Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, September 02, 2011

On Happiness

There is something to be said for optimism. We admire people who make the best of their situation and struggle to overcome the hardships which life puts in their path. The truth is no one likes a coward. We expect our leaders to govern wisely, and our soldiers to fight bravely; never show fear and never surrender. But most of us are not heroes. We lack the courage and fortitude to overcome adversity. Life is a series of obstacles, often confusing and sometimes impossibly tragic. So how can happiness even exist in a world filled with turmoil, rage and pain? Since we all desire happiness, why are we unable to rationally comprehend it? Is happiness just a state of mind or a passing mood, or is it to be found in an objective set of conditions?

Aeschylus, the Greek dramatist, once said that “a man cannot be called happy until he has reached the end of his life.” By this, he meant we cannot say whether our life has been well lived until it has run its course. This means that happiness is not simply a passing mood or sensation like joy or hunger. Rather, it is more like a drama which must be concluded before we can evaluate its worth.

Another common mistake is to confuse happiness with a state of mind. Dewey, who was a pragmatist, believed happiness to be something which exists solely in the mind. Therefore, we should be able to obtain happiness by simply willing it into existence. Thus, the action of standing on our own two feet lies within our own power, unless we are paralyzed or bound like Prometheus to a cliff. However, for Aristotle, happiness is something more than a state of mind. It is a synonym for “the good life” that is measured by having things like tasty food, a warm bed, and a healthy body. In other words, things which are not always within our power to obtain. It is a happy conceit of Dewey that the individual is in control of his own emotional state. But Freud, Dostoyevsky and Aeschylus all disagree. Clearly, we are not always in control of our emotions, otherwise we would not go insane, feel guilty, or be enraged or depressed. The notion that a happy man merely wills himself into a pleasant state of mind is far too simplistic, ignoring the basic problem which all men face: that we are not in control of our destiny, nor can we simply will ourselves into a state of bliss. This delusion is a byproduct of an Old Testament mythology which claims that all our problems today are of our own making due to Adam's original sin.

What contributes to this confusion is an inability to define happiness in such a way that it applies to all men in all circumstances. As Aristotle understood, happiness is something more than pleasure. We have physical needs as well as mental states. Mortality is our human condition. Our challenge is to live out our lives knowing we shall die, that our bodies will age and deteriorate, and when we are gone, the memory of our existence will soon fade from the annals of history.

So is happiness ever possible or is it just an illusion? The Stoics say that happiness is knowing how to distinguish the possible from the impossible, to know our limits and live within them. Aristotle called this attitude “sophrosyne" or moderation. Lao Tzu called it living in harmony with nature or having a balanced life. Buddhists say that happiness is contentment or lack of strife. Cato, one of the noblest Romans, believed that happiness was virtue, living with honor and respect for one's country and traditions. These days, we too often succumb to the foolish notion that happiness is “doing whatever we decide.” But this is the attitude of a civilization in decline. When we succumb to the desire for feeling good all the time (paradise?), we lose sight of what is immediately around us, or as Lincoln would say, of the "better angels of our nature." But virtue requires sacrifice and a willingness to endure what we cannot change. The quest for happiness is like the song of the Sirens who lured ancient mariners to their doom. It is entirely possible that happiness and human society are incompatible. Of course, the dream will not die; we persist in hoping that in some distant future, we will discover a formula or technique for making happiness available to everyone. But as Aeschylus said, while we live and breathe we cannot know happiness and we cannot say whether our life was good until we reach the end of our journey. Then, we will only glimpse it momentarily in the rear view mirror, as we pass from the living into the eternal void of sleep.


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