Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Complete Life [blog post 2]

Aristotle and the Virtuous Life
Aristotle, one of the most famous Greek philosophers, studied at Plato’s Academy in the 2nd century C.E. and then tutored Alexander the Great of Macedonia. Later on, Aristotle would start his own school and call it the Lyceum. In his teachings, Aristotle argued that ethical theory is different from any other type of science and learning. He felt that knowledge in certain subjects such as metaphysics do not lead to a better well-lived life. People are able to live meaningful lives without knowing any of the sciences by being able to appreciate good things such as friendship, honesty, bravery, and so on. Furthermore, he argued that it takes work to achieve these good virtues. It’s easy to fall into one of the extreme vices. For example, the virtue Bravery is the Golden Mean between Cowardice and Foolhardiness. Aristotle wrote a few books concerning ethics, one of which is called Nicomachean Ethics that talk about happiness as a way of living well. Specifically, a well-lived life is a virtuous life.

     The reason for considering Aristotle’s meaning of a well-lived life is that many people do consider a meaningful life this way. This is important when people decide they would like help to have a doctor perform euthanasia. It was mentioned earlier in the semester that when a veterinarian euthanizes a dying or terminally ill non-human animal that some people say “Oh, she had a well-lived life.” Then the question is how a well-lived life is determined for a human.

     Let’s take a look at a few hypothetical cases:
A 45 year old dies due to unnatural causes. He has volunteered throughout much of his life, has gone travelling, married with children, and is very sociable. He’s got a great personality – he’s funny, witty and tactful. According to Aristotle, he would have lived a virtuous and WELL-LIVED life.
A 98 year old dies naturally in her sleep. She was always selfish and kept to herself. She never really even tried to pass on any wisdom she may or may not have accumulated over the years. She has no friends. She is always rude and never knows quite what to say. According to Aristotle, her life is terrible and I would agree. Yet is her life complete? Maybe she’s “maxed out” as far as her physical body lets her but it seems as though her life could have been lived better.
Is life determined by how many years have been lived or by how someone lives their life?

Epictetus and Stoicism
     Epictetus was a Greek philosopher from around the 2nd century C.E. who studied under the Roman senator Musonius Rufus, and had his works published in the 4-volume series called The Discourses. Epictetus is most notable for his school of Stoicism. Epictetus’ stoicism focuses on integrity, self-management, and personal freedom. Altogether, what it means is that the happiness people aim for is the happiness of knowing things happened because they were supposed to happen. Basically, he advocated that you focus on what you can control, not what you can’t.
The reason for considering Epictetus’ well-lived life is that many people do NOT consider this way of life until they are much older. Typically, from adolescence to middle adulthood, people will resist with everything they have against forces they cannot control. This attitude is not the attitude that says “whatever” to every life event. It is the appreciation of personal freedom to do as much as humans are able to do. Humans have the ability to control how they feel about events and do what they want regarding that event.

     Think back to the two adults. Consider the 45-year-old man and the 98-year-old woman. Think of the man who lived the way I described before, yet he was always dissatisfied with something. Let’s say he is going through a midlife crisis. Yes, he’s got awesome friends and his whole church knows him, but he yearns for something more. He’s not satisfied with his age. It’s something he can’t control but he’ll hide that worry forever. Now he’s feeling insecure. What if his wife leaves him for a younger man? What if he gets so old he can’t play with his kids anymore? And would anyone say his life is good when he’s so stressed all of the time? He doesn't seem very happy at all. On the other hand the 98-year-old woman had the life I described earlier under the Aristotle paragraph. Sure, she doesn't have any friends but she’s always been the loner type. She enjoys the solitude because it gives her a peace of mind. When it rains, she doesn't complain. She accepts that because she knows that it’s pointless complaining. It won’t stop the rain from raining. And if the sun comes out? All the better. If it’s too hot, she’ll just go back inside. She lives very easy and stress-free. According to Epictetus, it would seem she lived a pretty good life.
Is happiness and a well-lived life determined by how you feel and what makes YOU happy or by how someone else THINKS you feel and how they saw your life?

Epicurus and Hedonism
     Epicurus was a famous Greek philosopher around the 2nd century C.E. founded his school called The Garden and is most known for hedonism. Hedonism is NOT the “pig” philosophy as many would be apt to call it. Many people believe it is the pig philosophy because hedonism has the connotation of taking EXCESS in pleasure. This is not the case with Epicurus’ hedonism. In his teachings of hedonism, Epicurus argues that pleasure is the absence of pain. He would live his life taking things as they come and would take pleasure in it. He advocated studying philosophy as a pleasure as it was a higher form of pleasure than, say, sweets. Taking pleasure in the simplest and smallest of things. I would consider this school of thought as a “stop and smell the roses” philosophy.

Not what we have But what we enjoy

     The reason for considering Epicurus’ meaning of a well-lived life is that in a fast-paced world, many people do not stop take pleasure in something as simple as having the ability to do a singular focused activity such as studying philosophy. Some people are always racing, physically and mentally. People are rushing because they have places to go and people to see. One could argue that the people who are always racing about are dissatisfied with something – maybe they’re impatient and they have no time to waste. They never take the time to appreciate what is actually in front of them and to truly take pleasure in the simple life. In a way hedonism and stoicism are different, but they do go hand-in-hand. Consider again the man and the woman, and I’ll leave that up for you to decide whether they have lived a good life.

     Finally, this blog post will end with Buddhism as another school of thought.

Siddhartha Gautama and Buddhism

     Siddhartha Gautama was born in the 6th century B.C.E. in Nepal. The ethics of Buddhism concerns whether some action is harmful to oneself or others. There are different branches of Buddhism, but the main point is to have a calm and peaceful mind. This philosophy states that to live is to suffer. I use "suffer" to say that there is discontent or discomfort. For example, I have bags under my eyes after studying for final exams. I find discomfort in my appearance; therefore, I am bothered by this face and want to change it. And the suffering extends to other pains such as a broken arm or the want to live longer or wanting to be something else, i.e. skinnier, taller, darker-skinned. We will constantly struggle to alleviate this suffering and get what we want.

   Imagine some people in their 20s – 30s. They want darker skin because they don’t want pale skin, so they go get tans whether in a tanning salon or the beach. What if they never saw tan skin? Would they still want tan skin? They wouldn’t. How could they want something they have never imagined? If they had never seen tan skin, they would never have known they wanted to go tanning. I am not saying they got tans to impress anybody either. They could have gotten tans just to make themselves happy. However, they would never have needed to get the tans if they had never even seen what the tan skin looked like. This can be applied to other physical things such as that shirt “you never knew you needed until you saw it” or hair straightening or gene-changing to fit a physical appearance, etc… I only mentioned aesthetic suffering here, but wanting to live forever is another pain among others.

     Buddhism argues that worrying about the past and the future is time-consuming and energy-consuming. Instead, we should focus on our daily lives, focus on developing compassion, and focus on the people we care about. And if we mess up along the way? So what? Move on, learn from our mistakes, and do better next time. Having that peace of mind is Nirvana. It is important to mention this philosophy for a well-lived life because this philosophy is more than just understanding what makes you happy. It is the cultivation of oneself and relationships with others. Think back to the 45-year-old-man and the 98-year-old woman. Have they lived their lives well or not? Did one or the other live their life well? How do THEY define what a well-lived life is? Are they fully content with where they were at? Who knows but maybe you can sit down for yourself and find out what it means to live a good life.


  1. Henrietta Lacks and HeLa Cells

    I apologize for posting on your blog, but i am not an author on here.

    My first blog gave background information about Henrietta lacks and her story. The second blog went into specifics about her stay at Johns Hopkins, the treatment she went through, and the people involved with the extraction of the HeLa cells. This final blog will go into detail about what happened after HeLa cells were patented, if the family received justice, and what should do with Lacks’ story.
    As I explained in my brief presentation, HeLa cells became the most commonly used cell in bio engineering and other sciences. It was used to make one of the first vaccines for the polio virus. They were the first human cells to be successfully cloned. Those are just some of the many amazing things that HeLa cells have done. There are more than 20 tons of her cells and about 11,000 different patents. Her cells continue to change the world to this day, and are not going anywhere anytime soon.
    A couple of years after the incident with Lacks, a woman named Rebecca Skloot learned about Lacks and made it her mission to write a book on this woman’s story which is the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She interviews everyone a part of Lacks’ life including her children who were the most affected by everything that happened to their mother. When they got older and were able to understand the children and Skloot wanted justice for Lacks. In lieu of an apology Johns Hopkins gave a couple of the children stipends to bring peace to the situation. The stipends were offered to each children but only a few of them took it. The others were not satisfied with the stipend and did not take it.
    Now that you know a little bit about this woman’s story and her situation, is it still okay to be using these cells now? With all the great things they do and all the lives they save, is it still unethical to be using “stolen” cells? If so, what could do to make it up to Lacks and her family? It is up for you to decide.

    1. Sorry we didn't get you "authored" in, Erika.

      Wonder what Henrietta herself would say about it all, if (despite her lack of formal education) she could grasp the significance of the contribution she's made to medical science. Surely she'd be pleased to have contributed to so much healing. Surely she'd want her family to share in that feeling. What compensation is due? For starters, how about an endowment in her/their name to fund education for disadvantaged students?

      But, fortunately or not, it's NOT up to me to decide.

  2. Out of curiosity, why did you choose these 4 perspectives? You've got a great write-up here. I've always been a big fan of Stoicism and Cynicism, and see a lot of parallels between them and Buddhism. This general sense of accepting what cannot be changed, having self-discipline, and moving past desires is very difficult, but also leads to a great sense of fulfillment when it can be achieved in a bad situation.

  3. Gawande ends his book with a nod to the Stoics. There's real wisdom in aspiring to aging-and-death with dignity, and to the recognition that (Transhumanism aside) mortality is our universally common fate. And there's real wisdom in displacing the "self" from our preoccupation. Maybe we really would be left with nothing but happiness. (By the way, remember there's a course on that coming up in the Fall.)