Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    Norms and Nobility: The Pursuit of Happiness

    April 8, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    Part Two of Chapter One was read aloud to my husband. It had certain political overtones I thought he’d appreciate, and talking it out with him was interesting, to say the least.

    Hicks begins this section with Aristotle, who believed that

    a happy, well-adjusted individual is the true end of learning.

    This, naturally, flies in the face of folks like our Dear Leader who thinks that Jobs are the most important thing in the world, and that we need P-16 {yes, friends, 16–meaning college} tracking and national standards so that children are “prepared for life in a global economy.”

    Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on EducationIf education is not about jobs and economic contribution, but rather about character, virtue, and all of those intangibles which are inconvenient because they cannot be measured using a standardized test, one must then answer the question as to what is meant by words like “happy” and “well-adjusted.”

    I have met mothers, for instance, who want their children to be happy, and this means that they are to get what they want, when they want it, how they want it, and they will be quite antagonistic when anyone stands in their baby’s way. Is this what Aristotle meant? That children should be educated in such a way that they are able to indulge their flesh as much as possible?

    Hicks says no. He, thankfully, walks his readers through Aristotle’s logic:

    According to Aristotle, the perfect end of education will be an activity that is engaged in for its own sake, complete and sufficient unto itself. Aristotle calls the activity for which education prepares man–happiness.

    Hicks then explains that there are three typical definitions for happiness: the life of pleasure, the practical life, and the theoretic life. He claims that Aristotle defined happiness in terms of the theoretic life. The life of pleasure is defined as

    a never-ending list of luxurious accessories, the acquisition of which wears man down with work and worry.

    Hicks explains what Ecclesiastes told us long ago, which is that this is a chasing after the wind, a pointless vanity.

    The practical life, then, is what we usually hear from modern educators. Students are viewed as units of Industry. They go to kindergarten and preschool so that they are “ready” for first grade. They go to junior high in order to get into high school. They do well in high school so that they can be accepted to college, and the more prestigious the college the better. They go to college, and perhaps pursue graduate studies, so that they can get a job. They get a job so that they can make money and pay taxes, contribute to the Industrial economy, and send their 2.05 children to kindergarten so that they, too, can grow up and pay taxes.

    And so it goes.

    The entire process is viewed in a vacuum. There is never any reason given for why we do these things, why we pursue this course. We do it because it is our cultural gospel. When you do otherwise you are shortchanging your children, so the thinking goes. Hicks points out this flaw when he writes:

    The wealth one acquires in business is a useful thing, but as such, it exists for the sake of something else…Happiness must be something that belongs to a person and cannot be snatched from him at the whim of the demos.

    Aristotle settles on the theoretic life as the true source of happiness because it consists of intangibles residing in the soul of man which cannot be swept away by a hurricane, an economic depression, or any other circumstance of life. And what are the details of this theoretic life?

    [T]he theoretic life is the life of virtue, so long as we mean by virtue all that the Greek arete expresses: the life that knows and reveres, speculates and acts upon the Good, that loves and re-produces the Beautiful, and that pursues excellence and moderation in all things.

    So let’s review. Aristotle says that “happiness” is the goal of education. He defines happiness as the theoretic life. The theoretic life is the life of virtue. The life of virtue is described in that last quote above; the virtuous man is compelled from within by the Good which he not only knows and reveres, but also thinks about and acts upon. The virtuous man loves Beauty–this is more than mere physical beauty, but does not exclude physical beauty–and imitates that Beauty. The virtuous man is excellent and moderate in all things.

    Hicks goes on to conclude:

    The life of virtue has nothing to do with one’s prospective pleasures, possessions, or practical affairs, but concerns the manner in which one is prepared to spend one’s leisure hours.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it has nothing to do with the former part of the list, but I would definitely agree that it begins and ends with leisure. I just think that virtue seeps into all areas of life. Virtue will give pleasure. Think of the level of prosperity and contentment reached when there is an abundance in the land. Virtue will also contribute to industry. A good man will produce good things and conduct all of his business in an honorable and noble way. However, I think what Hicks is getting at {and I agree with him} is that when you aim for pleasure and utility, virtue never comes.

    My interest, due to my conversation with my husband, lies in this final thought of Hicks:

    The public interest in the individual’s life and learning is not that of a prospective employer or bureaucrat.  Although the individual must live in harmony with the community, his life of virtue ought not to be subsumed by the political purposes of the state–for ultimately, the state’s only justification is that it makes the good life, the life of virtue, the life that takes responsibility for what it knows, possible. The self-improvement flowing from this life, as pursued passionately in pastimes, redounds to the benefit of the community, the pleasure of the individual, and the true happiness and harmony of both. {emphasis mine}

    My husband’s first response to this was, “The pursuit of happiness!” That’s right folks. His theory is that, since the Founders of our country spent so much time studying the Greeks and Romans in their search to devise a noble Republic, that the Constitutional phrasing which guarantees to each man “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was referring directly to Aristotle’s theoretic life.

    As an aside I might add that our lack of virtue is revealed when we no longer find this list of intangibles sufficient, but yearn for the right to jobs, health care, and protection. Because we as a culture no longer possess a theoretic life, we seek pleasures with one hand and utility with the other.

    To the extent that we have abandoned virtue in favor of fleshly pleasures in our free time and utility in school and work, we have caused our own demise. Is it any wonder that virtue no longer abounds in this land?

    I asked my husband an important question: “Do you mean to tell me that you think the Constitution might actually guarantee the right to a classical education?” To some extent, the answer seemed to be yes.

    Notice that classical education, in the world of Hicks at least, demands a limited government, whose job is only to foster that happiness, to ensure that nothing impedes the theoretic life. This is a bare minimum, indeed, and something to think about when engaging in political debate.

    Read More:
    Thoughts on The Good Life by Cindy
    Notes on this same section by Krakovianka

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit

    1 Comment

  • Reply Jami M. April 9, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    I had the same thoughts about the founders and the meaning of “the pursuit of happiness”. I love the talk from last years’ Circe conference where Andrew K. talks about rights and responsibilities. And how the gov’t has to give us the right to speak or worship because we have the responsibility as humans to speak out against tyranny or worship our Creator. We have the responsibility as humans to pursue a virtuous life and the education which will enable us to do that, therefore, the government needs to protect our right to do those things. Requiring that our children be educated by a godless, secular state does not protect this right. One could go on and on with listing the ways that the government in the 20th century has encroached on the rights which we must have if we are to fulfill our responsibilities as humans. Is it any wonder that we find so few people learning and living virtuously? Or so few people being truly happy for that matter, most of us think that happiness means getting our own way and whatever we desire.


  • Leave a Reply