Nelson Mandela and Vincent Van Gogh

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Nelson Mandela and Vincent Van Gogh are two significant characters, who each was considered one of the most important contributors in his field of interest. Though the former a political leader and the latter a painter, certain aspects of their lives that fostered their greatness are extremely similar, such as both experienced great misfortunes yet did not concede in the pursuit of their desire. Furthermore, both figures left behind a tremendous amount of precious legacies that has yet to stop in benefiting the human race. This paper aims to discuss on how well the two figures lived and how bad certain periods of their lives were, in light of ancient Greek philosophies, such as those of Aristotle and Epicurus, and fictional characters from books which illustrate notions that advances the discussion. ***Moreover, it is crucial to define various key terms, for they all possess profound meanings veiled by their vague, common understanding. For example, the words well and bad above are quote mark for detailed definitions are need in order for them to contribute to the exploration of the two figures’ lives.

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To begin with, let’s examine the lives of Van Gogh and Mandela through the lens of Aristotelian philosophies by first establishing Aristotle’s theories. In Nicomachean Ethics, notes of his philosophy gathered by students, Aristotle defines eudaimoniaGreek for happiness or success, as the supreme good and the end that all our activities ultimately aim for. He believes that happiness is an activity of the rational soul in accordance to virtue. Furthermore, according to Aristotle, virtue, or excellence, is a disposition to behave in the right manner and as a mean between the two extremesvicesof deficiency and excess, a definition that emphasizes the importance of moderation. Furthermore, one learns moral virtue not through reasoning or instruction but through habituation and practice. Combining the definitions of happiness and virtue, Aristotle presents an idea that while happiness is the activity of living well, virtue represents the potential to live well.

From Aristotle’s perspective, Van Gogh was far from obtaining happiness. First of all, Van Gogh did not live to witness his own fame. He died with the knowledge that only one of his roughly seven-hundred paintings was ever sold. Barely anyone appreciated his work while he was alive and he only achieved excellence because people’s definition of great art shifted towards his style of painting. Thus, it is impossible for Van Gogh to experience happiness from painting because he was not considered an excellent painter while alive. Furthermore, as Aristotle’s definition of virtue emphasizes on balance, Van Gogh failed in finding the balance of many virtues, eliminating his chance of living well and being happy. For example, described by many as stubborn, he constantly argued with almost everyone around him and did not accept rejection at all, especially romance wise. From the fact that Van Gogh’s temper has forced away any friend he had during his life, one can conclude that Van Gogh is at the deficiency vice of social conduct, which is cantankerous. Furthermore, Van Gogh pursued in everything that he desired in a brutal and stubborn manner. For example, when he studied Spanish during his early 20s, he would punish himself for not studying well by skipping meals and sleeping outside in the cold for a night. Whenever he fell in love with a woman, Van Gogh would often employ extreme actions. For example, when the landlord’s daughter rejected his marriage proposal, Van Gogh was so heartbroken that he even demonstrated aggressive emotions and was kicked out from housing. Or when he fell in love with another woman, his harassment forced the women to flee back to her hometown. He not only followed the woman to her home, who refused to see him, but also tried to force her to come out by placing his hand on candle flames. It is safe to say that Van Gogh is at the excess extreme of the perseverance virtue, which is obstinate. Thus, from Aristotle’s point of view where happiness is an activity of the rational mind in accordance to virtue, Van Gogh lived a terribly unhappy life.

Whereas on the other hand, Mandela, as a political leader, truly achieved excellence in uniting people and propagating their common belief of freedom. Even though one may argue that he was also at the excess extreme of the perseverance virtue that his continued revolutionary actions led him to imprisonment, Mandela still achieved happiness in the end. The sufferings due to excess perseverance are unavoidable tradeoffs in achieving excellence as a political leader, as others who gave up on their beliefs trying to avoid imprisonment could never become equally excellent revolutionists as Mandela. Furthermore, Mandela lived long enough to witness not only people’s appreciation of his efforts, a confirmation of his excellence, but also the abolishment of racial discriminating laws, which is the end result that he devoted his entire life to pursued. Thus, under comparison through the lens of Aristotelian happiness, even though both figures’ lifelong efforts achieved greatness, Mandela lived a happier life than Van Gogh in the sense that the former was granted the chance to witness and enjoy the fruits of his own success, whereas the latter was buried in grave knowing that he was not a famous or even a recognized painter of his time.

Another philosophical perspective that we can use to evaluate the lives of Van Gogh and Mandela is Epicureanism. Epicurus believed that pleasure is the chief good in life. The only way to attain such pleasure is to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one’s desires. By accomplishing these requirements, one will attain a state of tranquility, freedom from fear and absence of bodily pain. Furthermore, Epicurus distinguishes pleasure of the body from pleasure of the mind that the former only exists in the moment, yet the latter exists in the past, present and future. For example, eating the most delicious meal can only offer pleasure of the body for a short moment, yet the memory of eating such a delicious meal can last for a lifetime. Moreover, Epicurus distinguishes three kinds of desire. The first kind is the natural and necessary desires that are innately present in all humans and necessary for happiness, freedom from pain or survival; for example, eating is necessary and natural for it is required to be happy, free from bodily pain and survival. The second type is natural but not necessary that these desires are innate to humans yet do not need to be fulfilled in order to be happy or to survive; for example, wanting to eat delicious food when hungry is natural but not necessary, as any edible food would suffice the hunger. The third type are desires that are not natural nor necessary. These desires are limitless that they can never be truly fulfilled and ultimately would only bring about discomfort. For example, desires for money and power may never be truly fulfilled and failing to obtain them can only cause one pain.

Van Gogh spent most of his life pursuing arts and Mandela devoted his entire life to pursuing freedom. According to Epicurus’ definition of desires, both of them are most likely to experience more pain than pleasure as they indulged themselves by fulfilling natural yet unnecessary desires. For Van Gogh, the desire to pursuit aesthetic beauty is nature, as all humans are naturally drawn by beautiful things, yet it is unnecessary for one’s happiness. For Mandela, the desire to obtain freedom is a natural desire that human beings share in common; however, it is considerably hard to argue that complete freedom is necessary for one to be happy because any person not experiencing oppression is still being restricted by law or moral standards, and it is absurd to say that no human beings is happy. Thus, both the desires to pursue beauty and freedom are desires that are natural yet unnecessary for one to live well.

However, the main problem with this type of desire is that they fail to substantially increase a person’s happiness, as no evidences recorded that Van Gogh associated painting or his life with happiness, yet they all recorded Van Gogh continually experienced pain. At the same time, these desires require significant efforts to maintain satisfied because such desires are limitless, unlike the limited desires such as eating as it only takes so much food to satisfy hunger. One may argue that aesthetic beauty is necessary for some people to be happy. However, they are desired by people mostly due to the false beliefs that they are actually necessary. This is exactly the reason why Epicurus warns people to avoid this type of desires. A comparison between the desire to pursue art and the desire to do drugs can clarify why the pursuit of art can result in unhappiness and should be avoided under Epicureanism. The desire to do drugs is definitely unnatural, yet it is natural for one to desire bodily pleasure, which is essentially the only product one gets from drugs. Thus, the two desires are comparable for the context of argument. First of all, the fundamental causes and characteristics of the two are very similar, as it is natural for one to desire both aesthetic beauty and bodily pleasure; after being custom to having either one of them, it becomes one’s habit and he or she will start to believe that its presence is necessary for happiness. Most importantly, neither of them is a limited desire that can be satisfied by a given amount. Comparing the desire to pursue art to that of doing drugs is a bit too extreme. However, this comparison logically demonstrates why, under the Epicureanism scope, certain aspects of pursuing aesthetic beauty, a seemingly harmless action, can be fundamentally similar to those of doing drugs, an obviously harmful action, and thus could possibly lead to undesired results that will make one unhappy. As evident in his life, Van Gogh was never satisfied with art and lived under great pain that forbids him to live well.

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Nelson Mandela and Vincent Van Gogh. (2019, Jul 09). Retrieved February 7, 2023 , from

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