03 February 2013

What is Human Flourishing?

A student asked me for my personal definition of Eudaimonia, or human flourishing. Here is my answer. What's yours? 

1. I believe that fulfilling work is necessary for Eudaimonia. Each human being needs to have tasks, whether manual, intellectual, or creative, that require training, skill, and attention. Much of each day and of each person's energy should be dedicated to this work for individual flourishing. This could be a job, an avocation, the raising of children, or any other kind of task, but it must be followed with energy and enthusiasm for the person to feel fulfilled. To this I add that I do think pursuits of the mind are more fulfilling than physical or social pursuits, but I have no research to prove that.
2. I believe that mutually loving and serving relationships are necessary for human flourishing, and that these relationships are not meaningful unless they can weather terrible trials and survive. This does not apply, then, to transient, ephemeral romances or brief, passing friendships. It is necessary to put even more work into love than into work in order to develop these kinds of lasting relationships. Without them, a human withers.
3. I believe that some kind of service -- I would call it ministry -- is also necessary. How can one human flourish when even one other person on the planet does not? We are all connected. I prefer the word "coinherence" for the kind of acknowledgement of mutual exchange that occurs in the most profound kinds of service: the bearing of one another's burdens. This could be in friendships, in family, in volunteer work, in large charitable organizations, etc. But unless we are working to make the world a better place and to relieve others' sufferings, I don't see how our flourishing can be anything other than selfish and inward.
4. I am a Christian, so I also believe that human flourishing is impossible without the kinds of difficult moral commitments that the Church and our traditional call us to pursue. I believe that holiness is more important than happiness. While living a moral, spiritually healthy life is much more difficult than living an immoral, spiritually unhealthy life, and may indeed involve significant suffering, I believe that any other way of life leads to temporary flourishing at best and actual destruction of the soul and of personhood at worst. These morals involve chastity, charity, humility, mutual submission, and all those other traditional words that are so unpopular -- maybe even "radical" -- in 21st-century America.
5. I also have one other belief that I'm not sure can be universally applied, but I will share it anyway. I think that human flourishing also involves intellectual development, wide reading, travel, awareness of current events, open-mindedness about cultural differences, and a general sense of planetary cosmopolitanism. I am concerned by people who do not know what goes on outside their family, small subculture, or ethnocentric regional group. 

4 comments: said...

I found myself agreeing with many (if not most) of the points in your list. Your last point is particularly thought-provoking...I teach Philosophy at a community college, and when we cover Plato's Allegory of the Cave I occasionally have a student who claims that not everyone wants to, or is ready to, leave their "cave" (whatever that may be). As a teacher and as a Christian such comments make me pause and wonder if the kind of awareness and intellectual curiosity you talk about in point #5 is necessary for spiritual growth and meaning. It's so hard for me to imagine that it is not, but as you mentioned, it doesn't seem to be a universal need. Great post!

Curt Day said...

I agree 110% with the last statement of point #5.

#4 must include both personal moral issues as well as social justice issues.

#1,2 & 3 should be a natural part of our commitment to God and following Jesus in His first coming.

fred putnam said...

Well said, and worth saying well. I do have two questions:

1. Re #4, I wonder about "social justice" (a phrase that too easily replaces the biblical call for (unqualified) justice), rather than something like a virtuous life, which necessarily entails justice.

2. Re #5, I wonder if this limits "flourishing" to certain socio-economic brackets (i.e., world travel, &c.). I appreciate the need to be intellectual curiosity, and not to be "navel-gazers", but wonder how to describe that curiosity.

Thanks again!


Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks for these comments, all! Fred, yes, indeed, especially your #2. That is a serious problem in my definition. I wonder if suffering limits people's ability to flourish, and if that i why social justice specifically is so necessary: to provide others with the conditions in which they can flourish.