CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WESTERN ANTIQUITY – PART VII

“Piety lies… in being able to look upon all things with a mind at peace.” – Lucretius, De rarum natura.

Today we summarize the major ancient Western formulations of contentment that appeared during the roughly 600 years from about 400 BCE until about 200 CE. Our first great thinker was Socrates who demonstrates superhuman tranquility and equanimity in his encounter with unjust death. He attributes his serenity to his belief in the immortality of the soul, his lifelong pursuit of knowledge, and the proper arraying of the soul. In the Republic, Plato has Socrates explain this latter principle as an ordering of one’s inner being, peace with oneself, and harmony of thought and action. On the other hand Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, is nearly silent on the immortality of the soul and on tranquility, instead analyzing the prerequisites of happiness. For him this comes down to a life of virtuous activity, of contemplation, and of self-sufficiency. We notice none of these early thinkers equates contentment with withdrawal or renunciation, nor invokes a need for a guide.

The Cynics and the Skeptics appear to challenge the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Diogenes the Cyn, sees contentment not in study or contemplation but in a raw strength of mind to want nothing and to lack nothing. Societal action is limited to modeling Cynic virtues for others to follow. But since a life of deprivation on the street involves a difficult transition, the Cynics think a novice needs guidance from an experienced Cynic. For the first time in the West, the utter abandonment of material goods of the world is seen as a cornerstone of contentment.

Pyrrho, the Skeptic, offers a path parallel to the Cynics yet still distinct from our earlier thinkers, denying the possibility of any knowledge or truth, choosing instead an agoge or way of living based on utter apathy to objects, dangers, and pleasures, tranquil moderation, and indifference to intellectual dogmatism. Contentment for the Skeptics is freedom from anxiety about philosophical and religious dogmas and a course guided by nature and personal feelings, but conforming to the laws and customs of one’s society. Conflict is avoided by suspending judgment on philosophical and political matters.

Zeno of Citium developed the third system, Stoicism, where contented life depends on control over one’s emotions and on an understanding of nature and the cosmos as a unified whole. Tranquility originates from apatheia or acceptance of and detachment from the results of action and one’s environment, a voluntary surrender to the divine will which secures one against the vicissitudes of Fortune. Stoic euthymia or well-being is attained through four virtues – intelligence, bravery, justice, and self-control – reinforced by duty to promote a rationally ordered world. Evil is recast as a temporary inconvenience necessary to the greater good of the whole. Stoics urge an apprenticeship to wisdom and the imitation of a wise man rather than submission to a master. Contentment for the Stoic is the rational adjustment of one’s aims and conduct to the purposes and laws of the universe so that one lives in harmony with it.

(continued next post)

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