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Against Human Flourishing

On a dualistic mode of thought.


We speak often now of human flourishing. Harvard University has a program in it, located within its Institute for Quantitative Social Science. It is a common trope among those associated with Amartya Sen’s and Martha Nussbaum’s “capability approach” to political economy and social ethics. It is beloved of neo-Aristotelians and theorists of natural law, including many Catholics. Even some Anglophone analytic philosophers, particularly those enamored of proper functionalism in epistemology and ethics, have come to use the phrase and to think in terms of it.

The phrase tends to do three kinds of work. First, it encourages understanding what we are in terms of our membership in the Linnaean-biological species Homo sapiens, which is the entry point for “human.” Second, it provides language for talk of what contributes to and what detracts from our well-being in terms of our membership in that species, which is where “flourishing” finds its use. And third, it encourages regulation of our policies and practices (political, economic, social, conceptual, familial, moral, doxastic, and so on) so that they nurture our well-being rather than damage it. Not all those drawn to the phrase see or acknowledge all these interests. (There is perhaps a desire that informs them all which is deeper and more occluded—a desire for a relatively neutral way of talking about what is good for us and what is not which can be agreed to by advocates of otherwise incompatible anthropologies and political philosophies.) We all agree, the assumption may be, on which species we belong to; that membership is something we all share; and perhaps, if we attend to that set of facts about ourselves, we can bridge our neuralgic differences in politics, ethics, and all the rest.

It seems at first blush unexceptionable to talk in this way. Who does not want to flourish, to thrive, to be healthy? Who would not support recommendations in any sphere of human activity which contribute to our flourishing rather than detract from it? Flowers, paradigmatically, flourish when things go well—florent flores: you can hear the bidirectional echo between noun and verb in English as well as in Latin—and wither when they do not, in the absence of sun, rain, soil, bees and butterflies for pollination. We humans would surely prefer to do likewise, to find the conditions appropriate to our kind for well-being.

So it seems. And yet this way of talking about what is good for us brings with it unanticipated, unintended, and often invisible damage. It malforms our imaginations by leading us to see what we do and what is done to us in terms of a dualism which is often crude: a sharp division between damage, which detracts from our flourishing, and repair, which supports it. The many particular patterns, events, and undertakings apparent in human lives are then allotted to just one of the two categories. If the former, they are to be removed or minimized wherever possible. If the latter, they are to be sought and nurtured wherever possible. More repair, more flourishing; more damage, less flourishing. The task is to place what we do and what is done to us in one category or the other, and act accordingly.

Scholastic Buddhists writing in Sanskrit have a peculiarly elegant way of instantiating this view: duhkha (suffering) is by definition prahatavya (to be removed). That is what it is so far as we are concerned. That is the part it plays, or should play, in our imaginary. It occupies the role of the villain who should be made to exit stage left as soon as possible, preferably never to return. Prahatavya, a future passive participle, carries the weight: damage, if we can generalize duhkha in that way, should, without remainder and without hesitation, be removed wherever and whenever and however we find it.

Within this picture it remains a question what, in particular, damages us and what repairs us (the post-Westphalian nation-state? monogamy? deafness? democracy? anger? free trade? monolingualism? veganism? childbearing? the United Nations?). Versions of the human-flourishing imaginary differ, sometimes significantly, about particulars. But they do not differ in their dualism: there is damage and there is repair; we must learn to gain clarity about what repairs us so that we can nurture it and about what damages us so that we can constrain or remove it. There is little room for mixed cases. The picture is Caravaggesque: the chiaroscuro is intense and sharply bounded.

The English noun floruit shows the pattern beautifully. In Latin, this word is the third person singular perfect indicative active of the flower-verb, florere: “it flourished” (perhaps “bloomed” would be better). In English, the word became by the second half of the eighteenth century, and perhaps earlier, a noun which indicates the period of a person’s life during which he is most active and productive and therefore makes his characteristic contributions, the things for which he is or will be remembered. Your floruit, the time of your flourishing, is, according to this usage, a part of your life, its high tide and summer heat. By the nineteenth century, encyclopedic monuments such as the Dictionary of National Biography were using the abbreviation “fl.” for this purpose: the subject of an entry might have lived for seventy or eighty years, but her floruit, the time when she wrote her books or led her campaigns or ruled her roost, may have been two or three decades at most. Then she flourished; for the rest of her life she was preparing to flourish or declining from flourishing.

This is a radically restricted view of our well-being. According to it, most of any human life is preparation or decline, and that is because we flourish most fully when we are least constrained, when obstructions to the exercise of our powers have the least force. Those obstructions might be immaturity, senility, or oppression externally inflicted. Whatever they are, the picture is the same: there is that in us which yearns to breathe free, to work unrestrictedly, and we flourish to the degree to which that freedom is actual—as flowers do when they bloom most fully. The infant Wordsworth wrote no poetry; the aged Wordsworth wrote only bad poetry (so it can be argued); his floruit as a poet, then, was perhaps two decades of his young adulthood. Those whose imaginations and policy recommendations are most thoroughly formed by the language of human flourishing almost inevitably look to the adult, untrammeled human person as the paradigm. They commend the conditions which produce and maintain such beings and which minimize obstacles to the kind of existence they have.

That we should imagine flourishing and damage in this way may seem obvious. The floruit picture portrays our nurture of babies as motivated by what we hope they will become rather than by love of what they are; the keynote of adult attitudes to them is therefore anticipation. Similarly, support of the old shows itself as motivated by nostalgia for what they were rather than celebration of what they now are; the keynote is regret. And those made speechless or violent or incapable of responsive action by illness or accident or torture are cared for with the underlying attitude that their present condition is one of lamentable loss, which we would redress if we could. We can, within this picture, love and serve them as they now are but not for what they now are. That is because the damage they have suffered or not yet left behind is, exactly, damage, prahatavya: there is nothing in it to celebrate, and nothing in it to hope for other than its healing. It is, simply, lack: those in such conditions—babyhood, old age, solipsistic illness—are not in their floruit. Their floruit is quite other; it is what they really are, the time when their species-membership becomes most fully evident, when they perform most fully what they are here to do.

There is something right in this. The progressive loss of capacity characteristic of old age—like the inability of infants to speak or to recognize the presence in the world of persons other than themselves—is a lack whose remedy is reasonably hoped for and celebrated if it begins to show itself. Yes. I am sixty-eight years old, and there are things I could once do which I can now not do and will never do again. Some of them were good things: I flourished as I did them; they contributed to my floruit. Now they are gone.

But something is nevertheless missing here, something which the frame of the floruit picture occludes. It is that loss, lack, and damage are intrinsic to the existence of human persons as we now are (Catholics will say since the Fall). They are a proper part of our floruit. And while there is in them that which typically does—and certainly should—prompt lament and regret, this does not suggest, and much less entail, that the parts of life in which we are not fully functioning adults, proper humans, as the floruit picture would have us think, or in which we undergo loss of capacity, have nothing in them other than lack. Damage, flourishing’s apparent opposite, may have contributions of its own to make to what it appears on its face to contradict. It may provide its own characteristic adornments.

What might those be? And what picture might permit a less blinkered look at human persons than is possible for those who look at them and see them principally within the frame of the floruit picture, and must therefore sideline most of their lives as absent from their flourishing?

Death can serve as an example. Catholics say, or should, that since the Fall, and with the possible exceptions of Enoch and Elijah (not, certainly, of Jesus, and not, on the best construal of the dogma of the Assumption, Mary), death belongs to human persons and is universally present for them. It is ours: we are creatures who die, mortal creatures. Our lives are lived out of and toward our deaths. Every element and aspect of our lives, including our most productive and energetic and lively moments, our fullest and most glorious achievements, our most intense loves and delights, are what they are in part because of their relation to our deaths. Our progeny, when we have any, would not exist without our mortality; and everything else we make or do is the same. Death is what gives a human life shape and texture, and provides it most of the meaning it has. Is death regrettable, lamentable, dreadful? Certainly. Is it only that, only to be seen, considered, and responded to as that? Certainly not. It is also an ornament. Advocates of human flourishing are unlikely to look at the contributions death—mortality—makes to being a human person, and even if those contributions come briefly into view, they will appear on the margins and will be further marginalized as soon as practicable.

In extreme cases, of which there are clear instances, death appears as something inimical to our floruit with such finality and intensity that its overcoming is pursued. Alchemical versions of this pursuit were evident among Chinese Taoists and early-modern Europeans; cybernetical ones are advocated by some among our elites now. Their goal is never to die: to maintain their floruit without end. Not all hopes for immortality are like this. The Christian one is not: it involves resurrection, not the avoidance of death. A hope for post-mortem life without end is compatible with acceptance, even embrace of and eagerness for, death as an end to this life. By contrast, within the floruit picture, which is concerned principally with our flourishing as a member of the biological species to which we belong, death can appear only as failure, the end of all that is good for us and in us.

If, however, the goods that inform human life are death-tinged, and if those goods could not occur without being death-bound and death-bounded (where would late style among writers and artists be without it? where love’s young dream? urgency of study? passion for knowledge? desire for justice? perception of beauty?), and if the right use of ourselves and all that we come into contact with post lapsum involves seeing and embracing that we and they are death-involved—if all that is so, as it is, then it cannot be proper to attempt death’s overcoming; were we to achieve that, which we cannot, every other good known and available to us would go with it. Death’s transfigurative effects upon what we are and do would be lost, and without them there would be nothing of us as fallen creatures, and nothing of the fallen world to which we belong. Death, as Christians see it, is not annihilation because there is a gift which follows it, the shorthand name for which is resurrection; but still it is not an event in life; it is not lived through. Death’s overcoming by us, however, its postponement forever, would be annihilation: we would be brought to nothing by it, made into something other than persons, comme une pierre, comme une scie, as Pascal writes in his Écrits sur la grâce. Resurrection transfigures death, which precisely means its non-erasure, just as caresses transfigure, without erasing, bodies into living flesh. And mortality, the presence of death in our lives, transfigures those lives, while also, eventually, ending them.

Saying these things about death, which need to be said and which are scarcely available or comprehensible to apologists for human flourishing, need not draw those who say them toward the conclusion that death is an unmixed good for the likes of us. That would be to adopt a version of the floruit picture; it would instantiate a dualism of its own. Better to say, with vigor, that death is both, and at once, a lamentable horror and a provider of meaning we cannot live without; that death is both radical damage and an agent of essential transfiguration; that what death shows us provokes us both to almost-inconsolable tears and to luminous clarity (even if not, typically, at the same time). To say that death involves goods by bringing them in its train, that it is transfigurable and that it transfigures, need not be taken to justify it, to make of it a good without remainder, or to suggest that we should stop lamenting it.

Seeing death in this way would have effects upon policy concerning it, whether public or private. These might include a renunciation of policies implicated with the assumption that death is always better delayed if it can be; support of policies that encourage contemplation of and preparation for death; and, particularly, support of policies that encourage seeing death as informing all the goods that human life involves. Advocates of human flourishing almost of necessity exclude death from their purview. That is because it is, for them, damage without remainder and can make no contribution to repair; it is therefore immune to transfiguration. Policies commended by such advocates can do nothing other than seek its postponement for as long as possible, with the notion of its overcoming as the ideal goal.

The summary heading to the eleventh chapter of the first book of the City of God reads: De fine temporalis vitae sive longioris sive brevioris—“On the end of temporal life, whether long delayed or quick to come.” Saint Augustine’s answer is that it does not matter, and that is an answer outside the frame for those who imagine human life in terms of flourishing. If infancy and senility do not belong to your floruit, then death most certainly does not.

Death is an easy case for those who find it hard to see themselves, or any human creature, inside the frame of a picture which excludes most of life as making any positive contribution to that life. It is easy largely because death is a universal; a consideration of what makes a human life flourish that moves death outside the frame can only be absurdly truncated. There are harder cases, many of which are things we do to one another, or which happen to us, and which are not universal. If it is easy enough to imagine human life without some particular horror, then it will, perhaps, be easier still to treat it as something to be abandoned simpliciter—moved outside the frame of what can contribute to human flourishing.

Consider, as such a case, chattel slavery. That is a legal arrangement, predicated upon force, which tries to make some human persons into objects capable of possession by others. This seems unambiguously to be an instance of an arrangement which damages, first and principally, those enslaved; but also, secondarily and ineluctably, those who enslave them. Any society and any legal system into which such an arrangement is written suffers nothing other than damage by that state of affairs, and the only proper thing to do when faced with such an arrangement is to resist it in whatever ways possible. There is, it might seem, nothing good to say about chattel slavery, no goods involved with it, no place for it within the economy of what contributes to human repair, whether for individuals or nations.

But some care is necessary even here. To say that a regime is violent, incoherent, immoral, repellent, and to be removed by whatever means possible, all of which should be said about any regime of chattel slavery, is to make a claim distinct from saying that no good comes of it. There is nothing of which no good comes. Or, more exactly, it is nothing, and only that, from which no good can come, at least so far as human agency is concerned. Where there is anything at all, including something as vile as a regime of chattel slavery, its existence will provoke, and in that way at least be causally implicated with, goods which would otherwise not occur. It would take a historian of the United States to say what these goods are in the case of the regime of chattel slavery which came to an end in that country in 1865; here all that is necessary is to assert, axiomatically, that there were some, and that they will have included transfigurative acts of heroism and resistance, together with words and works that responded to the regime with passion and thoughtfulness and constructive care, and that have had long-term positive effects upon the polity in which they were spoken and written.

As in the case of death, but with a significant difference, a critic of the floruit picture resists the thought that there is nothing good to see here, nothing good to come from this. There is not, even in the case of chattel slavery, damage only, damage simpliciter (damage simpliciter, nothing-but-damage, would be exactly nothing at all). There is, instead, a horror which can be seen as such, and in being seen as such provokes and promotes goods which would otherwise not be. Catholics will say, not exactly that chattel slavery is a felix culpa, but that it is a horror which makes us shudder and tremble and horripilate, but which nonetheless brings felicities in its train. Does this justify or excuse it? No. Does it suggest that we ought to apologize for or defend it? No. Is it nonetheless the case that this horror, like all horrors, effects felicities? Yes. Is the dualistic tendency of the floruit picture inadequate to the extent that it makes this impossible to see? Yes. Can we say that the felicities outweigh or counterbalance the horror? We cannot.

Differently than in the case of death, however, there is agreement between advocates of the floruit picture and those who see horrors bringing about felicities that the only defensible response to a regime of chattel slavery is to attempt its removal. That is not the case with death.

We might ascend the ladder of theory a rung or two on this difficult matter. If we did, we would say that there is something about regimes of chattel slavery which brings no felicities and which cannot be transfigured. That something, however, is nothing, the nihil at their heart. That nothing is the gesture of ownership directed at a human person, which is formally like the composition of a wordless sonnet; it is a gesture without purchase about which there is not only nothing good to say but about which nothing of any substance at all can be said; it is characterizable only by a form of words which indicates nothing; in that sense, no good comes of it, because there is nothing there from which anything at all can come. (A partially similar analysis can be given of death, but it would be a distraction to attempt it here.)

It is reasonable to say that we are subject to both damage and repair. Talk of human flourishing is one way to say this. But the affinity between that language and an understanding of ourselves as paradigmatically and essentially, even as nothing but, members of a Linnaean species is deep and strong, and it leads to a truncated presentation of where damage is to be found, and what its relation is to repair. It may be fair enough to locate the floruit of a flowering plant in its blooming: those are simple organisms whose main purpose lies there. But that pattern of thought works less well for creatures such as ourselves, and that is because our membership in a species underdetermines what we can do in a way not true for rhododendrons. A suggestive term of art to label the difference is “person”: persons play roles and wear masks. Descartes was quite correct, and precise in his correctness, to write, in an early notebook, larvatus prodeo—“I go forth masked.” As a person, he inevitably did; all persons do. The word’s etymology supports the position: a persona, a prosopon, is, inter alia, a theatrical mask, and the scripts that provide for the wearing of this or that mask are, for the kinds of organism capable of entering the world as persons, very many indeed. Some organisms, and perhaps some things which are not organisms, are also persons (Catholics must say so, and others easily may), and the floruit of those cannot easily be discerned by attending to the contours of their membership in a biological species.

That membership provides some constraints and some inevitabilities, but the possibilities open to persons, the scripts we may perform and the masks we may put on, are gorgeously and horribly multiple. Discerning which among them effect damage and which repair, whether for players or audience or both, is a more complex and more interesting task than the floruit picture allows. Doing it well permits the thought that infants, the aged, and the sick may effect repair by showing aspects of what it is to be a person properly productive of delight and admiration in themselves, and not merely as preparations for or derogations from something else. That is in part because attending to persons, rather than to members of a species, extends the range of what can appear as evidence of repair. It is also because a close look at how persons are in a fallen world, whether individually or collectively, shows that damage and repair are not as insulated from one another as the floruit picture indicates them to be. The worm is always in the bud, and it is the intimacy between worm and bud, bud and worm, seen clearly, that provides persons the only possibility we have of moving toward an unimaginable condition in which there will be no worm and, therefore, no bud.

John Donne writes, in the twentieth meditation of his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, that he is “ground even to an attenuation and must proceed to evacuation, all ways to exinanition and annihilation.” This condition of persons, which we all share—ground down, on the way to emptiness, approaching nothing—repairs as well as damages us: repair can come from seeing the intimacy of this condition with our capacity to see it; damage will come from its intimacy with the removal of that capacity. Is speaking of our flourishing the best way to elucidate what we are and how we move in the world and what it is that we move toward? I doubt it. “Flourishing” has a Pollyannaish flavor, a tincture of the kind of optimism that precedes energetic programs of amelioration grounded upon confidence that we can see clearly now and are therefore equipped to repair without damage. Amelioration cannot come in that way. If it comes at all, it comes when we understand ourselves to be persons in a world in which damage and repair are incapable of clean separation, and in which programs of amelioration must be wept over in advance because of the damage they cannot help but bring.

Paul J. Griffiths is a writer and theologian whose most recent book is Israel: A Christian Grammar (Fortress Press, 2023).