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Lost in Translation

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So, you know, every once in a while comments actually do what I want them to do, and that makes everything easier.

Robert complains–if I’m reading him right–that obviously there is no such thing as the summum bonum, because obviously different people are made happy by different things.  Sadists and masochists are made happy by things the rest of us would find abhorent. 

But this is, actually, a perfect example of the sea change in thinking that I was talking about–“happiness,” for Augustine, for Aquinas, for Plato, for Aristotle, was not about “feeling good and jolly.” 

They would have labeled that “pleasure,” and they would have had no trouble accepting that different people got pleasure from different things. 

Happiness was something considerably more complicated–a conviction of the rightness of your pursuit of the good life, with the good life defined as “the highest possible way of life available to man as a human being.”

And they would have said man, not man and women.

In a way, the classical philosophical idea of “happiness” is like the classical Christian idea of “faith”–it refers not to an emotion, but to an act of the will.

The problem with pleasures, for Augustine (and Plato, and Aristotle, and the Stoics) is both that it is fleeting, and that in being fleeting it so often ends in disaster.

Happiness, in this kind of writing and in this tradition, is by definition something that lasts.  The great danger, for human beings, is that they will mistake their momentary pleasures for happiness, and therefore end their lives in a muddle of compromises and corruptions.

I do not think that this amounts to inventing something that isn’t real.  I know the distinction in my own life, and I can see it around me in the lives of other people. 

I don’t think it’s that difficult a distinction to make. 

I do think it’s become very unusual to think of our lives this way, or to think of human life at all as something which we need to work to live up to.

The battle cry these days is that we have a right to “be ourselves,” by which we mean be whatever it is we have an impulse to be right this second.  We look at what the Greeks would have called “passions” and declare them as immutable attributes of our core identities.  The worst thing in the world we can say to another human being is that we don’t accept them as they are.

But the philosophers of antiquity and the early Christian theologians didn’t want to be accepted as they were, nor did they think it was a good thing to accept people as they were.

The human being in the raw was not a very good thing. He was subject to passions that burst out of him and overtook his will.  It took a long training in self-restraint and self-control to even begin to give him some semblance of freedom of action, to make it possible for him to choose what he did rather than be carried away on the storms of his passions.

Happiness lay–for the pagans and the Christians alike–in the attainment of that self control. 

The summum bonum, for the pagans,was the rational and examined life–a life lived by the force of one’s reason rather than one’s passions.

The summum bonum for the Christians was God, because only in a close relationship with God could man hope to conquer his passions and thereby become fully human. 

In both cases, the important thing, the issue, was the attainment of full humanity, and human-ness was defined in opposition to the less-than-human, the birds of the air, the beasts of the field.

Okay, I couldn’t help myself.  I just wanted to sound poetic for a minute there.  It’s a kind of fit that overtakes me every once in a while.

I think that there is good argument to be made about whether or not such a definition of the human is accurate.  We put a lot more emphasis on the ways in which human beings are like other animals these days than they did then, and we do it to some extent because they didn’t.   After twenty centuries of man as the rational animal, we might be due some down time on the examined front.

But the fact remains that in discussing the summum bonum, the issue is not if all men can be said to take pleasure in the same things. 

The issue is whether or not there is a definition of the human that all human beings should aspire to–something we are born with the potential for, but only with the potential for.

Aristotle and Plato, even most of the Roman writers, would have considered it shameful to accept themselves as they were born.  Augustine and Aquinas would have considered such a thing a surefire path to Hell.

Capitalized, because, as William F. Buckley once said, Hell is a place, like Scarsdale.

I do think that we’ve lost something in not being able to think about our lives this way, and the lives of all human beings this way.

We’re left with calling the sadists “happy,” even when their sadism lands them in jail for fifty years.

Written by janeh

February 3rd, 2011 at 6:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Lost in Translation'

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  1. My bad. I was unfamiliar with the concept as described, and ought to have boned up on it first–or refrained from commenting. The best I can say for myself is that I did not mean to say or imply that there was no such thing as the summum bonum, but that its existence had not been established, which I would have taken as the necessary starting point–but I was using “happiness” in the modern English sense.

    Using “happiness” to mean ‘a conviction of the rightness of your pursuit of the good life, with the good life defined as “the highest possible way of life available to man as a human being”’ is a completely different game, and one I’ll decline.


    3 Feb 11 at 4:47 pm

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