Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, February 01, 2016

MARY LAVIN: Happiness

Aristotle and John Dewey had their own theories about habit and its relationship to happiness.  Mary Lavin tells a story about a woman named Vera who lived out her own theory of happiness.  We read at the beginning of the story that Vera’s “theme was happiness: what it was, what it was not; where we might find it, where not; and how, if found, it must be guarded.  Never must we confound it with pleasure.  Nor think sorrow its exact opposite.”  That was her theory.  And Great Books readers might consider if happiness is really everyone’s basic “theme” in life.  Aristotle thought so.  He believed everything has a natural “end” or purpose for being.  What is the “end” of a human being?  Aristotle said “this end, to sum it up briefly, is happiness and its constituent parts.”  We were born to be happy and to seek happiness.  John Dewey took this line of thought a step further and connected our search for happiness with our daily habits.  He believed habits have a strange power over us.  He wrote that “a habit has this power because it is so intimately a part of ourselves.  It has a hold upon us because we are the habit.”  These two philosophical ideas set the stage for our current reading.

Vera (whether she knew it or not) followed Aristotle’s theory that happiness and pleasure are not the same thing.  Life certainly wasn’t always pleasurable for Vera but she strongly insisted she was happy.  She told her daughters “I had a happy life.”  And if Vera did, in fact, have a happy life it was primarily her own doing.  One of the daughters related that “our grandfather had failed to provide our grandmother with enduring happiness.  He had passed that job on to Mother.”  “Mother” was Vera.  And Vera’s own mother wasn’t happy so happiness wasn’t something Vera inherited.  She had to work for it.  We may question whether happiness is an enduring quality or if it comes to us in fits and starts.  Another question is whether it’s possible for one person to “pass on” happiness to someone else.  It didn’t seem to work for the grandmother.  She lived her life by the “if only” philosophy.  She would always preface her pleasures with “if only” this or “if only” that, then things would be better.  In quest of perfect happiness she rejected the kind of happiness that would be good enough for most people.  Vera did inherit this quest for happiness from her mother.  Vera worked hard at finding and keeping it.  Her own daughters began wondering about Vera’s theory of happiness: “What was it, we used to ask ourselves; that quality that she, we felt sure, misnamed?  Was it courage?  Was it strength, health, or high spirits?”  If they read Aristotle they would know none of these qualities is happiness itself.  But all of them are “constituent parts” of happiness.  Aristotle’s Happiness includes qualities such as “good birth, good friends, wealth, good children, a happy old age, also such bodily excellences as health, beauty, strength…”  By this definition Vera was, in fact, happy.  She had these things.

But how deep was it?  Her daughter says “one evening when Father Hugh was with us, our astonished ears heard her proclaim that there might be a time when one had to slacken hold on it, let go, to catch at it again with a surer hand.”  Father Hugh was Vera’s counterbalance.  Vera didn’t think Father Hugh was happy.  He replied “That’s simply not true Vera.  It’s just that I don’t place an inordinate value on it like you.  I don’t think it’s enough to carry one all the way.  To the end, I mean, and after.”  Father Hugh had a different theory of happiness.  For Father Hugh it was not the ultimate good.  He wanted something higher that would carry him through “to the end, and after.”  What was that something?  It was religion, a factor not considered essential in either Aristotle’s philosophy or John Dewey’s.  And that brings to mind a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Mary Lavin finds happiness in literature, not philosophy.

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