Human Flourishing (Eudaimonia): an Antidote to Extinction?

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David – Public Domain

In a 1977 book, From Know-How to Nowhere, Elting Morison, an MIT professor, explained the confusion in America between science and the public good.

What do we have to do to be ourselves?

“It is not so clear… that the problems solved by modern science and engineering coincide nicely with the fulfillment of needs felt or unfelt in men and women,” he wrote.

“The chances seem to be that the stream of new artifacts… will not fit… with the nature of human being…. There seems… to be a developing mismatch between our extending knowledge of what we can do with the materials and forces in the world around us and our older, but less certain, understanding of what we have to do to be ourselves. And in this mismatching – such is the power in our machinery and such is the confusion about our real needs – we are likely to come away losers– ground down, blown up, twisted out of shape, crammed into computer-designed compartments, bored to death,” he warned (page 137).

Morison is right. Confusion of what it is to be human is causing deep trouble. Obsession with gadgets is obsession with nothingness. More than any other gadget, technology or machine, nuclear weapons deformed science – and everything else. Philosophy did not escape the fear of the nukes.

Philosophy of fear and selfishness

Greek philosophy is asking questions and seeking paths to the good life. Practicing Greek philosophy requires knowledge, ethics, courage and passion. You need be curious, moral and full of selflessness. But that philosophy, like science, had no chance of survival. The extinction flashing of the nukes drove everybody underground.

Wars, industrialization, and the nuclear bomb demanded obedience. So, philosophy followed science in specialization. It shut down its probing questions and cleansed its broad ethical mantle, becoming neutral to good and bad. It had nothing to do with society. That’s why modern “philosophers” lose no sleep over nuclear bombs or pesticides or political corruption or environmental destruction or global warming. They know or should know the knowledge they produce is divorced from goodness and virtue. It is useless. “The point of philosophy now [in 2016],” say two American professors of philosophy, Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, “is to be smart, not good. It has been the heart of our undoing.”

Like Frodeman and Briggle, Brian Henning, professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University in Washington, shames American philosophers for abandoning philosophy.

Is ecological civilization possible?

I heard Henning talk in the 13thInternational Forum on Ecological Civilization in Claremont, California, April 19-20, 2019. He quoted the 1949 essay of the University of Wisconsin professor Aldo Leopold, Land Ethic, that it is not the purpose of human beings to domesticate or civilize the planet, much less the cosmos. Man is not the conqueror of the biotic community of the land, but one of its citizens.

Several other American and Chinese scholars tried to grapple with the seemingly strange phenomenon of “civilized” societies doing practically nothing to slow down, much less stop the tsunami of climate change. Their remarks complemented the warning of Morison: just what is it we have to do to be ourselves?

Some spoke about holistic human development; others about health, education, the environmental and the climate crises, agriculture and rural life, ethics – and, of course, ecological civilization. In fact, in the present urgent and dangerous times, talking about ecological civilization is both abstract, soothing, and inspiring.

More Chinese that American scholars spoke about the insights of Marxism and its pitfalls: a lost political utopia or ecological civilization of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

John Cobb, a theologian with strong ecological commitment, has been behind the continuing American-Chinese conversation about ecological civilization. He blamed America for the rising tensions between China and America. He congratulated China for starting some kind of transition towards a more ecologically friendly economic development. He was right denouncing the Trump administration for ecological negligence.

I stepped up the criticism of the US for becoming the subsidiary of chemical companies and multinational conglomerates, especially in their influence in the growing of food and environmental regulation. The Trump administration has showed itself to be careless and dangerous. It is denying global warming and is promoting monstrous environmental policies and politics.

Confucius and Aristotle

Like Cobb, Philip Clayton, another theologian and eloquent critic of capitalism, talked about Confucius and Aristotle. Confucius, 6th-5thcentury BCE, was a Chinese thinker that challenged conventional purposes of life.

Aristotle, 4thcentury BCE, like Confucius, did more than object to politics as usual. He created a new world of thought that brought into being science and a new way of explaining how society and the world work. He taught Alexander the Great, so, Aristotelian thought became global.

However, Confucius and Aristotle agreed that the main purpose of humans is to live in harmony with the natural world: not a harmony of frozen peace, but of coexistence and respect. Man, Aristotle said, is a political animal that is surrounded by other animals that are beautiful and perfect creations of nature, which does nothing in vain. Hemans ought to study animals so that they learn the secrets and truths of the natural world.

Confucius and Aristotle also agreed that human flourishing (eudaimonia for Aristotle) is what human life is all about. How do you achieve eudaimonia? Aristotle said the virtues of character, habit, wisdom, comprehension, and intelligence are necessary for the flourishing of a person. The beautiful and the good and self-reliance are additional pillars of well-being. Eudaimonia is one of the most divine blessings.

Confucius also emphasized goodness and virtue and respect for humans and the natural world.

But did human flourishing become a way of life during the time of Confucius or Aristotle? Certainly, not. In fact, both thinkers developed their radical proposals because, like us, they lived in troubled times. The difference, of course, is that their age of trouble was pretty much local. Yes, civil wars and other misfortunes caused human suffering. But today our troubles are not merely local or even global. They are existential. Never did ancient Chinese or Greek societies face the horrific prospect of our day: the potential ending of life on Earth.

And this dreadful prospect makes Confucius and Aristotle even more relevant today than ever before. Their thought is an introduction and grammar of the dream of ecological civilization.

So, I am grateful to Clayton for enriching our discussion with Confucius and Aristotle.

What’s to be done?

“Ecological civilization is not just contemporary global capitalism painted with green touch-up paint. It involves a radical transformation of every major sector of society. It requires a new worldview, beyond modernism, and a new way of structuring societies and economies. Similarly, it requires men and women able to evolve beyond the identity of acquiring and consuming. Only a comprehensive notion of human flourishing is adequate to describe the nature of citizens in an ecological civilization,” Clayton said.

Start reading Confucius and Aristotle.

Challenge the forces of corporations and petroleum culture and politics. Eat organic food and support the small family farmer (in America) and the peasant (in China). Also support the Institute for Postmodern Development of China, which is bringing Chinese and Americans together over ecological civilization.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.