Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Summum Bonum

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It’s been an odd few days.  For one thing,  the weather has been awful, and beyond awful.   First there was snow, then there was more snow, then there was ice, now there’s more snow coming.   Doctor appointments have gone down the tubes.  The schools are all closed.  The temperatures resemble nursery school counting games.

This morning, we’re socked in for the second day straight, and there’s a good chance we won’t be able to get out again until sometime tomorrow afternoon.

I’m less worried about that than I might have been on another date, since the next doctor’s appointment is late tomorrow afternoon, and yesterday we decided to approach the immobility with a little genius.

Or, you know, self  indulgence.

We had in the freezer a 22 pound turkey, bigger than the one we cooked at Thanksgiving.  We thawed it out, stuffed it, and cooked it, which made a very nice dinner for last night and will probably due for lunch and dinner today and lunch tomorrow.

And now it’s early morning, and I’ve got tea and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.  Not bad. 

Not having to go out and do things is one of the great boons of human existence, at least in bad weather.

It’s not, of course, the summum bonum.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m still reading St. Augustine’s City of God.  I’m even almost halfway done, but only almost.   I am finally to a place where I don’t read a little of it, wander away, then come back to read a little more. 

And, of course, I’ve managed to do that just as Augustine got to Plato.

I’m not going to go on at length here about the state of late Antiquity’s love affair with convoluted formulas for explaining the nature of God.  If I’m honest about it, I have to say that the high Middle Ages weren’t much better.  Augustine proved that Plato could get you to formulas of being that would make any sane human being dizzy.  Aquinas proved that Aristotle could get you to the same place.

What I want to get to here is something I haven’t thought about in a long time, because I don’t think anybody thinks about it much anymore.  I can’t think of a single modern philosopher who mentions it.

It in this case would be the “summum bonum,” the sum of all good, the greatest good, the one thing necessary for happiness.

The idea was this:  it was thought (by Plato, by Aristotle, by the Stoics and Epicureans, by Augustine and Aquinas and Abelard) that we could identify the one, greatest good thing, the thing which the very possession of which would make us happy.

Modern philosophers, to the extent they can be called philosphers at all, seem to have all kinds of goals on their minds, many of them never stated.  They’re interested in ethics and morality.  They’re interested in politics. 

To the extent that they discuss happiness at all, it tends to be as a matter of taste.  Different things make different people happy.

Even modern philosophers who claim to follow ancient philosophers of one school or the other do this. 

A lot of modern secular philosophy, for instance, claims to build on the work of the Epicureans, but most of it lacks both the Epicurean passion for self-discipline and the Epicurean trust that there was one, single objective goal for all human beings if they wished to achieve happiness.

This aspect of philosophy as traditionally practiced always surprises me when I run across it–that the goal of every human being’s life was to achieve happiness and the purpose of philosophy was to help her achieve it.

Augustine and Plato would have made it more complicated than that, because for them “philosophy” was all of what we now call science–natural philosophy was the study of the natural world, including biology and chemistry and physics; moral philosophy was the study of the rules for right living; and rational philosophy was the quest for the summum bonum. 

By now, you all know how enamored I am of the idea that all knowledge is one–that mathematics and biology, physics and music, literature and art are all part of some bigger thing, all aspects of a single quality of being human.

Neither Socrates nor Augustine would have questioned that idea.  Hildegarde herself wouldn’t have questioned it.

But I want to get back now to that summum bonum, that idea that there is one good thing, the greatest good thing, and that all human beings must necessarily have that one good thing if they are to be happy.

It’s the opposite of the idea that different people have different things that will make them happy.   It’s the idea that only one thing can make any of us happy.

If you think about this a moment, it’s obvious what Christian philosophers like Augustine did with it–they declared that the summum bonum was God, and the only way any human being could be happy was to “possess” God.  They meant to attain to knowledge of Him and to be in communion with Him. 

But the idea of a summum bonun is not inherently religious.  Greek philosophers very unlike Plato in their mental habits agreed that such a thing existed.  They disagreed only about what it was, where it was to be found, and how it was to be obtained.

The issue was never if such a thing existed, but what it consisted of, and how to attain it.

I don’t inow why we no longer have an idea like this operating anywhere in our culture.   I don’t think the lack can be accounted for by the simple fact that we’ve all become much more secular in the modern age. 

The summum bonum disappears from philosophy sometime in the eighteenth century.  It’s certainly nowhere to be found in Hegel, although there are echoes of it in Kant.

These days, it’s as if the concept never existed–and, what’s more, as if the idea that “happiness” could have a definition that was not just “whatever feels good” has pretty much disappeared as well. 

I don’t know why that is.  I would think that it would be especially important to come to some kind of determination of these things if you were in fact secular, or even better atheist. 

One of the serious weaknesses in secular and atheist philosophy these days is its inability to confront the unhappy nature of too many lives–not just the neurotically unhappy nature of relatively rich people, but the unquestionably unhappy nature of people throughout the world. 

If the meaning of life is contained in the joy you experience in living it–which is pretty much what Paul Kurtz says–then there are a great many people out there living utterly and unquestionably meaningless lives.

What are we, after all, supposed to say to the child dying inexorably and painfully from cancer,  or the young mother gunned down in a genocidal war in Africa, or the masses dying of starvation or disease or any of a number of things throughout the world?

And even if we can come to some kind of answer to that–and on that particular intellectual path, I don’t think we can–we’d still have to contend with what it means to be happy.

What happened, in the end, to the summum bonum?

Written by janeh

February 2nd, 2011 at 7:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Summum Bonum'

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  1. I think your snow is headed our way. Can’t complain, though; we’ve had an unbelievably mild winter so far, while the rest of the Northern Hemisphere has been snowed in.

    I wonder if people simply stopped believing that the summum bonum existed? It’s non-material after all, and we live in a materialist world, or did, until the post-modernists decided that even reality was a social construct.

    This would fit with it disappearing in the 18th century, as we became more and more industrialized and more and more materialistic (in the sense of thinking there’s nothing more than what you see and experience) and culminating in the early to mid twentieth century with the world wars. WW I in particular has been described as causing the destruction of any belief in anything, and especially anything good.


    2 Feb 11 at 8:45 am

  2. In the western world, I think the possession of the single happy thing has become the necessity of having *everything* in order to be happy. Money and all the things it can buy have become the standards of success, and without material success, happiness is (theoretically) unobtainable. Many people, detached from the concepts of eternity that came from religious life, accept the definitions and shallow goals they get from advertising.

    I also see, especially in matters like the current flurry over the “Tiger Mom” that some people, for their children or themselves, view achievement and accomplishment as the path to happiness. But accomplishment seems to be defined in competition with others, rather than against an inner standard, so everything is strife, and “not good enough” is disaster, as the realistic thought that there’s always someone out there who is better can’t be tolerated. I suspect these people are always secretly miserable, and they’re certainly capable of making everyone around them miserable.

    They certainly never heard that happiness lies not in getting what you want, but in wanting what you get.

    As for the truly miserable people of the world, the poor, the starving, and the victims of war… I don’t subscribe to the notion that if some people are unhappy I shouldn’t be able to be happy, but on the other hand if some people must live that way, we more fortunate people haven’t done enough to give them a chance to gain their own happiness. And I think that’s all we owe others…a chance. Given a chance, everyone is responsible for their own, defining, seeking, and attaining it.

    Me, I’m still working on it. Daily.


    2 Feb 11 at 1:18 pm

  3. This is why I snapped and snarled when told I was “really” interested in philosophy. I could have lived a long and–dare I say it?–happy life without inquiring into why the summum bonum disappeared from philosophical discourse during the 18th Century. I stay well back from much of philosophy because the reasoning to fact ratio is too high for my taste. But to go half-way:

    Two questions need to be answered of any goal: SHOULD it be achieved? And CAN it be achieved?

    Moral philsophy first. Ought we to seek happiness for its own sake? Before everyone nods “Yes” please consider schadenfreude. And sadism. And masochism. If our primary goal is happiness, we ought to be plenty worried about what makes us happy.

    Which leads to natural philsophy. IS there one thing which makes everyone happy? Can we prove this? Classical philosophers might just as easily have observed that just as some people are shorter, darker, stronger or faster than others, so not all people are prone to be happy in equal measure. Often the same sorts of things make many people happy or sad over the short term, but not always over a longer time, and even in the short term, not always the same things, or to the same degree. Instead they opted for belief in a single thing which would make all men happy–but on what evidence?

    If you want to pursue something without first determining that it exists, would anyone be interested in a slightly used set of snark lures?


    2 Feb 11 at 6:49 pm

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