A half-blue faced Scot roars “Freedom!” as he leads his rugged, band of rebels to a grizzly fight to the death against the tyrant English King “Longshanks.” If you haven’t seen Mel Gibson’s portrayal of William Wallace in the 1995 Braveheart, you are missing out.
Spoiler Alert! - but come on, it’s been out for 26 years. Mel’s Wallace is successful in inspiring his fellow Scotsman to tolerate no longer the oppressive English rule, yet in the end, he is betrayed and captured. The literally gut-wrenching climax of the movie is Wallace receiving torture at the hands of his English captors - namely execution by hanging, drawing, quartering, disemboweling, and eventually beheading. He maintains his loyalty to the cause of Scottish Independence and yells “Freedom!” again in the midst of his torture.
I apologize for the graphic imagery, but it is important to set up the topic for today. Wallace’s ignominious end was mostly met on a torture device called the “rack”, or at least a modified version on it. The rack was around for a while, even back when Epicurus was philosophizing, 300 years before the time of Christ. Epicureans, followers of Epicurus’ teachings, and their ideological siblings and rivals, the Stoics, debated whether one could be truly “happy” or “blessed” on the rack.
Now it may sound preposterous that one could be blessed on the rack. It is one of the most painful ways to die. It is typically done publicly so it is demeaning, embarrassing, and violating. How could anyone be “happy” for any length of time on such a thing?
But the idea is this - and it is tested by examining this extreme case - is ultimate happiness, contentment, or joy something that is solely internal or does it involve (significant) external goods?
Both ideas have intuitive pull. Let’s take the Epicurean persuasion, broadly speaking. It sure does seem like my life is going better, that I’m more on the path toward flourishing, when I have some basic creature comforts. Shelter from the elements. A soft bed. Easy access to water and food. Spare time to pursue leisure. If any of these were absent, I’d be strenuously working to secure these, presumably out of a sense that they are among the requisite items, outside of my own mind, that I need for my embodied, lived experience to go well. In other words, to be happy. Of course more is needed, being a virtuous person let’s say, but I also need some “stuff” too.
Yet, I also resonate with the Stoic idea. The Stoic might say, “Fine, but true happiness is only found within.” That is, no amount of stuff can really bring you happiness. Even those basic, fundamental comforts - you need only look around the world at others who don’t have what you have to notice that genuine contentment and joy can be attained even in the midst of severe lack.
A well-cultivated and nurtured inner life seems like the most important ingredient to being happy. Without it, even slight upgrades in your external living conditions can lead the untrained, virtuously-adolescent soul to place unworthy things on the pedestal of significance in their lives.
To bring in some theology here, does anything about the idea of God as Trinity speak into this? If you’d imagine with me (I’m not totally sure that I even can, but let’s try) - God existing in eternity-past sans (without) creation, one being with three centers of consciousness or persons - was God “happy”? There aren’t any obvious external goods, if so, then it wouldn’t be sans creation! If God was happy at that “time”, it was something internal, the mental life of three persons coalesced into one being. Ok, Trinity is weird and hard to understand. Not a contradiction - just mysterious. But, it offers a possible case of genuine happiness attainable in the absence of external goods.
Yet, we aren’t Trinity. We don’t have relationship built-in to the foundation of our being. We crave those close interpersonal relationships that, of course, are experienced inwardly (as is everything), but the reason the relationships can exist at all is because of an external reality, namely the existence of other persons. You might think “point scored for Epicureanism!” but not so fast. The Stoic would quickly chime-in, “but surely you wouldn’t want to base your contentment on a relationship - relationships come and go for all sorts of reasons. Prudence recommends finding happiness in something that cannot be assailed - your own ethical, spiritual, inner life.” Thus, a figure like William Wallace, at least the virtue-filled movie version, can be blessed on the rack. He remains resolute to his principles, and dies a happy, freedom loving Scot despite the transience of even his physical health and public dignity.
I’m not here to give a definitive answer. There’s a reason folks have been bouncing this back and forth for ages. If you want to take the conversation deeper, this week’s episode “The Secret to the Good Life” is all about it. Please write in to the show if you have some thoughts on the matter to firstname.lastname@example.org. Which perspective is more persuasive or helpful to you?
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