This study of the idea of happiness has revealed a surprising consistency—even a measure of uniformity—in the history of the idea. This consistency reveals the timelessness of the idea of happiness and the continued relevance of historical articulations of the idea for the modern thinker. It is this consistency that has perhaps most contributed to the development of my thought on happiness over the course of this semester.
One feature of this history that is rather remarkable is the absence of serious endorsements of the idea of hedonism. It is remarkable that there seems to be an absence of great thinkers who have supported the belief that material and bodily pleasures are sufficient to the happy life. Given the appeal of hedonism, or something very close to, for a large swathe of modern humanity—as is evidenced by the pervasiveness of consumer culture—I fully expected that some version of it would be endorsed by a contingent—even if a small one—of the great thinkers of the Western tradition. When it does receive what seems to be an endorsement, however, it is more often adopted for what seems to be the satirical or parodic purposes, as in Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, or in a heavily modified form, as in John Stuart Mill’s version of utilitarianism. Even for those who come closest to seriously endorsing a form of hedonism, the search for pleasure is tempered by both its perpetual elusiveness and its character as, ultimately, a distraction from the much greater suffering inherent in human life.It is difficult indeed to find a serious thinker who seriously endorses hedonism as a philosophy and approach to life.
The reason for this apparent dearth of hedonistic philosophers may be the keen insight of these same philosophers into the relative brevity and mutability of human life. The classic example of this insight is, of course, the story of Solon’s meeting with Croesus was described in Herodotus’s Histories. As Solon famously concludes in his words to Croesus, “He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of ‘happy.’” Because a happy death is necessarily the end of a happy life, Solon continues, “in every matter it behoves us to mark well the end: for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.” It is impossible to pronounce a person’s life to be a happy one until that person has run the entire course of his or her life. They may, in the end, suffer a dramatic change of fortune or a miserable death.
The shortness and variability of life becomes impetus in many of the authors of the Western tradition to look toward a life beyond this one, a life that is permanent and unchanging. St. Thomas Aquinas expresses what seems to be the consensus among Western thinkers when he writes,
In this life every evil cannot be excluded. For this present life is subject to many unavoidable evils. . . . Likewise neither can the desire for good be satiated in this life. For man naturally desires the good, which he has, to be abiding. Now the goods of the present life pass away. . . . Wherefore it is impossible to have true Happiness in this life.
Human beings, according to Aquinas and other similar thinkers, naturally desire happiness unmitigated by the evils that cause unhappiness and that is of permanent duration. The brevity and changeability of earthly life, however, prohibits the attainment of such permanent and unmitigated happiness. True happiness, then, can only be found in a life beyond the current one, these thinkers conclude.
The inevitability of suffering and consequent elusiveness of happiness in this life becomes in many of these thinkers an impetus toward setting their eyes on the life beyond. For some, like Dante with his Divine Comedy, this focus on the afterlife is the central theme of their thought and ideas. For others, such as Dostoyevsky, Augustine, and Aquinas, the afterlife is not quite the preoccupation that is exhibited in Dante’s works but is certainly the end toward which their view of human life and the attainment of happiness aim. Even a thinker not typically thought of in terms of his relationship to Christianity to the same extent as these others, such as Michel de Montaigne, similarly turns to a meditation on the inevitability of death in his considerations of happiness and its limitations.
These similarities across time and even across cultural milieu, from Greeks like Aristotle and Romans like Epictetus to medieval and modern Christians like Aquinas and Dostoyevsky has undoubtedly been one of the most fascinating aspects of this study of the idea of happiness. This is especially true in that such a continuity evinces the perennial nature of the concern for happiness and the conclusions reached about the limitations upon it in this life and the possibility of it in the next.