Happiness and perfection in the philosophy of the classical age

Happiness and perfection are two pervasive themes of Western philosophy and, from a certain point of view, they are the very two objectives of philosophy. It can be said, in fact, that a certain way of thinking philosophy has ended in the current bifurcation of analytic and continental who share a common point of view: philosophy does not serve to lead to happiness or perfection. Indeed, it can be concluded that contemporary or, generically, post-classical philosophy is based precisely on this general diversion from the very foundations of the philosophical tradition. Whatever analytical and continental philosophy are, and one can argue at length about their nature, they certainly do not aim at the happiness or perfection of those who follow them and have no claim to do so. This was not the case with the philosophy of the classical age, identifying precisely the classical age of philosophy with the period in which Western philosophy in fact believed that the supreme purpose of thinking was in fact that of reaching perfection and therefore happiness through reason.

At least since Socrates, philosophy has been oriented towards the identification of perfection with happiness through the use of reason. The Socrates of apology is even liberating with respect to death, which came for his spasmodic search for perfection, understood in that case as a lived and practiced civic virtue. But Socrates frees himself from the thought of death by suggesting that (a) nothing or enough is known about it and therefore (b) it cannot even be excluded that it is the best of goods (because it would also rejoin the world of ideas) . After Socrates it is all a flourishing of reflections on the de facto identification of perfection and happiness. That is, the idea that perfection – a sort of general conception of mirroring between thought and reality where thought and reality become one continuation of the other – and happiness are simply two sides of the same coin coined by the only means capable of forging such a currency: reason. The conquest of perfection is, in all Western philosophical variants, the result of the rational activity practically pursued – whatever its dimension is intended from time to time (social, political, epistemic, moral …). This common point of view, that is, the search for perfection and therefore happiness through reason is probably the common point of all the philosophical theories of the classical age.

Aristotle, Epicurus and the Stoics but also the skeptics and cynics (even) would share almost nothing with respect to their reciprocal theoretical versions except that they agree that perfection is the very purpose of philosophy whose main characteristic is its final and instrumental use of reason, the only one capable of achieving happiness as a consequence or naturally inherent in perfection. This conception survives all the elements of history which, of course, influence the conception of life and human thought, since life and thought are directly dependent on reality, which is mainly marked by dissatisfaction, uncertainty, anxiety and fear, just as they recognize the Epicureans and the Stoics before all the others. Yet, in fact, the very bet of philosophy as a search for meaning of itself is precisely the refusal of the passive acceptance of life and of that particular pain called “living sickness” where by “passive acceptance” we mean the systematic adjustment of oneself to one’s passions and uncontrolled external causes.

This point of view remains perfectly intact even in modern philosophy, characterized by an impressive series of new interpretations of the same principle, namely that perfection and therefore happiness are within the reach of the rational man. The idiot or irrational being is condemned to misery. On this they all agree and the idea that the irrational being can feed on additional satisfaction is still to come, when the dissociation between perfection and happiness has been fully completed and perfection has failed to leave the I pass to happiness alone which is, of course, the more elusive condition of life of the two: perfection is the condition of full and total use of one’s faculties regardless of the necessities of life, which in fact requires effort and effort. In a word, discipline. Perfection is largely achieved through a particular form of disciplinary self-education imposed by reason. Difficult, but clearly not impossible, certainly not everyone would subscribe. But happiness, on the other hand, that yes, seems a good within everyone’s reach. In fact, with the dissociation of perfection by means of rationality and happiness, the result was only to put back into pure opinion – and into the subjective – what is, statistically speaking – extremely improbable because it is independent of us: happiness – unrelated to perfection – becomes a bet on the vague.

Modern philosophy finds a natural complement in the Enlightenment, which argues that, again, perfection is possible because human rationality is sufficient to guarantee its existence and, with it, happiness. If Spinoza perfectly identified happiness with perfection – happiness precisely understood as a “form of bliss” – instead Kant represents the first incredible exception to this supreme ideal. Because Kant only agrees with the first part of the classical idea: perfection is possible for the man of reason, happiness is not. In Kant, happiness returns to be interpreted in such a way that it becomes elusive: nothing of it can be preached with certainty because the words that would formulate the practical moral laws to obtain them are intrinsically ambiguous: today they result in identifying exactly what makes us happy , but not tomorrow. That is, the same rule of behavior follows two opposite and, of course, mutually incompatible results. So everything follows from such a law. And this is an interesting point. So, it could well be said that for Kant, unhappy to be unhappy we might as well do the right thing. Morality – and therefore the supreme form of perfection for Kant – and happiness are by no means the same thing. Not only that, to make matters worse, Kant denies that doing the right thing is in turn a cause of happiness because, if it were, then it would not be a pure moral act but conditioned by the search for an advantage that, again, is not perfect. has nothing. In Kant moral perfection is the silence of the senses which inevitably dirty everything. The other side of the fence, that is utilitarianism, shifts perfection while maintaining happiness: perfection is, according to them, the elusive pole of the two concepts and, instead, happiness is what would found the life of every human being, which know it or not. Perfection only becomes r-inscribed in the human capacity to obtain that happiness.

Now, at the end of the classical age, as we can see, one of the key ideas of philosophy falls and becomes a sort of perpetual state of reflection on increasingly restricted portions of the world, and whose impact and interest is inversely proportional to their usefulness. Indeed, properly speaking, philosophy loses its intrinsic function of safeguarding individual value by means of reason. In fact, it becomes a mainly bureaucratic activity whose mechanism becomes identifiable with everything else. Yet Western philosophy is the promise of a world in which happiness is possible as a collateral result of the exercise of rationality with the aim of achieving perfection. My opinion, in this sense, is the following: the distinction between a (Western) philosopher and any other person is still today the idea that perfection is a goal attainable through the use of reason which, consequently, discloses happiness too, at least potentially. Anyone who has not at least espoused this conception for a certain period cannot declare himself a Western philosopher but something else. A thinker or a writer, but not a philosopher because Western philosophy has founded itself on this sort of fairy tale for rational beings educated to rationality.

I spoke of a “fairy tale” for rational beings because no one lives without fairy tales and each culture has its own. For example, the idea that happiness is obtainable through perfection achieved by means and not by rejection of rationality is something intrinsically alien, for example, to Buddhism which, in its variants, essentially believes that categorizing rationality creates reality in the its diversification and thus the desires and the will to dominate a part of it. The solution is the rejection of rationality understood as a means and an end: it is only the way in which we believe we are solving a problem of which it is, instead, largely the cause. Furthermore, Western philosophy has the solution to the evil of living precisely in the idea that life itself is a necessary condition of happiness. In this, the classical tradition of philosophy clearly differs from Christian thought, at least in one of its interpretations: the bet is that happiness is possible through perfection on the hither side which, without reason, cannot be obtained. As a demonstration of the contempt that classical philosophy has always cast on the intuitive way of conceiving happiness, we are warned by the same words that we still use today without having any more knowledge: barbarism, visceral, idiocy, madness etc. these are terms that deny the very possibility of happiness as in negation with rationality and perfection understood in this sense. But today who does not believe that they cannot access happiness by exploiting actions and ideas that, in fact, would have gladly been attributed to barbarism?

Thus, philosophy in the classical age was conceived in this way and its results are in line with a kind of fundamental faith of an immanentist (not necessarily materialist) stamp in which perfection is the supreme result of the rational life in which happiness is it is part or consequence. This fairy tale has not completely disappeared, in the sense that those who practice philosophy today are, without knowing it, forced to recognize in this principle something that, perhaps, they had not thought of but which is part of them. Anyone who immerses himself in reflections so far from common sense does so, at least in part, for his natural skepticism in what common sense offers him. And therefore philosophy – even when increasingly limited to one vote in the libretto – remains capable of this promise, even though it is no longer part of the aims and narrative of the two main philosophical alternatives. And yet, then, the idea that something better than living by chance still remains attractive to the Westerner because, again, he cannot really reject the idea that rationality does not achieve anything good, tending to happiness through perfection. Today it is neither happiness nor rationality that has necessarily gone from mind, but the very idea of ​​a righteous life which seems less attractive than in the past to those who believe in philosophy. Where by “believes in philosophy” we mean precisely the fact that, after all, the philosophy of the classical age keeps intact the ultimate value of its founding principle. And here comes my main philosophical observation.

I talked about “fairy tale” because, thinking about it, the idea that happiness – whatever it is – is possible through and not through the rejection of reason is something so extraordinary and powerful that anyone who is not an idiot – in fact, would want believe it. It is such an intrinsically positive thought that anyone should believe it at least as an ideal: “if you are rational then you will become happy” is a universal message of hope because it argues that happiness is within man’s reach, provided that he is rational. This is not such a strict requirement because, after all, to be rational individuals, nothing more than the exercise of one of the natural faculties of the mind is required. Not only that, but the “fairy tale” is even more optimistic. It argues that perfection is possible, perfection that can be understood in the double sense of morality and knowledge. So, if you are a good man because you exercise your moral and epistemic rationality, then salvation is within reach. This was the message of the classical age, a message of universal hope in life on a human dimension. It requires nothing more than to be human. But despite everything, this too seems like a fairy tale to me.

The fairy tale lies in the fact that, as Kant noted, defining happiness is impossible. When we said “happiness – whatever it is” it was beginning to suggest that if no one knows how to define happiness, ipso facto we should ask ourselves the question of whether it exists. The most correct question to formulate this question would be the following: “What would the world be like if happiness did not exist?” and “What would my life be like if I couldn’t hope for happiness?” At the first question, it seems to me that knowledge of others’ lives and history speaks clearly: without happiness, the world would appear exactly for what it is with the only caveat that happiness remains a generic possible ideal. And so here the automatic answer seems to suggest: “If happiness did not exist, then it would be better to die”. But why? After all, even remaining in the hyper-vague, moments of true happiness in life are distinctly remembered in the memory precisely because they are so rare. So, at the very least, we should conclude that happiness is a very rare thing, if it happens, statistically speaking. And it may never exist but this would not eliminate the other part of the equation, namely perfection through rationality. In fact, this was the ambiguity of the classical conception: happiness is a consequence or part of the nature of perfection by means of rationality. Without happiness there would still be a perfect life whose definition could be this: “Try to be the best version of yourself without further compensation”. This formulation expresses a possible escape from the fairy tale of the classical age because it keeps the most solid part of it and takes away the naive part.

In fact, happiness is a question of concordance between us and reality in which perfection and rationality can be necessary but quite sufficient causes of happiness – as Aristotle saw it in part. Explaining happiness is like explaining a tile on your head in detail: it requires the entire history of the universe! We had to pass in that street (so the streets, the houses, the roofs must exist, those technologies as well) when the tile lost its balance (and therefore the force of gravity acted etc.) just at that moment when we were passing (because we had to go to that place whose purpose had been defined the night before because etc. etc.). Nobody else had to be right where we were passing and when the tile fell, nothing had to be affixed etc. etc .. Here, happiness is like a tile on the head: it requires an alignment of causes and effects in which we partially order ourselves with reality so that our perfection that day has also achieved a form of happiness: happiness then it becomes only the symptom of a harmonious alignment between us and reality, nothing more and nothing less.

But the perfection of reason is not enough and then unhappy to be unhappy we might as well do the right thing, that is, be the best formulation of oneself as far as possible within a condition in which perfection is achieved through rationality. This is still possible and, after all, it remains an ideal of a life spent for a good reason. Happiness – whatever it is – does not seem to keep its promises and, probably, its existence does not seem to really affect the existence of human beings much compared to their ordinary condition of life: the life of others is beautiful as long as it exists. that veil of ignorance that doesn’t let us see it closely enough. And, therefore, in the final analysis, it can be said that most of the human being lives not knowing what he is looking for and only to the question of happiness he expects to have to answer that, yes, he is looking for it and his life is the mirror of this research, even if every action is so clearly blind to this presumed objective that it practically denies its assumption. Accepting that happiness does not exist is a liberating conquest, contrary to those who think about it for the first time, which is however a first step towards the search for perfection since anyone who does not even put himself in this condition falls within that ordinary barbaric our social existence. If this were not the case, basically, we should be amazed at the constant inability of ordinary beings to be happy when their pain and unhappiness are things so ordinary that we take them for granted as much as the sky above us and the Earth below us. after all things that are not taken for granted in a universe of which we only know that it is much larger than us.

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