“To be content with little is hard, to be content with much, impossible.” Marie Ebner von Eschenbach, The Two Countesses
In our study of contentment so far we have concluded that it refers to a sustained state of satisfaction and peace of mind, facilitated by a good life including virtuous and purposeful activity, and by freedom from conventional psychological and mental barriers to tranquility. Today we examine the various structures of contentment proposed by great thinkers of the past. In general these revolve around which of three approaches to living in the world is favored: (1) withdrawal, (2) constraint, and (3) engagement. Philosophers, it seems, agree on the value of contentment, but their diverging worldviews lead to different strategies in its realization. As in other areas of philosophy there is significant overlap however.
Withdrawal appears to be the most ancient of the preferred means to tranquility, appearing first in the East with Hindu thinkers, Laozi, and Buddha. When one’s view of the world is an endless and tedious cycling of history or an incessant sequence of individual birth and death, engagement in the world feels counterproductive and an impediment to enlightenment which is the ultimate purpose in these traditions. Withdrawal is thus justified, and when paired with disciplined meditation offers personal peace. Western thinkers including some of the Cynics, Stoics, Neoplatonists, and even some Christian mystics and mendicant monks discover this path later in history.
The second major structure of contentment comes from the ancient Greek philosophers and goes by the name, ataraxia. This model is based on intentional constraint, a partial withdrawal from worldly affairs such as politics combined with a conscious effort to avoid all sources of unease or troubledness. Equilibrium is obtained by a reduction in wants and passions without total withdrawal from community or the practice of meditation. Purpose is found in simple pleasures within a limited community and the contemplation of nature. Epicurus is the most famous teacher of this doctrine, but its origins go back to the Cynics and the concept permeates much of ancient Greek philosophy. Modern proponents also present these ideas as minimalism or simplifying life.
The third model seeks contentment within a context of continued engagement with the world and is of inexact origin, though probably developed by blending features of the first two. Purpose in this paradigm depends on involvement in human affairs, and so peace is found in detaching one’s feelings from the results of one’s actions. This develops through a kind of disinterested or dispassionate attitude to one’s environment and an intense focus on completion of tasks, nowadays called mindfulness. Peace is also found in reducing worry by staying in the moment and by complete acceptance of the course reality takes. Regular meditation directed at controlling one’s thoughts is often encouraged as the means to success. This appears in the Bhagavad Gita, with later Eastern thinkers, the Stoics (particularly the Roman Stoics), and is advocated by many modern thinkers, such as Eckhart Tolle. This latter form is most useful for contemporary individuals who in general will find withdrawal from society impractical or unsatisfactory.