Medicine for the soul


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Jampa Dorje, Guest Columnist

The Greek word for happiness is “eudaimonia” which literally means a state of “good spirit” and by extension,  “to flourish,” like an animal in good health; eudaimonia seemed to be achieved through recent local philosophy gatherings.

Philosophy is alive and well in Downtown Ellensburg, as evidenced by the community discussion event at Hal Holmes Center on Tuesday, Oct. 4. The event was hosted by Dr. David Schwan and was sponsored by the CWU Ethics Lab and Ellensburg Public Library. 

I was amazed by people from the town meeting with people from the college in a community setting and discussing ideas relevant to their lives. I might have been in the Sufi Fourth Heaven of Friendship or on the Second Ring of Mercury, where philosophers of the past meet to discuss the perennial questions. 

The guest speaker was Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dr. Michael Goerger, and the subject of his talk was: “Ancient Greeks on the Good Life.” What might we learn from the ancient Greek philosophers about living a good life? 

Philosophy can be intimidating. There is a professional vocabulary when talking about the first principles of things, like cause and time and space. This is a branch of philosophy called metaphysics. How do we know anything about these first principles? This is called epistemology

Right off, Dr. Goerger made short work of these mindbenders. He pointed out that for the Ancient Greeks, the main purpose of philosophical inquiry was to discover what the best life is. The other questions were subordinate to this goal. 

Dr. Goerger brought up the shade of Plato, who said (in the Republic) that life is not worth living when the soul is ruined and corrupted and that philosophy helps us to heal our soul. When Socrates was condemned to death, he claimed that “an unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology, 38a5–6) because he believed the study of wisdom was the supreme human endeavor. 

A man in a short-sleeved striped shirt asked, “Does any of what these old philosophers have to say have relevance today?” 

Dr. Goerger responded, “Yes, much of what they say is important to research in modern psychology, political science, and sociology because the Greeks believed that philosophy was good for the health of the individual as well as the health of the populace.” 

He then asked the audience to form small groups at the tables in the room and to discuss among themselves their ideas about the nature of self-examination. This was exciting. We have been couped up so long in our Covid caves, muffled by our masks. It was refreshing to converse with a neighbor. 

A lady with blue eyeshadow wearing designer jeans said that sometimes you must stop and take stock and that she had battled with alcoholism and sought a spiritual path. A lady with music in her voice wearing a floral puff-sleeve blouse said some people just go through life doing what they are told, going to work, coming home, and never take time to think about the meaning of life. 

A bearded man wearing a light blue slim-fit jacket pointed out that some people just seem to be happy wanderers and others are always down on themselves and feel unfulfilled. A young man in a gray khaki bib shirt said that he felt he needed to find a balance between too much self-examination and just enough to clear the cobwebs from his thinking. 

A man with his hair in a topknot wearing Thai fisherman’s pants said that old age was the time for contemplation because when we are young we must study, when a teen we must court, and when grown we must work and perhaps raise a family. An elderly man in a ‘50s plaid bowling shirt said he had gotten a lot out of psychotherapy, but that it was expensive.

According to Dr. Goerger, for the Greeks, when it came to the idea of happiness, there were two central questions: What is happiness? And how do you attain it? For Plato, with a spiritual outlook, we should adhere to the virtues and avoid the non-virtues. 

Plato claimed we had three “voices”: the voice of our desires, the voice of our reason, and the voice of our emotions and that harmonizing these voices will bring about a life without internal conflict. 

Plato’s disciple, Aristotle, felt that happiness was the highest goal (Nichomachean Ethics). Happiness for Aristotle was more of a biological concept. The Greek word for happiness is eudaimonia which literally means a state of “good spirit” and by extension,  “to flourish,” like an animal in good health.

To answer the question of how to attain happiness, Dr. Goerger turned to another philosopher, Epicurus (342-270 BC), who founded the School of the Epicureans. He believed in the wise pursuit of pleasure. 

Dr. Goerger pointed out that this was not a form of licentiousness like embodied in the Hippie slogan, “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” Here there is an emphasis upon comfort, a middle ground between asceticism and hedonism. 

Epicurus believed that it was not good philosophy if it did not treat an ailment. Epicureans have a prescription: Do not fear the gods; do not worry about death; what is good is easy to obtain, and what is terrible is easy to endure. 

Again, Dr. Goerger asked us to discuss this topic among ourselves to share.

A girl in a red cashmere sweater said that happiness, for her, was in having things to be grateful for. A man in a black shirt with snap buttons said it was a feeling of being fulfilled. A girl with long hair in a ponytail tied with a pink ribbon said she felt it had to do with joyfulness. The man with a topknot said that the word “happiness” might be better understood as a state of well-being, of feeling at ease in the cosmos.

Then, Dr. Goerger told us about Epictetus (c. 50 – c. 135 AD), a Greek Stoic philosopher. who claimed that suffering is the result of wanting to control what we can’t control. 

This reminded me of the Serenity Prayer, written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” 

In his handy guidebook to happiness, Enchindian, Epictetus admonishes us to not want things, refrain from excesses, expect to lose competitions, and if things go wrong, remind yourself to think other thoughts. For Epictetus, suffering derives from false beliefs. 

Grief is a false belief about life and death, desire is a false belief about happiness, fear is a false belief about what causes harm and anger is a false belief about how to correct injustice. In other words, avoid emotions and do what is right, but don’t do it in anger. 

A girl in an abstract print tunic said this sounded cold-hearted and asked, “Isn’t it okay to love?” The man with the topknot said, “I think you would find a better answer to that question from the Greek poet, Sappho, or the Roman poet, Catullus.”  

Time had run out, and Dr. Goerger concluded his talk saying, “By living the good life, we are cultivating our humanity by becoming the thing that we are meant to be.” 

He then quoted the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca, who says in Book III of de Ira: “This breath that we hold so dear will soon leave us: in the meantime, while we draw it, while we live among human beings, let us cultivate our humanity: let us not be a terror or a danger to anyone. Let us keep our tempers in spite of losses, wrongs, abuse or sarcasm, and let us endure with magnanimity our short-lived troubles: as the saying goes, while we are considering what is due to ourselves and worrying ourselves, death will soon be upon us.” 

This was one of a series of monthly discussions on topics like love, happiness, creativity, art, technology, work, and family that will occur every first Tuesday of the month.