ON THE CONCEPT OF A BALANCED LIFE
Joel Warren Lidz, Ph.D.
A Speech Presented to Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity
February 2, 2002
Good afternoon. First, I'd like to thank SigEp for the invitation to speak and to commend the organizers for this all too unusual invitation to a philosopher, since as you know, we philosophers have long had a reputation for having our heads way up there, deep in the clouds, concerning ourselves with whatever has no relevance to anything. That this reputation has been around for a long time is made clear by a story which has come down to us from ancient Greece about the man who is often credited with being the father of Western philosophy. His name was Thales of Miletus, who lived about 600 BC. It's said that he was walking one day while not paying attention to where he was going, contemplating some deep problem, when he lost his balance and fell into a hole. A slave girl nearby who witnessed the incident laughed, and when the public heard about this wise man's fate, it was taken as proof that philosophers cannot deal with as simple a task as avoiding a hole in the ground. From the standpoint of the slavegirl and the general public, Thales was hardly living a balanced life since he seemed to pay too much attention to what was above his head and too little to what was below his feet.
Now it so happened that Thales knew a good deal about astronomy and meteorology. He was even credited with predicting an eclipse, and as a result of his expertise he determined that a good olive crop was in store for the coming harvest. So he cornered the market on olive presses and made a handsome profit. When asked why he had not made use of that expertise earlier, he replied that although philosophers are quite capable of dealing with mundane practical matters, they prefer to concern themselves with issues of deeper, broader significance. I suppose the question for Thales and other philosophers is whether it is possible to balance a concern with deep theoretical problems with a practical concern that one not fall into holes in the ground.
The fact that Thales lost his balance makes it possible for me to segué into the subject I have been asked to speak on, namely, the concept of a balanced life – especially in relation to ancient Greek thought. Perhaps I should confess at the outset that I have not reflected much upon this subject, despite the fact that it is a term one hears quite often. But if you will indulge me and give me a little bit of your lifetime, I will tell you what I came up with in the hope that it will get you thinking about these questions too, since every human is a philosopher to some degree simply because we cannot help thinking about the meaning of our lives -- at least now and then.
One thing I have always found amazing about Plato in particular among the ancient Greek writers is that if you simply replace the Greek names in his dialogues with English ones, most of the dialogues seem as if they might have been written yesterday. Yet when you read the writings of the medieval philosophers, which are a thousand years closer to us in time, they seem much more alien to our concerns than do Plato's. In addition, many of the social problems faced by the Greeks were virtually the same as those we face today, such as how to reconcile religious belief with the apparent dangers of the godless universe of science. Another issue addressed by the Greeks was what the proper place of women in society should be. In one of the plays of Aristophanes, because the men insist on fighting constant wars, their wives take revenge on the men by refusing to have sex with them, and of course denying their husbands sex insures that the women are victorious, and Aristophanes did a great job of depicting the hordes of horny men.
Let me begin my discussion of a balanced life with a simple demonstration. I'm balancing a pencil on my finger and it falls off. And that of course is because on one side of my finger the pencil is heavier than the other. Because the pencil has been placed on my finger and my finger acts as a fulcrum, the pencil is in effect divided against itself and can maintain its equilibrium only so long as opposite sides of it are of equal weight. So part of the concept of balance has to do with equality and part with staying in place – with stability or equilibrium. Now the pencil on my finger is independent of the finger on which it is balanced; it is balanced upon something other than itself. But when we speak of a "balanced personality," that personality is not balanced on anything outside itself; rather it is balanced in relation to itself. Often, we speak of someone as being "stable" or "unstable" (sometimes we say "unbalanced" instead of "unstable"). A stable person responds to extreme situations with moderation, permitting him or her to function effectively.
Many questions crop up with respect to the concept of a balanced life, not all of which can be addressed today, for example: Just what is it that's being balanced? Who does the balancing? What is the mechanism whereby the balancing is brought about? How does one know when one has achieved this balance? Is it only individuals that can be spoken of as balanced or societies also?
Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages the sphere was considered the epitome of a perfectly balanced shape and that idea had considerable impact on the history of astronomy. The 16th century German astronomer Kepler, e.g., had to struggle long and hard to break from the notion that a perfect God could only have created a spherical universe with planets traveling along spherical orbits. Eventually he was forced to postulate that the planetary orbits around the sun were elliptical.
In order for a sphere to be perfectly balanced, its contents must be evenly distributed. If we take this sphere to symbolize the self, it suggests that the self must be both full or complete and evenly distributed. This image seems to underlie the idea of a "well-rounded" personality. I take it that a person is well-rounded by virtue of knowing all that he or she needs to know in order to lead a life which is beneficial both to himself and to others in all the areas of life in which that person will have to function. This of course means functioning as a citizen, as a friend, as a relative, as a worker, as a lover, as a consumer of the Earth's resources, and so on. But in all these roles there is one thing which is applicable and of great importance, and that is morality, which sets limits on our behavior.
But if the self is to be full, what must it be full of? -- and no jokes are called for here. We're involved in serious business. For the sake of simplicity, let's say that the content of our Self is our concerns. For example, all of you as college students are concerned about your grades in relation to your future, and you are probably concerned with what you might do on the upcoming weekend: should it be party or study? You are probably also concerned about your love life, and all of these concerns influence each other so that you must also be concerned about how to prioritize them.
The only instrument we humans possess which can weigh the relative importance of our concerns is our capacity to reason. If we think of reason as being like a scale which weighs or balances competing concerns, we must acknowledge that this scale is far more complex than any ordinary scale, and even the best reasoner cannot avoid occasional errors when using it. And being reasonable involves the capacity to hear ideas with an open mind so that they might be weighed according to their true merits.
Reason, then, enables us to look beyond our momentary desires, and the Greeks called the person who was able to reason well about important matters a sophos, a wise man, and the philosophos, the philosopher, is someone to whom wisdom is most dear. Knowledge tells us how to do things, but wisdom tells us whether something ought to be done, that is, whether it would be a good thing to do it.
Since our many concerns are not of equal importance, it is important that we know how to prioritize them, viz., in such a way that the self as a whole is well balanced, that is, balanced in a way that will prove beneficial. It's interesting that the term "integrity" is related to the word "integer," a whole number. Someone with integrity is in a sense whole, complete, a well-integrated person who stands for definite principles of which he is well aware. Only because he knows what he stands for and can rationally back it up is he capable of moral equilibrium. He is the opposite of the politician who seeks to be all things to all people as a means of attracting votes. Compare, if you will, Al Gore's presidential campaign with Woody Allen's film, "Zelig"....
The need for balance is indicated in many literary and philosophical works of the ancient Greeks. Nowadays we tend to draw a pretty sharp distinction between philosophy and literature: colleges and universities have English departments for literature and philosophy departments for philosophy. But the Greeks did not draw any such distinction, and Plato's dialogues are a peculiar form of dramatic play reflecting the influence of his great playwright predecessors. In both their philosophical and literary works, the Greeks were fond of noting oppositions which called for balanced reconciliation, oppositions such as individual vs. society, natural vs. artificial, the idealism of youth vs. the realism of old age, and countless other oppositions.
The idea that such oppositions call for balance was of tremendous importance to the ancient Greeks and it figured in their metaphysical, medical, ethical and aesthetic theories. One of the earliest philosophers, Anaximander, believed that the cosmos was an ever shifting balance in which one element dominates only at the expense of another, much as we might say that you can gain in one aspect of life only if you are willing to relinquish some other aspect. For example, to gain the benefits of college you must give up other things of value such as money, and choose work over play, and to gain the benefits of companionship you must give up some freedom and privacy. In the case of war, one must balance the risk to our own soldiers against the possibility of killing civilians.
In the field of medicine, the ancient physician, Alkmaeon of Kroton, claimed that health is a kind of balance and viewed his sick patients as similar to a front between two opposing forces, much as we today think of viruses and antibodies locked in struggle. For the Greeks, physical beauty was also a matter of balance and proportion. The features of a beautiful person are neither too big nor too small, he or she is neither too tall nor too short, neither too thin nor too fat, but rather as we would say, "just right." The Greek ideal of physical beauty is plain in their many sculptures of perfectly balanced, athletically trained bodies, as well as in such perfectly balanced architectural works as the Parthenon.
The concept of balance was also important in the sphere of ethics. How often have you heard it said that someone is "too this" or "too that" -- for example, too free with their money or not free enough? Aristotle had as an important part of his ethical theory the concept of the golden mean. By this he meant that a virtuous action strikes a balance between the vices of too much and too little, of excess and deficiency. For example, thriftiness is the mean between spending too much and spending too little, and we are often reminded of the importance of "balancing our books." Another example of a virtue would be courage, which is the mean between foolhardiness and cowardice. Courage involves knowledge of how much fear is appropriate to a given situation, since fear dictates how one acts. If one experiences too much fear, one acts in a cowardly fashion, but if one experiences too little fear one acts in a foolhardy fashion. Someone who attempted to achieve the impossible would not be a hero, but a fool, and even if he somehow did manage the impossible, he would best be described not as heroic but as damn lucky.
I believe that for the Greeks a balanced life is made possible by adopting a well-reasoned, broad perspective on everything one needs to know in order to produce what we nowadays call a "balanced judgment." To repeat: A balanced life is the product of balanced judgments. Consider the recent case of anthrax in the mail. To the best of my recollection, about 13 people contracted the disease and only a handful died. The government's response was to consider irradiating vast quantities of mail at a huge cost. The intention was of course to save lives, but given that even the government has only a finite amount of money to spend, might it not have been possible to save far more lives if we were to spend those billions on some other project? We might wonder about how balanced the government's response was. Was it made while keeping the anthrax attack in a balanced perspective or was the response more an immediate reaction based on fear?
In the writings of the Greeks, we find that a lack of balance in one's life is attributed to the failure to adopt a sufficiently broad, balanced perspective on those things which must be taken into account if one's life is to be integrated both with itself and with reality. Only if one's life is in harmony – or as we would say today, "in synch" – with itself and with reality can one possibly live effectively and well. The alternative is to be at odds with oneself, just as Bill Clinton's desire for Monica was at odds with his desire to go down in history as one of the presidential greats.
Since I know most of you have never studied philosophy, I will give you a tiny bit of information about Plato and Socrates. Plato, who is often regarded as the greatest Western philosopher, was born in 427 BC to one of the wealthiest aristocratic families in Athens, which normally meant that he would be destined for a life in politics. His father, Ariston, was believed to have descended from the early kings of Athens. Perictione, his mother, was distantly related to the 6th-century BC lawmaker Solon, who is considered the father of democracy. As a young man, Plato became disillusioned by the political leadership in Athens. He eventually became aware of and deeply influenced by Socrates and this led him away from a life in politics to a life of writing in which he incorporated Socrates as a main character in most of the 35 dialogues he wrote. In 387 BC, Plato founded an institution in Athens called the Academy, which is often described as the first European university. It provided a comprehensive curriculum, including such subjects as astronomy, biology, mathematics, political theory, and philosophy. It survived for 900 years. Aristotle was the Academy's most prominent student.
Unlike Plato, Socrates was a member of the working class and a stone mason by profession. He was born in 469 BC, the son of a sculptor and midwife. Although he is said to have been physically quite unattractive, he was revered by his friends for his moral character. He had 3 sons, the first of which was born when Socrates was 50. He was decorated for courage in battle and was known for a number of peculiar habits, such as standing all night barefoot in the snow while contemplating, as well as for being able to drink seemingly unlimited quantities of wine without becoming the least bit drunk. A number of his wealthy friends invested his money for him and helped subsidize his practice of wandering the streets of Athens, questioning people about moral subjects. Socrates never criticized what people said; instead, he continued to ask them questions until they contradicted themselves, thereby making it clear to them that at least one of their beliefs must be faulty. Eventually that practice of Socrates led to charges of corrupting the youth and disrespecting the gods, and in a trial with 500 jurors, Socrates was narrowly found guilty and sentenced to death.
One story related by Plato tells about a friend of Socrates who visited the Oracle at Delphi, a priestess who mystically communicated with the god Apollo, and asked the Oracle to identify the wisest man in Athens. The Oracle responded that "No man is wiser than Socrates." When Socrates heard that the Oracle had relayed this message from the god Apollo, he did not rejoice in the way one might expect the average person to do. Because he did not think of himself as wise, he was skeptical and doubted that what the Oracle had said could be true and on the surface this might seem to support the charge that he disrespected the gods.
The fact that Socrates did not jump to conclusions, neither believing nor disbelieving what he had been told, is indicative of his own balanced character. Since he knew that the gods could not lie, that meant he would somehow have to reconcile his own self image of being unwise with the Oracle's claim that he was wise. The way he managed to do that was by concluding that his wisdom consisted, not in knowing all he should know, but rather in knowing that he did not know, that he was not wise, whereas other people believed themselves to be wise when they were not. In other words, Socrates knew that he did not know, whereas others did not know that they did not know – they were ignorant of their ignorance. Since Socrates knew that he was not wise and that it was important to be wise, he engaged others in conversation in the hope that together he and they might become wiser. In doing this, he proved that those who considered themselves wise were not, thus proving the Oracle correct.
A good example of a conversation Socrates engaged in occurs in one of Plato's typical dialogues where Socrates meets up with a priest by the name of Euthyphro, who is in the process of charging his father with the murder of a slave. Socrates then does what he is best known for – he questions Euthyphro on why he would do such a thing. Euthyphro reminds Socrates that the god Zeus had bound and castrated his own father, implying that there must be nothing inherently wrong about turning on one's father. So it is clear that Euthyphro assumes that what it is proper for a god to do is appropriate for humans such as himself to do. The discussion focuses on the concept of holiness and one would expect Euthyphro to be an expert on the topic of holiness, given that he is a priest, but as things turn out, he has not got a clue as to the nature of holiness, nor has he even determined that what his father had done deserved to be classified as murder, an extremely unholy act. So the dialogue implies that Euthyphro is able to accuse his father because he believes that he can distinguish between holy and unholy acts, when in fact he cannot. The result is an upsetting of the balance between father and son, in that Euthyphro fails to respect his father as well as the truth. Plato implies that because Euthyphro thinks that he knows what holiness is when he doesn't, it becomes possible for him to bring his father to trial without just cause, and that is an unholy act. So in addition to not knowing the nature of holiness, Euthyphro does not know his own nature; he does not know himself to be the ignorant person he is. And this brings us to the famous Greek saying "Know thyself."
If one truly knows oneself, it follows that they know what they are and what they are not. They are aware, in other words, of their limits. The concept of limit is fundamental to all Greek thought – it informs their religion, literature and philosophy. Limit can be understood in a few ways. One meaning of limit is the boundary between things which explains why things have identities. For example, humans can be identified as human only because there are non-humans with which humans contrast. Things are identifiable as a-this-and-not-a-that only because they have an identity, and for the Greeks, something's identity, what it is, prescribes a certain place for it within the cosmos. This theme is quite common in ancient writing, and appears, for example, in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. When a person forgets their identity or nature as a human, they tend to act in a manner unfitting for their nature. Their proper place in the cosmos is thereby lost and this leads to big problems. The result is always negative, in many cases tragic. Many science fiction stories depict crazed scientists producing something which they are unable to stop, such as the Frankenstein monster, and nowadays we see that same concern with respect to cloning.
In order to illustrate how Plato depicted the idea that a balanced life is made possible by adopting a broad perspective on everything one needs to know, I would like to briefly summarize the opening of his dialogue, The Republic, one of the greatest philosophical and literary works of all time.
The first person with whom Socrates speaks in the Republic is Cephalus, an old man who has retired from business. Socrates asks him what it's like to be old and in particular, what his sex life is like. Cephalus responds that being free of sexual desire is like being freed from the clutches of a madman. He also says that as a result of being old, he has begun to wonder whether the many stories about the afterlife he has heard all his life might not be true, and so he has undertaken to say his prayers and make his sacrifices in order not to take chances with the gods. Cephalus is like a child who does the right thing not for its own sake, but as a means of avoiding punishment.
It appears that Cephalus did not pay much attention to his life until he realized he was in danger of losing it. For most of his life, he failed to reflect on his life, an ability which only humans possess, and in that regard it may be said that his life was unbalanced because incomplete. One sees also that as a businessman Cephalus thought of his relationship with the gods much as he would think about a business transaction: he thinks that if he does his part by saying his prayers and making sacrifices, then the gods must live up to their part of the contract and admit him to the afterlife.
Plato here makes an important point, which is that people interpret their experiences from within a framework of their own limited personal experiences. Cephalus' life as a businessman provided him with a framework within which to think about morality, but that same framework limited his intellectual vision. He extends his life as a businessman into other areas of life by defining justice as "being honest and paying back one's debts." In response to this definition, Socrates asks, "Suppose someone had loaned you a weapon and came to reclaim it when they were not in their right mind." Socrates wants to know if you would have an obligation to give it back to them. The implication here is that one is not entitled to one's property if one cannot use it wisely. Socrates' example also suggests that moral rules (such as returning what one owes and telling the truth) are designed to account for the majority of circumstances one is likely to encounter. But in unusual cases, like that of the madman who wants his weapon returned, the usual rules don't apply. Justice must therefore be something more than following rules; it must reflect balanced judgment, in short, wisdom.
Socrates next speaks with Cephalus' son, Polemarchus, whose name means "warlord." He defines justice as one might expect a soldier to do, by saying that justice is "Doing good to friends and harm to enemies." But he hasn't thought much about what it means to do good nor about how one determines who one's friends are. Is a friend someone who always does what you want them to? Suppose I am a drug addict and I've run out of heroin. Someone I consider a friend gives me some of his. Is that the act of a friend? Do friends give you what you want or do they give you what's good for you to have, even if that's not what you want?
It seems clear that a friend is someone who knows what's good for you and wants you to have it regardless of your wishes. If that's so – and this is a really important point – then one must know one's own good in order to be able to know who one's friends are. What usually happens, however, is that people consider something good because they want it, rather than first taking the time to think about whether it really is good, and therefore whether it is the sort of thing which they ought to want. Moreover, Plato thinks it makes sense to speak of being a friend to oneself, which involves being in harmony with one's own nature, in the sense that one must know oneself in order to know whether one is being friendly toward oneself, that is, acting in one's self-interest (which is not the same thing as acting selfishly). If one does not know one's nature, one could only be a friend to oneself occasionally, as a result of chance.
Finally, Socrates speaks with a fellow named Thrasymachus, whose name means "rash fighter." Thrasymachus defines justice as "the advantage of the stronger" and by "stronger" he means "ruler." In other words, whatever is good for the ruler is just and right, for nature dictates that the strong should rule. The proof of this is that the strong do rule, precisely because they are powerful. Power need not be physical; it may reside in the cleverness to persuade others that your being the ruler is in their interest. And who identifies what's good for the ruler? Why, the ruler himself of course! For Thrasymachus, the ruler is justified in ruling for his own sake, no matter the cost to others. He views human beings as bundles of desires which it feels good to satisfy. The best life is the one in which the greatest number of desires is satisfied, and since rulers have the most power, they are the ones best situated to satisfy the greatest number of their desires.
Thrasymachus' view raises the question of what is advantageous for someone (be they rulers or not) and how that is determined. And there is also the question of what is meant by "the stronger." Thrasymachus' view is that whatever individual or groups of individuals holds power is proof that they are the strong ones. The question Plato raises is whether strength without wisdom, without knowledge of how strength should be used, can be said to be advantageous. If the ultimate goal is to lead an advantageous life, then might it not be the possession of wisdom, which is to say balanced judgment, which would confer true strength upon us?
In opposition to Thrasymachus, Plato believes that desires are often not a reliable guide to what's good for us, that desires often conflict with each other and that they must be channeled, controlled and prioritized if one is to lead a balanced, harmonious life, one in which our goals are consistent with each other and constitute reasonable, moderate expectations. Desires thrust us forward, but reason provides us with foresight which warns us of contingencies and can hold us back from unwise choices. Reason also makes us aware of oppositions which must be reconciled, and often this happens at the expense of our short-term happiness but for the benefit of our long-term happiness. But reasoning is something which can be done in all degrees, from very well to very poorly, and Socrates functioned as a kind of mirror to the Athenians. When they looked into it, they discovered that their beliefs could not withstand the test of reason. But instead of working on improving their beliefs, they chose in effect to smash the mirror, by executing Socrates. Their egos would not permit them to accept the truth about themselves, so they turned from that truth and in doing so, turned from themselves.
Since wisdom is an art and not a science of making balanced judgments, no simple rules exist which if followed will guarantee that we arrive at balanced judgments. The best we can do is to seek deep self-awareness, including an awareness of our own biases and tendencies toward unreasonableness, so that whatever our judgments and the actions which flow from them, we can assure ourselves that we have at least made an honest effort to find a balanced perspective, one which transcends the partiality of our limited, personal perspectives.