CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – HORACE

…carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.1 – Horace, Odes 1.11.

We return now to the topic of contentment which I have asserted is one of the four key components of a meaningful life. We have already analyzed the ancient Eastern and Western understandings of contentment as well as those of some more recent thinkers and explored three portals to tranquility – silence, solitude, and asceticism. Before we conclude, I would like to examine contentment through the eyes of a single individual, the Roman poet, Horace (65 B.C.E. – 8 B.C.E.).

Horace’s counsel seems to fall into two broad categories: (1) internal and behavioral adjustments (which make up today’s post), and (2) special topics (discussed in the next post). His most salient advice is to be content with one’s lot in life, that is to avoid the vice of mempsimoiria, the Greek word for criticism of one’s lot in life and envy of the circumstances of others.2 Each of us must be willing to get by with a small sufficiency of possessions and learn to stop worrying about the future. We must learn to “endure whatever will be”3 and remain in the present since nothing can be known about tomorrow – his formulation of mindfulness or staying focused on the current moment.

He goes on to urge us to avoid stress and excess in an age of anxieties and extremes (like his and ours). He repeatedly recommends living in the country, citing his preference for the quiet residence of his Sabine farm. A rural environment enhances our ability to live in accordance with nature, is quieter and less disruptive to sleep, offers milder weather, and provides an idylic landscape (locus amognus).  Horace again: “Avoid great surroundings: in a humble house you can surpass kings and kings’ friends in living.”4 Truth in ethics, rustic meditation, and country life are likewise more conducive to preparation for inevitable changes in fortune. Consider this segment:

“About the way to get through your life without friction:

Whether unfulfilled desire is always to harass and vex you,

And panic and hope for things of modest use,

Whether learning leads to virtue or heredity confers it,

What reduces your cares, what reconciles you to yourself,

What gives you real contentment – office and sweet lucre,

Or the road of retirement and the path of life that passes unknown?”5

Horace believes we should wish only to have what we now possess or even less – for him just books and corn. We should ask only of God life and necessities and acquire for ourselves a steady mind. He is convinced mental steadiness alone is essential to contentment. and that is within one’s own control. It is best to remain indifferent to material circumstances as riches bring bigger burdens. He urges us to be unimpressed by merely material things and daunted by nothing and no one. Even the pursuit of virtue beyond what suffices is madness for Horace. He also tells us to resist the urge to travel: “those who speed across the sea change their climate not their temper…what you seek is here… if your have a sufficient steady mind.”6  He leaves no room for doubt; the mentally disciplined person is content anywhere.

(continued next post)

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1“…Harvest the present day; trust minimally in the next.”

2Harrison, Stephen (editor/translator), How To Be Content – Horace. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2020. ISBN 978-0-691-18252-0, page 31.

3Ibid., page 35.

4Ibid., pages 44-45.

5Ibid., page 50.

6Ibid., page 72-72

CURRENT EXPERIENCE – SUBSTITUTE TEACHING (final continuation)

In the last two posts I summarized my reasons for becoming a substitute teacher and my experience of the first day in that role. Today I offer my observations and philosophical deductions from that fascinating day in an unfamiliar arena.

First my observations:

  1. The school was extremely clean.
  2. All of the staff were nice and expressed appreciation that I was helping out.
  3. We wore masks the whole day, something I as a physician think is obsolete. (Covid is simply too endemic now).
  4. There was generally order between classes.
  5. Most of the school clocks were off; this has apparently been the case for some time – “Does anyone really know what time it is?”
  6. The students are behind due to the Covid pandemic
  7. Kids are mostly good even lovable, despite challenging us adults.
  8. When asked, about half the students said they thought they learned something from my instruction.
  9. Some kids came up to me to express their appreciation for my efforts or their regrets for bad behavior or just to introduce themselves. Others helped me when they saw me floundering.
  10. There are too many students in the classes to offer more than a modicum of individual support. I worry this leaves less versatile students struggling.
  11. The materials used today including technology are entirely different than what my generation experienced, but the subject matter is very similar to what we learned as children.

Philosophical points:

  1. Teaching young people is a powerfully purposeful activity. Of course it is hard to know the lasting impact one has, but it is likely substantial for some of them.
  2. We need to be sure to give every student a chance to learn by accommodating their particular differences.
  3. Teaching is a reciprocal activity; one both imparts and receives new knowledge as an instructor.
  4. Kids learn virtue though school – especially the importance of responsibility and care for others.
  5. Getting out of your comfort zone is exhilarating.
  6. Teaching middle schoolers is an excellent way to practice self-control and internal tranquility.
  7. We should wish to live in a country to which everyone wishes to pledge allegiance.
  8. Rewards not punishment is the means to elicit desirable behavior (I am reminded of Laozi).
  9. If kids think you care, they will cooperate and benefit from your influence.
  10. And last, it is both a form of supererogatory duty and a pleasure to contribute my pay for the day to the education of the very students who attended my classes .

To conclude, caring, virtue, self-control, finding new unpracticed purpose, and supererogatory duty are the philosophical lessons of my first day of substitute teaching. I also have to add that my respect for teachers is magnified by the experience.

Next time we return to contentment as described by the great Roman poet, Horace. Join me then.

CURRENT EXPERIENCE – SUBSTITUTE TEACHING (continued)

Last time I began telling the tale of my first day as a public school substitute teacher ending on the low expectations asked of the substitute. I arrived at the school by 6:00 AM, but had to wait in the front office until 6:55 AM when the administrative staff arrived to give me a key (classes began at 7:25 AM). I won’t deny I was anxious, so I came early hoping to get into the classroom to figure out logistics and to review the substitute package – I thought I needed to be well prepared to take on 30 students at a time. I was extremely thankful that the regular teacher had left me clear instructions and photos of each student by class. The students began arriving about 7:20 AM and knew they had a substitute that day, even that I was a practicing physician, although I suggested they just call me “Mr. C.”

The first ‘class’ was Advisory or what in my day was called Home Room. I took attendance which was difficult given the unusual names in vogue these days, then we listened to a few announcements and a corny riddle which elicited groans from the class, after which most of us stood up for the Pledge of Allegiance. Next we had some fun – one of 10 snacks at the front of the class could be picked by students whose names were drawn from a container. They universally declined switching to my alternative of awarding the prizes based on answering a question correctly, but were happy to have a chance at a second pick with a question (For example: “What is the largest prime number less than 100?”). Missed questions were then open to the rest of the class for a snack grab.

Next were two math classes, Math Block I and II, consisting of mixes of my first group and some from my Language Arts/Social Studies partner teacher’s home room. The students then had lunch and Related Arts (anything from music to P.E.) after which were the two science classes, Science Block I and II, again with various mixes of these same 54 students (of 62 total; 8 were absent). I would rate my performance a C+ since I struggled with the first math group, but finished the lesson plan with the second, and I finished the lesson plan with the first science class, but limped through the second. While the first math class degenerated into virtual mayhem, the rest were largely controlled, despite frequent requests to go to the bathroom or the library, and distractions ranging from constant chatter and leisure-book reading to forbidden cell phone use, and computer games.

(finished next post)

CURRENT EXPERIENCE – SUBSTITUTE TEACHING

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” – Henry Adams

I thought I would take a break in our extended discussion of contentment to record some reflections on my first day as a substitute teacher. In my philosophical journey, I have gradually come to believe that educating and mentoring young people might contribute to my subjective assessment of life as meaningful. I offer the following three reasons: (1) It offers a unique opportunity to fulfill supererogatory duty (as a counter to past and present vices) especially if I donate the salary paid to me to the very classes I teach, (2) It adds a novel professional purpose to life, and (3) It holds out the promise of a limited ‘metaphorical immortality’ in the form of lasting (if uncertain) influence on some who will outlive me.

Originally I thought I would like to be a direct mentor to one young person at a time through Big Brothers, but was stymied by some logistic issues. With the Covid-19 pandemic and other factors causing a teacher shortage in my community, it seemed fate prodded me to help out in the public schools. Näive as it sounds, I thought I might just call the local Board of Education and try substitute teaching on the fly at my former elementary and high schools only to learn that this would not be possible. Instead I  had to complete a full application for employment by the local public school system. After a surprisingly complex, application process I was officially hired as an Emergency Substitute starting August 10, 2022. Interestingly orientation was limited to two brief training videos and a 47 page substitute teaching manual.

“Ready to go,” I first inadvertently signed up for a 1st grade class (I was hoping for 3rd or 4th grade), but the teacher and school wisely found a more experienced substitute. Still in that same week, I next selected a 7th grade math and science class at a magnet school (Noe Middle School1), and asked the regular teacher to contact me to help familiarize me with details and expectations. This was the beginning of a fascinating experience. The teacher, a smart, confident amiable woman in her 40s called and reassured me a physician would make an excellent substitute for her classes, especially since the current science module was built around tissue healing on a child with a broken foot. She had prepared everything I would need and assured me that expectations for substitute coverage are limited, mainly she hoped I could keep the class from degenerating into utter mayhem. Any progress on the curriculum would be an added bonus.

(continued next post)

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1Sam V. Noe was a former superintendent of the Jefferson County Public School system.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – ASCETICISM

When there is no desire all things are at peace.” – Laozi

Our final mode for seeking contentment takes us back to the topic of asceticism. I have already performed a detailed analysis of asceticism in the section titled Suffering.1 In that section, asceticism was posited as voluntary suffering, or at least privation, specifically with a goal to some philosophical benefit. Purported benefits included enlightenment, escape from rebirth, happiness, mystical union, salvation, resistance to temptation, and preparation for service to the divine. However today our interest is on its facilitation of inner tranquility. I will backtrack to some of that analysis apropos to our current focus.

Starting with Buddha, we saw that he professes that human suffering (discontent for our purpose today) is due to desire, but the paradoxical solution is privation and the elimination of desire, hence contentment comes not from satisfying desires, but from consciously neutralizing sources of discontent. Buddha proposes an Eightfold Path to enlightenment which includes three components that dovetail with our ongoing search for tranquility: right thoughts, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In the West, the Cynics, seeking the “happiness of a dog” identify contentment envisioned as complete freedom. For them poverty is the paradoxical avenue to peace and content. On the contrary, some Christian aesthetics seem to think giving up one’s freedom (i.e. living in a monastery) is the route to “security and peace.”2

In my synthesis on asceticism, I argued philosophically sound asceticism included five key requirements.3 Three of these reference contentment directly or indirectly: (1) it contributes to one’s happiness and contentment (2) it involves life in harmony with nature, and (3) it develops self-discipline especially the features of self-sufficiency and true freedom. I also noted that asceticism is most philosophically defensible when it takes the form of moderation following for example Buddha’s Middle Way.

We might be tempted to see asceticism and solitude as two sides of the same coin, but this is probably mistaken; both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche endorse solitude but denounce asceticism. In fact one can embrace solitude without surrendering the comforts of normal living and one can practice asceticism as a member of a community such as in a monastery. It seems to me that silence and stillness, solitude, and asceticism function as three portals (to borrow  a term from Eckhardt Tolle) to contentment.

Next time, before summarizing this section, we will pause to examine the thoughts of Horace, the classical Roman poet, as one vision of the ideal life of contentment.

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1See posts on this site: Suffering – Asceticism, Parts I to VII, dated 4/1, 4/3, 4/6, 4/24, 4/27, 4/29, 5/1, 5/4, and 5/6/20

2Durant, Will, The Age of Faith. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1950. ISBN 0-671-01200-1, page 519.

3See post on this site: Suffering – Asceticism – Part VII – Synthesis, dated 5/6/2020.

THE MEANING OF LIFE – CONTENTMENT – SOLITUDE PART III (continued)

Last time we saw how Svendsen decoupled the two antipodes of aloneness into loneliness and solitude, noting solitude is the healthy side which integrates the personality for contentment and contemplation. Svendsen then informs of us of a clinically validated tool for measuring one’s capability for solitude called the Preference for Solitude Scale (available on line; my score was 11 out of 12; norms from a sample of undergraduate college students:  4.87 – 2.57. He thinks the need for distractions is evidence of emotional immaturity, but I am not so sure – it may be people find contentment in different ways (consider the quiet of a church in silent prayer). Some thinkers believe solitude can be learned as a ‘self-doubling’ or creation of a conversant duplicate of oneself, in fact, a filling of the self by the self, that may lead to a richer inner life.

I now draw from two other chapters In Svendsen’s book to incorporate aloneness into the meaning of life. Early on, Svendsen informs us that “it is an established fact that both chronic loneliness and experimentally induced social isolation are connected to lower levels of experienced life meaning.”5 He offers thoughts from William James, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Soren Kierkegaard, Adam Smith, and David Hume to expand this point, drawing ever closer to two conclusions: (1) the effect of seclusion on a person depends on “how the individual relates to that condition,”6 and (2) “for most of us our connection to a limited number of people constitutes the majority of our life meaning.” 7 Later he returns to the effect of aloneness on life meaning proposing that “belonging is essential in order for us to experience our lives as meaningful.”8 However the desirable degree of ‘belonging’ is quite variable, and the urge to privacy and independence is common, even natural, but must not be raised to a point of alienation from society.

So where is the balancing point? Svendsen, following Harry Frankfurt, thinks we must take responsibility for any unwanted loneliness – being alone is not imposed from without but originates from within, by one’s choices and one’s attitude. Nonetheless, he doubts the value of extended solitude and the idea of self-sufficiency. For him, it is up to us to allow someone into our loneliness, thereby erasing it in community while learning to benefit from solitude as well: “…you must learn to live with the fact that every human life will contain loneliness to some degree. That is why it is so critical to learn to tolerate loneliness and to hopefully transform that loneliness into solitude. Loneliness can be reduced by learning to rest in yourself, so that you are not so dependent on other’s acknowledgement of you…”9

I surmise that a wise, mature person pursuing solitude as a means to contentment will always balance it with enough belonging and approachability that loneliness is minimized and serenity is maximized. This likely varies for each of us and so we must travel that road individually. I can only hope that my readers find their Archimedean point for solitude in route to the meaningful life.

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5 Svendsen, Lars, A Philosophy of Loneliness. Reaktion Books, Ltd., London, 2015. ISBN 978-1-78023-747-3, page 24.

6Ibid., page 27.

7Ibid.

8Ibid., page 131.

9Ibid., page 138.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – SOLITUDE – III

“A wise man is never less alone than when he is alone.” – Jonathan Swift.

In the first two parts of this segment, we saw how Michel de Montaigne and Arthur Schopenhauer viewed solitude in the search for lasting contentment and a meaningful life. Today we consider thoughts of one of the foremost contemporary experts in this area, Lars Svendsen. In his book, A Philosophy of Loneliness,1 Svendsen addresses at length loneliness as the negative pole of being alone especially towards a goal of eradicating some of the stereotypical narratives coming out of the media.

Being alone, he tells us, is by nature entirely neutral; rather one’s subjective experience distinguishes loneliness from solitude, the positive pole. Loneliness is to some extent an emotion which has little to do with proximity to others; perhaps the worst loneliness occurs in the most crowded cities. His thesis is divided into eight chapters – covering psychology and social science, the nature of loneliness as an emotion, who tends to be lonely and why (distrust being a key reason), the value of friendship and love, distinguishing features with respect to modernity, and amelioration through assuming responsibility for one’s experience of being alone. But the chapter which interests us here is the seventh, ‘Solitude’ especially as it relates to contentment.

Svendsen begins with a review of perspectives on solitude by Western philosophers from ancient Greece through modern existentialism. We hear again that Aristotle believes the best life is one of contemplation and self-sufficiency. Petrarch is more cautious; “solitude alone cannot guarantee the desired tranquility however since it also requires a clear mind.”2 Rousseau considers solitude “a condition where one is present entirely in the moment, thereby achieving an almost mystical unity and harmony with the earth.”3 Emerson thinks solitude is where one knows oneself and is best when alone with nature. Nietzsche believes one must leave society to find the ‘higher self.’ Sartre argues solitude relieves one from the incessant ‘gaze of others.’

There is of course much more, but two key points emerge: (1) loneliness is being one alone with oneself while solitude is being one together with oneself (Nietzsche), and (2) philosophy in solitude is a matter of being together with oneself (‘I am two-in-one’) not the division of oneself (Hannah Arendt). These conditions depend on maturity which Odo Maquard says “is above all the capacity for solitariness.”4 However, Svendsen adds healthy solitude requires a way back to others.

(continued next post)

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1Svendsen, Lars, A Philosophy of Loneliness. Reaktion Books, Ltd., London, 2015. ISBN 978-1-78023-747-3.

2Ibid., page 111.

3Ibid., page 118.

4Ibid., page 125.

THE MEANING OF LIFE – CONTENTMENT – SOLITUDE – II (continued)

Last time we saw how Arthur Schopenhauer transformed his pessimistic views of society and the world into a program of contentment through solitude – which distilled down to three main arguments: (1) solitude is a form of simplification; (2) solitude is a sign of self-sufficiency; and (3) solitude is natural. We pick up now with his other observations.

Consider the following: “No man can be in perfect accord with anyone but himself – not even with a friend or the partner of his life; differences of individuality and temperament are always bringing in some degree of discord, though it may be a very slight one. That genuine, profound peace of mind, that perfect tranquility of soul, which next to health, is the highest blessing the earth can give, is attained only in solitude, and, as a permanent mood, only in complete retirement…”8 Despite this last point, he thinks the young should be trained to “bear being left alone…” 9 and learn to take some of their solitude with them into society, that is, to be to some extent alone even when in company.

Schopenhauer admits that solitude is intolerable for persons with “vacuity of soul” or inelastic minds, that is, persons who “possess only a small fraction of humanity in themselves” who thus try to combine with others to make a full person. But the person who is par excellence, is “complete in himself.” He uses the example of the music of an orchestra by many musicians contrasted with the pianist, “a little orchestra in himself.”10 He asserts: “Solitude is doubly advantageous…Firstly, it allows him to be with himself, and secondly, it prevents him from being with others…much constraint, annoyance, and even danger there is in intercourse with the world…almost all our sufferings spring from having to do with other people; and this destroys the peace of mind…”11

Schopenhauer concedes solitude is most appropriate later in life when one has experienced the disagreeable in the world and learned through reflection to recognize one’s true needs. After giving examples of great thinkers of the past such as Voltaire and Petrarch, he concludes: “It is natural for great minds – the true teachers of humanity – to care little about the constant company of others … The mission of these great minds is to guide mankind over the sea of error to the haven of truth – to draw it forth from the dark abysses of a barbarous vulgarity up into the light of culture and refinement.”12

In conclusion we see that Schopenhauer finds solitude is the means to contentment because it involves simplification, demonstrates self-sufficiency, is natural, is a form of perfection, and avoids troublesome interactions. Solitude is critical for tranquility later in life, but must be learned by us in our youth in part by taking some of it with us into the world. In the end, solitude is not only a means to peace, but also to our greatest contemplations.

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8Schopenhauer, Arthur, Counsels and Maxims (part of The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims). Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 1995. ISBN 978-1-57392-033-9, page 26.

9Ibid., page 27.

10Ibid.

11Ibid., page 30.

12Ibid., page 33-34.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – SOLITUDE – II

“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,

And live alone there in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings…”

– William Butler Yeats.

In our continuing voyage we are paused over the place of solitude in contentment having just examined Montaigne’s thoughts. Our next great thinker on this subject is Arthur Schopenhauer, our consummate pessimist-idealist. In his essay, Our Relation to Ourselves, he offers some pointed words starting with: “We are happy as in proportion our range of vision, our sphere of work, our points of contact with the world, are restricted and circumscribed. We are more likely to be more worried and anxious if these limits are wide; for it means that our cares, desires and terrors are increased and intensified. That is why the blind are not so unhappy as we might be inclined to suppose, otherwise there would not be that gentle and almost serene expression of peace in their faces.”1

Solitude for Schopenhauer is a form of simplicity: “Simplicity, therefore as far as it can be attained, and even monotony, in our manner of life, if it does not mean that we are bored, will contribute to happiness; just because, under such circumstances, life, and consequently the burden which is the essential concomitant of life, will be least felt. Our existence will glide on peacefully like a stream which no waves or whirlpools disturb.” 2

He encourages us to follow the rule of Pythagoras to “review, every night, before going to sleep, what we have done during the day,”3 since non-reflective living leads us “to have no clear idea of what we are about; and a man who lives in this state will have chaos in his emotions and certain confusion in his thoughts… A man will be all the more exposed to this fate in proportion as he lives a restless life in the world…”4 He even urges us to preserve our memories and reflections in a journal.

In addition to simplicity, Schopenhauer advocates self-sufficiency. i.e “to be all in all to oneself, to want for nothing…”5 He cautions that “There is no more mistaken path to happiness than worldliness, revelry, high life,: for the whole object of it is to transform our miserable existence into a succession of joys, delights, and pleasures – a process which cannot fail to result in disappointment and delusion…”6

Solitary existence, he asserts, is more natural: “It will be an advantage to him if his surroundings do not interfere with this feeling; for if he has to see a great deal of other people who are not of like character with himself, they will exercise a disturbing influence upon him, adverse to his peace of mind; they will rob him, in fact, of himself and give him nothing to compensate for the loss.”7

(continued next post)

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1Schopenhauer, Arthur, Counsels and Maxims (part of The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims). Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 1995. ISBN 978-1-57392-033-9, page 21.

2Ibid., page 22 (author’s italics).

3Ibid., page 23.

4Ibid.

5Ibid., page 24.

6Ibid., (author’s italics).

7Ibid., page 24-25.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – SOLITUDE – I (continued)

Continuing with the thoughts of Montaigne on solitude and contentment, he tells us that after one breaks the knot of obligations, “Let him soothe and caress himself, and above all things be sure to govern himself with reverence to his reason and conscience to that degree as to be ashamed to make a false step in their presence.”5 A somewhat religious man, Montaigne adds, “…my chiefest prayer to Almighty God, that he will please to render me content with myself and the condition wherein I am.”6 Success is specific, “[One] ought to have taken leave of all sorts of labor, what advantage soever it may promise, and generally to have shaken off all those passions which disturb the tranquility of body and soul.”7 But Montaigne does not advocate complete self-denial (at least for himself) noting “Wiser men, having great force and vigor of soul, may propose to themselves a rest wholly spiritual: but for me, who have a very ordinary soul, it is very necessary to support myself with bodily conveniences … and the pleasures of life that our years, one after another, snatch away from us.”8 Presumably this may apply to the reader as well.

He concludes the essay with this:

“Retire yourself into yourself, but first prepare yourself there to receive yourself; it were a folly to trust yourself in your own hands if you cannot govern yourself. A man may miscarry alone as well as in company…present continually to your imagination Cato, Phocion, and Aristides, in whose presence the fools themselves will hide their faults and make them controllers of all your intentions; should these deviate from virtue your respect to those will set you right; they will keep you in the way to be contented with yourself; to borrow nothing of any but yourself; to stay and fix your soul in certain and limited thoughts, wherein 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.”9

So from Montaigne we extract the following pearls. Solitude separates us from the vice of others, but must include the abolition of the follies of society dwelling in our inner self. It requires personal preparation and is easier with advancing age, though we may never be able to fully withdraw from society. We must care for ourselves and establish self-control in order to eliminate our passions and reduce our responsibilities. Finally solitude facilitates contentment best when we imitate great persons and accept our limitations.

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5Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), Montaigne. Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 25, page 109.

6Ibid., page 110

7Ibid., page 111.

8Ibid., page 111-112

9Ibid., page 112.