People want to flourish. Aristotle surmised that the most basic longing people have is for eudaimonia, usually translated as happiness but perhaps better understood as contentedness of mind and soul. It’s a sense that one’s life is worthwhile and on track, that is one is living the way he or she should—and it’s a good, beneficial life. When St. Paul wrote that he had “learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Phil. 4:11), it seems that he was expressing something like eudaimonia.
People want to feel that their lives are going well. What’s often forgotten is something classical philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, and also Jesus and St. Paul agreed on, namely, that the path to contentedness of soul isn’t the chasing of contentment itself but hard work over a long period within the context of a virtuous life.
Aristotle writes of the toil involved in becoming a person of integrity—the kind of person who has arrived at a place where he or she can enjoy a life of honesty and know that he or she is trusted. Paul speaks of a contentment and peace that “transcends all understanding” (Phil. 4:7), but he also uses the metaphors of running, fighting, and boxing. Jesus speaks of peace but also of crosses.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote that God had given all people a right to “pursue happiness,” he was drawing on this ancient thought. Happiness—eudaimonia—human flourishing—is something that’s pursued. It takes time, work, persistence, perseverance; it involves a longstanding pursuit of some kind of excellence, the possession of which, along with a virtuous moral life, can bring a sense of contentment and thriving.
A persistent problem lies in the desire to arrive at contentment without putting in the effort. Aristotle noticed a tendency to confuse eudaimonia with amusement. And the problem with the “wicked, lazy servant” in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:26) seems to be that he didn’t want to put in the work that might make for success. He avoided risk and probably thought himself clever. He ended up losing everything.
It seems that we are seeing something like this in our education system. For years American students have ranked about 30th in international standing in mathematics, reading and writing, and a recent report on the National Assessment of Education Progress indicated that 63 percent of American high school graduates are “not prepared” for college. Recently I was hired by a test-writing firm to help construct a history exam for university students. Among my instructions was to write at a sixth-grade level. In other words, an exam to be taken by college students was to be written at a level for 12-year olds. Whatever these things point to, it isn’t the pursuit of excellence.
It may be that underlying the deep problems the education system faces are many forms of seeking contentment without putting in the hard work. Fathers seek contentment by abandoning the hard work of raising children, and this leads to problems in schools. Parents seek contentment in not being bothered and think of teachers as babysitters. Students, lacking role models, seek contentment in an endless absorption in social media, which makes the work of teachers all the more difficult. Administrators, seeking career-climbing contentment, privilege bureaucracy over learning. And teachers, seeking contented refuge from work that can sometimes seem impossible, effectively give up. The result, even at a private Christian school like mine, is freshmen students who can’t name the president during the Civil War, who aren’t sure which planet is third-closest to the sun, and who have never heard of the law of supply and demand.
Obviously, this grim outlook doesn’t apply across the board. There are devoted parents, outstanding teachers, and excellent schools. But no one can say that, overall, our system of education is flourishing. This is one of the many things that leads a majority of Americans to feel that their country is going off, or is in danger of going off, the rails.
We didn’t get here because we wanted to get here. We got here, at least in part, because we wanted eudaimonia—we wanted to flourish—but without putting in the work.
Paul wrote, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” I have learned. It took time and practice, paying attention and perseverance.