Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Externals and Happiness

It is very difficult to decide how we should go about actually confirming or disconfirming a philosopher's eudaemonic speculations. Testing human beings in some of the obvious ways is certainly ruled out. It seems we can do no better than look at the experiences of some people who have been fortunate and unfortunate in their pursuit of virtue and happiness. A philosopher can of course dismiss such ”anecdotal” evidence and say these people know nothing of virtue and happiness, but then I think we rightly begin to lose interest in the untestable ramblings of the philosopher. Why DO we assume the philosopher knows anything about happiness?

I take an interest in the Stoic claim that virtue and happiness do not depend upon externals. We concede to the Stoic that the superfluous adornments of high-income living don’t matter, but that is not the challenge at issue. I wish to consider the effects of catastrophic losses of externals upon happiness or flourishing. One obvious place to go for testimonials is people who have suddenly become prisoners or POW’s or political exiles. My admittedly limited experience with such people is absolutely unanimous and consistent in describing their circumstances as a loss of happiness and flourishing. One of the first things they tell me is that many of their compatriots soon choose to die rather live under such conditions. That is a fairly definitive sign that one’s life has taken a serious turn for the worse. Those who endure years of captivity universally tell me that it is the prospect of recovering their former life and its “externals” ( family, occupation, home) that inspires their will to endure. Some of these people have actually written about how reflecting upon Stoic maxims helped then endure, but that was as a recipe for survival, not happiness!

You can say “Those people weren’t Stoics, so of course they suffered”, but they were men of strength and character and they endured years of terrible hardships. It is interesting that were, before the fact, no Stoics in their number. You can say in absence of any evidence that someone who professes a Stoics faith would react differently, but frankly I see no reason at all to credit this claim. I think everyone who experiences such a catastrophic loss of the externals in his life will confess that it effectively devastates his life, at least pro tempore. I would be astonished if ONE MAN can back from seven years in the gulag and said, “I was happy there, and I’m happy to be back, but really it’s all the same.”

I worry when someone preaches to young inexperienced mind that virtue and happiness are invulnerable and don’t depend upon the external circumstances of our life. This dangerous gospel runs contrary to the universal human experience as I understand, including the experience of people of actual, not theoretical, virtue. I worry that such advise comes recklessly from the pens and mouths of people who have no experience with what they are talking about. "Live your talk, philosopher, and come back from the camps and tell me about flourishing there, and I will repent my criticism of you."


Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>I worry when someone preaches to young inexperienced mind that virtue and happiness are invulnerable and don’t depend upon the external circumstances of our life.<<<

But who is actually so preaching? I believe that when understood in the right way, virtue and happiness are indeed invulnerable, but I would not for a moment dream of trying to instruct a 'young, inexperienced mind' in either the doctrine or the practice. I only ever tell people about Stoicism when they approach me, and even then, for some people I have deliberately avoided giving straight answers to their queries. If I am wrong in my assessment that such people might be harmed by exposure to Stoic ideas, then they can pursue their queries with others, or read books, or go in search of forums and blogs...

6:39 AM  

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