Friday, April 28, 2017

Virtue and Happiness in Boethius and David Foster Wallace

In 2005, novelist David Foster Wallace, delivered what many have hailed as one of the greatest Commencement Addresses of all time.  Speaking at the graduation ceremony at Kenyon, he closes his address with: 

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough …. Worship your body and beauty… you will always feel ugly…Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is…they are default settings…They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom.
The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.....
…The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Full transcript of his address is found here

Wallace the Classical Philosopher
While many regard Wallace's words as insightful advice, his themes are anything but original. For anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Classical Philosophy knows all to well the familiar strains of Virtue Ethics promoted by Aristotle.(384-322 BCE) nearly 2,400 years ago.  The greatest influence of these ideals was spread by the late Roman statesman, Boethius (c. 480-524 CE). For nearly 1,000 years the works of Boethius, shaped Western thought.  While warriors 'bickered and argued about who killed who' in their battles to win wealth, power and fame, Scholars continued the Great Conversation by inquiring into the workings of Nature and its intersection with Ethics in their efforts to seek - Harmonia. [*Warriors played chess to defeat an opponent, Scholars played Rithmomachia to achieve harmonious victory with their opponent]
While Boethius' works dominated the core texts of the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy) of Schools and Universities from the Carolingian Renaissance through the Scientific Revolution (ca. 11th-17th centuries) His Consolation of Philosophy was one of the most widely read texts by scholars and laymen alike.

In this context we look again to David Foster Wallace's speech above, we look to Book III section ii in one of Boethius many English translations, Here the voice of Lady Philosophia warns:

All mortal creatures in those anxious aims which find employment in so many varied pursuits, though they take many paths, yet strive to reach one goal—the goal of happiness. Now, the good is that which, when a man hath got, he can lack nothing further. This it is which is the supreme good of all, containing within itself all particular good; so that if anything is still wanting thereto, this cannot be the supreme good, since something would be left outside which might be desired. 

'Tis clear, then, that happiness is a state perfected by the assembling together of all good things. To this state, as we have said, all men try to attain, but by different paths. For the desire of the 
true good is naturally implanted in the minds of men; only error leads them aside out of the way in pursuit of the false.   
Some, deeming it the highest good to want for nothing,
spare no pains to attain affluence; others, judging the good to be that to which respect is most worthily paid, strive to win the reverence of their fellow-citizens by the attainment of official dignity. Some there are who fix the chief good in supreme power; these either wish themselves to enjoy sovereignty, or try to attach themselves to those who have it. Those, again, who think renown to be something of supreme excellence are in haste to spread abroad the glory of their name either through the arts of war or of peace. A great many measure the attainment of good by joy and gladness of heart; these think it the height of happiness to give themselves over to pleasure. Others there are, again, who interchange the ends and means one with the other in their aims; for instance, some want riches for the sake of pleasure and power, some covet power either for the sake of money or in order to bring renown to their name. 

And she closes Book III section vii with 
...It is beyond doubt, then, that these paths do not lead to happiness; they cannot guide anyone to the promised goal. 

For an overview of the Consolatio,  visit: 
Full Text of Consolatio begin on page 225 for Book III

At this point would like to turn to the field of education and set forth a statement which I have all to often heard from my students: 

"I want to get good grades / test scores so I can get into a reputable school so that I can get a diploma so that I can get a good paying job so that I can be happy and do what I want."

It seems reasonable, but given what we have read above, it is necessary to evaluate what the statement actually proposes.

Do the Goods of Fortune bestow Virtue and Lead to Happiness?

The Goods of Fortune do not bestow Virtue and Happiness.  Left unchecked by philosophy, pursuing them alone leads humans to vice.  Vice is dependent upon our ignorance of Nature, and our lack of will and ability to peel away their superficial trinkets. 

It is the philosopher, with the understanding of Harmonia who has the will and ability. Without the Good of Philosophy, the soul is prone to act with vice, not virtue making those Goods of Fortune not only worthless but downright destructive to the soul.

If Wealth leads to happiness, value is measured by market success. If you spend your energy trying to accumulate wealth and protect your wealth, and hire people to aid you in your wealth, are you really secure?

David Foster Wallace: "If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life,   then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough."

BoethiusWherefore, if wealth cannot get rid of want, and makes new wants of its own, how can ye believe that it bestows independence? Book III.iii

Questions for the Great Conversation: If I am starting a business because I want to make money, does it matter what I offer? Is it ethical to sell a product I know is bad?  So then is 'starting a business to make money' really what I am seeking? Is there something more essential or is money itself my aim?

David Foster Wallace: "Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need 
ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear…"

Boethius asks, Do you think the man powerful who is more afraid of others than they are of him? Book III.V

If one accumulates power, then must one always be on guard to protect themselves from those who would take it away.  Even those you keep around you, can never be fully trusted. You may as well spend your time hiding away in some secret bunker, shut off from the world.

Questions for the Great Conversation: If power is what I need to be happy, to be free, assess the following statement, "It is the strength of our military that gives us Freedom."  If this is the case, does that mean that a strong military anywhere ensures freedom?  So North Korea, China, Nazi Germany all ensure freedom because they have strong military's?  Or is freedom something else?

Does Fame make one virtuous?  Sure you are famous, but for what? Are you famous because of your Virtue.  Do you feel good that your exploits are broadcast to the world?

Boethius For many have won a great name through the mistaken beliefs of the multitude—and what can be imagined more shameful than that? Nay, they who are praised falsely must needs themselves blush at their own praises! Book

Question for the Great Conversation: If you act in Virtue, does Fame really matter?

Do you respect the Rank or the Man? Book III.iv
Does being honored make one Virtuous and Happy?

Question for the Great Conversation: Does being granted a high office, rank make the person Virtuous?
Think about how these Goods of Fortune intersect and surround us.  They dominate our daily lives and lure our passions through advertisement, marketing. propaganda to play on our fears.

Test for yourself can any one of these lesser goods be considered the Ultimate Good, goal to Happiness and Virtue?

Lets Evaluate the statement, "I want to get good grades / test scores so I can get into a reputable school so that I can get a diploma so that I can get a good paying job so that I can be happy and do what I want."

- Do the test scores determine what you have learned? Perhaps to some degree, but is all learning measurable are there other factors which contribute to your knowledge and capabilities?
- Do reputable schools excel because they are reputable? What are the factors which go into making that reputation?
- Does the diploma measure what you have learned; of what your are capable? Or is there some sort of portfolio of your work; a track record which indicates the value of that piece of paper?
- If a good paying job is how you measure success, does it matter what that job is? Does that job actually make you happy?
- What does "doing what I want" actually entail?  What do these last factors indicate about responsibility to the community and the world?

For Educators: If the goal ensuring income to keep the school fiscally viable, then all decisions would seem to center around money. Are we in the field of Education for the sake of Money? What does that do to education when we begin to describe students and curriculum in market terms?  If we place high emphasis on the test scores, as an indicator of the effectiveness of our curriculum and teaching method (i.e. student as "product"), can we support it with follow up questions.  How do we ensure we are not structuring our curriculum to make good test takers? necessarily good scholars, independent thinkers? Does our curriculum and teaching method work for all students, if so, all students should do well in this environment.
If it shows that our teaching method is ineffective for all students, for example students leave for other schools, or do not seem to do well by measured and timely scores - then we cannot say we offer the best method.  The measured & timely score also does not necessarily indicate what a student has learned.

These are just some of the basic questions which ought always be raised when discussing Virtue Ethics in the context of Education.

In closing, the Goods of Fortune are nice additions to life, they are not in and of themselves Virtuous. Unchecked they are the things which cater to our desires and wants…not to our soul.

Regarding the Goods of Fortune Boethius writes  …there is plainly nothing to be truly desired, nothing of intrinsic excellence; for she neither always joins herself to the good, nor does she make good men of those to whom she is united. Book

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