Life examined at First Wednesdays
Or, if you prefer a more contemporary turn of phrase, happiness is an inside job. Inside your head, that is.
Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Socrates were deeply concerned with a philosophical exploration of what constituted happiness, although their definition of that went somewhat beyond just feeling good about yourself, said Susanne Claxton, a philosophy scholar and adjunct professor at Green Mountain College. She will be giving a talk on what the ancient Greeks and some of their modern interpreters, such as the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, construed the intersection of the "examined life," and happiness to mean at the next "First Wednesdays" lecture. Her talk is set for Feb. 5 at the First Congregational Church in Manchester Village.
For Aristotle and the other leading Greek thinkers who were his contemporaries, the key quest or journey in life involved finding happiness and fulfillment, or "eudaimonia," as they termed it. Getting there though, involved conscious reflection and thought, she said. It didn't just happen. "The point is you have to become self-conscious in your happiness and in your pursuit (of it); that's the 'examined' part of it," she said. But there's more. Two approaches are required, she said.
"It's not just about a purely analytical, logical, rational examination," she said. "It's more about approaching yourself in your life from two different ways - from what you could call a calculated examination and (also) a meditative type of thought."
The examined life involves not just being self-aware and making conscious choices - we also need to embrace the reflective, meditative side as well, she said.
This latter part is greatly informed by the arts, and in Aristotle's time, mythology. Their roles were central in the examination process and the goal of finding happiness, she said.
Claxton will also look at how more modern thinkers, like Heidegger, have addressed this. She is currently working on her doctorate at the University of New Mexico on how Heidegger, an enormously influential 20th century philosopher, interpreted and engaged with the Greek way of thinking about fulfillment and happiness, she said. For the ancient Greeks, this was serious stuff, she added.
"They conceived of human beings as the nexus of reality and spiritual reality," she said. If the volume of literature churned out annually in modern times involving advice on finding happiness and inner peace is any yardstick, it remains serious stuff today. Claxton will touch on how self-examination can contribute to a happier life and will explore what the examined life looks like and how ordinary people can chase after that.
Her talk will be the next in the series of "First Wednesdays" talks sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council and hosted locally by the Mark Skinner Library. The talk begins at 7 p. m. The event is free and open to the public and is sponsored by the Northshire Bookstore, The Perfect Wife Restaurant, The Spiral Press Cafe and Vermont Renewable Fuels. For more information about this event and the First Wednesdays program, call the library at 362-2607.
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