Eudaimonia. That is the Greek word for happiness. Every person, regardless on statute, age, race, or gender, is in search for that one true thing that could make them fulfilled. People’s definition of happiness varies and the path to achieving that is not at all easy. Life is a series of learning and relearning. And each of us is looking for the path to wisdom to achieve the one true end of happiness.
There were people who came before us who gave their ideas on how to make life more manageable. Their lives have ended yet they continue into our own lives through their contributions. I call them the “timeless” people. And two of the most outstanding thinkers who ever lived were Henry David Thoreau and Plato.
Before discussing the contributions of these two distinguished men, it is also important to look into their background and the milieu into which they were born. It was on July 12, 1817 when Thoreau was born in the town of Concord, Massachusetts. In1837, he graduated from Harvard College. He was a former schoolteacher and also made a living chiefly by surveying land and helping with the family pencil-making and ground lead business. Not only that, he also lectured from time to time from 1838 until 1860. He had his own dose of travels and he took time to document them. He died at the age of 44 on May 6, 1862. He never married and he only stayed in his cabin for most of his life.
Plato lived way before Thoreau. This Athenian philosopher was born around 428-7 B.C. and died at the age of eighty or eighty-one at 348-7 B.C. He was born into a rich and politically-active family. He was educated by Socrates and was Aristotle’s mentor. Plato also joined the military service during the Peloponnesian war. He then pursued his political career because he felt more called for that profession. He established the Academy, a school in Athens, Greece. He was one of the philosophers who touched everything: from mathematics, to love, to equality, society and the like. On of his most famous works was Res Republica or The Republic.
Thoreau was an utmost individualist and he championed the human spirit against avariciousness and social conformity. He urged others to be simple in their circumstances because that was the key, as seen in his own life, to an astonishing intellectual and spiritual wealth. It was in a plain kind of living that could make one reflect on different things and therefore, have better views of life. “I went to the woods,” he wrote, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” He recommended to others to organize life in such a way that the simple and basic things do not get lost within complexities. His thoughts on individualism, materialism, and transcendentalism were the most influential and taught society on how to have a better grasp of things that exist.
The Transcendentalists perceived the universe as divided into two fundamental parts, the soul and nature. It was through a definition of nature that Emerson defined the soul: “all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE.” The dependability of the human conscience was an essential Transcendentalist principle, and this belief was rooted upon a conviction of the existence or the innate presence of God in the soul of the individual. God is within each one of us.
His view on materialism revolved around the premise that one must look into what was necessary to his survival and just live with that. One must not measure one’s worth by the things and properties he owned. In fact, he stated in Walden, one of his most well-known crafts, that “…a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone (Walden, 82). He also stated that “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind (Walden, 14).”
Plato’s Res Republica was often associated with the word utopia since the suggestion he laid down to achieve happiness in the society was all but abstract and very hard to attain. Unlike Thoreau’s claims which were based on his own experience, his was still more of a fragment of the mind.
Plato said that the ones who should rule should be devoid of the concept of family to avoid injustices. They should also live like soldiers in a camp making do with scarce resources. And he said that these people he was referring to were the philosopher-kings. Plato also discussed the division of labor and specialization in the society. For him, one should only be a master of one craft. Only people with philosophical temperament, according to Plato, are competent to judge between what is real and what seems to be, between the disguising, impermanent appearances of sensible objects and the the permanent reality of unchanging, abstract form. He also supposed that it was through rigorous education where one can achieve what he proposed as the ideal nature of man and the state.
While Thoreau viewed man as individualistic, Plato thought “… And even in the smallest manner … [one] should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals … only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently … There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands (The Republic).”Both had opposing views on how man should act. While Thoreau thought that of civil disobedience, trancendentalism, and pro-individualism, Plato believed in civil obedience, anti-individualism, and the presence of many gods. Both agreed on anti-materialism.
But, for me, Thoreau’s suppositions are more favorable because they were based from experience. They were not only thought of, they were lived. And in life, it is experience that teaches us more rather than the formal schooling. In the four corners of the classroom, we do learn a lot of things but the outside world is a much bigger world and thus, have more things to reveal to us.