Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Exercise of Vital Powers

"Happiness is the exercise of vital powers, along lines of excellence, in a life affording them scope."

That quote is usually attributed to Aristotle, although there's some debate over whether or not that's what he actually wrote. I don't think it matters, because the words are perfect. It's certainly what I want. It's what happiness is for me.

But what exactly does it mean? What are "vital powers?" We all know what the words themselves mean. Vital is something essential. The absence of it diminishes the whole. It is integral. And powers are gifts, right? Talents, skills. It refers to the talent that is part of all of us, whether it's a great big imagination or an eye for visual composition, or the ability to throw a bunch of ingredients into a pan and pull out something not only edible but delicious.

We all have something that is part of us, something that we love to do and are good at. Something that fulfills that need inside of us. Something that we fear losing because the loss of it would make us someone else entirely. We all have vital powers.

For me it's writing. I love it like almost nothing else. I don't know who I would be without it, and it's not because I'm a workaholic. I'm a workaholic because of my love, because of my need. Because even on the worst days a turn of phrase, a trick of rhythm or a lovely alliteration can thrill me, fill me. (Props to Poe, for that last bit there. :D)

And there are bad days. There are rejections, and setbacks, and stories that I can never seem to get right. But if that's the price I have to pay to do something that I love? Well, I'll consider it a happiness tax and move on, probably after a small pity party. After all, if you don't feel the bad stuff, you can't really feel the good stuff, right?

I don't let the pity party last any longer than it has to, though. I don't want to be one of those people who ignores all the good stuff in their lives because they're too busy complaining about the bad stuff. It hurts, we all know it, but you can't let it eat up your life.

And I think that's where the "in a life affording them scope" part comes in. Because it's all about perspective. About looking back on your accomplishments and failures and realizing that they're all the same thing. They're all a part of life. And life is the context which defines what we do, which lends it meaning and significance. An interesting loop, isn't it? What we do defines our lives and is in turn defined by it. It's that Escher sketch where one hand is drawing the hand that's drawing it.

The word "scope" comes from the Italian "scopo," from the Greek "skopos." (I know there are some linguists out there, so if I've got that wrong feel free to let me know! :D) It means a target, a goal, something to shoot for, to achieve in life. And life is, by definition, not finished until it's... Well, finished. We can't judge our own scope, because we can't see the end and so can't take it as a whole. We're missing context.

So, translated into modern lingo, the quote might read something like "Happiness is the use of our inherent talents, in the pursuit of excellence, in a setting that gives them meaning."

Sounds good to me.

It doesn't imply success, because that's not the point. Happiness lies in the endeavor itself, in the exercise of those vital powers. Let your life provide the scope. Don't define yourself by how often you win or lose. Define yourself by how often you try.


Mike said...

"It doesn't imply success, because that's not the point." - yes, I think this is the important point here. Too much success can be toxic; once you start building too much of your self-image on it, it can lead to crippling risk-aversion.

I always thought the "scope" part of arete was more about challenge than meaning - you can be applying your talents in a useful way, but if it's not constantly stretching you then you're probably going to feel vaguely unsatisfied.

I'd also point out that this isn't the *only* kind of happiness, or even necessarily the best kind. (Not that you suggested any such thing.)

Marion Sipe said...

Plus, it's the failures the teach us and keep us going. If we all were immediately successful, would we continue to strive?

I think the "lines of excellence" is about challenge. Always striving to achieve excellence in what you do.

"Not that you suggested any such thing." Oh good! Cause I totally didn't mean to! :D

Andrew WR said...

Back in 1998, I debated a modern phrasing of this quote with a dear friend called David Wolf (RIP). His translation has travelled with me all of the thirteen years since his death:
Happiness is having the chance to do the things you're good at.

No 'sesquipedalia verba'. Just a simple statement in simple language.

Having the chance (a life affording them scope)
to do (exercise)
the things (of vital powers) you're good at (along lines of excellence).