Some Conclusions on Happiness

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.

The Relationship of Freedom to Happiness

One frequently repeated notion in Western thought is that of an intrinsic link between liberty and happiness. Perhaps the best known repetition of this idea is in the Declaration of Independence, in which Thomas Jefferson proclaims the “unalienable rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Whether this relationship is one of cause and effect, as authors and thinkers like Jefferson would seem to believe it to be, however, is highly questionable. On the contrary, it would seem rather that while a certain sort of liberty is necessary to happiness, one is not necessarily productive of the other.

While the iteration of this idea in the Declaration of Independence is the best-known example, the insistence upon a link between freedom and happiness is an ancient one. The Discourses of the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus, for instance, contain a section titled “Of Freedom” in which he insists that a Stoic sort of freedom is necessarily productive of happiness. According to Epictetus, “The man who is unrestrained, who has all things in his power as he wills, is free; but he who may be restrained or compelled or hindered, or thrown into any condition against his will, is a slave.” It is necessary to happiness, then, that one bring his will in conformity with that of God or Fate in order to attain this freedom that leads to happiness.

Writing nearly sixteen centuries later, John Locke similarly links freedom to happiness in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, writing, “As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness, so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty.” As for Epictetus, then, Locke asserts that liberty is a necessary prerequisite to happiness, or, at least, the ability to pursue happiness.

For both, the link rests upon similar assumptions. Lack of liberty, whether externally or internally, prevents one from following the path toward his or her happiness. To be free from the external constraints of bondage and tyranny and the internal constraints of vice, then, is the means by which one can free his person and his will to pursue happiness.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, however, presents something of a counterpoint to this long Western tradition linking freedom and happiness. “Men are themselves to blame, I suppose” for their unhappiness, he writes in the voice of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov; “they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, though they knew they would become unhappy, so there is no need to pity them.” From this perspective, it is possible that freedom can in fact be the cause of unhappiness. To pursue one’s own will is to necessarily to fall short of happiness.

True happiness, as Dostoyevsky writes in the words of a visiting monk, is in fact found only in a state of bondage of the will to God and perhaps even subject to earthly tyranny. The monk says, “men are made for happiness, and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’ All the righteous, all the saints, all the holy martyrs were happy.” It is service and submission to the will of God, then, that Dostoyevsky posits as the causative factor preceding happiness. And, given the happiness of “all the holy martyrs” Dostoyevsky posits that those who died under tyrannical government on earth may in fact enjoy the greatest happiness. This is an attitude, of course, quite distant from and apparently at odds with that of Jefferson as well as the tradition of Epictetus and Locke behind Jefferson’s famous proclamation.

Ultimately, the difference between Dostoyevsky and Jefferson may be one of definition. Both freedom and happiness can be defined in quite different ways. On the one hand, freedom may be defined as the absence of obstacles toward happiness and, on the other, as a sort of self-will. Similarly, it is possible to define happiness in terms of pursuing one’s interests and desires or of living in a state of pleasure and without pain, or it can be defined in terms of a state of spiritual blessedness attained by the saints. Nonetheless, the difference between the tradition of Epictetus, Locke, and Jefferson, on the one hand, and that of Dostoyevsky on the other is not merely apparent, but quite real. And as its heart is a disagreement over the relationship between liberty and happiness, and whether this relationship is one of causation or, perhaps, one of prevention.

Knowledge, Ignorance, and Happiness

John Stuart Mill once famously asserted that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” Mill’s assertions, however, are highly questionable. Whether it is the case that knowledge is the more satisfying condition or, as the saying has it, that “ignorance is bliss” is more of an open question than Mill is willing to acknowledge. Furthermore, it must remain an open question as whether the knowledgeable really “knows both sides” as Mill insists is as questionable as his central claim.

There are, of course, numerous voices who argue on Mill’s side in the history of thought. Aristotle, Plutarch, and Thomas Aquinas, for example, argue in favor of the necessity of knowledge to the happy life.  Aristotle, in fact, insists that contemplation is an essential ingredient of the happy life. Plutarch echoes Aristotle in his assertion that “our intellectual vision must be applied to such objects as, by their very charm, invite it onward to its own proper good.” Continuing in the line of thought developed by Aristotle, Plutarch insists on the need for intellectual contemplation of good works in addition to their performance. Similarly, Aquinas, building on Aristotle’s thought, asserts that “the contemplative life is more excellent than the active.”

While these many and various voices argue in favor of Mill’s famous assertion, there are those, however, who have dared to oppose it. Michel de Montaigne, in his Apology for Raymond Sebond, argues that “man’s knowledge cannot make him happy” and may, perhaps, even be a source of unhappiness. Referring to the native peoples of the Amazon, Montaigne attributes the reported “tranquility and serenity of their souls” to “their admirable simplicity and ignorance” as they are a people “without letters, without law, without king, without religion of any kind.” Perhaps, then, the pig and the fool are indeed happier than the wise Socrates.

There is no small irony, however, in that all of these statements come from highly educated men. Aristotle, Plutarch, Aquinas, and Montaigne surely rank among the most knowledgeable minds of their own and any other times. The voice of the intellectual innocent, the primitive, and the ignorant is nowhere to be heard on the subject. Of course, this latter group lacks the very means by which to consider and to discuss whether their state is superior to that of the philosopher. By the very nature of the question, to engage with the subject in any way is to pass from the one side—the side of the ignorant—to the other—the side of the educated.

It seems safe to aver that this in itself renders the problem insoluble. There is no means by which the side of the ignorant can defend itself and it is impossible to have the experience of both sides in such a way that one would be able to offer a comparison. Socrates has no means of experiencing the life of the pig any more than the pig has the means by which to experience the life of Socrates. Montaigne must forever view the life of the native Amazonian from the outside; his only experience is as an educated Frenchman. What is left are educated men arguing over the question of whether it is better to be educated or ignorant.

Two Happinesses

It seems to me that there are two sorts of happiness. On the one hand, there is what might be labelled a “secular happiness,” or the happiness of this life. And, on the other hand, there is what might be called a “spiritual happiness,” or the happiness of the world to come. The latter may be, in a sense, glimpsed within this life, but it seems to be impossible to experience fully within this life. The former, secular happiness, however, is the highest form of happiness fully accessible within the span of earthly human life.

By secular happiness I do not mean to indicate a happiness that is entirely divorced from higher, spiritual or religious concerns or that is centered in materiality. On the contrary, this secular happiness is more likely to be attained in the rejection of excessive concern for material goods than it is in their accumulation. By secular happiness, then, I mean something like that happiness described by Epictetus in his Discourses, as by other Stoic philosophers elsewhere, when he says that “tranquility and peace of mind” arise from self-control and contentment with one’s portion. Secular happiness can be attained by following Epictetus’s advice to avoid being anxious about those things which one cannot control, to put one’s own self under his control, and to point one’s effort consistently toward the development of virtue. Too great an attachment to material things, an inability to keep one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions within one’s control, and a too great desire for any worldly success or goods are ultimately futile and therefore bound to produce dissatisfaction. I aver, then, that his sort of happiness can be attained by anyone within this lifetime but only by one who dedicates himself to virtue.

The second sort of happiness, the spiritual happiness, however, is a sort of happiness that is, in its fullest sense, out of reach within this lifetime. As St. Thomas Aquinas notes (Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Q. 5, A. 3), because life necessarily entails suffering it is therefore impossible to experience a full and complete happiness within this lifetime. Similarly, as Solon told Croesus, it is impossible even to say that man has had a truly happy life until his death because it could be that an otherwise happy life leads one to immense suffering and a final downfall in the end.

More than this, however, and in conformity with Aquinas’s thought, I maintain that this full and final happiness is to be had only in the presence of God, who is the end towards which all human life ultimately aims. While it is possible to obtain glimpses and premonitions of this final spiritual happiness within this lifetime, its complete enjoyment is confined to the next life. The secular happiness of this life, which is a sort of contentment with oneself and one’s station in the world, is, in fact, one of sort of premonition of the final happiness. Like this secular happiness, the spiritual happiness is attained, in large part, through virtue, but the spiritual happiness is attained not only through the classical virtues but through the exercise of the specifically Christian virtues. Beyond this, the experiences of certain saints and mystics can be seen more clearly as early glimpses of the final happiness of the presence of God. Even for these, however, the full experience of this happiness is impossible in the present life.

Happiness, then, is of two sorts: secular and spiritual. These are closely related in some ways but quite different in others. The secular happiness, a tranquility attained in spite of circumstances within this life, is attained through the practice of the classical virtues, especially through contentment and through self-control. The spiritual happiness surpasses mere contentment and requires virtue that surpasses the classical virtues and embraces the Christian virtues as well. It may be, in fact, that the secular happiness is the natural result of a virtuous life and that the spiritual happiness is an abundance and completion that is ultimately a gift of God.

Book Review: In Tune with the World by Josef Pieper

In this short book, Pieper provides, as the subtitle puts it, “a theory of festivity.” At the heart of his thesis is the claim that festivity is a wholehearted affirmation of what is. Festivity is, in its essence, an outburst of the affirmation pronounced by the Creator upon his creation at the dawn of existence: that it is καλόν — good and beautiful in every way.

Pieper begins by tracing the origins of the festival in its earliest forms, both among primitive peoples and in its classical developments. He also traces its origins within Christianity. In this study, Pieper concludes that modern man is, to a great extent, unable to experience the true spirit of festivity. He cannot bring himself to an unequivocal affirmation of being itself, the necessary prerequisite to festivity.

Because of this, modern man has had to invent various pseudo-festivals. Pieper discusses at some length the pseudo-festivities of Revolutionary France and of the various totalitarian states of the twentieth century. In these, as in the commercialist “holidays” of the liberal West, Pieper finds a distinctly un-festive spirit. These are not, as the festival is, the joyous movement of exaltation within and thanksgiving for a freely given gift, but rather a forced concoction, an imposition of the man-made upon man.

In all of this, Pieper offers a cogent reminder that the way of being for which man was made is one of joyous affirmation of the cosmos. Without this — without festivity — man is not man.

Problem and Solution

I am informed by philologists that the “rise to power” of these two words, “problem” and “solution” as the dominating terms of public debate, is an affair of the last two centuries, and especially of the nineteenth, having synchronised, so they say, with a parallel “rise to power” of the word “happiness” — for reasons which doubtless exist ad would be interesting to discover. Like “happiness,” our two terms “problem” and “solution” are not to be found in the Bible — a point which gives to that wonderful literature a singular charm and cogency. … On the whole, the influence of these words is malign, and becomes increasingly so. They have deluded poor men with Messianic expectations … which are fatal to steadfast persistence in good workmanship and to well-doing in general. … Let the valiant citizen never be ashamed to confess that he has no “solution of the social problem” to offer his fellow-men. Let him offer them rather the service of his skill, his vigilance, his fortitude and his probity. For the matter in question is not, primarily, a “problem,” nor the answer to it a “solution.” 

L. P. Jacks, Stevenson Lectures, 1926-7

John Climacus on divine absence

When a baby starts to recognize its father, it is filled with happiness. If the father has to spend time away on business before returning home, it has its fill of joy and sadness — joy at seeing the one it loves, sadness at the fact of having been deprived so long of that same love. Sometimes a mother hides from her baby and is delighted to note how sadly the child goes about looking for her, because this is how she teaches the child to be always attached to her and stirs up the flame of its love for her. He who has ears to hear, let him listen, as the Lord has said.

St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 7