850 years after Aristotle wrote in Nichomachean Ethics that happiness is the Supreme Good, the philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius wrote a brilliant follow up to Aristotle's work while exiled in prison in the early 6th century.
Boethius was born in Rome around 480AD shortly after the last Western Roman Emperor was disposed by the invading tribes. He was politically active, serving in the Roman Senate (which continued as an advisory council to the "barbarian" kings that ruled Italy after the decline of the Western Roman Empire). He was also consul to King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths, who ruled Italy from Rome and eventually put Boethius to death for conspiring with the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople.
Boethius was fluent in Greek, a rare skill at that time, and he translated works by Aristotle and other Greek writers into Latin.
His greatest work is Consolation of Philosophy, a book he wrote while in captivity shortly before his execution that recounts an imaginary discussion between himself and the woman named Philosophy.
Stripped of power and freedom, banished from his friends and the comforts of wealth, Boethius expounds on the purpose of life.
Like Aristotle, he points out the limitations of wealth, fame and power. They are inferior to the one Supreme Good: happiness.
"Ye, too, creatures of earth, have some glimmering of your origin, however faint, and though in a vision dim and clouded, yet in some wise, notwithstanding, ye discern the true end of happiness, and so the aim of nature leads you thither - to that true good - while error in many forms leads you astray therefrom."
The principle path to happiness according to Aristotle was contemplation (theoreos). He considers this activity of the intellect divine and invites his followers to not limit themselves to "man's thoughts" and the "thoughts of mortality", "but we ought so far as possible to achieve immortality, and do all that man may to live in accordance with the highest thing in him."
Well did Boethius take this counsel. He writes, "let us soar, if we can, to the heights of the Supreme Intelligence."
What does he find there?
"But we have concluded that both happiness and God are the supreme good; wherefore that which is highest Divinity must also itself necessarily be supreme happiness. For since men become happy by the acquisition of happiness, while happiness is very Godship, it is manifest that they become happy by the acquisition of Godship. But as by the acquisition of justice men become just, and wise by the acquisition of wisdom, so by parity of reasoning by acquiring Godship they must of necessity become gods. So every man who is happy is a god; and though in nature God is One only, yet there is nothing to hinder that very many should be gods by participation in that nature."
To be happy is to be a god.
How does Boethius propose that we accomplish that? By our virtuous actions.
Now the supreme good is set up as the end alike for the bad and for the good; but the good seek it through natural action of the virtues, whereas the bad try to attain this same good through all manner of concupiscence, which is not the natural way of attaining good.
The wise alone are able to do what they would, while the wicked follow their own hearts' lust, but can not accomplish what they would. For they go on in their willfulness fancying they will attain what they wish for in the paths of delight; but they are very far from its attainment, since shameful deeds lead not to happiness.
Absolute good, then, is offered as the common prize, as it were, of all human actions. Since absolute good is happiness, 'tis clear that all the good must be happy for the very reason that they are good. But it was agreed that those who are happy are gods. So, then, the prize of the good is one which no time may impair, no man's power lessen, no man's unrighteousness tarnish; 'tis very Godship.
Locked in his prison cell and facing imminent death, Boethius guided by the woman Philosophy soars to ethereal heights. Not only does he find the key to happiness, but he ingeniously reconciles the conflict between fate, free will, and providence while foreshadowing complexity theory and the evolution of the biosphere. More on that another time.
-J.D. Stein | November 2013
I take a lot of photos. 99% of them I delete. They are missing something.
The decision to keep or delete takes a split second. My intuition or subconscious mind knows what it is looking for well before my rational mind can identify it.
There are many ways of seeing, but the truest and best is with the intuition, for it takes in the whole, whereas the intellect only takes in a part.Soestsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman
What is my intuition searching for?
Pattern is a flicker of remembrance. A faint echo of the millions of imprints from a lifetime of searching and sometimes finding beauty and meaning. It is connection to our past.
Pattern is an "intuitively perceived essence;" it suggests "infinite potentiality," writes Soetsu Yanagi.
If a building" (or a photo, painting or other creative work) "makes us light up, it is not because we see order; any row of file cabinets is ordered. What we recognize and love is the same kind of pattern we see in every face, the pattern of our own life form.Jonathan Hale, The Old Way of Seeing
Pattern is personal. What resonates with me might not resonate with you at all. Different experiences, different connections, different patterns.
Pattern, then, is an extract of our life experience boiled down into something that we recognize as true to ourselves, but we cannot put into words.
Take the photo of the junked car at the top of this post. I was driving near Menan, Idaho looking for that flicker of inspiration where my intuition recognizes something of beauty that needs to be captured.
I stopped and took a dozen or so pictures of this car. Later I chose the one I liked best, the one that best fit the pattern. Only then did I begin to analyze with my rational mind why this photo rang true for me. What intuitively perceived essence had my subconscious latched on to? What pattern had it identified?
Here are several, but there are many that I could never put into words. They remain locked deep in my subconscious.
This photo is beautiful to me because it captures what I always try to find when taking photos of old cars. Stability in motion, motion in stability. The car looks as if it is about to fly because the fence posts and trees are leaning backwards, suggesting speed.
It reminds me of that incredible sense of motion when I took the photos below from the Shinkansen with my iPhone as I traveled with my oldest son from Kyoto to Sendai.
The car also reminds me of my Grandmother's car. A car I barely remember. Just that it was black and white, had a similar shape as the car in the photo and had a ivory colored statue of Jesus on the dashboard. I remember riding in the huge back seat only once at age 3 or 4 on our way to Albers Supermarket for groceries.
There is more, but the point is this photo fits a pleasing pattern for me. It is a perfect example of something good in and of itself as I described in my post on How To Be Happy. Something good for its own sake because it is beautiful.
But it is a hidden beauty. A beauty I have to draw out of the photo myself. Soetsu Yanagi calls this process "making an artist of the viewer." In a sense, we complete works of art when we see them with our intuition, thus completing the pattern.
-J.D. Stein | November 2013
Over 2,300 years ago, Aristotle shared the secret of how to be happy. The answer is found in edited notes from his lectures that were compiled into a book called the Nicomachean Ethics.
His "formula" for achieving happiness and prosperity is as relevant today as it was when he first shared it with his students two millenia ago.
Aristotle taught there are two types of goods:
(1) things good in and of themselves (i.e first order goods)
(2) things good as a means to obtain these first order goods (i.e. second order goods).
Money, for example, is a second order good as it is only useful for buying things. Goods of the first order include art, nature, love, music as well as many others that stand on their own merit.
Some first order goods can be downgraded to second order goods when they are used to acquire something else such as when an investor buys art strictly to flip it for an economic profit.
Are there first order goods that people choose only for their own sake and never as a means to obtain something else? That are never downgraded to second order goods?
Aristotle identifies one. He calls it the Supreme Good. The Greek word for this best and final good is eudaimonia. It is often translated as "happiness" but other meanings include prosperity, success, fortune, ease, enjoyment.
This eudaimonia is more than just a pleasant feeling. It is a fortunate state of being that is reached by performing certain activities in a certain manner.
Happiness is something we choose.
What are the activities Aristotle identifies that lead to happiness or a state of blessedness?
They are actions that we take in accordance with our best selves. In accordance with excellence or virtue.
Showing courage, giving to others, acting as a friend are some of the items Aristotle enumerates.
But it is not enough to just perform these actions; they must be done in the right way, at the right time, for the right reason and to the right people. Aristotle readily admits that this is not an easy standard to achieve. He calls it observing the mean - not being deficient in our actions nor taking them to excess.
Yet, Aristotle says there is one activity above all that when pursued can lead to perfect happiness. The Greek word for this activity is theoreos. It is most often translated "to contemplate", but it is broader than that. It means to behold, gaze, view with attention, inspect, weigh, consider, perceive, experience, feel.
To be truly happy, we must live life with open eyes and a contemplative mind. To relish our experiences, reflect on them, learn from them. We must do so over an extended period, not just while on vacation.
Aristotle writes, "Moreover this activity must occupy a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make Spring, nor does one fine day; similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy."
A contemplative life does not require money. "But the student, so far as the pursuit of his activity is concerned needs no external apparatus: on the contrary, worldly goods may almost be said to be a hindrance to contemplation;"
It simply requires a willingness to engage our minds. Aristotle believes our ability to contemplate is divine. He enjoins us to not simply reflect on mortality but "so far as possible to achieve immortality, and do all that man may to live in accordance with the highest thing in him."
-J.D. Stein | November 2013