What Are We Flourishing For?

I feel like Pete Campbell: discovering an idea that already exists but—BUT! mind you—arriving at it independently. Pity second place gets no respect. A sorry fact for Brock Purdy.

In the latest issue of The Lamp, Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths launches a withering assault, though tendentious at times, at the concept of “human flourishing.” His aim may seem odd: What’s wrong with “flourishing”? It’s like hating on puppies, baby seals, gurgling infants, melodious birdsong, pure happiness. How can Griffiths be such a Scrooge? What is he, a self-loathing miserabilist?

Not entirely, though his heavy, jargon-jammed sentences lack a certain charm. But Griffiths isn’t actually against sunshine and rainbows. Rather, he finds fault in the scientification of human improvement, the underlying Pelagian notion that good can and must be achieved over bad.

The human-flourishing drive, he writes, “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.”

Griffiths rejects the Platonic part of his Thomism, embracing suffering as a heartening fortifier. He’s more fakir than King Lear, or Opus Dei than oy vey! (Were those half-rhyme similitudes torturous enough for you?) Put differently, Griffiths embraces revelation over reason, not falling into the hubristic trap of homo-Deus-ism or *shudders* the old DuPont slogan “better living through chemistry.”

We must, Griffiths insists, accept “loss, lack, and damage” to live truly human lives, not tidy endings overlain with florid script reading “happily ever after.” Tragedy isn’t just inevitable but should be welcomed rather than rectified, if we’re to stay whole and “flourish” in the fullest sense. His always-a-silver-lining view leads to some provocative, if absurd, conclusions, including the half-baked idea that slavery, vile as it was and still is in some parts of the world, wasn’t without some benefits. (Funny enough, that point was outlined in AP high school curricula, which was endorsed by the Vice President, before she code-switched to calling it “history with lies” after Florida’s adoption.)

Nevertheless, asserting slavery wasn’t tout terrible takes some nerve, or is a sign of extreme autism. Uh, haven’t you heard of cancel culture, Mr. Griffiths? Best to make yourself scarce on social media before the woke hordes demand your scalp.

Griffiths tangles himself in his etymological metaphor of floruit—as in blooming—while essaying to make a point about the perfection-fallacy behind the “human flourishing” ideal. But my aversion to the concept is even less clear—being more attitudinal than logical.

Perhaps I attended too many Koch Bros.-sponsored libertarian conferences just out of college, with the speakers’ endless invocation of “human flourishing” as a supreme objective. Or maybe it’s the muddiness of the phrase, which is so wide open as to mean anything. Or it could be the techno-optimist tone of the term. Or it could be linked to the pedantic revulsion I feel toward Pollyannaish types who use “humans” as a byword for “people”—as if we now have to speak with Linnaean-biological-spectrum accuracy so as to not offend non-homo-sapien-identifying sentient beings.

Human flourishing as a goal lacks a fixed point. It provides no solid form to its premise. What is flourishing, really? Trying to key in on the concept gets into horse-for-courses territory. Is it the freedom to wantonly kill for psycho murderers? To stone infidels for Islamic fundamentalists? To make Rome the capital of all nations for Catholic fundamentalists (once a less wishy-washy pope is confirmed, of course)? To marry a bevy of babes for polygamists? To force schoolchildren to memorize seasons 4-10 of The Simpsons for those with impeccable comedic taste? *Ahem.*

The Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre asked two pointed questions of the passionate political activist: “Whose justice? Which rationality?” Sure, you may consider yourself a selfless defender of the proletarian, arch enemy of the bourgeoisie, but what morals are you really fighting for? Why is material equality worth rending riches from the moneyed class?

Alternatively, you may be a happy capitalist warrior, gleefully beating back Leviathan for the sake of the holy American producer. But whose interests are you really serving? Are you financial benefactors really dedicated to negative liberty, or just a negative tax bill?

Or if you’re more classically attuned, believing as Aristotle did, that politics is the art of achieving eudaimonia for the masses, you have to determine what that highest good entails. Is it infinite cakes and pastries for the gluttons? An endless line of willing maidens for the lechs? A never-ending Creed tour for ‘90s-alt-rock enthusiasts?

In our emoji-lined-character-limited-digital-incorporeal world, it makes sense we speak in more generalities than before. Plus, inadvertently insulting anyone these days can basically ruin your livelihood. But abstract concepts like “human flourishing” or “equality” or even “liberty” lack a galvanizing force without concrete, or even spiritualized, definition. For the sake of not rubbing anyone the wrong way, we get empty paeans to prosperity by puny, flat-chested politicians. “All societies, once religion begins to decline, move towards utilitarianism, because it’s the easiest way of organising large groups of people,” wrote Ed West.

Material utility isn’t enough to bind a country together over time. At best, technological advancement can distract from cultural schism—watered-down beer, Marvel movies, new Dorito flavors.

The political class in Washington got some tough pedagogy in 2016 that human flourishing must mean more than cheap drive-thru calories. And they may get a repeat lesson come fall.

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Free the People publishes opinion-based articles from contributing writers. The opinions and ideas expressed do not always reflect the opinions and ideas that Free the People endorses. We believe in free speech, and in providing a platform for open dialog. Feel free to leave a comment!

Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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