In closing this section on contentment I began with definitions and distinctions, methods to free ourselves from emotional and empirical obstacles, and structures based on three approaches to interacting with the world. Our review next returns to the lessons of several great traditions and thinkers. First the ancient Eastern masters emphasize withdrawal, renunciation, or non-intervention, combined with recognition and meditation on eternal truths, the reading of scriptures and texts, and often the guidance of spiritual teachers. They downplay the need for lasting purpose and elevate the importance of the experience of ultimate reality. Peace for them comes not from the direct seeking, but from letting go of worldly concerns and individual desires, unmasking the truth of reality, and at last finding enlightenment.
From the ancient Western philosophers of Greece and Rome we saw that contentment distills down to freedom – freedom from wants and from worry and to order the soul for inner peace. Theirs is an inviolable freedom no person or law can threaten. Three ancient Greek terms ataraxia (untroubledness), apatheia (detachment), and euthymia (spiritual peace and well-being) enclose a triangle of tranquility located within a mental retreat beyond the crowd and its disquietudes where one can contemplate the harmony of one’s existence with Nature and the universe.
Later thinkers offer points for fine tuning contentment. Boethius sees contentment reflected in the final truth of the goodness at the heart of things leading to a love that re-establishes one’s union with the providence of the universe. Philosophy, he tells us, provides an explanation as to why we must accept our individual fortune within the construct of the cosmos and the means to self-mastery and internally-focused tranquility. Montaigne encourages rational withdrawal, particularly from avoidable evils, which following a youth of instruction and an adulthood of good practice should bring one to contentment later in life in a setting of solitude and freedom from worldly concerns and which permits sufficient time to overcome one’s fear of mortality and to prepare for death. Arthur Schopenhauer tempers excess expectations, asserting that contentment is not happiness but the acceptance of a moderate life and freedom from anxiety, society, unnecessary mourning, and the folly of excessive desires, enhanced by ceaseless learning. Sigmund Freud is pessimistic, finding happiness and lasting content are improbable, but after considering several approaches, offers sage advice: there is no universal recipe, rather one must find one’s particular means to peace and be careful in pursuing any means to the extreme given the disappointment of possible failure.
(finished next post)