Wednesday Quotes
If Desire is Not in Vain
August 31, 2016

Old Man and Child

“…for at that rate…our desire would be empty and vain.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

The insights of Aristotle never cease to amaze. Assiduously avoiding rash assumptions and unsupported conclusions, he nonetheless boldly makes claims that lesser minds would not dare assert.

A man of vast human experience, Aristotle cannot be accused of being naïve. He is well aware, for instance, that there will always be people ready to argue, from their own experience, that human life is nasty, brutish, and short.

How many of us have wondered at certain times whether there is some cruel power at work in the fact that we have such deep-seated desires for love, and relationship, and peace… desires that themselves cause agony when unfulfilled. Why is such suffering a regular accompaniment of the efforts of even the best of men?

Aristotle does not blush. He looks the problem square in the face. Even the worst cases of cruel twists of fate do not make him flinch. The deepest and truest of human desires are not in vain. There is a fulfillment, a happiness, in which they can be fulfilled; and it is within reach. An honest analysis of the data of human life should yield no other answer.

But some will refuse to be convinced. And perhaps even this can be for the good. Maybe their very desperation remains a clarion call for others to see anew the ever mysterious drama that is human life, the human endeavor to become ourselves.

Nay more: their agony is a call to enter into their suffering, to walk in their shoes. Then mysteriously, both of us might see once more, as never seen before, the astounding truth, that the deepest human desires, and consequent suffering, are not in vain.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.

Image: by Albert Anker (1831-1910)
One might wonder: how does this image fit with this reflection? When I look at this painting I see an older man who has struggled to overcome his fear for this child, perhaps his grandson. He wonders in his heart: can this dear child endure what life has demanded that I endure? Will he have another person to be with him in his moments of agony, long after I am gone? Will he have the insight and the patience, and the love, to come to see: all will be well?

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  1. thanks… enjoyed reading this… I realized how little I really know about Aristotle and I was wondering about the painting… so I appreciated the last paragraph. I am also trying to digest the following statement… “There is a fulfillment, a happiness, in which they can be fulfilled; and it is within reach. An honest analysis of the data of human life should yield no other answer”… The last sentence is hard to believe or maybe I have not yet understood its meaning… Following it up with our sufferings and desires not being in vain helps… but “yield no other answer” is still turning around and around in my head… (maybe overthinking)

  2. WW,
    I appreciate your comment very much. I readily admit that my assertion to which you are referring is a bold one. Here is a thought: I wrote: “An honest analysis of the data of human life SHOULD yield no other answer.” This of course is compatible with the fact that people can and do reach other answers. My confidence here, and I think Aristotle’s confidence, is that in the end we can see that ‘there is a reason’ for all that happens; or put otherwise, a virtuous person can make the most of anything that happens. I in no way intend this to be a simplistic assertion along the lines of: “how could anyone not see this?” Rather, my point is that if we are really willing to look, and be patient, this truth should become apparent. But this is one of the most difficult of truths to come to see, and it will require much of us–including the support of others.
    I don’t think you are over-thinking it; thanks for sharing your thinking.

  3. Kathleen Schmiedicke

    Thank you, John. Your posts always give me hope!

    1. So glad to hear that. Thank you.

  4. Thanks John. This seems to be an area particularly important to Pope Francis. In this age in which we have so much- in a place like the United States where most of us live better than the kings of old- there is also so much pain, so much unfulfilled for so many. If Aristotle could have hope, how much more should those who live after the Incarnation? Steve Skojec recently wrote an essay “Suffering: The Only Way out is Through.” Perhaps this way through is also a way meant to be taken together, a mysterious but symbiotic endeavor.