Professor Julia Annas on “What does it mean to flourish?”
2011 University of Pennsylvania
At the University of Pennsylvania distinguished speakers series, Philosopher Julia Annas presented a brief philosophical paper on the meaning of what it is to flourish. Professor Annas argued that what is often presumed in discussions on happiness is that it is more than a mental state of being happy but also about improving people’s lives — the very idea of flourishing itself. What we ordinarily mean when we talk about happiness is actually a social goal, indeed the notion itself of a life flourishing or “going well”, a life that is “good and pleases the person who has it”. The paper is an attempt to provide a philosophical answer of the life that is “lived well”.
Professor Annas argues that there are in fact two ways of answering this question. The first is practically thinking about the necessary conditions of what it is to flourish, indeed thinking about what in fact enables and is conducive to one’s flourishing. The problem with this way of thinking about the question of flourishing however, as Professor Annas argues, is that in order to be clear about what are the conditions of flourishing we need to clarify the act of flourish itself, indeed “what is it that these are the conditions for it”. The second is thus the structured way. For Professor Annas, a useful place to start is actually with Aristotle’s conception of Eudaimonia which has been often translated in the Nicomachean Ethics as happiness/flourishing. The Aristotelian “entry point” to “ethical reflections”, as Professor Annas calls it, is the realization that we are always “doing something”, we are always “living our lives”. From this point, we realize that our life unfolds in a sort of “structured” “linear” fashion from one thing to another. This is a useful way of thinking about our life because it highlights not only how we live life chronologically but also non-chronologically. We do so-and-so because it follows so-and-so but we also do so-and-so because it furthers a long term goal or is in itself a long term goal — even when we further we look out into the future, the more indeterminant these goals appear to us. In the Aristotelian ethical reflection, life’s long term goals are not only determined in experience but also fit within an overarching life — our life is a product of the way and the results of having chosen as well as having achieved certain goals. Our life is “working toward” and trying to ultimately “negotiate” a “coherent way of living”.
Professor Annas concedes that it may not be an obvious way of thinking about happiness/flourishing as “the unspecific final goal that we use when we integrate our deliberation”. We do however live our lives and implicitly negotiate our various goals so that they coherently lead to a web and final end of a life lived. In thinking about flourishing in this sense, Professor Annas asks us to make two distinctions: first that of “living of your life” and second the “circumstances of your life”. The latter refers to the historical circumstantial aspects of our lives, indeed the things that we “can do nothing about the fact that they are there” (e.g., genetic inheritance, gender, age, ethnicity). This highlights the fairly obvious point that we cannot speak of flourishing in a “vacuum” but as already having a life. The former point however refers to the “way of living with the circumstances” of your life in the sense best captured by the ancient metaphor of the skills of the craftsperson exercising his/her expertise/skill on the material, that is, the “skills of living exercised on the materials of living” — the skill being essentially of a different nature than that of the material.
The question of flourishing, Professor Annas argues, is about “how to live”, indeed “how to deal with the circumstances of your life”. As many circumstances (e.g., having parents, having children) are brought to fruition as we live our life, it is not about what are the best circumstances, but advice on how to best deal with them. The danger of “tailoring” happiness to circumstances or possessions is that they do not tell us how best to deal with them. The acquisition of the best materials do not produce the best craftsperson. The good outcome is the product of expertise. Relationships, money and success will not lead you to have a flourishing life, but the “role you give them in your life” does.
Leading a flourishing life is then about “developing the skill of living”, much like that of the craftsperson. There will be different flourishing forms of living because it is after all as much about dealing with circumstances well as it is about acquiring the skill. Correlatively the sources of wisdom of the right acquiring the skills will be as diversified. As we live our life and make its end more determinant, according to Professor Annas, the more “we make our choices against the chosen and un-chosen backgrounds”, “the more the un-chosen paths are in fact the result of previous chosen ones”. For most people, the determinative end of a flourishing life is learned through “trial and error and making a good job with life’s materials”. Here, however Professor Annas argues that philosophy can still provide “clarity on the alternatives”. Professor Annas concludes, “to assess the material we need to look at what the person intends to do with them, we need to assess the end product of the life that the person intends to do with it”.