(NOTE: This transcription has been automatically generated through an AI program. Consequently, this transcript may not match everything you hear in the podcast episode, and it may contain errors such as spelling, grammar, word choice, etc., due to the limitations of current AI technology.)
Hi everyone, welcome to part two of our interview with Dr. Curtis Hancock on the nature of happiness. And let’s get right to it, enjoy.
So then, so let’s take our society today. You have your examples of probably, I would assume what Aristotle talks about a happy family to observe. So what would be Aristotle’s prescription? If he again, assuming he shows up today and there’s fewer and fewer families to observe? Maybe you just don’t know, like what would be a secondary way in your opinion of approaching this problem.
That’s an important question that should qualify when he talks about how one can’t be happy without having good parents. He doesn’t necessarily mean biological parents. He just means that children will need adult supervision in life to help them develop as a morally responsible person, which their happiness depends on whatever substitute society can develop responsibly for the breakdown of the family, maybe that’s possible. It seems like Western civilization is running an experiment on this now this kind of disposed of the family not regarded as an essential of civilization anymore.
That’s another question sociologists can delve into children have to have some kind of adult direction. One of the things that Aristotle would be at loggerheads with is this modern day Rousseau and John Dewey view of education that you spoil and ruin children, if you try to indoctrinate them with adult supervision. If you just leave children alone. This was this Rousseauian idea, this romantic idea. You leave children alone and don’t give them too much direction. They’ll grow up as creative self expressive and then they’ll be happy. Aristotle says, that’s a delusion.
In fact, he even says something when I first read it, I couldn’t believe he said it, but now I understand why he says that he has this remark where he says that children cannot be happy. It is a delusion to think Children can be happy. That doesn’t mean they’re unhappy. Children are neither happy nor unhappy. That’s a category that doesn’t apply to them, because to be happy, you have to be, you have to have cultivated enough practical wisdom to manage your own choices to obtain real goods and avoid destructive, apparent goods. And you can manage your life practical wisdom,
You mentioned that parents don’t have to be biological for Aristotle. Let’s define it. For now as someone in a position of authority or even someone as by seeing them do it. And then you, kind of, by imitation, in a sense, an analogous imitation, because it’s not gonna be the same for you necessarily, but you’ll learn from watching that in today’s world, it’s very top down as you do this, or else, or it’s you, you know, like you said, is this your Rousseauian state of nature? There’s no direction, you know, just sit there and, you know, play in the grass and eventually you’ll become a genius. How would Aristotle understand it today? When you have these two models and you’re saying, children could be neither one or the other. How would he approach this, I guess is what I’m trying to get at.
Yeah, well you have to have an education system that still addresses habit formation. Education is not just about reading, writing arithmetic. However important that is, it’s also about calling the child to be a morally excellent person. So Aristotle’s definition of happiness is all here.
How did St. Thomas respond to that? Because he had an extensive commentary on Aristotle’s work, St. Thomas as a Catholic and a theologian. Both agree with as well as kind of build on what Aristotle said.
Well, Aristotle thought that you would become a happy person if you became what he called the great souled man. That was a person who in life was very successful, very adept in the pursuit of obtaining real goods, all those virtues and accomplishments which perfect our human nature from knowledge, love, personal reputation, community acceptance and the like.
But Aquinas notice that in life you will sometimes come upon people like this who nonetheless have a kind of nagging lack of fulfillment or some kind of lingering unhappiness. So Aquinas thinks that this is a sign in our psychology that we need more than just the accumulation of real goods, even if we obtain all the real. So you could achieve Aristotle’s paradigm to perfection and obtain all the real goods and you could still wind up with a sense of unfulfillment. He doesn’t think this is a proof that God exists, but he thinks it’s certainly compatible with Christian teaching about the human condition.
And he thinks it says something about our psychological way of looking at life and we need a fulfillment that is infinite, inexhaustible and perfect. And in this world we can’t have that. So Aristotle’s pursuit of happiness on natural terms. The attainment of those goods necessary to fulfill human nature aren’t enough because we know people like that who still aren’t satisfied. That famous poem by Richard Cory by Edward Arlington Robinson called Richard Cory, where he’s the great soul, man, that’s the idea of that poem. And he goes home that night and puts a bullet in his head.
That’s in Arlington Robinson’s way of saying that St. Thomas is right. We need more than that. Natural happiness is part of the story. Yeah, we have an obligation to pursue our natural happiness, but in the end, we can attain that and we still need grace. We need the infusion of the divine virtue so that we can become friends with God because unless you own God, unless you possess God in eternity as your friend, you won’t ultimately be happy. That’s the way St. Thomas looks at it. So Aristotle is part of the story an important part of the story, but it’s not the whole story, that’s what St. Thomas says.
So then, so would it be fair to say this basically, Aristotle would say there’s this norm of happiness that you you see through observing the family and, you know, loosely called parents that allows you to discern through prudence, the virtue, a person’s habit of prudence, what you ought to do in your life in order to achieve knowledge, love, you know, just general good well being, eudaemonia. And but then St. Thomas says that’s all. But even like richard cory. Someone who even reaches the fulfillment of what Aristotle is laying out still has this psychological lack, this feeling that there’s something more that they’re that they’re not getting. And then in Richard Cory’s case ends up putting a bullet in his head. Would you say then that or kindness kind of pulled out or kind of expand on this? I guess if you think this is the case is that there’s a distinction between our action and our activity, our longing and are and what we end up choosing these apparent goods or these real goods. And that is saying that with the psychological state that we have this divine longing in us, and that’s why even this is not enough for us. We have an infinite desire to put it differently. We have infinite desire, but our by by by virtue of being finite creatures, our actions are all limited. So there’s this immense frustration. Would that be a fair characterization of Aquinas is here?
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it that no accumulation of finite goods, however real they are, however grand they are, from our natural point of view, no accumulation of finite goods provide a bridge across to the infinite good, which in the end makes us happy.So happiness is about the ownership, the possession of an infinite good, which is God an eternal inexhaustible object of happiness. So the finite-infinite distinction is a good use of language.
So let’s kind of pivot back to Aristotle for a second and then I will bridge back to Aquinas too, because I think this is an interesting connection. So, let’s say for people today, they have their jobs, they have their families, they understand there is evil in the world.
They understand that, you know, there’s going to be to your point earlier, there’s gonna be tragedy that something’s going to happen to either to them or to their loved ones or to people. They know that, you know, are like we talked about in earlier podcast that there are there’s these fixed natural laws, there’s fixed moral laws. There’s this, you know, we’re working out on the dramatic stage and so therefore with free will and choosing to be God’s friend or not, you’re going to have this problem of evil that we discussed earlier? So, I guess my question is is like with Aristotle, how would he have answered, I guess happiness in relation to this problem of evil, what would have his response been when he was witnessing evil and you know, at his time in relation to this, this norms that he sets out, does that make sense?
So how would he have responded to say, look, you can still be happy despite all this evil in the world, I guess is what I’m getting at the lessons from the greek playwrights about that life as a tragic backdrop and it will on some level influences all. Mhm.
And the question is, will you have enough depth about your understanding of happiness? And we’ll have you have cultivated a sense of your personal development as a happy person, especially recognizing that you’re not born into this world alone. You exist in community with other people relying on that communal support is something that is natural for human life and you should do that. Remember he has that expression where if a person thinks that he can be happy and live a solitary life, he’s either a beast or a God, sheep and Zeus can live solitary lives and be happy that human beings cannot.
So that the way in which we fortify ourselves against the tragic side of life is to remember that happiness is a individual obligation too, it’s also a communal obligation and in life you can’t be happy person unless you’re enmeshed in the community and you’ve cultivated the community. If one looks at it that way, you can fortify yourself against having serious, tragic setbacks in life. I read a biography of johann Sebastian bach a few years ago that biography reported that he had 20 Children. I think he had two wives, but he had 20 Children And 10 of them died before adulthood.
Can you imagine that you’d be spending your life as a father going to the funerals of your children? And my grandmother, she had 13 children and she lost two of those children and she would sometimes refer to them. But she was a very happy and well adjusted person as I think johann Sebastian bach was. Pople just accepted that they took Aristotle’s lesson and the lesson of the Geek playwrights and they understood that somehow your task is to somehow find happiness in a tragic world.
Let’s define what, what Aristotle would have meant by tragedy. And then let’s move to how the fallenness of the world that Christianity adds on to that? So they work together. But let’s start with tragedy. So for listeners, how would Aristotle define what would be tragedy?
As we said, tragedy on some level is the human condition, mind, body composite, That’s the human person. We’ll face adversities, life is hard from day to day and so we can’t romanticize that and we can’t be foolish about that. Also, we can’t deny the fact that there’s a certain amount of luck.
This is where that determines your happiness. The pursuit of happiness is largely up to you, largely up to being self aware that you have to make smart decisions in life. You’re responsible largely for your own happiness, but not entirely because of the tragic circumstances of life. And this can turn against you. He tells that story about King Priam in Homer where King Priam is, he’s the great souled man, the king of Troy. He has everything perfect family, he has a perfect kingdom. And he looks out one day and there are thousands of Greek ships outside his port there, he realized, oh we’re in trouble.
He winds up losing everything. And so Aristotle says this is important, this is why you can’t look upon happiness as a snapshot in time for a moment of feeling good. It’s an overarching project. Adler rather uses this more homely example. He says, let’s say that you’re watching a football game and at halftime, a friend of you says good game, isn’t it? And your teams in the league and you say yes so far, it’s a good game, but it’s just the halftime look at what happens in the second half, what might happen in the second half and life is like that.
You can’t just go with a snapshot. So you have to think of happiness as a norm as a principle for regulating your life as a whole in good times and in harder times.
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