen that the second key ingredient of a meaningful life is purpose which is perhaps the most critical if guided by a strong moral compass. Some persons might argue that the word ‘purpose’ is even interchangeable with the word ‘meaning’ when referring to life, but clearly purpose is further enhanced by adornment with virtue, contentment, and the encounter with ultimate reality.  Virtue and purpose-driven intention are, it seems, two of the most defining features of what it means to be human.  In contrast a purposeless life fails nearly every person’s minimal standard of a meaningful life.

If we define ‘purpose’ as “the reason for which something exists or is done, made, or used; an intended or desired result, end, or aim”2 it becomes clear that an abridged definition might be -purpose is the answer to “why” we exist. On the other hand one’s individual purpose answers the question, “What is the desirable result, end, or aim of my particular life?” The answer, it turns out, is not objective and imposed from without, but subjective and self-determined. This principle applies even if one decides to follow what one believes was the intended purpose of one’s creation by whomever is considered responsible for it (e.g. parents or a divine creator).

Being subjective, purpose then originates from internal reality… inside oneself. At that level purpose is surprisingly straightforward, derived logically and is perhaps universal. One wishes to make a good life for oneself,  improve oneself, understand reality and find happiness and meaning. In other words, my purpose is to find a lifestyle that offers common necessities, pleasure and security, limits pain and unease, optimizes a reduction in my imperfections, offers the opportunity to make sense of my surroundings and the world, and enables a state of sustained  meaningful Eudaimonia.

(continued next post)

Share this post:

PURPOSE AND COSMIC REALITY – SYNOPSIS (continued)

Of course one wishes to have success in whatever cosmic purpose chosen and factors in that success come down to: (1) an optimal selection process, (2) commitment paired with extraordinary patience, (3) flexibility, (4) enjoyment of role, (5) realistic expectations, and (6) relentless focus. Analysis of persons with successful cosmic roles reveals they have one or more or even all of these elements in play.

The rewards are of several orders starting with individual ones particularly self-fulfillment and legacy including anticipation of a kind of immortality through accomplishment in the highest realm accessible in life. But the purest benefit is external – participation in and advancement of the designs implicit in Nature and the universe. As a bonus, there is an immense opportunity for work in these areas to benefit humanity as well.

In a greater sense, success is secondary; the simple decision  to further the ‘goals’ of Nature and of the universe coupled with sincere effort qualifies one to a place on the roster of significant persons who have ever lived even if one’s efforts are never publicly recognized. When one considers whether there is a meaning to life, the most defensible stance for an answer in the positive is having attempted or, better yet, fulfilled a self-defined cosmic role. Human agency transcends human finitude in cosmic purpose. We may all end up cosmic dust, but the significance of our existence is forever affirmed in our voluntary contributions to cosmic destiny.

I close by returning to  Jonas Salk’s powerful synthesis presented now more fully:

“He [Man] has not yet seen the importance of understanding life’s ‘purpose,’ and therefore, his purpose individually and collectively, and of understanding where he fits into the evolutionary scheme of things. …If human life is to express as much harmony, constructiveness, and creativity as are possible for fulfilling the purpose of life, as ‘required’ by Nature, and the purposes in life, as ‘chosen’ by Man, an attitude will be needed, not of Man ‘against’ Nature, but of Man ‘inclusive with’ Nature. A more reasonable attitude would be for Man to ‘serve Nature’ in order to serve himself…”1

Plenty to think about.

————————————————–

1Salk, Jonas, The Survival of the Wisest. Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, 1973. ISBN 0-06-013738-X, pages 3-4. ( His italics and quotation marks.)

Share this post: