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Aristotle: Contemplative Life is Divine and Happiest

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Leo von Klenze (1784-1864), The Acropolis at Athens

ARISTOTLE wrote two works on ethics (that we know of).  The greater of these has come down to us with the name Nicomachean Ethics — evidently either because he wrote it for his son, Nicomachus, or the latter edited the work.  In the Books 7 and 8, Aristotle explains the benefits of the Contemplative Life.  Book 7 gives several specific reasons why Contemplation (θεωρεία; theoreia) contributes uniquely to human happiness.

Perfect Happiness is that activity which most fully exercises the virtue of our best part. Our best part is Intellect, and its most virtuous exercise is Contemplation.

7. 1. [1177a11] But if happiness [εὐδαιμονία] consists in activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of the best part of us. Whether then this be the Intellect [νοῦς], or whatever else it be that is thought to rule and lead us by nature, and to have cognizance of what is noble and divine, either as being itself also actually divine, or as being relatively the divinest part of us, it is the activity of this part of us in accordance with the virtue proper to it that will constitute perfect happiness; and it has been stated already* that this activity is the activity of contemplation [θεωρητική].

Εἰ δ᾽ ἐστὶν ἡ εὐδαιμονία κατ᾽ ἀρετὴν ἐνέργεια, εὔλογον κατὰ τὴν κρατίστην· αὕτη δ᾽ ἂν εἴη τοῦ ἀρίστου. εἴτε δὴ νοῦς τοῦτο εἴτε ἄλλο τι, ὃ δὴ κατὰ φύσιν δοκεῖ ἄρχειν καὶ ἡγεῖσθαι καὶ ἔννοιαν ἔχειν περὶ καλῶν καὶ θείων, εἴτε θεῖον ὂν καὶ αὐτὸ εἴτε τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν τὸ θειότατον, ἡ τούτου ἐνέργεια κατὰ τὴν οἰκείαν ἀρετὴν εἴη ἂν ἡ τελεία εὐδαιμονία. ὅτι δ᾽ ἐστὶ θεωρητική, εἴρηται.

*Aristotle never stated this exactly, but in 6.7.2-3 said that Wisdom [σοφία] is the most perfect mode of knowledge. A wise person must have a true conception of unproven first principles and also know the conclusions that follow from them. “Hence Wisdom must be a combination of Intelligence [Intellect; νοῦς] and Scientific Knowledge [ἐπιστήμη]: it must be a consummated knowledge of the most exalted objects.”  Contemplation is that activity in which ones νοῦς intuits and delights in first principles.

Reasons why the Life of Contemplation is happiest: (1) contemplation is the activity of our highest part; (2) it is the most potentially continuous of our activities;

2. And that happiness consists in contemplation may be accepted as agreeing both with the results already reached and with the truth. For contemplation is at once the highest form of activity (since the intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects with which the intellect deals are the highest things that can be known), and also it is the most continuous, for we can reflect more continuously than we can carry on any form of action.

ὁμολογούμενον δὲ τοῦτ᾽ ἂν δόξειεν εἶναι καὶ τοῖς πρότερον καὶ τῷ ἀληθεῖ. κρατίστη τε γὰρ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐνέργεια (καὶ γὰρ ὁ νοῦς τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ τῶν γνωστῶν, περὶ ἃ ὁ νοῦς)· ἔτι δὲ συνεχεστάτη· θεωρεῖν [τε] γὰρ δυνάμεθα συνεχῶς μᾶλλον ἢ πράττειν ὁτιοῦν.

(3) it is our most pleasant activity;

3. And again we suppose that happiness must contain an element of pleasure; now activity in accordance with wisdom is admittedly the most pleasant of the activities in accordance with virtue: at all events it is held that philosophy or the pursuit of wisdom contains pleasures of marvellous purity and permanence, and it is reasonable to suppose that the enjoyment of knowledge is a still pleasanter occupation than the pursuit of it.

οἰόμεθά τε δεῖν ἡδονὴν παραμεμῖχθαι τῇ εὐδαιμονίᾳ, ἡδίστη δὲ τῶν κατ᾽ ἀρετὴν ἐνεργειῶν ἡ κατὰ τὴν σοφίαν ὁμολογουμένως ἐστίν· δοκεῖ γοῦν ἡ φιλοσοφία θαυμαστὰς ἡδονὰς ἔχειν καθαρειότητι καὶ τῷ βεβαίῳ, εὔλογον δὲ τοῖς εἰδόσι τῶν ζητούντων ἡδίω τὴν διαγωγὴν εἶναι.

(4) it requires only oneself;

4. Also the activity of contemplation will be found to possess in the highest degree the quality that is termed self-sufficiency [αὐτάρκεια]; for while it is true that the wise man equally with the just man and the rest requires the necessaries of life, yet, these being adequately supplied, whereas the just man needs other persons towards whom or with whose aid he may act justly, and so likewise do the temperate man and the brave man and the others, the wise man on the contrary can also contemplate by himself, and the more so the wiser he is; no doubt he will study better with the aid of fellow-workers, but still he is the most self-sufficient of men.

ἥ τε λεγομένη αὐτάρκεια περὶ τὴν θεωρητικὴν μάλιστ᾽ ἂν εἴη· τῶν μὲν γὰρ πρὸς τὸ ζῆν ἀναγκαίων καὶ σοφὸς καὶ δίκαιος καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ δέονται, τοῖς δὲ τοιούτοις ἱκανῶς κεχορηγημένων ὁ μὲν δίκαιος δεῖται πρὸς οὓς δικαιοπραγήσει καὶ μεθ᾽ ὧν, ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ὁ σώφρων καὶ ὁ ἀνδρεῖος καὶ τῶν ἄλλων ἕκαστος, ὁ δὲ σοφὸς καὶ καθ᾽ αὑτὸν ὢν δύναται θεωρεῖν, καὶ ὅσῳ ἂν σοφώτερος ᾖ, μᾶλλον· βέλτιον δ᾽ ἴσως συνεργοὺς ἔχων, ἀλλ᾽ ὅμως

(5) it is an end in itself;

5. [1177b1] Also the activity of contemplation may be held to be the only activity that is loved for its own sake: it produces no result beyond the actual act of contemplation, whereas from practical pursuits we look to secure some advantage, greater or smaller, beyond the action itself.

δόξαι τ᾽ ἂν αὐτὴ μόνη δι᾽ αὑτὴν ἀγαπᾶσθαι· οὐδὲν γὰρ ἀπ᾽ αὐτῆς γίνεται παρὰ τὸ θεωρῆσαι, ἀπὸ δὲ τῶν πρακτικῶν ἢ πλεῖον ἢ ἔλαττον περιποιούμεθα παρὰ τὴν πρᾶξιν.

(6) it is the most leisured activity;

6. Also happiness is thought to involve leisure; for we do business in order that we may have leisure, and carry on war in order that we may have peace. Now the practical virtues are exercised in politics or in warfare; but the pursuits of politics and war seem to be unleisured — those of war indeed entirely so, for no one desires to be at war for the sake of being at war, nor deliberately takes steps to cause a war: a man would be thought an utterly bloodthirsty character if he declared war on a friendly state for the sake of causing battles and massacres. But the activity of the politician also is unleisured, and aims at securing something beyond the mere participation in politics — positions of authority and honor, or, if the happiness of the politician himself and of his fellow-citizens, this happiness conceived as something distinct from political activity (indeed we are clearly investigating it as so distinct).

δοκεῖ τε ἡ εὐδαιμονία ἐν τῇ σχολῇ εἶναι· ἀσχολούμεθα γὰρ ἵνα σχολάζωμεν, καὶ πολεμοῦμεν ἵν᾽ εἰρήνην ἄγωμεν. τῶν μὲν οὖν πρακτικῶν ἀρετῶν ἐν τοῖς πολιτικοῖς ἢ ἐν τοῖς πολεμικοῖς ἡ ἐνέργεια, αἱ δὲ περὶ ταῦτα πράξεις δοκοῦσιν ἄσχολοι εἶναι, αἱ μὲν πολεμικαὶ καὶ παντελῶς (οὐδεὶς γὰρ αἱρεῖται τὸ πολεμεῖν τοῦ πολεμεῖν ἕνεκα, οὐδὲ παρασκευάζει πόλεμον· δόξαι γὰρ ἂν παντελῶς μιαιφόνος τις εἶναι, εἰ τοὺς φίλους πολεμίους ποιοῖτο, ἵνα μάχαι καὶ φόνοι γίνοιντο)· ἔστι δὲ καὶ ἡ τοῦ πολιτικοῦ ἄσχολος, καὶ παρ᾽ αὐτὸ τὸ πολιτεύεσθαι περιποιουμένη δυναστείας καὶ τιμὰς ἢ τήν γε εὐδαιμονίαν αὑτῷ καὶ τοῖς πολίταις, ἑτέραν οὖσαν τῆς πολιτικῆς, ἣν καὶ ζητοῦμεν δῆλον ὡς ἑτέραν οὖσαν.

7. If then among practical pursuits displaying the virtues, politics and war stand out preeminent in nobility and grandeur, and yet they are unleisured, and directed to some further end, not chosen for their own sakes: whereas the activity of the intellect is felt to excel in serious worth, consisting as it does in contemplation, [1177b20] and to aim at no end beyond itself, and also to contain a pleasure peculiar to itself, and therefore augmenting its activity: and if accordingly the attributes of this activity are found to be self-sufficiency, leisuredness, such freedom from fatigue as is possible for man, and all the other attributes of blessedness: it follows that it is the activity of the intellect that constitutes complete human happiness—provided it be granted a complete span of life, for nothing that belongs to happiness can be incomplete.

εἰ δὴ τῶν μὲν κατὰ τὰς ἀρετὰς πράξεων αἱ πολιτικαὶ καὶ πολεμικαὶ κάλλει καὶ μεγέθει προέχουσιν, αὗται δ᾽ ἄσχολοι καὶ τέλους τινὸς ἐφίενται καὶ οὐ δι᾽ αὑτὰς αἱρεταί εἰσιν, ἡ δὲ τοῦ νοῦ ἐνέργεια σπουδῇ τε διαφέρειν δοκεῖ θεωρητικὴ οὖσα, καὶ παρ᾽ αὑτὴν οὐδενὸς ἐφίεσθαι τέλους, καὶ ἔχειν τὴν ἡδονὴν οἰκείαν (αὕτη δὲ συναύξει τὴν ἐνέργειαν), καὶ τὸ αὔταρκες δὴ καὶ σχολαστικὸν καὶ ἄτρυτον ὡς ἀνθρώπῳ, καὶ ὅσα ἄλλα τῷ μακαρίῳ ἀπονέμεται, τὰ κατὰ ταύτην τὴν ἐνέργειαν φαίνεται ὄντα· ἡ τελεία δὴ εὐδαιμονία αὕτη ἂν εἴη ἀνθρώπου, λαβοῦσα μῆκος βίου τέλειον· οὐδὲν γὰρ ἀτελές ἐστι τῶν τῆς εὐδαιμονίας.

(7) and it is the activity of the divine in human beings;

8. Such a life as this however will be higher than the human level: not in virtue of his humanity will a man achieve it, but in virtue of something within him that is divine; and by as much as this something is superior to his composite nature, by so much is its activity superior to the exercise of the other forms of virtue. If then the intellect is something divine in comparison with man, so is the life of the intellect divine in comparison with human life. Nor ought we to obey those who enjoin that a man should have man’s thoughts and a mortal 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;* for though this be small in bulk, [1178a1] in power and value it far surpasses all the rest.

* see Plato Timaeus 90b-c; cf. Theaetetus 176a-b.

ὁ δὲ τοιοῦτος ἂν εἴη βίος κρείττων ἢ κατ᾽ ἄνθρωπον· οὐ γὰρ ᾗ ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν οὕτω βιώσεται, ἀλλ᾽ ᾗ θεῖόν τι ἐν αὐτῷ ὑπάρχει· ὅσον δὲ διαφέρει τοῦτο τοῦ συνθέτου, τοσοῦτον καὶ ἡ ἐνέργεια τῆς κατὰ τὴν ἄλλην ἀρετήν. εἰ δὴ θεῖον ὁ νοῦς πρὸς τὸν ἄνθρωπον, καὶ ὁ κατὰ τοῦτον βίος θεῖος πρὸς τὸν ἀνθρώπινον βίον. οὐ χρὴ δὲ κατὰ τοὺς παραινοῦντας ἀνθρώπινα φρονεῖν ἄνθρωπον ὄντα οὐδὲ θνητὰ τὸν θνητόν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐφ᾽ ὅσον ἐνδέχεται ἀθανατίζειν καὶ πάντα ποιεῖν πρὸς τὸ ζῆν κατὰ τὸ κράτιστον τῶν ἐν αὑτῷ· εἰ γὰρ καὶ τῷ ὄγκῳ μικρόν ἐστι, δυνάμει καὶ τιμιότητι πολὺ μᾶλλον πάντων ὑπερέχει.

(8) which is the true self. Therefore the Life of the Intellect is the happiest.

9. It may even be held that this is the true self of each, inasmuch as it is the dominant and better part; and therefore it would be a strange thing if a man should choose to live not his own life but the life of some other than himself.

Moreover what was said before will apply here also: that which is best and most pleasant for each creature is that which is proper to the nature of each; accordingly the life of the intellect is the best and the pleasantest life for man, inasmuch as the intellect more than anything else is man; therefore this life will be the happiest.

δόξειε δ᾽ ἂν καὶ εἶναι ἕκαστος τοῦτο, εἴπερ τὸ κύριον καὶ ἄμεινον. ἄτοπον οὖν γίνοιτ᾽ ἄν, εἰ μὴ τὸν αὑτοῦ βίον αἱροῖτο ἀλλά τινος ἄλλου.

τὸ λεχθέν τε πρότερον ἁρμόσει καὶ νῦν· τὸ γὰρ οἰκεῖον ἑκάστῳ τῇ φύσει κράτιστον καὶ ἥδιστόν ἐστιν ἑκάστῳ· καὶ τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ δὴ ὁ κατὰ τὸν νοῦν βίος, εἴπερ τοῦτο μάλιστα ἄνθρωπος. οὗτος ἄρα καὶ εὐδαιμονέστατος.

So the Life of Contemplation is the happiest.  In 8.1-12, Aristotle gives further reasons we should prefer it.  These include that it needs little wealth and few external goods, animals don’t engage in Contemplation, and divine beings do. For the last reason he concludes in 8.13 that the person who lives for the Intellect must be dearest to the gods, and is therefore happiest.

8. 13. [1179a25] And it seems likely that the man who pursues intellectual activity, and who cultivates his intellect and keeps that in the best condition, is also the man most beloved of the gods. For if, as is generally believed, the gods exercise some superintendence over human affairs, then it will be reasonable to suppose that they take pleasure in that part of man which is best and most akin to themselves, namely the intellect, and that they recompense with their favors those men who esteem and honor this most, because these care for the things dear to themselves, and act rightly and nobly. Now it is clear that all these attributes belong most of all to the wise man. He therefore is most beloved by the gods; and if so, he is naturally most happy. Here is another proof that the wise man is the happiest.

ὁ δὲ κατὰ νοῦν ἐνεργῶν καὶ τοῦτον θεραπεύων καὶ διακείμενος ἄριστα καὶ θεοφιλέστατος ἔοικεν. εἰ γάρ τις ἐπιμέλεια τῶν ἀνθρωπίνων ὑπὸ θεῶν γίνεται, ὥσπερ δοκεῖ, καὶ εἴη ἂν εὔλογον χαίρειν τε αὐτοὺς τῷ ἀρίστῳ καὶ συγγενεστάτῳ (τοῦτο δ᾽ ἂν εἴη ὁ νοῦς) καὶ τοὺς ἀγαπῶντας μάλιστα τοῦτο καὶ τιμῶντας ἀντευποιεῖν ὡς τῶν φίλων αὐτοῖς ἐπιμελουμένους καὶ ὀρθῶς τε καὶ καλῶς πράττοντας. ὅτι δὲ πάντα ταῦτα τῷ σοφῷ μάλισθ᾽ ὑπάρχει, οὐκ ἄδηλον. θεοφιλέστατος ἄρα. τὸν αὐτὸν δ᾽ εἰκὸς καὶ εὐδαιμονέστατον· ὥστε κἂν οὕτως εἴη ὁ σοφὸς μάλιστ᾽ εὐδαίμων.

Sources

English: Rackham, H. (tr.). Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics. Rev. ed.  Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.

Greek: Bywater, J. (ed.) Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894.

first draft: 15 Oct 2018

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A Better Diagram of the Cardinal Virtues

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RECENTLY I noticed some diagrams of the traditional four cardinal virtues of prudence (phronesis), temperance (sophrosyne), courage (andreia) and righteousness (or justice; dikaiosyne) arranged as a square. Such a configuration is problematic in that it ignores the unique relationship that righteousness has with the others.

Another more general issue is that Plato — from whom the tradition of cardinal virtues originates — arguably proposed five, not four.  A new diagram above attempts to redress both issues.First, the lower half of the diagram helps show the affinity of the usual four cardinal virtues to Plato’s famous tripartite model of the psyche that distinguishes the (1) rational, (2) appetitive and (3) spirited elements of the soul.In Plato’s system, courage is the excellence (or right-tuning) of the spirited element, temperance the excellence of the appetitive element, and prudence of the rational element. Righteousness, in turn, is the harmonization of the three other virtues.  Hence it makes more sense to place righteousness in the center of the other three.

Second, while Plato sometimes lists these four cardinal virtues, other times he mentions a fifth: piety or holiness. In fact, he seems almost deliberately vague about this — but we also know that Plato sometimes reveals his most important points subtly.

Writing a few centuries later, Philo, the famous Jewish Platonist of Alexandria, was more explicit. In his in his influential allegorical interpretation of Genesis he saw the Garden of the Eden a symbolizing human virtues generally. The four rivers that surround and water Eden, he suggested, correspond to prudence, temperance, courage and righteousness: these nourish the other virtues.

The Tree of Life in the center of the Garden is theosebeia (θεοσέβεια), or reverence towards God’s goodness. This, he says, is  “the greatest of the virtues, by means of which the psyche is made deathless”  (i.e., it does not ‘die’ by lapsing into sin; On the Creation of the World, 154).

This virtue of perfect piety, godliness and ongoing trust in God constitutes the apex of the spiritual life.  It is a progression beyond purification and illumination to what mystics call the unitive life: assimilation to God, erasure of the distinction between self-will and divine will, and the Reign(ing) of God in ones soul.

Transcendentalism as Spiritual Consciousness

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AMERICAN Transcendentalism (i.e., the movement associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson) is notoriously hard to define.  Perhaps the best way to understand the movement is that it centers on recognition of a certain dimension of experience — transcendent awareness — which is very real, but distinctly different from waking consciousness. In Platonic terms, it amounts to an elevation of the mind and awakening of what we might call the higher intelligence.

This shift in consciousness sometimes comes spontaneously; but more often it’s the result of a deliberate choice.  It is a skill that can be practiced and improved.  We could perhaps develop specific exercises to produce and develop it.

Thomas Starr King here supplies as fine a description of this higher consciousness as perhaps has ever been written.  (Note, incidentally, that this is not a cloistered mystic writing, but someone involved in public affairs.)

Several ‘dimensions’ of transcendent cognitive experience are mentioned, including recognition of deeper meanings, appreciation of beauty, and awareness of God’s goodness.

* * *

True Spiritual Communications

EVERY flower, every tree, every plant, every star, exists because it is a receptacle of the Divine vitality. It was organized and is sustained by his thought and his goodness, and we comprehend it, we really see it, when it is translucent with the rays of the Infinite life, and brings us into fellowship of mind or heart with God. The visible material world is the shell of which the spiritual world is the soul. It is the series of printed signs of which the spiritual world constitutes the sense.

When you read the sentences which Burke or Bacon have written, you do not stop to study the letters or shape of the types that cover their pages. The substance you are after is the wisdom and eloquence which they poured from their minds, and which the types record. You get into communion with the spiritual world, to which those inky paragraphs are the portals, as you feel your intellect penetrated, and your passions stirred, with the light and heat that streamed, in their creative mood, from their genius. And the visible universe is the vast array of types, not simply once set up, but continually created and composed by the Infinite Mind, to convey his wisdom and love.

We have the privilege, therefore, of living in the spiritual world now. We need not wait to get into the next stage of existence to begin to enter it. […] We live in the spiritual world, if our souls are awake, precisely as they do, though possibly we may be one remove farther off, by our bodily organization, from the waves of light and love that flow out from heaven.

And we ought to hold firmly to the principle that the spiritual faculty in us is the real organ of communion with the spiritual sphere. The organ through which we know and receive light is the eye. The ear enables us to hold intercourse with music, eloquence, and all uttered thought. The lungs are the channel of our reception from the atmosphere. And the soul, the power by which we become acquainted with Divine truth and respond to the breath of the Infinite Life, is the channel or medium, and the only channel of reception from the spiritual world.

There is hardly any limit to be assigned to the intercourse we can hold with everlasting truth, which is the substance of heaven, even in this world, by the soul.

When you look at a landscape in summer, if you see simply so many trees, acres, cattle, stones, you are wholly in the natural world. You see the outside shapes and colors, just as a sheep or a deer does, when the scene is painted on its eye.

If you study the soil and rocks so as to learn the geological truth of the region, how it was put together through ages of elaboration, by the power of God, and prepared for human habitation, the outside facts are at once a medium of Divine truth to you. A wave of God’s life, an influence from the spiritual world, rolls out of the scene into your intellect, and to that extent you come into communion with the Divine sphere by your mind.

If you see the beauty of the landscape, if the charm and harmony of the colors and the grouping of grove, meadow, hill, and stream, and the blaze of the overhanging blue, flecked with clouds that shed sailing shadows to cool the grass, waken in you a joy that springs from perception of the ineffable art of God, a richer wave from the spiritual world breaks through the scene upon your nature.

If, beyond these two experiences, you see in the same landscape a mystic expression of the Divine goodness, — if the beauty glows with an exhalation of love, “like a finer light in light,” — so that you look on the budding corn and the grazing life, and the peaceful ministry of a thousand forces to human happiness, as Jesus looked upon the bounteous hills that sloped from the shores of Gennesaret, and if, through all the processes which publish that goodness, you see the working of laws that tell you how God’s laws and life play in the experience of the human spirit, as Jesus plucked part of his gospel — the parable of the sower — from the various fortunes of the scattered grain, a still finer surge from the everlasting world floods you from that vision, and though you stand under the visible sun, and are in the body, and within the conditions of mortality, your soul is in communion with God; you look upon one district of this world as an angel looks upon it; your feet are in matter, your soul is in the spiritual sphere.

You will see, too, how this principle applies to all productions of genius. When you read a book, look at a statue, examine a painting, you are on the natural plane, if you simply see the material which the creative mind used to convey its thought and sentiment. You pass up into spiritual reception in proportion as, through the printed eloquence, the imprisoned meaning, the glowing character and imagination, you rise into sympathy with the genius of the writer or artist, and lie open with him to the inspiration that streams out of heaven into the human soul.

The soul is the organ of reception from the substantial world. Spiritual communications appeal to, and are verified by, no other faculties, any more than light can be perceived by the ear or flavors by the eye. It is impossible to obtain communion with the essential quality of the spiritual world in external ways. You can only be carried to the outside of the world of spirits in such ways. It is by something told to the interior faculties, something superior in its grade to anything we can learn by logic and by sight, some thing that makes us more wise in everlasting truth for which the world was made, more spiritual in feeling, that is, more pure, reverent, devout, and joyful, that we verify a message from the heavenly world. (pp. 73−77)

Source: Thomas Starr King, Christianity and Humanity: A Series of Sermons. Edwin P. Whipple (ed.). Boston: Osgood, 1877.  True Spiritual Communications (pp. 71− 89).

Related Articles

Frederic Henry Hedge, The Transfiguration: A Sermon (1838).

Uebersax, John.  What is Transcendentalism? Satyagraha.

Beyond the Pyramid. Being-Psychology: Maslow’s Real Contribution

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IT’S unfortunate — and perhaps ironic — that pioneer humanistic psychologist and the founder of positive psychology Abraham Maslow is today best known for his hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy will be familiar to most readers as the pyramid diagram found in all introductory psychology texts which places lower human needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) above higher needs like those for social affiliation and self-actualization.

It’s unfortunate because many people understandably balk at the suggestion that we have to have all material needs met before we can concern ourselves with being moral.  Ironic, because such a notion is far indeed from Maslow’s own beliefs and message.

To begin, then, let’s clear this up.  First, Maslow never used the pyramid diagram in any of his writings; this is an addition of later textbook writers.

Second, he didn’t intend the ‘hierarchy’ as an excuse for selfishness or delaying pursuit of higher needs; rather, he noted with considerable interest that there are people, like great reformers and saints, who are remarkable precisely because they subordinated material to altruism — and he implied that we all ought to emulate their example.  In other words, to the extent this hierarchy does exist, it is the condition of the fallen human race, and not how we should like it to remain.

Third, that people have basic drives for material needs is hardly a surprising or original suggestion;  the innovation of Maslow’s system is precisely that it includes higher needs at all — something surprisingly few psychologists were willing to admit when Maslow wrote.

Finally, Maslow proposed the hierarchy of needs relatively early in his career; over time he moved decisively towards a focus on higher needs; it is this emphasis which is clearly his greatest legacy.

Yet today, decades later, his legacy remains dimly understood and barely appreciated.  There are several reasons for this, including the emergence of a kind of  pseudo-positive psychology that in the 1990’s, using Maslow’s term yet ignoring him and his work.  But another reason is perhaps the regrettable tendency of human beings to latch onto a simplistic idea like a pyramid diagram and then rest there in the pretension of knowing something real and solid.

Rather than berate human folly (they very problem we’re trying to fix), let’s fight fire with fire.  That is, if we need a diagram to get a concept across, let’s supply a better one that expresses Maslow’s thought.  I propose one below.

mandala hires

The point is to give visual expression to Maslow’s real contribution, which is what he called Being psychology.  We can define Being-psychology in a number of ways.  At one level, it’s the psychology behind all the great religions and philosophies of the world — the perennial psychology.  It involves a transcendence of egoism and the inauthentic world of ‘seeming,’ and stepping into the reality of here and now fully alive: being fully in the world whilst simultaneously connected with the great Ideals of Truth, Beauty, Harmony, Love and Goodness. It is the psychology peak experiences, flow states, aesthetics, fulfillment, love and harmony.

Defined negatively, it is concerned with life free from anxieties, doubts, fears, anger and the other forms of negative cognition that oppose happy and fulfilling existence.  In short, Being-psychology is the psychology of life as we wish it to be; it is the aim of our life, what we strive for.

In future articles I’ll explain more about Being-psychology.  Here I simply wish to comment on its significance for the modern world and relevance to contemporary research.  One of the great merits of Maslow’s psychology — how it goes beyond traditional formulations of the perennial psychology like religion, Platonic Idealism and Transcendentalism — is that it is completely naturalistic.  Maslow, in fact, was more less an atheist. Yet he was convinced that all the great psychological and ethical teachings of the world’s religions are grounded in absolute truths of human nature.  He believed we are biologically designed and intended (perhaps by an intelligent universe) to be Idealists.  And unless we express this side of our nature we cannot be true to ourselves or attain to any great measure of happiness.

While not especially systematic in this thinking, Maslow was nonetheless extremely rationalistic, scientific and empirical.  His humanistic theories originated from analysis of answers to surveys and interviews he conducted.  Throughout his works he proposes practical testable hypotheses.  This empirical orientation means that Being-psychology supplies a bridge between science and religion. Maslow also considered the practical applications of Being-psychology and was especially concerned with applying it in industrial settings to improve worker satisfaction, morale and productivity.

Here then is a new way to look at Maslow’s theory: at the center of Philosophy, Religion, Science, and Culture, connecting them, and enabling ideas and discoveries to flow from one area to the others.  Let this much, then, serve as food for though and as an introduction to further posts.

References

Gruel, Nicole (2015). The plateau experience: an exploration of its origins, characteristics, and potential. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 47(1), 44−63.

Koltko-Rivera, Mark E. (2006). Rediscovering the later version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Self-transcendence and opportunities for theory, research, and unification. Review of General Psychology 10(4), 302–317.

Maslow, Abraham H. (1965). Eupsychian management. Homewood, IL: Irwin (reprinted Wiley, 1998).

Maslow, Abraham H. (1968). Toward a psychology of Being. 2nd ed. New York: Van Nostrand. Ch. 6. Cognition of being in the peak experiences. (pp. 71−102)

Maslow, Abraham H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking (republished: Arkana, 1993). Ch. 9. Notes on Being-Psychology. pp. 121−142.

 

Plato Not a Moral Absolutist (or a Relativist)

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PLATO is often wrongly associated in people’s minds with moral absolutism — that is, with the position that there are definite, absolute rights and wrongs, and, as a result, that human morality involves universal rules for things we should always or never do. However this view is mistaken. Plato’s moral theory, in fact, relies intimately on the principles of balance and proportion. Although Aristotle is usually considered the originator or populizer of the concept of virtue as a golden mean between opposite extremes, this principle is prominently featured earlier in the works of Plato, his teacher.

In the Republic, Plato’s magnificent and magisterial work on personal morals (civil politics is by no means its central theme), he supplies an important summary at the end of Book 9.  The entire preceding discussion was aimed at answering two questions: (1) who is the righteous person? and (2) is the righteous person happier than the unrighteous?  In his summary Plato supplies this key principle:

When the entire soul accepts the guidance of the wisdom-loving part and is not filled with inner dissension, the result for each part is that it in all other respects keeps to its own task and is just, and likewise that each enjoys its own proper pleasures and the best pleasures and, so far as such a thing is possible, the truest. (Republic 9.586e−587a; tr. Shorey; italics added; cf. Philebus 64d−e).

What he means is that, for example, if one emphasizes sensory pleasures or gratification of biological appetites too much at the cost of, say, work or intellectual activity, one creates inner disharmony and strife.  To illustrate this is the whole point of the elaborate city-soul analogy of the Republic; the idea is that our soul is like a city with many factions, and if one faction is overindulged, strife results.

Besides being bad in itself, inner strife has the result, Plato tells us here, of diminishing all pleasure.  Disproportionate indulgence has the effect of blunting and dulling ones experience of the pleasure.  For example, although drinking a small glass of rare wine may be a genuine pleasure, to consume half a bottle dulls the senses, lessening or eliminating the pleasure.  But on top of that, intentional overindulgence may produce inner, mental strife, and this agitation, which reduces our clear and focused attention, will further lessen the pleasure.  On the other hand, if we make a discerning choice to indulge an appetite to the exact right measure, then we may experience the best and truest form of the associated pleasure.

Hence our goal at all times should be to reach and maintain a state of harmony and balance within our soul, so that we may both (1) have the fullest level of mental integrity and clarity, meting out pleasures with wisdom and discernment, and (2) then to enjoy well-measured pleasures fully.  Seeking pleasures is natural and normal, provided they not subvert the more fundamental need to maintain a healthy-minded and virtuous disposition of ones psyche:

The entire soul, returning to its nature at the best, attains to a much more precious condition in acquiring sobriety [sound-mindedness; sophrosyne] and righteousness [dikaiosyne] together with wisdom [phronesis] . . . Then the wise man will bend all his endeavors to this end throughout his life; he will, to begin with, prize the studies that will give this quality to his soul and disprize the others . . . but he will always be found attuning the harmonies of his body for the sake of the concord in his soul . . . He will . . . keep his eyes fixed on the constitution in his soul, and taking care and watching lest he disturb anything there either by excess or deficiency. (Republic 9.591 b−e; tr. Shorey; italics added)

Nor is Plato a Relativist

Nevertheless, neither can it be said that Plato is a moral relativist. His ethics, in fact, offer a third alternative (tertium quid) to moral absolutism and moral relativism.

What is non-relative is his overriding principle that harmony and sound-mindedness, and other such things which promote clear perception of justness and rightness, are absolute and objective criteria for right action.  While the same action (e.g., to drink a glass of wine) may be righteous or unrighteous in different circumstances, the overriding principle by which it may be deemed just and right — i.e., the promotion of inner harmony and ability to see truth, justice and beauty relative to circumstance — does remain the same. And this is much different than moral relativism.  Justice as harmony for Plato is understood as an objective and immutable cosmic principle.

This fits generally with Plato’s marvelous integrality, such that he is able to resolve and find answers to life’s pressing existential questions by transcending dichotomies.

 

Hesiod’s Ages of Man Myth as Psychological Allegory

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Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807)

MY HYPOTHESIS is that Hesiod’s Works and Days is not a “glorified farmer’s almanac,” but an example of ancient wisdom literature meant to convey the perennial philosophy. Its purpose is to advise readers on how to operate the human mind and soul and to find happiness in life via the same philosophical principles expressed by the Delphic religion (and, for that matter, also the Old Testament, the wisdom tradition of ancient Egypt, etc.). For this it uses, as befits poetry, figures and metaphors drawn from history and daily life; but the meanings are parabolic, and it is the reader’s task To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings. (Prov.1:6)

I leave this experiment of interpretation to individual readers.  But for this experiment it will help to have an artistic translation which potentially highlights the interior, psychological meanings — and at least one that does not obscure poetic meanings, which can easily (if not inevitably) happen in translations that are extremely literal and technical, which is the modern trend.

Therefore for your enjoyment and edification I have placed online a copy of Thomas Cooke’s inspired 1743 verse translation, and also for ease of reading an 1822 reprint with modern spelling.

Part of my hypothesis is that the Ages of Man is myth of moral fall (Uebersax, 2014), and symbolizes stages in our periodic descent from a state of grace (understood in either a religious sense, or alternatively in a psychological sense as a condition of greater unity and mental ability) into its opposite mundane and debased condition, through successive cognitive stages, with parallels to Plato’s Tyrant’s Progress in the Republic (Uebersax, 2015). Here is Cooke’s translation of Hesiod’s Ages of Man myth, illustrated with engravings designed by John Flaxman and executed by William Blake.

Bibliography

The Beatitudes as Stages of Spiritual Growth

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The Sermon on the Mount (detail), Heinrich Hofmann; German, 1824–1911; date unknown.

By William Pryse

THE Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3−10) are literally and thematically at the center of the Sermon on the Mount.  They mark successive steps of the upward course of the spiritual life to its full and final perfection. Each beatitude grows out of all that precede it, and occupies a necessary place in the progressive series. There is not a grace, excellence, experience or duty of the moral life which does not find its place within this series.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Poverty of spirit refers to those who have awakened from their self-righteousness to the fact of their self-poverty. Without this conscious and heartfelt awareness of ones limitations and shortcomings, there can be no start, much less progress, in the spiritual life. And it is gloriously significant that with the first step is promised the end: namely, attainment to the grace-led and blessed manner of life which the Gospels call the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Poverty of spirit leads directly to mourning for sin. One who has become sensible of spiritual destitution soon recognizes the cause of ones inward need. One perceives that it is egoism and selfish attachments which deprive one of happiness and spiritual good. Thus one becomes increasingly sensible of the evil of sin, and sensitive to the miseries resulting from it, in ones own life and in the world at large. In other words, one becomes a penitent mourner for sin in oneself, and a sincere mourner over the dreadful reality and destructive work of sin in human life and society.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Out of conscious poverty and penitent mourning grows the meekness of the third beatitude. This meekness is the modest, self-denying and self-restrained spirit which evinces itself in gentleness and forbearance toward others in one emptied of pride and self-sufficiency.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

These three experiences naturally lead to a supreme valuation of and desire for righteousness — that is, to think, act and live rightly, in right accord with ones own true physical and moral nature, with the Cosmos and Eternal Order, with God, and with ones fellow human beings. And to desire this good above all things else.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

As the next stage of spiritual progress, the heir of the heavenly kingdom becomes merciful toward ones fellow men. All ones previous experiences conspire to awaken in one a clear sense of their lost condition, their trials and sorrows, their need of sympathy and help. Ones consciousness of ones own infirmities teaches one charity toward the infirmities of others. Ones sense of the supreme importance of salvation from unwisdom and unvirtue prompts one to efforts for their spiritual and eternal good. A realization of ones own imperative need of the divine mercy quickens in one the same spirit of mercy toward all others.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Purity is a composite of all the previous graces, freedom from all their opposites. Each of the five contributes to it. In it is the love of all things good, the abhorrence of all things evil. As such it carries with it the vision of the true Good. It is the clearing away of the mists from the soul, and the cleansing of the films from the spiritual eyes.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

It is easy to see how such qualities as humility, penitence, meekness, desire after righteousness, mercifulness and purity become elements of peace in the soul and influences for peace in the life. They invest the character with an effective power to prevent strife and allay discord. They are the very elements and conditions of peace, whether internal or external. There can be no peace where they are absent; there can be no strife where they prevail. Their opposite qualities are the direct causes of all strife and dissension, and they who are swayed by them are necessarily strifemakers. But the graces of the beatitudes are, each and all, potent solvents of discord, and they who possess them are necessarily also peacemakers, both through conscious effort and unconscious influence. To seek and promote this peace, inward and outward — peace within oneself, peace with God and Nature and peace among men — becomes a free impulse, urge and ordering principle of their lives.

Based on the writings of Rev. William Stratton Pryse (1849−1928).