Friday, August 15, 2008

The Olympic Problem

I love Aristotle. Thanks to Victor, I learned how to convince myself and agree with him (Aristotle, that is). Or vice versa. Yet, there’s something odd, something inflexible, something I can’t and don’t want to be convinced of: his take on happiness. Granted, I don’t know the details of the Aristotelian story about happiness. It’s at the end of that difficult road of his story on virtues. I believe I got there only once and did not have the patience to stay.

But that’s exactly the problem. You see, happiness can’t be at the end of the story. It just makes no sense. Or, should I say, it takes the sense out of all of the midway. Yes, sure, propositionally speaking, the whole argument works. Everything is done for a goal, even our goals, except for THE goal of happiness, which is an end in and of itself. But this is absurd. This makes of our goals, all and most of them, simple mediums for THE goal. And when you don’t find THE one, all of the rest become just nonsense.

The error, I think, is a very basic one. My hunch is that Aristotle, strangely, missed the very nature of happiness. Happiness is not a theoretical goal, it’s a practical one. Perhaps this, Aristotle’s miss, is owed to his more general view on… everything. Perhaps he did think that there was something at the end of the road, something new and different. It seems, however, that there’s no such thing. At the end of the road there’s nothing but the road behind you.

We’ve probably been asking the wrong question. We need to know how to be happy, as opposed to knowing what happiness is. Human experience seems to falsify Aristotle’s thesis. We can know a lot of things, we can have an almost ideal description of the world in the head or, as one is inclined to put it, we can know every single proposition that is true, and yet be miserable. Theoretical wisdom does not translate into happiness and, in so far as it can mess up with your practical life, ignorance can in fact be a bliss.

I now realize I’ve been Aristotelian for a long time now. I hope it’s not too long. It’s so easy to get lost that way! It’s like gymnasts at the Olympics, those games created by the same ethical view as Aristotle’s. You see Nastia Liukin win the Gold medal for the all-around and the first thing you think is “This girl must hate what she does. There’s not a single thread of happiness in her face, not a smile, no sign of emotions, no joy.”

And then you wonder, “why would someone do this to herself? Why would someone put so much time, so much preparation, so much discipline, so much energy and effort into something that, in the end, that same person takes to be just another ordinary task?”

Well, it’s easy, if you take all your Goals to be goals, i.e., simple mid points in your way to heaven (i.e., the nobel prize, eight gold medals, NYU Philosophy, you name it) there’s no way to stop it. You’ll be as emotionally numbed as Phelps winning his tenth, eleventh, twelfth or thirteenth gold medal. He doesn’t even smile anymore. Even worse, he is disappointed because he could have done better. It’s so, so absurd.

That’s what happens when you take happiness to be a theoretically reachable goal. You can always IMAGINE doing more. But there’s only so much you can DO.