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Chapter 3 Aristotle’s Philosophy of Intelligent Desire


Plato believed that human improvement lay in knowledge of the good and that definitions of concepts such as goodness would help to improve knowledge. In the Philebus, the character Socrates took aim at good’s definition. Keeping in mind the distinction between “being” and “becoming”, he said: “The good differs from everything else in a certain respect ... A creature that possesses it permanently, completely, and absolutely, has never any need of anything else; its satisfaction is perfect.” Socrates had trouble, though, in deciding whether pleasure or intelligence was good, concluding that “neither of the two can be the perfect thing that everyone desires.” A bit later he concluded that goodness consisted of a mixture of intelligence and pleasure; the proportion between the one and the other was critical. And because well-proportioned things were often beautiful: “we find that the good has taken refuge in the character of the beautiful”. So, in the end, Socrates reached this conclusion: “If we cannot hunt down the good under a single form, let us secure it by the conjunction of three, beauty, proportion, and truth, and then, regarding these three as one, let us assert that that may most properly be held to determine the qualities of the mixture, and that because that is good the mixture itself has become so.”

It is evident that Plato’s theory had become unworkable. The good life was not a matter of having simple intuitions into the good but it involved a variety of efforts and awarenesses. Aristotle, who was Plato’s student and most notable successor (also the personal tutor of Alexander the Great), quickly spotted the weakness in Plato’s argument. He wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics: “Since ‘good’ has as many senses as ‘being’ ... clearly it cannot be something universally present in all cases and single; for then it could not have been predicated in all the categories but in one only ... Or is nothing other than the Idea of Good good in itself? In that case the Form will be empty. But if the things we have named are also things good in themselves, the account of the good will have to appear in them all, as that of whiteness is identical in snow and white lead. But of honor, wisdom, and pleasure, just in respect of their goodness, the accounts are distinct and diverse ... It is hard to see how a weaver or carpenter will be benefited in regard to his own craft by knowing this ‘good itself’, or how the man who has viewed the Idea itself will be a better doctor or general thereby. For a doctor seems not even to study health in this way, but the health of man, or perhaps rather the health of a particular man; it is individuals that he is healing.”

Ends and means

Even so, Aristotle took direction from Plato with respect to ethical studies. Plato’s idea of the good as perfect satisfaction became a point of departure for Aristotelian ethics. Aristotle called this kind of condition “ends”. Another kind, which was incomplete or aiming at something else, he called “means”. Ends and means were like the duality of being and becoming in Plato’s philosophy. Means were not good in and of themselves, but only in relation to the other type of condition, ends, which were the ultimate object of desire. Means had value by virtue of their connection to ends. While in particular situations means and ends were found in simple pairs, there was an unlimited continuity between situations in life, allowing an end in one context to become means to another, larger end. Aristotle proposed that goals which were ultimately final or self-sufficient were superior to goals pursued for the sake of something else. He wrote: “The ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends, for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued.”

Aristotle proposed to define humanity’s ultimate purpose and create a “master art” to achieve this. “If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this) ... clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? Aristotle admitted that “the good ... seems different in different actions and arts”, but raised this possibility: “Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these ... for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking ... We call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.” He continued: “Now such a thing is happiness, for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves ... but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.”

Aristotle, who had the botanist’s mind for minute observation and classification of detail, was not content to let it go at that but proceeded to discuss the qualities of character or moral choice which brought happiness. For, he wrote, “to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired.” While observing that “human good turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue,” he had to admit that “there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best.” Parting company with Plato, Aristotle argued that virtuous conduct depended upon action rather than knowledge of ideas. “For”, he explained, “the state of mind may exist without producing any good result ... As in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and strongest that are crowned, but those who compete, so those who act win, and rightly win, the noble and good things in life.”

“For this reason also,” wrote Aristotle, “the question is asked whether happiness is to be acquired by learning or by habituation or some other sort of training, or comes in virtue of some divine providence or again by chance. “ His answer was that virtuous conduct, the source of happiness, must be cultivated: “Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching, while the moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name ethike is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature ... but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g., men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”

Aristotle pointed out, however, that “if the acts that are in accordance with the virtues have themselves a certain character, it does not follow that they are done justly or temperately. The agent also must be in a certain condition when he does them; in the first place he must have knowledge; secondly he must choose the act, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character.” This led him to consider what kind of thing virtue was. He recognized three elements in the soul: passions, faculties, and states of character. “By passion,” Aristotle wrote, “I mean appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, friendly feeling, hatred, longing, emulation, pity, and in general the feelings that are accompanied by pleasure or pain; by faculties, the things in virtue of which we are said to be capable of feeling these ... (and) ... by states of character, the things in virtue of which we stand well or badly with reference to the passions.” As for virtue itself, he observed that “neither the virtues nor the vices are passions ... also they are not faculties ... If, then, the virtues are neither passions, nor faculties, all that remains is that they should be states of character ... The virtue of man also will be that state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his work well.”

The principle of the “golden mean” followed: “A master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate.” Aristotle explained the principle in these terms: “Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends upon defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses what which is intermediate.” In the case of courage, for instance, the courageous person would be neither too fearful and timid, on one hand, nor too rash and impetuous, on the other, but would show the right degree of readiness to act. In the case of good temper, virtue would be an intermediate position between anger and indifference to provocation.

Certain other factors also enter into virtuous conduct. To be judged as exhibiting good or bad conduct, we must have control over our actions. The acts must represent our own free choice. We are blamed only for those aspects of our behavior which we can control. Aristotle noted that “no one blames those who are ugly by nature, we blame those who are so owing to want of exercise and care. So it is, too, with respect to weakness and infirmity; no one would reproach a man blind from birth or by disease or from a blow, but rather pity him, while everyone would blame a man who was blind from drunkenness or some other form of self-indulgence. Of the vices of the body, then, those in our own power are blamed, those not in our power are not.” The same is true of virtues and vices of the soul.

Ethical judgments therefore presuppose free choice: “Choice involves a rational principle and thought.” It involves deliberation about possibilities within ourselves: “We liberate about things that are in our power and can be done ... We deliberate not about ends but about means. For a doctor does not deliberate whether he shall heal, nor an orator whether he shall persuade ... they assume the end and consider how and by what means it is to be attained; and if it seems to be produced by several means they consider by which it is most easily and best produced ... For the person who deliberates seems to investigate and analyze in the way described as though he were analyzing a geometric construction ... and what is last in the order of analysis seems to be first in the order of becoming. And if we come upon an impossibility, we give up the search ... but if a thing is possible we try to do it.”

In summary, Aristotle concluded: “The end, then, being what we wish for, the means what we deliberate about and choose, actions concerning means must be according to choice and voluntary. Now the exercise of the virtues is concerned with means. Therefore, virtue also is in our own power, and so too vice. For where it is in our power to act, it is also in our power not to act ... Now if it is in our power to do noble or base acts, and likewise in our power not to do them, and this was what being good or bad meant, then it is in our power to be virtuous or vicious.” While men desired what they perceived to be good, Aristotle had to concede that in some cases their perceptions might be faulty: “For each state of character has its own ideas of the noble and the pleasant, and the good man differs from the others most by seeing truth in each class of things.” But, although the evil man may not know any better, Aristotle does not excuse his behavior on those grounds provided that he has had an opportunity to acquire knowledge of right and wrong: “If each man is somehow responsible for his state of mind, he will also be responsible for the appearance (of good); but, if not, no one is responsible for his evil doing, but everyone does evil acts through ignorance of the end, thinking that by these he will get what is best.”

The good as fulfilled desire

Although Aristotle’s philosophy of ethics was more specific than Plato’s was, it, too, was far from providing a workable program which a person might follow to achieve the good. Good is an element which appears in a broad spectrum of human activities. It may be that good pertains to the realm of values and that an unbridgeable gap exists between this and the objective world of facts. One person’s values may be as good as another’s; goodness might be a relative term. In that event, a philosophy of the good would be expressing a particular set of prejudices and predilections which have no intrinsic claim on truth. A philosophy, on the other hand, sets certain limiting conditions on truth. Any statement which is not a platitude will draw a line of distinction by which some things fall within its scope of recommendation while others are rejected. A formulation of ethical principles, if followed conscientiously, should make a difference in the way people live. It ought to encourage certain character types and discourage others. These types may not be altogether bad or good as much as they are different. One may ask, then, what was the direction which Greek ethics gave to human behavior, and how was society different as a result of being influenced by it?

The Graeco-Roman world of classical antiquity was moved by Plato’s and Aristotle’s idea of good in the direction of greater rationality. Their philosophies encouraged sane and sensible kinds of behavior rather than ones which allowed the emotions to run loose. Behavior gravitated toward those modes of activity in which the mind was in control. Mind, unfortunately, could not itself set value; for that is a function assigned to the human heart or, in Aristotle’s terms, to the “appetites”. “As it is,” wrote Aristotle, “mind is never found producing movement without appetite ... but appetite can originate movement contrary to calculation.” Yet, mind did have an important role to play in relation to values already set. It could develop prudent strategies for promoting those values so that they could be more reliably and completely achieved. In Aristotle’s terms, mind’s domain included means rather than ends. As for the ends, attempts to relate humanity’s highest ideals to particular kinds of activity, such as contemplation, were rather arbitrary and restrictive. Good in its fullest sense cannot be defined universally since it applies in different ways to different persons and purposes. So we are back to the unbridged chasm between values and fact.

Aristotle did allow a certain freedom for individual choice and variety in selecting ends. He defined ends, one may recall, as “being what we wish for”, and means as “what we deliberate about and choose.” Ends, in other words, are set by desire, which, in Aristotle’s scheme, pertains to the appetitive rather than the rational function. It may be then that this formulation, centered in the concept of desire, provides the bridge that we have sought between the two disparate realms of being. Desire creates value; it is the psychic mechanism which makes certain things important to a person, among all others in the world, and which stimulates the process of seeking to achieve its object. The concept of desire contains within itself the idea that its object ought to be achieved. In its own terms, such achievement would be good. Therefore, with certain reservations one might say that the good is fulfilled desire. Aristotle quoted the inscription at Delos:

“Most noble is that which is justest, and best is health;
But pleasantest is it to win what we love.”

For a rational philosophy, there is an anomaly in the principle that ends are superior to means. Reason applies to means rather than to ends. The means to an end are chosen by cold calculation and can be judged by the result. In contrast, ends, being directed by the heart, are something wild and irrational. So that which is irrational gives value and direction to that which reason controls. What a shocking idea! Philosophy, being a branch of knowledge, is concerned with finding the most effective means to an end, not prescribing what the ends should be. The end, which is the ultimate goal, is an object of desire; and desires are essentially free. Even if philosophy presented a convincing argument why something should or should not be desired, the human heart would go its own way.

That does not mean, however, that it is always good when the heart dictates what should be pursued. The principle of goodness as fulfilled desire cannot be applied indiscriminately: A small child sees a bag of candy bars and desires to eat them. After eating all the candy in the bag, he gets sick at his stomach. Was it good for the child to have satisfied that desire? Evidently not. People must learn to desire what is in their best interests. In this case, the child did not yet have enough experience to know that eating an entire bag of candy would give him a bad stomach ache. If the child had known the consequences, he might not have wanted to eat so much candy or, at least, have tried to restrain his appetite. Goodness must therefore be qualified to consider the long-term consequences of desire. One might restate its definition, then, to say that good is the satisfaction of intelligent desire. Mind does, after all, have something to say in this area. Such a definition would be close to what Aristotle meant when he wrote that the good is “something final” and that “the good man differs from the others most by seeing truth in each class of thing.” Knowledge added to desire overcomes many of the difficulties that come from indulging unbridled appetite.

Still, in a primal sense, goodness is associated with the feeling of satisfaction one has when desires are met. The desire, or wish, sets up a normative charge which is relieved by purposeful action. Good’s experience typically accompanies successful completion of a piece of work. “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor,” said the preacher in Ecclesiastes. The book of Genesis reports, after each day of creation: “And God saw that it was Good”. Even so, good has taken on certain connotations which tend to deny that it is the satisfaction of desire. We think of desire as a craving for immediate pleasures and good as a self-controlling influence which opposes this. The good man we imagine as a rather selfless individual who subordinates his personal wishes to the well being of others. Perhaps organized religion has given good this reputation. Society’s moral health may require it. Because a person’s or society’s broader interest often conflicts with the pursuit of personal pleasure, good’s influence is thrown against desire in its more immediate forms.

The good has thus come to be associated with public ends rather than with those of individuals. Whatever advances the interests of the larger society we call “good”; and “bad” is what hurts society’s interests. Being members of the community, we are each called upon to support its well being. In that context, “good” means that certain things deserve our encouragement and support. “Bad” invites our opposition or lack of support. The laws of a community generally reflect its standards of moral judgment. Thieves and other individuals who break the law to satisfy their personal wants we consider to be bad people. It is “not good” for the bank robber’s desires to be satisfied. Beyond legalities, however, there are certain ethical principles that invite obedience. People are judged to be good or bad by those standards as well. Each society has its own moral code. It is possible for a society’s legal standards to conflict with humanity’s broader ethical tradition as in the case of Nazi Germany where unquestioning obedience to Hitler was required of all. In that case, we would say that it was “good” to disobey the unjust law to pursue a higher moral purpose.

In a pluralistic society, it can be difficult to reach a consensus as to which purposes are worthy or unworthy of public support. The American Declaration of Independence, echoing Aristotle, states that human societies are organized to promote “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This patriotic formulation brings us back to the idea of happiness as the final end. What is happiness? Happiness, as a goal in life, appears to be tautological. By definition, it would, of course, bring personal satisfaction. There is a further problem, as a goal, in that happiness generally appears after the fact. One does not pursue happiness directly except in a hedonistic fashion. Perhaps, happiness could be induced through some mind-altering drug, or alcoholic drinks, or a determined effort to “be happy”. Such an approach to life’s challenge is not what Aristotle or Plato had in mind. Happiness as an end seems too subjective and ill-defined to be pursued by rational means. Moreover, it affords an easy overpass to pleasure-seeking and other sensual pursuits which have sometimes been taken up in the name of philosophy.

Problems arise when the desire for pleasure, which ought to be satisfied immediately, turns into an extended labor to reap more pleasurable experiences from life than what life will naturally bear. Granted that pleasure in its place is one of life’s blessings, it does not follow that a philosophy of maximizing pleasure adds to the sum of human happiness. The happiness which is associated with sensual pleasure normally lasts for a short time and may be followed by painful feelings which cancel out the earlier enjoyment. Such pleasures do not necessarily make a person happier, the more one has, because an excess quantity dulls the natural appetites. Happiness would be more a long-term sense of well being than the sum of many happy experiences. What things make a person happy over an entire lifetime? That would be the ultimate end of ethical philosophy.

Intelligent desires

In a philosophical discussion, it is hard to say what purposes serve humanity as a whole. Each person has chosen his or her own personal ends. Yet, we can say generally that, whichever goal is picked, it is better to succeed in achieving that end than to fail. The particular goals are set by desire. Philosophy cannot dictate what people should want; that is for them to discover in their own hearts. Philosophy can, however, provide some guidelines to assist people in reaching their goals once they are set.

Desires are formed in various ways. Often they are set by example. We see something; we are apt to want it. Or, perhaps, we want to become like someone whom we admire. A newspaper reporter asked a stockbroker why he went into that particular field. He replied: “In 1962, I saw the movie, ‘From the Terrace’, where Paul Newman plays a broker who becomes a millionaire. I still remember the big house he moved into. It looked like everyone’s dream.” The free-roving mind picks up many such influences and formulates its desires. Typically, a person sees a place for himself in what he desires. Some desires can be met simply by having enough money to buy something. Others are met by personal efforts to gain a certain position. Generally speaking, a person will seriously desire only what seems possible for him to achieve. (Few people would become too upset if they were not elected President of the United States in the next election - unless they were the incumbent President, Vice President, or a Governor or Senator from a large state.) With a greater personal position, one’s horizon of opportunities expands. The more glamorous and exciting of the new possibilities may ignite into flames of desire. Sometimes desire is kindled just by seeing that something is possible.

Whether or not someone succeeds in satisfying desire will largely depend on how ambitious the goals were. That, in turn, would depend on the person’s level of resources and abilities relative to the end which is sought. It would depend on how wide a gap existed between his present situation and the desired state and, of course, on his effort and perseverance in attempting to bridge the gap. If his sights are set too high, the person is less likely to reach the goal than if they were set lower. That being the case, then perhaps the best advice on how to become happy would be: Aim low. Set modest goals and life will be less likely to disappoint you. Desire sparingly in your pursuit of happiness. At an extreme, the Buddhist religion teaches the complete extinction of desire. If there are no desires, then it is impossible to fail to satisfy them. If one never fails, one will never be unhappy.

Aristotle saw this decision in terms of the golden mean. A normally proud man, in the intermediate position between excessive and deficient ambition, thinks himself worthy of the things that he can realistically accomplish. At one extreme is the vain “fool” whose aspirations greatly exceed his capabilities. His excessive ambition dooms him to a life of failure. At the other extreme is found the “unduly humble” man. Aristotle noted that this type of individual was “not thought to be bad (for he is not malicious), but only mistaken.” He wrote that “the unduly humble man, being worthy of good things, robs himself of what he deserves, and seems to have something bad about him from the fact that he ... seems not to know himself; else he would have desired the things he was worthy of, since these were good.” In a world of unmitigated disasters, such an approach might make sense, but not where life afforded normal opportunities for happiness.

Short of a philosophical or religious commitment, it would seem ill-advised to choose excessively modest goals. While such goals are more easily attained, they may not represent a person’s real goals, representing true desire. To live a full life, a person should maintain unimpaired a full range of free-roving desires. If his sights are set too short, he might begin to feel a sense of impatience and dissatisfaction as his horizons broadened. He might grow jealous of another, whom he considered a peer, to watch that other person accomplish something which he might have accomplished had he but tried. On the other hand, if his desires are set too ambitiously, he will likely fail. Therefore, each person should set realistic goals. The person of modest talents should set modest goals. The person of greater talents can set more ambitious goals. Each person needs to decide for himself what goals are realistic.

Any person who wants to do or have something should realize, first, that the worldly circumstances will not automatically rearrange themselves to suit his desire, but that he himself must become, to an extent, an instrument of that rearrangement. The one with desire must employ his own will to reach the desired end. He must exercise intelligence and his faculties of skill so that the world is changed in the intended way. Second, the person should go about making this change in a realistic manner. That means that he should see the goal clearly. He should anticipate the steps that need to be taken. He should put himself in the right starting position. At some point, he should actually begin to act. Otherwise, his desires will remain unfulfilled.

As we grow up, we learn to focus our desires more realistically. We outgrow our more outlandish dreams. Even so, many people have only a fuzzy notion of what they want; and that keeps them from being successful. They may drift closer to their goal, but they will not reach it unless there is a definite chain of events connecting their present situation to the desired end. As the fulfilling work begins, one step should lead solidly to the next. The first step should be within the person’s immediate grasp; he should be able to will it outright. If that is not possible, he should break the work down into a set of smaller steps which can each be willed. He should connect them together until the entire distance is spanned. The first step, once taken, should connect to a second step; the second to the third, and so on. Meanwhile, one would have in mind a loose set of instructions leading to the final end. Each step should be manageable within one’s scope of present abilities. One would string the steps together, the completion of one setting up the next, until at length the work is complete. There cannot be any gaps in the chain.

What this means is that, to have realistic goals, one needs a plan. One needs imaginatively to anticipate events along the projected course of fulfillment. Unforeseen developments, as well as mistakes, may force one to depart from the foreseen path and improvise better ways to reach the goal. Having a plan will then help to return to the intended course. Even so, there are certain kinds of activities which cannot be reasonably planned. There are some kinds of desires which are, in those terms, unrealistic. That is because it is not possible to devise a reasonable set of steps to fulfill the desires. It is not that fulfillment is impossible, but that the factors critical to success are not under one’s control. Irrational factors play a part in the outcome. The results are unpredictable because someone else controls them, someone with interests that may be different than one’s own. In that case, philosophy would say: Think twice about being involved in such a risky venture.

For example, a person wants to be liked by others but cannot directly cause this to happen. The others who do the liking are free to decide in their own way which attitude to take. The harder a person tries to be popular, the more he is apt to fail. If becoming popular were his chief interest in life, he would risk being unhappy. And yet, some of life’s main purposes are built on such a quicksand of uncertain desires. How well an employee gets along with his boss, for instance, may well decide whether he is promoted and gets that big raise. Love is the worst case. No amount of reasonable persuasion can win a woman’s (or man’s) heart once she (he) has made up her (his) mind not to love. The hapless suitor can wrack his brain for ways to make himself appear more attractive, but to no avail. She must decide, whether by whim or serious reflection, that she does or does not want this man. Love is therefore a foolish venture for someone who wants to be happy. Another kind of love, which would seem on a surer footing, would be a parent’s love for a child. Here the relationship is secured by birth. When a mother loves her child, she neglects her own wants, to an extent, in tending to the child’s needs. That, too, can be dangerous. During childhood, the mother effectively controls the child’s behavior; but, as the years go by, this control slips away. The child develops a mind of his own. The mother therefore runs an increased risk of unhappiness the more parental love has allowed concern for the child to supplant her own desires.

The most reasonable kind of love, by this reasoning, would be self-love. Here it is largely within a person’s own power to control the situation. Yet, such a conclusion demonstrates the limits of this philosophy. Of course, it is a bit of sophistry to recommend, in the name of reason, that men and women not fall in love, to urge parents to become indifferent to their children, or tout self-centeredness as an intelligent approach to life. While Plato and Aristotle regarded man as a political and social creature needing the company of others, the general tendency of Graeco-Roman philosophy was to promote intellectual self-sufficiency at the expense of accepting outside influences, rational as opposed to emotional expression, and the primacy of will. In this view, the mind was or ought to be in firm control. Ideas governed worldly events. Sentimentalism, love, pity, and passionate feelings had no place. The guiding theme of this culture became: Mind over matter. Body was a recalcitrant medium which could only introduce error and pain into the serene life that mind might create.

The Hellenistic period of history saw frequent wars between the Greek empires formed in the aftermath of Alexander’s death and, in Italy, Rome’s bloody consolidation of power. Until the emperor Augustus pacified the region, life was brutal and uncertain. Philosophy helped individuals cope with conditions in a hostile world. To be “philosophical” about something meant to accept life’s harshness without complaint. One cultivated an attitude of equanimity in the face of changing fortunes. Disappointments and loss would be cheerfully tolerated while good fortune would be accepted in an equally calm frame of mind. If the world did not rise to the level of one’s hopes, then one’s hopes might be lowered to the level of the world. One’s own attitude was within one’s control even if worldly events were not. Such philosophies as the Stoic and Epicurean therefore cultivated an attitude of mental detachment which would allow a person to live contentedly in whatever circumstances and conditions life dealt. Epicureans tended to withdraw from affairs of an active life to seek private pleasures. Stoics, on the other hand, assumed responsible worldly positions out of a sense of personal duty. In both cases, the way one faced life’s challenges was the mark of a successful man, not the outcome of its struggles. One needed to become emotionally self-sufficient. The Stoic philosopher Seneca said: “Pity is a mental illness induced by the spectacle of other people’s miseries ... The sage does not succumb to such-like mental diseases.”

A concession to human weakness

The excessive rationality of this philosophy had to be tempered by other influences to restore balance in the culture. In Christianity, reason was offset by the softer human values: faith, hope, and charity. The Romans despised these Christians for exhibiting weak and irrational tendencies of character. Yet, as the apostle Paul said in First Corinthians: “Divine folly is wiser than the wisdom of man, and divine weakness stronger than men’s strength.” History proved him right. In time, the “folly” of the Gospel overcame the intelligent philosophies of Greece and Rome. The Christian concept of grace allowed humanity to accept undeserved blessings. Its God-centered faith left open the chance for uncontrolled events to work themselves out to a favorable conclusion. Man does not and cannot control each event in life. Given that fact, an attitude of “letting things happen” can make better sense than “making them happen.” Religion has always understood this.

The culture bequeathed to Europeans from classical times accepted the permanency of ends. Man needed to keep himself in a more or less continuous state of good character while moving toward those ends. How, then, does one account for the great degree of deviation and erroneous conduct in this world? Some believe that life’s goals are conditions of being which, once won, stay that way forever. They are possessions permanently had. That is not so. One view of life would have man progressing steadily toward life’s objectives except when he momentarily succumbs to temptation, on the order of the pilgrim in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. What happens, though, when men do achieve their goals? They do not then begin an era of permanent bliss but instead set new goals beyond this, so that they are continually chasing unfulfilled desires. The glow of happiness and satisfaction lasts only for a short time after each goal has been reached. Then the cycle starts over again of wishing, working, and achieving.

Life is not stuck in a permanent high, but instead requires that its time be filled with incomplete purposes. One goal achieved, another is set. The process of “becoming” does not stop at a particular end. Moreover, the accomplishments that are made do not stay forever won; there is a certain amount of backsliding. A student studies all night to prepare for an examination and remembers most of what he has read for the test taken next morning. Three months later, he recalls little of it. A business firm has worked for a long time to build up the level of business. All this dissipates suddenly during a strike or when industry fashions change. In such cases, hard-won accomplishments are reversed over a period of time through competitive setbacks or a lack of continuing effort. Achievements are secure in their moment of winning and for a short time after. Then it is a struggle to keep them from slipping away.

Common opinion has it that life’s goals include such things as making a million dollars or being elected President of the United States. Yes, these are goals, but maybe not ones representing true desire. A person may not want a million dollars for the sake of having so much money in assets but for the “little things”: What a pleasure it must be, for instance, to be able to walk into a fancy restaurant, order a $100 meal, and then tip the cute waitress an extra $50. (One could do this day after day and still have money left.) Or, perhaps, the millionaire would enjoy driving into his old hometown in a shiny new car and watching people stare (including those who had predicted he would never amount to anything); or hobnobbing with other millionaires and sports celebrities at plush country clubs; or taking exotic vacation trips to distant places and staying in the best hotels. The possession of wealth becomes associated with a range of activities that are both enjoyable and symbolic of one’s success.

The Cyrenaic philosopher Aristippus said in regard to his mistress “Habeo, non habeor”, which means “I possess, but I am not possessed.” In other words, he thought he could engage in pleasure-seeking activities without being personally consumed by them. While this attitude inoculates a person against fear of loss, it may also remove some of the positive enjoyment. For a person to value something, he must personally be touched by it. He must be moved in a way that affects his sense of self-identity. He must participate fully in its dance.

Think of what it means to dance. * Through the dance one exhibits various capacities of graceful motion. The dance requires a person to move with perfected skills at a certain energy level. Therefore, one’s ability to become fully integrated into its movements reflects upon one’s nature as an intelligent and graceful person. This dance shows the world a range of personal talents that make one seem interesting and attractive. There are many kinds of dances exercising various talents, intelligences, and skills. We want others to know of our own special virtues, take our measure when our abilities are extended to the utmost, and, in short, admire us for the various amazing things that we do and can do. We want to place ourselves in situations where we can shine. This may be what many people see when they conceive goals in life.

Certain individuals are unhappy because they cannot have what they want for themselves, not though lack of effort or desire but because the desired thing is not able to be achieved by exercise of will. For example, a lonely individual may want to have friends. He may see others laughing and enjoying themselves, sharing jokes, having fun together, and desperately want to be part of that activity; but he cannot seek such an end directly. Why not? To be friends with someone, a person needs to some extent to share the other’s experiences. That means being interested in some of the same things as the other person and cultivating a personality of self-confidence and knowledge in those areas. Then one can begin to communicate more fully with the other person and perhaps eventually be friends. But to approach another person on the basis of friendship alone is likely to fail. Life does not work that way.

The discussion leads to this point: It may not be possible to achieve some of life’s most important goals through reason because these goals represent the attainment of a rhythmic state of being which comes through experience and patient cultivation of habit. To play Chopin like Vladimir Horowitz, for instance, is rationally impossible. This is a beautifully perfected skill, not a technique which anyone might pick up with a certain knowledge. Habits, formed during a period of preparation, cannot immediately be willed. To bring habit up to a state of rhythmic perfection requires a certain natural aptitude plus the proper cultivation and training plus something else: that special radiance which just appears. Therefore, if your goal is to reach that state, you may be disappointed. No matter how much you wanted it or how hard you tried, the goal might remain beyond your grasp unless your psychic antennae and the supporting habit structure were fully attuned to its ideal and the experience came.

* See Appendix I, “The Story of the Dance” by Margaret Fleming

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