Monday, October 11, 2010

The Fine, The Good, and the Meaningful

Can philosophy really offer advice on happiness? Certainly this was one of its traditional aspirations.

In the seventeenth-century, it was taken for granted that the philosopher’s job included talking about how to achieve a happy life.

When RenĂ© Descartes was a schoolboy, one of the state-of-the-art textbooks he studied was a massive compendium of philosophy in four parts published in 1609 by the now forgotten scholastic philosopher Eustachius; it discussed logic and metaphysics and physics and psychology, but it also stated that “the final goal of a complete philosophical system is human happiness.”

This was following a long tradition, that stretched back through the middle ages, and indeed right back to classical times. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote a treatise called De Vita Beata, “On the Happy Life”; and much earlier his Greek Stoic predecessors had offered many recommendations on how to live in a calm and balanced and tranquil way, how to achieve a “good flow of life”, as Zeno, the founder of Stoicism put it, in the third century before Christ.

Going back just a little earlier, Aristotle, the co-founder of Western philosophy along with Plato, gave lectures on ethics which described the goal of human life as what he called eudaimonia, that is to say, happiness or human fulfilment.

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