CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – LATER THINKERS – PART IV

“In the psycho-analytical theory of the mind, we take it for granted that the course of mental processes is automatically regulated by the pleasure-principle; that is to say, we believe that any given process originates in an unpleasant state of tension and thereupon determines for itself such a path that its ultimate issue coincides with a relaxation of this tension, i.e. with avoidance of “pain” or the production of pleasure..” – Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920).

In our quest for perspectives on contentment, the last of the later thinkers I offer for consideration is Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Second perhaps only to Schopenhauer in his pessimism, Freud moved from psychology to philosophy with his late essay Civilization and Its Discontents (1929). While the general theme of this work is social criticism and an attack on religion as deception, the first two sections (of eight) describe his analysis of contentment and happiness for the individual and are thus the focus of our interest. In addition his concerns about religiosity serve as pre-emptive arguments against the contentment that we will discuss in the next section on the encounter with ultimate reality, the fourth component of a fully meaningful life.

In the first of the two parts he starts with the assertion that all religion is an illusion, but frets over the fact that a close and respected friend thinks this is not inconsistent with personal religiosity demonstrated by the nearly universal “oceanic feeling” experienced by people. Freud himself has never had that feeling and struggles to find a psychological explanation for it. He considers whether it is a type of connection with the world, but has doubts because in his study of human psychology, the ego learns the opposite as it grows, that is, to detach itself from the pain of the outside world. He also dispenses with the idea that it is love for another which can be explained by his psychoanalytical theories. He does not relinquish his doubt of the “oceanic feeling” as religious in origin since, for him, religion appears to result from the frail adult striving for the security of a primordial or supernatural father figure.  He also challenges its authenticity as Yogi’s can elicit similar sensations through their practices.

Nevertheless in the second part Freud demonstrates an unexpected level of intellectual integrity in trying to identify, by the process of elimination, possible sources of happiness and contentment once religion and spirituality are eliminated. He starts with the preliminary position that “Life as we find it is too hard for us; it entails too much pain, too many disappointments, impossible tasks.”1 As a result we default to one or more of three alternatives: (1) diversionary activities, (2) substitute gratifications, and (3) intoxicating substances.2 Regarding the first, Freud notes that religion historically offered purpose to human life, but by his time this function is being served more often by Science and Art, thus self-immersion in them answers two human needs that of purpose and that of distraction from life’s discomforts.  Meanwhile since most people cannot achieve contentment in this manner, they attempt gratification via the pleasure principle – i.e. by maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain – but find this is in conflict with the world. Moreover pleasure comes mainly from the relief of unmet needs and so can provide, at most, only temporary satisfaction.

(continued next post)

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1Freud, Sigmund, Civilization and its Discontents. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 54, page 771.

2Freud himself was reportedly a cocaine addict.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – LATER THINKERS – PART III

“Nothing in human affairs is worth any great anxiety.” – Plato, Republic, X, 604.

After hearing from Boethius and Montaigne, we come now to the third of our later thinkers on contentment, Arthur Schopenhauer. What can we expect to learn from the greatest Western pessimist-philosopher? Quite a bit actually…

We must start with Schopenhauer’s metaphysic of the thing-in-itself, ‘will’, which he sees as the ultimate force inside us and underpinning the universe. Quoting Aristotle, he notes “not pleasure, but freedom from pain is what the wise man will aim at.”This statement in his view turns on an essential truth – pain is the ‘positive’ of life, and happiness its negative. The acknowledgement of discomfort and unease is resisted by the will, but satisfaction of the will requires it meet no resistance. However resisting the will is a fundamental positive, a form of freedom that the will counters with pleasure when resistance eases. Pleasure then is illusory and temporary. Contentment, we learn, comes not from a ledger of pleasures, but a deficit of evils. In his words, “to live happily only means to live less unhappily…2 In fact, Schopenhauer has backed into a kind of Neo-Epicureanism.

His pessimism goes further; life is not given to us to enjoy, but to overcome, and thus “In old age, it is indeed a consolation to think that the work of life is over and done with.”3 He advises one should “never try to purchase pleasure at the cost of pain,” 4 because “the best that life has to offer is an existence free from pain – a quiet, tolerable life…” 5 Contentment is not happiness (nor is happiness even real); it is acceptance of a moderate life and freedom from anxiety – both of which are undone by the hypocrisy of society, unnecessary mourning, and the folly of excessive desires. He concludes: “Men of worth or value soon come to see that they are in the hands of Fate, and gratefully submit to be moulded by its teachings. They recognize that the fruit of life is experience, and not happiness; they become accustomed and content to exchange hope for insight; and in the end, they can say with Petrarch, that all they care for is to learn: Altro diletto che ‘mpara, no provo.” 6

I’ll stop there …that should be enough for us to think about.

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1Saunders, T. Bailey (translator), The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 1995. ISBN 978-1-57392-033-9, page 7 (Counsels and Maxims, General Rules) – his italics.

2Ibid . Page 8 – his italics.

3Ibid.

4Ibid.

5Ibid. Page 11.

6Ibid. Page 16 – translates as “Learning is my sole delight.”

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – LATER THINKERS – PART II (continued)

In the prior post, we looked at contentment as presented by Montaigne is his two essays: On Constancy and On Solitude. We come last to  his unforgettable essay, That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die, in which Montaigne counter poses pleasure as the typical pursuit of people with the far greater gratification which comes from preparing oneself for death. He argues that contentment cannot be found in pleasure if one is in constant fear of death. He tells us “Now of all the benefits that virtue confers upon us, the contempt of death is one of the greatest, as the means that accommodates human life with a soft and easy tranquility, and gives us a pure and pleasant taste of living without which all other pleasure would be extinct.”6

This is because of all the possible adversities in life, only death is a certainty. From death there is no retreat, thus “let us learn bravely to stand our ground, and fight him. And to begin to deprive him of the greatest advantage he has over us, let us take a way quite contrary to the common course. Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death.”7

There’s more: “The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die, has learned to serve. There is nothing evil in life, for him who rightly comprehends that the privation of life is no evil: to know how to die delivers us from all subjection and constraint.”8 Reason, he tells us, offers the means to accept death; consider Nature’s position, “Go out of this world… as you entered into it; the same pass you made from death to life, without passion or fear, the same manner, repeat from life to death, Your death is a part of the order of the universe, ‘tis part of the life of the world.” He also quotes Lucretius, “Why not depart from life, as a sated guest from a feast?”9 He then goes on to explain the futility of trying to extend our short lives and the negatives of immortality.

For Montaigne then contentment comes from rational withdrawal – particularly withdrawal from avoidable evils. In fact for him life can be divided into three periods; instruction, practice of good, and withdrawal. This later phase of life involves solitude and freedom from worldly concerns. However because death is unavoidable, confrontation with our mortality and preparation for death is both a virtue and the ultimate means to contentment.

 


6 Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), Montaigne. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 25, page 28.

7Ibid., page 30-31.

8Ibid., page 31.

9Ibid., page 34.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – LATER THINKERS – PART II

“Though the tears flow, the mind remains unmoved.”AEneid, iv. 449.

 

 

Following the last post regarding Boethius on the achieving of tranquility in extreme adversity we leap forward ten centuries to Montaigne (1533-1592) to pick up again the trail of the great thinkers on contentment. In his essay On Constancy, Montaigne notes that all of us will encounter mischiefs and inconveniences that threaten us, and thus “all decent and honest ways and means of securing ourselves from harms, are not only permitted but moreover commendable and the business of constancy chiefly is, bravely to stand to, and stoutly to suffer those inconveniences which are not possibly to be avoided.”1  But using military examples as metaphors, he offers one particularly useful tool in adversity – that of retreat. In brief, equipoise is achieved by withdrawal from avoidable evils and by courageous engagement with unavoidable ones.

He goes on, using the Stoics as his guides, he says the soul of the philosopher need not be proof against all frights and disturbances, “provided his judgment remain sound and entire, and that the seat of his reason suffer no concussion nor alteration, and that he yield no consent to his fright and discomposure…The Peripatetic sage does not exempt himself totally from perturbations of mind, but he moderates them.”2 Clearly, tranquility is a process or rational encounters with the vicissitudes of life and self-control within in the face of misfortune. We are reminded of Marcus Aurelius and Boethius here.

In his essay On Solitude he goes further. Once we achieve the good we can in life, the time comes when we must withdrawal more fully from the world into solitude where contentment awaits us. He discourages the propensity to physical flight from our circumstances – “the principal vexations of life…ambition, avarice, fear, and inordinate desires, do not leave us because we forsake our native country.”3  At some point, “We have lived enough for others, let us at least live out the small remnant of our life for ourselves, let us now call in our thoughts and intentions to ourselves, and to our own ease and repose.” 4 Montaigne advises we cut off our obligations and learn to “soothe and caress” ourselves. In this way you will come “to be contented with yourself,; to borrow nothing of any other but yourself; to stay and fix your soul in certain and limited thoughts, where she may please herself, and having understood the true and real goods, which men the more enjoy the more they understand, to rest satisfied, without desire of prolongation of life or name.”

(continued next post)

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1Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), Montaigne. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 25, page 20.

2Ibid., page 21-22.

3Ibid., page 107-108.

4Ibid., page 109.

3Ibid., page 112.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – LATER THINKERS – PART I

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus.

 

 

We return now to the subject of contentment as a component of the meaningful life, having so far reviewed the major thinkers and traditions of the ancient Eastern and Western traditions. The earliest of the later philosophers, Boethius, could arguably be considered the last of the ancients, though he follows the fall of Rome and technically falls into the middle ages. We met this author of The Consolation of Philosophy in the section on Free Will, Fate, and Fortune.1 Written during his imprisonment which ended in his execution, that text offers insights into how philosophical reasoning can permit tranquility even during great misfortune. Thus we return to it to answer the difficult question of whether contentment can be secured in any and all circumstances including the worst vicissitude of life that some of us may be facing now and others among us may encounter in the future.

The approach Boethius takes emphasizes the larger picture over the smaller one, that is, recognition that the universe is good in general, no matter how it appears in our particular microcosm. Good and bad fortune are the inevitable result of the order and governance of the universe. Even within misfortune one can identify absolute goods such as loved ones and one’s internal resilience, while lost or absent “goods” are typically transient or superficial. Detachment from illusory goods and control of desire are the path to tranquility. One must seek not goods, but the good; and the highest good is the universe itself or God.2

In Boethius’ words, “He that would build on a lasting resting-place; who would be firm to resist the blasts of the storming wind; who seeks too, safety where he may contemn the surge and threatening of the sea; must leave the lofty mountain’s top, and leave the thirsting sands. The hill is swept by all the might of the headstrong gale: the sands dissolve, and will not bear the load upon them. Let him fly the danger in a lot which is pleasant rest unto the eye: let him be mindful to set his house surely upon the lowly rock. Then let the wind bellow, confounding wreckage in the sea, and thou wilt still be founded upon unmoving peace, wilt be blessed in the strength of thy defence: thy life will be spent in calmness, and thou mayest mock the raging passion of the air.”3

Contentment then for Boethius, comes from recognition of a final truth, one in which we must discover for ourselves, one essential to human existence itself – that there is a goodness at the heart of things and love re-establishes a union with the principle of the universe as good and with Providence. Philosophy alone tells us why we must accept our individual fortune within the construct of the cosmos, how to recognize true goods from false, and the means to self-mastery and internally-focused contentment. Simple, but difficult – no guide, no study, no meditation practices, no asceticism – just strength of reason and …strength of will.

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1 See post on this site titled Fortune – Part II – Boethius dated 8/21/19 which includes a short biography.

2Edman, Irwin (editor), The Consolation of Philosophy. The Modern Library, New York, 1943. Pages xii-xvi.

3Ibid., page 29-30.

CURRENT READING – GIORGIO VASARI (end)

In concluding my vacation and the excellent thoughts of Giorgio Vasari in his biography of great Renaissance artists, we come to Gozzoli who becomes for Vasari a model of how contentment follows purpose despite personal suffering: “He who pursues the path of excellence in his labors, although it is, as men say, both stony and full of thorns, finds himself finally at the end of the ascent on a broad plain, with all the blessings that he has desired …deliver men from poverty, and bring them to that secure and tranquil state in which, with so much contentment…”9

Vasari reminds one of Confucius when he gets to the three Bellinis:  “Who does not feel infinite pleasure and contentment, to say nothing of honor and adornment that they confer, at seeing the image of his ancestors, particularly if they have been famous and illustrious for their part in governing of republics, for noble deeds performed in peace of in war, or for learning or any other notable and distinguished talent? And to what other end… did the ancients set up images of their great men in public places, with honorable inscriptions, than to kindle in the minds of their successors a love of excellence and of glory?”10

Vasari counsels us that poverty need not be an obstacle to personal purpose and accomplishment with the example of Perugino: “How great a benefit poverty may be to men of genius, and how potent a force it may be to make them become excellent – nay, perfect- in the exercise of any faculty whatsoever, can be seen clearly enough in the actions of Pietro Perugino…Riches, indeed, might perchance have closed the path on which his talent should advance toward excellence…”11

But Vasari cautions us to remain humble and seek purpose within our own talents and abilities when he describes Raphael, (know best by philosophers for his immortal School of Athens, one of the most reproduced paintings in history) with this  “…no man should aim at super-striving, merely in order to surpass those who, by some gift of nature or by some special grace bestowed on them by God, have performed or are performing miracles in art ; for the reason that he who is not suited to any particular work, can never reach, let him labor as he may, the goal to which another, with the assistance of nature has maintained with ease.”12 Who can deny that we cannot all achieve the height of human creation of this Renaissance master?

I stop here omitting the ultra-famous artists Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, as well as many others, simply to tease the inclination of the reader to check out Vasari for himself. We are awed that not only did he personally know so many great individuals, a thing most of us will never experience, but that he was able to transform that knowledge into an enduring masterpiece full of perceptive observations on how genius reinforces the meaning of life for us mere mortals.

Thank you for obliging me on my love for art, history, and philosophy.

And yes, it is good to be home…

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9 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptor, and Architects. The Modern Library. New York, 1959. Page 125.

10Ibid., page 136.

11Ibid., page 177.

12Ibid., page 266.

CURRENT READING – GIORGIO VASARI (continued)

Continuing now both my trip abroad and my current reading of Giorgio Vasari the biographer of great Renaissance artists, we come to his refreshing perspective on competition among persons within a company or field. Speaking on Massacio and Masalino (“big Thomas” and “little Thomas”) who often combined efforts: “It is the custom of nature, when she makes a man very excellent in any profession, very often not to make him alone, but at the same time, and in the same neighborhood, to make another to compete with him, to the end that they may assist each other by their talent and emulation; which circumstance, besides the singular advantage enjoyed by the men themselves, who thus compete with each other, also kindles beyond measure the mind of those who come after that age…”5

Speaking of Brunelleschi, designer of the great il Duomo of Florence, we learn not to underestimate those of apparent diminutive stature perhaps including ourselves and how purpose leads to contentment: “Many men are created by nature small in person and in features, who have a mind full of such greatness and a heart of such irresistible vehemence, that if they do not begin difficult- nay, almost impossible – undertakings, and bring them to completion to the marvel of all who behold them, they have never any peace in their lives; and whatsoever work chance puts into their hands, however lowly and base it may be, they give it value and nobility.”6

Vasari confirms our earlier conclusions on contentment and legacy vis a vis wealth and material goods with the example of Fra Angelico. “ He might have been rich, but to this he gave no thought; nay he used to say that true riches consist only in being content with little…he sought no dignity save that of seeking to avoid Hell and draw near to Paradise. And what dignity, in truth, can be compared to that which all churchmen, nay, all men, should seek, and which is to be found only in God and in a life of virtue?”7

He uses Alberti as his model for the symbolic immortality of virtuous personal creation: “…with regard to name and fame, it is seen from experience that writings have greater power and longer life than anything else; for books go everywhere with ease, and everywhere they command belief, if only they be truthful and not full of lies.”8

The life of Fra Filippo Lippi becomes for Vasari an example of how even the least fortunate can become great. This remarkable artist went from an orphan in a monastery who tore up his school books to prisoner and slave of Moorish pirates to greatness as one of the one of the most excellent painters of his time.

(finished next post)

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5 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptor, and Architects. The Modern Library. New York, 1959. Page 41.

6 Ibid., page 49.

7Ibid., page 108.

8Ibid., page 120.

 

CURRENT READING – GIORGIO VASARI

“He was not a great artist but he was a good man, and industrious investigator,… a generous as well as intelligent critic. In simple, racy, almost colloquial Tuscan, and occasionally with the vividness of the novelle, he gave us one of the most interesting books of all time… It will remain for centuries to come one of the classics of  the world’s literature.” – Will Durant, describing Giorgio Vasari.1

On this particular vacation through Italy, I brought my 1959 Modern Library version of Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptor, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). To my great surprise his writing on Renaissance artists includes perspicacious observations on humanity and life, and also many pearls of practical wisdom, which I thought I would share with readers. I will go in chapter order so his philosophical perspectives may appear random though they can be arranged more systematically.

Vasari was born in Arezzo Italy and spent most of his life in nearby Florence. He was a middling painter and architect who obtained lasting fame for this book undertaken at the suggestion of Cardinal Farnese in 1546 and published in 1550. It was he who established the term Rinascita for this period, later morphed into Renaissance by the 18th century French encyclopedists.

The first of his observations occurs while speaking of Luca Della Robbia, “…no one ever became excellent in any exercise whatsoever without beginning from his childhood to endure heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and other discomforts; wherefore those men are entirely deceived who think to be able, at their ease and with all the comforts of the world, to attain to honorable rank. It is not by sleeping but by waking and studying continually that progress is made.”2 Vasari reminds us that purpose requires endurance and sacrifice, and perhaps that suffering is built into it.

And still with Robbia, Vasari describes a version of Laozi’s wu wei: “…whosoever know that all the arts of design, not to speak only of painting, are similar to poetry, know that even as poems thrown off by the poetic fire are the true and good ones, and better than those made with great effort, so, too the works of men excellent in the arts of design are better when they are made at one sitting by the force of that fire, than when they go about investigating one thing after another with effort and fatigue. And he who has from the beginning, as he should have, a clear idea of what he wishes to do, ever advances resolutely and with great readiness to perfection.”3

His comment on Ghiberti sounds like something we might expect to find in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:  “Since it is seldom that talent is not persecuted by envy, men must continue to the best of their power, by means of the utmost excellence, to assure it of victory, or at least to make it stout and strong to sustain the attacks of the enemy…”4

(continued next post)

 

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1 Durant, Will, The Renaissance. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1953. ISBN 0-671-61600-5, pages 704-705.

2 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptor, and Architects. The Modern Library. New York, 1959. Page 12.

3 Ibid., page 15

4Ibid., page 29

CURRENT READING – JEROME

“True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare.” – G.K. Chesterton.

Still traveling, I return to A Loeb Classical Library Reader referenced in the last post where we find one other thinker who addresses contentment – Jerome (c342- 420 C.E.). His Latin name was Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus but he is better known as Jerome of Stridon or Saint Jerome. His translation of the bible into Latin was the first and came to be known as the Vulgate. He was also a Christian philosopher known for his teachings on moral life mainly to city dwellers and especially to women.1 Today’s selection is from a letter to Marcella written in 385 C.E.

He starts by recounting how Origen2 and his followers spent their time either in prayer or in reading, while in contrast we are easily bored by these activities and soon return to worldly affairs. He has particular scorn for heavy meals, gossip, showy clothing, and the pursuit of wealth, all of which cause conflict in the mind. He explains, “…as today we have traversed a great part of life’s journey through rough seas, and as our barque has been now shaken by tempestuous wind, now holed upon ragged rocks, let us take this first chance and make for the haven of a rural retreat. Let us live there on coarse bread…and on milk, country delicacies, cheap and harmless.”3 Each of the seasons  offer in turn privacy, a place for rest, and escape from the cold unlike in the city where we find an unsettling bustle, fury, madness, and profligacy. Contentment comes from cleaving to God and hope in a future in heaven, not the “poor passing pleasures here on earth.”4

Though separated by 300 years and opposite views on the existence of God, Lucretius and Jerome seem to profess similar paths to contentment. Both urge us to abandon material goods and luxury. Both discount the benefit of society and encourage a return to nature or at least a more natural existence. Their main area of difference appears to be on ultimate reality where Lucretius believes we should contemplate the cosmos and Jerome asks us to seek for the divine. There is much to consider as we reconcile these two with each other and with our cavalcade of other great thinkers.

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 1Wikipedia, Jerome.

2Origen (c. 185–c. 253) was a Christian theologian who contributed to the foundations of church doctrine using classical philosophy to create an exegesis and harmonization of scripture (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Origen [on-line]).

3A Loeb Classic Library Reader. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006. ISNB 0-674-99616-X, page 231.

4Ibid.

CURRENT READING – LUCRETIUS

“Who is calm and quiet becomes the guide for the universe.” – Laozi.

On my current vacation to Europe I have with me a treasure I purchased at After-words in Chicago four years ago, A Loeb Classical Library Reader. This small paperback (234 pages) published in 2006 by Harvard University Press contains selections from 33 classic works spanning twelve centuries from Homer to St. Jerome and covering history, philosophy, poetry, drama, and satire in their original Greek or Latin although thankfully accompanied by an English translation. Given our current subject matter on contentment, I was drawn to the selection from On the Nature of Things by Lucretius subtitled The Epicurean ideal: peace of mind.

Lucretius begins by noting the wistful pleasure experienced in seeing another person’s tribulations such as in battling a storm on the sea from a place of safety on the shore, not because of the other’s misfortune, but by virtue of knowing oneself is free from it.1 But, he tells us, there is a greater pleasure in possessing “lofty sanctuaries serene, well-fortified by the teachings of the wise, whence you may look down upon others and behold them all astray, wandering abroad and seeking the path of life – strife of wits, the fight for precedence, all laboring night and day with surpassing toil to mount upon the pinnacle of riches and to lay hold on power.”2

According to Lucretius, Nature sanctions a simpler way focused on the avoidance of pain and a mind free of care and fear. Pain is easily removed by meeting physical needs; luxuries are neither natural nor necessary. Neither beautiful tapestries nor royal robes cure one of sickness. Treasure and noble birth offer little of value to the body or to peace of mind. No army can relieve us of fears, superstition, or the terror of death. Can we doubt “that this power wholly belongs to reason, especially since life is one long struggle in the dark?”3 This kind of darkness is dispelled, not by light, but “by the aspect and law of nature.”4

Lucretius is unambiguous in these passages; peace of mind is the result of reason in harmony with nature not the trappings of society. A contented life we learn requires one to remain above the fray and in touch with the cosmos.

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1 We might think of the pleasure we experience watching storms on The Weather Channel from the comfort of our family room sofa.

2A Loeb Classic Library Reader. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006. ISNB 0-674-99616-X, page 145.

3Ibid., page 149.

4Ibid.