Contentedness on campus

Fri, 2017/11/03


One bright, sunny, miserable day during midterms season, a mentally-bruised freshman who just horribly failed his humanities exam and approaches his RA, a veteran senior. He asks, “with all of these problems and papers, how am I supposed to live a happy life?”

The RA doesn’t have an answer to this. Confused, distressed, and dejected that he can’t help his friend or answer it himself, he approaches an ever-accessible counselor at the Student Health and Wellness Center and asks her the same question: “how am I supposed to live a happy life?”

The counselor, as unable to answer the question as truly as the rest, turns to their PhD-level professor and asks, “how am I supposed to live a happy life?”

The professor, just like the rest, is horribly vexed. He loses days and nights of sleep to the problem, wracked with inability and desperation. Finally, he caves and rhetorically asks his fresh-faced freshman class, “how am I, how are any of us, supposed to live a happy life?” That same freshman in the back-row shouts, “hey, I was thinking that exact same thing!”

Finding happiness on campus or anywhere is a question as universal as it is ambiguous, bothering everybody from undergraduates to the elderly – see: the graduate students – alike. People across time have attempted to answer this with religion, power, the acquisition of wealth, and a host of other methods. Some students, myself very much included, are just as willing to chalk lifelong happiness up to a number of checkboxes – a well-paying internship, partying on the weekends, prestigious grad schools, the length of Snap streaks – as anybody else. While there’s absolutely nothing new or necessarily shameful about this, it only procures short-term, not long-term, happiness. Rather, I believe that society ought to look back to the Greeks – not the group of grey houses and great people out on Farr Field, but the philosophers from Athens – for applicable lessons on living a truly fulfilling life, not one spent checking boxes or waiting for Fridays.

These lessons come from Aristotle, the contemporary of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. Aristotle established himself as one of the first philosophers to emphasize the role of living a “good” life, or one of contentment and fulfillment, as attained through living a virtuous life.

However, this itself is a remarkably loaded statement, leading with the ambiguity of what even is a virtuous life?

Aristotle defined this virtuosity as one spent following his 14 key characteristics – courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, proper ambitiousness, patience, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, modesty, and righteousness – followed in careful moderation.

But, his contemporaries protested, if all of these are keys for a good life, then why not have much of them as possible?

This is why Aristotle carefully established these traits as not inherently good, but rather as the outcome of his Golden Mean between deficiency and excess, between too little and too much of each. For example, excessive courage will lead to putting oneself in needless danger – like asking for that 65% round to an A – while a lack of it results in cowardice, scorn, and missed opportunities. An excess of truthfulness will be translated as annoying oversharing and boasting, and its deficiency equally-as-obnoxious understatements and flat lying.

Crucial to its implementation, this balance of virtues is different for every individual. Though not to be mistaken for absolute relativity, the wittiness and charm required of a statesman – or SGA senator – will be greater than that required for a hunter or manual laborer or Keating weight room attendant, their jobs equally as essential. This cannot be taken to mean that the 14 values are not all necessary for a content life, but rather their balance and moderation will depend upon the person and their lot. This balance, the moderation between reason and passion, between deficiency and excess, is what Aristotle proposes leads to contentment.

Condensed, this claims that life committed to these virtues and their balance will be content. What it does not do is promise total happiness, a life without hunger or stress or midterms or smelly roommates or life’s other problems. However, consistently living a life as outlined by Aristotle promises as fulfilling a life as possible within one’s position and time. It does not disregard luck or prejudice, it just tries for a life as content as possible their consideration.

It strives for a existence devoted to one’s craft, having success in both public and private life, regardless of what exactly those crafts and lives are. In this continued devotion to virtue, Aristotle’s life of excellence and contentment are found.

But how does this translate do campus?

If Aristotle writes that we all must live our lives committed to virtue, as defined by hyper-personal balance and moderation, then it translates to a sort of classical-philosophy endorsement of a sort of you-do-you mentality.

Super-condensed, Aristotle suggests that you find and commit yourself to your own goals, whatever they may be. Find that class you’re passionate about and talk to the professors, run crazy with that startup idea that actually stands a chance in the market, let yourself fall in love and devote yourself to that (if you’re so inclined), or do whatever it is that makes you not momentarily happy, but legitimately and wholly fulfilled. Commit yourself to that, Aristotle claimed, and you’ll find true, lifelong contentment.

That, the Greeks proposed, is the closest thing to an answer to that universal question of “how am I supposed to live a happy life?”