In an earlier essay, Should We Examine Life?, I attempted to discuss the differences between happiness and fulfillment. I also took sides with Socrates, concluding that it is preferable to lead a life that has been examined than a mindless existence without introspection.
James Skemp, my friend and colleague, has written a response called Know Thyself – or – On the Examined Life. I would like to take this opportunity to address some of the issues he raises, and perhaps clarify some of my original positions along the way.
Does An Examined Life Guarantee Fulfillment?
While I have stated my belief that examining life will lead to fulfillment, or “nourish the mind and soul” as we may say, is there a guarantee that examining life will lead necessarily to fulfillment? And the short answer is no.
While fulfillment cannot be achieved without examination, examination may not always lead to fulfillment. And the reason for this is the paradox of fulfillment: each new thing we discover to enrich our life, so many more avenues will be open to explore. By striving ever onward, we are only opening the awareness that we will never be able to explore every avenue we desire. An unwillingness to accept this will result in a lack of fulfillment.
So, am I suggesting we become fulfilled by denying ourselves avenues of fulfillment? In a sense, I suppose this is true. The fulfillment comes from the realization that we cannot be ever absolutely fulfilled (any complete possession of knowledge or spirit is reserved for gods, not men). This is not unlike Socrates’ discovery that he was, in fact, the wisest man. While Socrates received fulfillment in searching for virtue and truth, he reached his pinnacle the moment he realized that all he could be sure of was his eternal ignorance.
So, again, examining life (and by “life” I mean our own life, not life in general) can lead to fulfillment, as long as we accept the journey is without end.
Levels of Fulfillment
James states that “there is no gradient [in fulfillment, as opposed to happiness] – at any one moment you are either fulfilled or you are not”, a position I believe he thinks I was trying to present. However, I completely reject this idea.
In the previous essay, I made reference to Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. To better illustrate the gradients of fulfillment, I will use Maslow’s terminology. The five levels of needs are: Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Status, Actualization.
Physiological and Safety are more happiness than fulfillment, as they are the craving for bodily needs. Physiological is the chocolate chip cookie, the five second orgasm. Safety is the ability to live without constantly watching your back (a better house, a faster car). The next three levels, however, are gradients of fulfillment.
Love and Belonging ask us to find who we are to know where we fit. While we can love and be loved without really examining ourselves or our friends and lovers, the stronger relationships clearly come from those who are the better fit. Groups also require us to know who we are… clearly some people do not belong in some groups.
Status, or more accurately “Esteem”, is the sense of being proud of where we are in life. Can we be proud if we do not have a sense of what we want and how we are doing in achieving it? Many people can rise the ladder of employment, or the social ladder, but how many are proud of their gains? Only those who know what they’ve sacrificed to get there.
But there is an even fuller sense of fulfillment for “actualization”. As Maslow says, “Self Actualization is the intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately, of what the organism is.” [Maslow 1943] This is the process of someone human becoming fully human, taking use of the faculties they were given. Self-actualized people can continue to seek fulfillment (a master of anything will still continue learning new tricks of his trade), so one could say they can become more fulfilled.
So, again, you are not simply “fulfilled” or “unfulfilled”; one person can be fulfilled and another person can be even more so.
Can You Become Unfulfilled?
Maslow spoke of going up the pyramid of needs, but what about going back down? If we can fall out of love or lose our home and safety, then we must be able to lose a step, right? Yes and no.
Think of the pyramid much like climbing Mount Doom. You can lose your step and have to begin climbing again. But once you’ve reached your destination, you can never un-reach that goal. Fulfillment is much like that. You may have setbacks and have to achieve the lower levels over and over again, but if you’ve become “actualized” or fulfilled, you can never lose what you’ve learned. All your mental and spiritual gains are intact. (Not unlike Nietzsche’s timeless quotation, “that which does not kill us only serves to make us stronger”… we will always be stronger despite future setbacks.)
Now, if one wants to be picky, we can theoretically lose the fulfillment with amnesia or a coma or death. But it’s safe to say in any situation where we are not spiritually or mentally damaged, fulfillment remains intact.
God Only is Wise
Socrates, who asked us to examine life, also said “God only is wise”, with the implication being that man has no chance to become wise despite all knowledge gained… or perhaps can never have true knowledge at all, remaining forever ignorant.
I do not accept this bleak interpretation. I think fulfillment has a very subjective quality to it, insofar as a Catholic priest can be fulfilled in his faith and a Buddhist monk may also be fulfilled in his own faith. They have chosen different paths, but still have spiritual and mental well-being. There is reason to believe that both Catholicism and Buddhsim cannot be right, so one or both of these men is incorrect in his learning. But this does not mean he was not fulfilled.
With regards to knowledge, there is good reason to believe knowledge can be gained. Illnesses are discovered, cures are found and illnesses are treated. We might be unclear about “love” or “virtue”, but when a bit of knowledge has a practical use, that seems to suggest it is as true as can be in the material world.
I have stressed what might be called positive fulfillment, the attainment of fulfillment through spiritual or mental knowledge. An enrichment and growth process. Can there be a negative fulfillment?
James Skemp suggests there can be, and I think he may be on to something. Some Eastern religions stress a denial of self, or perhaps a removal of our outer onion skins, so to speak. Asceticism, denying ourselves more than what we need to survive, is popular in some of these faiths (though not exclusive, as many Christian monks are also ascetics).
But I am not so sure there is a difference between “positive” and “negative” fulfillment, other than the word choices used to create a particular connotation. From the works of L. Ron Hubbard,
“Destruction is (in terms of action) a creation of something against a creation of something else. For example, a wall is seen standing. To be apparent it is necessary that the wall be constantly created. The act of “destruction” is to exert against the wall another creativeness, that is, the action or activity of knocking the wall down. Both the wall standing there and the action of knocking it down are “creative” actions. Because we may object to a wall being knocked down, we vilify the creativeness involved in knocking it down with the word destructive. Actuality tells us that there is no such thing as destruction. There is only creation against a creation.” [Hubbard: 22-23]
The point here is that we can phrase all negatives in the positive. People who engage in negative fulfillment are still gaining fulfillment, as they are still placing less emphasis on material goods and more emphasis on the mind and soul. The methods are different but the results the same (again, much like how both Christians and Buddhists can achieve positive fulfillment).
The Material World and Fulfillment
James points out we live in a world of material things, and our bodies also are material (physical) objects. This is a situation I understand all too well, having a belief in materialism (when I use terms like “mind” or “soul” I am using them in a general sense, not to denote some extraphysical aspect of the self). Aren’t material objects important for fulfillment?
The answer is yes, but in moderation. James is correct that physical bodies require food. He is also correct that money can bring us health and other helpful commodities. But I was not arguing against money or material objects in themselves, not would any other philosopher. I merely stress that excess and luxury are against fulfillment.
A person may own a car, as this helps them get to school or work or to travel, all enriching activities. But do they need the best car or perhaps multiple cars? While there isnothing wrong with having nicer things or more things, these are not paths to fulfillment. Happiness, perhaps, but not fulfillment. And many would argue that even happiness is questionable because man is always striving for the bigger, better, faster, shinier, etc. To start down this course may mean never finishing it.
A Final Note: Knowing Evil
James suggests that to be fulfilled, we would have to know evil directly, by raping or killing. Without killing, how can we know what killing is like and thus be complete? But this is just a silly suggestion in the grand scheme.
Yes, we may not know evil without killing. I am willing to accept that premise. But again, as I have said before, each person has their own path that will lead to fulfillment. You would not need to “know everything” to become fulfilled (for the obvious reason that this is impossible). You wouldn’t need to know the feeling of a knife going through a woman’s throat any more than you need to know the taste of a Twinkie and wiener sandwich or what the inside of Jupiter looks like.
Can you receive fulfillment through mass murder? As much as I would like to say no, there may be something in this. For some people, maybe their full potential is in removing others. If we are here for a purpose (and I do not know if we are) and someone’s purpose is to be a sniper, maybe that will help them know their self and what they’re capable of. Who am I to say?
All I know is that fulfillment is within our reach, very possible and worth graspng for.
Hubbard, L. Ron. Scientology: The Fundamentals of Thought. Bridge Publications, 1988.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.