In my post below where I outline what I believe are the appropriate parameters of eudaimonia I was obviously influenced by the inductive methods of history and natural science. Naturally this elicited a strong response from some quarters. This is no surprise (though the rude manner of comment is not necessary, long time readers of my various blogs have disagreed on this particular point for years without being uncivil barbarians. Reading Plato clearly does not make one a gentleman).
There are a few distinct issues here. I do not seem to engage with great pre-modern thinkers much in a direct manner. First, I suspect many people have already engaged Plato, and discussed his ideas in detail (if you have a university degree, you really should have, and I know most readers of this weblog do). In contrast, new findings from the modern sciences of human nature, provisional as they are, are generally not familiar to most. Second, the ancients, whether Greek or Chinese, have much to say about morals which is obviously valid, but they lacked the powerful systematic framework which is modern science. In the area of literature I am generally of the opinion that the moderns have little necessary structural advantage in relation to the ancients. In the area of the natural sciences the ancients are only of historical interest, excepting perhaps the mathematical techniques developed by thinkers such as Euclid. The moderns have absolutely superseded the ancients. It is in the domain of human sciences where one can have reasoned debates about the value of the moderns or the ancients. I think one can, for example, make the argument that the most extreme behaviorist psychologists of the 20th century had less genuine insight about the human condition than Confucius or Socrates (I agree agree with this contention). In some cases I would take the ancients over the moderns, and in other cases I would take the moderns over the ancients. I believe that psychology and other sciences of humanity have retreated somewhat from their ideological excesses, though only time will tell on this point.
Third, there is the issue of grand theorizing from first principles and the power of logic and system-building in a moral framework. I am skeptical of this. I know of its power in moral and political reasoning personally, I was earlier in my life a rather conventional Natural Rights libertarian in the mold of Murray Rothbard. My framework was elegant, and allowed for rapid generation of inferences and almost immediate evaluation of the rightness or wrongness of a particular policy position. But as I have grown older I have come to think that this sort of reasoning does not map well onto modal human moral sentiment, nor does it necessarily lead one to flourish personally. I know the power logic, and formal frameworks, I have a background in the natural sciences. What I see in other domains is generally weak tea in comparison; I have much more trust in specific empirical findings in psychology than grand theories of everything. Similarly, the systematic frameworks developed by the ancients are of historical interest, but I think that these towers ascending toward heaven always fall short. Banal and mundane particular observations and patterns are of less awesome scope, but I believe they lay closer to the heart of human nature. One short-coming of this “small-bore” approach is a certain sloppiness and incoherency, but if there is a Principia of morals, I have not encountered it yet.
Finally, I tire of the complaints that I do not address a particular set of eminences which any given rude barbarian demands that I engage. I contribute regularly to three weblogs. My interests range from evolutionary genomics to Neo-Confucianism in the Song dynasty, cognitive science to literary analysis of Genesis. I am certainly aware of, and have read many of, the grand political philosophical systems constructed by the brilliant minds of the past (and present), but all are as substantial as the aether next to the scientific models which I have encountered in my education. I have no particular quarrel with anyone who believes that they have found the Answer, or the Truth in a Great Book. WHAT I DO HAVE A PROBLEM WITH ARE ACOLYTES OF TRUTH WHO BADGER AND HARANGUE SKEPTICS IN A CHURLISH MANNER. As it happens, I was learning Newtonian mechanics at the same time that I was reading Summa Theologica. If I had any doubts where I stood before, I certainly did not after.
One of the issues which I believe lurks behind any discussion about the existence of gods is that different individuals bring radically different presuppositions to the table. Some of the axioms are implicit, or ineffable. I have encountered many religious individuals who believe that their logic is transparently obvious, and that my own atheism can only emerge from a certain obtuseness. For myself, I attempt to maintain a more charitable spirit, and accept that my interlocutors are not obtuse, but perceive the universe very differently from me on a very deep intuitive level (this only applies to the non-stupid segment). I simply wish we would dispense with the talk of logic and reason when what is at issue are often truly matters of the heart at the root.* The same problems often are starkly evident with Leftists and Rightists attempt to engage each other in a spirit of discussion; invariably misunderstandings emerge because of implicit axioms which differ, or moral currency which can not be exchanged. This is simply an intracultural instantiation of the general pattern which occurs interculturally; there is no particular shame in seeing another as a barbarian, so long as they behave as a human. I do believe that most humans wish to civilize barbarians they meet, truth is preferable to falsity, but there is a limit to what can be achieved in many cases.
I try and limit my preaching in this space because my own focus is elevating and refining the lives of those who broadly share my values and outlook. We all have the barbarian in us which needs to be tamed, and certainly the many of ancients agreed upon the importance of self-cultivation. One point which I suspect is a matter of humanity, as opposed to civilization or barbarism, is a sense of proportion in discussion and debate. Something which often is lost on the internet.
* Of course many religious individuals I have met understand this issue as well. Rather, I am speaking here of a small minority, usually young men, who are the inversions of the New Atheists in their expectation that all humans should cogitate in the same manner as they.