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.
Not underneath sweet shades and fountains shrill,
Among the nymphs, the fairies, leaves and flowers;
But on the steep, the rough and craggy hill
Of Virtue stands this bliss, this good of ours;
By toil and travail, not by sitting still
In pleasure’s lap we come to honour’s bowers;
Why will you thus in sloth’s deep valley lie?
The royal eagles on high mountains fly.
Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata
There are three different levels on which life can be lived. First, there is the level of surfaces and superficiality, above pain and problem, on which it is perhaps true that we have, at times, as a technological nation, tried to live. Secondly, there is a level much deeper than this (where pain is indeed confronted, and chaos, too), which to my mind is the level to be equated with what is today so often grimly called “the human situation.” Is it going too far to say that here is in this region of things a certain dark attraction for the modern intelligence and sensibility, an attraction toward and almost a love of the chaotic, the absurd, the resentful struggle of it all? Thirdly, there is a still deeper level of human existence, a place where the human spirit “dies” in frequent real helplessness; and this we may call the really tragic level of existence.
Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo, pp. 109-10
Aristotle identified the highest end and aim of man as happiness. According to Aristotle, happiness is both what men naturally aim to attain and is their greatest attainment. It was this idea that shaped his ethical theories as he formulated his idea of values as the means by which to attain happiness. According to Aristotle, attaining perfect virtue is the means by which to attain perfect happiness. In addition, Aristotle’s theory of virtues sees virtue as a mean between two vices, one of defect, the other of excess. For Aristotle, then, happiness is seen primarily as a state of equanimity rather than one of passionate pursuit of pleasure as, for instance, the hedonist might claim. Most of the specific content of these values that Aristotle claims as leading to the greatest happiness are, much like his assertions about happiness as man’s highest end which begin his ethical theories, little more than attempts to articulate and provide a justification for the conventional values of his time. This is the greatest point of weakness in his ethics, and in his philosophy as a whole, and the point from which he has been criticized by feminists and can be seen as fundamentally flawed in the light of a multicultural perspective.
Aristotle, like most Greek men of his time, was possessed of a prejudice which saw the values, beliefs, and ways of his own time and place as the best and the norm by which all others were to be judged. It is this prejudice that in large part inspired and informed the Greek disdain for non-Greeks as “barbarians” who, according to Aristotle in his Politics, lack the capacity for reason and are intended by nature to be slaves ruled by the Greeks. This presupposition on the part of Aristotle exposes him to an attack for which he seems to offer no good answer, in spite of some rather haphazard attempts, namely the question of why we should prefer the Greek values of Classical Antiquity over any other set of values from any other time or place.
Although the two were certainly unfamiliar with each other, Aristotle’s Chinese contemporary or near-contemporary, Chuang Tzu, offers just such a critique of a similar set of ideas to Aristotle’s, as found in Confucianism, in his writings. Just as Aristotle assumed the values and norms of contemporary Greece were the standard and perfect values and norms, Confucius made the same assumption about the values and norms of China, even identifying them with the Way of Heaven, the eternal order of things. The Taoists, including perhaps most notably Chuang Tzu, opposed this Confucian idea with the belief in and practice of a radical renunciation of social expectations and cultural mores. For the Taoist, it was in fact a rejection of conventional values that allowed one to discover and faithfully follow the Tao, or eternal order of things. In other words, in contrast to the Confucian and Aristotelian identification of a certain set of cultural values as eternal values, for the Taoists renouncing the values of one’s culture was among the first steps toward discovering and following the eternal values.
Many thinkers, especially among feminists, have also seen much that is lacking in Aristotle’s ideas and offered criticism of them on similar grounds. Eve Browning Cole, for example, sees Aristotle’s ideas regarding a perfect society as resting essentially on the exploitation of women and other marginalized groups as laborers while freeing a minority of aristocratic men for a life of the mind, which Aristotle views as the only fully human life. She concludes that although Aristotle’s belief that slaves and women lack reason and therefore lack the ability to function in a fully human way contradict other elements in his philosophy and reveal an inconsistency in his thought, it was necessary to the social order that he sought to justify to continue the subjection and exploitation of women and slaves. In essence, Aristotle’s thoughts on women and slaves are question-begging at its worst: women and slaves are seen as ignorant and lacking in reason, which assessment is, in turn, used to justify the status quo practice of denying them the very education and leisure time to apply that education that would correct their deficits in knowledge and reasoning.
I think perhaps the greatest counterargument to and undermining of the thought of Aristotle, and in fact of the Greco-Roman world in general, is the thought of the early Christians. Although they adopted the word and idea eudemonia, the state of happy equanimity which Aristotle had set as the aim of his ethics, the early Christians found this state in a very different set of values. Using the word makarios, a word Aristotle also uses occasionally in his Nicomachean Ethics, rather than eudemonia, for instance, the Gospel of Matthew (5:3-12) records Jesus exclaiming the happiness of those who are “poor in spirit” (verse 3), “meek” (verse 5), and “persecuted” (verse 10), a very different set of values from those found in Aristotle’s ideal of a magnanimous Greek aristocratic as the possessor of the greatest virtue. These values are, I believe, a set of values that have proven superior to those of Aristotle and the other Greeks of a similar mind both in their effect on human history and in embracing a significantly wider swathe of humanity and the human experience in their applicability.