Successful Retirement and The Meaning of Life III – Classical Western Thought

July 17, 2012

This is one of several posts on the Meaning of Life.

My last post considered the context or framework within which we ask the question: What is the meaning of life? This post looks at some classical Western philosophical/religious responses.

Plato (Greek, born about 425 BC) argued that we need to acquire knowledge of the spiritual form of what he called the “Good” and then to live our lives in harmony with that knowledge. We acquire knowledge by objectively interacting with reality, not just through our senses, but by use of our intellect and reasoning.

Plato’s student Aristotle believed that meaning could be found in “virtuous living” or living life as an excellent human being. His word for this is arete which many translate as “human excellence” with the connotation of always striving to achieve your highest potential. He saw virtue as a habit or capacity that we acquire by making good decisions – doing the right thing and viewing the wrong thing as unattractive. We should do the right thing even if it causes pain; we should avoid the wrong thing even if it offers pleasure.

Aristotle describes many virtues as means between extremes.  Four of his main virtues are:

Courage: the mean between rashness and cowardice.

Temperance: the mean between self-indulgence and asceticism.

Justice: everyone should get what he or she deserves.

Practical wisdom: making right judgments about what to do (not simply following rules).

Aristotle believed that living with arate stimulates friendships because true friendships are built on virtuous behavior.  A true friend is someone who  likes another person for the sake of that other person.

Zino of Citium (Greece, fourth century BC) founded the Stoic school of thought. Stoics believed that the Universe was created by a God named Zeus who was the essence of rationality. Humans share in that rationality in some small measure but are afflicted by our emotions e.g. anger, envy, lust, greed, jealousy. Stoics argued that we have no control over the external world because it is essentially causally determined, but we do have control over our internal world in which our rational capabilities can help us manage our emotional proclivities. By seeking wisdom and control over our emotions we can achieve a “stoic calm” and live in harmony with nature and society. Meaning is found in this harmony and in avoiding the suffering of unchecked emotions.

Epicurus founded the Epicurian school of thought in the third century BC. Epicureans thought we should seek modest pleasures and live a moderate, virtuous life. Limiting our desires limits our pain from having them unfulfilled. Death is not to be feared because, in the Epicureans’ view, there is no life after death: “Death in nothing to us, for that which is dissolved is without sensation and that which is without sensation is nothing to us.” Happiness is found in freedom from pain and fear.

The Judeo-Christian (and in large measure Islamic) religious tradition posits an all-powerful God who created the universe and who takes an active interest in human activities. God’s expectations with respect to human behavior are revealed in divinely-inspired  religious texts. Religious leaders help people understand these texts and provide additional guidance with respect to personal and ritual behavior. People who behave in large measure in accordance with God”s expectations may achieve a happy spiritual afterlife (with a resurrected body according to some sects). People who fail to meet God’s expectations will have an unhappy spiritual afterlife. A clear component of The Meaning of Life in these traditions is thus: Meet God’s expectations.

So certain themes emerge from this history of thought regarding the meaning of life: the need to deal with the fear of death; achieving happiness (however defined); avoiding pain and suffering; dealing with our emotions; being rational; determining what is virtuous (right/wrong); our relationships with a divinity, with the universe, with nature, with each other and ourselves.

Next up I’ll look at the classical Eastern traditions of Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism.

R. Kevin Price

© 2008-2012 R.K. Price