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Stephen Anderson meditates on misfortune and which means.
“We maintain these truths to be self-evident, that each one males are created equal, that they’re endowed by their Creator with sure unalienable Rights, that amongst these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
– The US Declaration of Independence, 1776.
Ah, happiness… The place is she to be discovered? Doesn’t it nearly appear, today, as if the extra now we have the much less joyful we’re? We’re richer, smarter, have extra leisure time and extra elaborate entertainments than in any interval in historical past on anywhere on Earth. And although not but common, such benefits are extra extensively distributed than ever earlier than. We’re all doing higher… and feeling worse, it appears. Think about while you final went unclothed, unhoused, or with out a meal; or how simply you secured medical, dental or psychological companies when final you wanted them. Put your hand in your pocket, and chances are high you discover a gadget able to speaking wherever around the globe, offering innumerable entertainments and distractions at a second’s discover, or securing huge portions of client items to meet any need. And but, are we fashionable folks really happier than our forebears of earlier ages?
It will appear not. That we’re materially higher off, circumstantially extra blessed, there may be little doubt: but when something, we’re extra anxious, extra unhappy, and extra emotionally at-sea than we ever have been, are we not?
We’re promised the suitable to pursue happiness. And but we’d nicely marvel what kind of perverted trick is that this, that the chance for bliss is dangled earlier than our eyes, then in some way snatched away by our circumstances! What a betrayal. Anyone must reply for that, certainly.
However earlier than we declare that the universe is towards us and begin grinding our enamel at males or at God, maybe we must always take a extra considerate take a look at our expectations.
Happiness Stolen By Destiny
In our present age, ‘happiness’ is often considered merely as an emotion – a sense of enjoyment ensuing from the nice alignment of circumstances; and reasonably than ‘pursuing’ happiness, we’re ready upon it to be delivered like an Amazon package deal to our entrance doorways.
That is widespread sufficient, and now we have an excuse for it. ‘Hap’ is an outdated phrase which means ‘likelihood’ or ‘circumstance’. To have one thing hap-pen to you is to be the passive experiencer of some exterior stimulus; and the way can a passive experiencer be in any means chargeable for the standard of the incoming stimuli? She or he has no management over that. Thus, an individual whom fortune favours seems to be hap-py, we suppose. The circumstances produce the sensation.
But when happiness awaits the arrival of pleasing circumstances, the unhappy fact is that almost all of us are doomed principally to distress, for there are few units of circumstances so totally felicitous that we discover ourselves swept up in unimpeded pleasure, even for a couple of minutes. Life, even at its greatest, is usually arduous and unsightly, punctuated solely often by moments of pleasure. How then can any of us be actually joyful?
Thomas Hardy, the nice poet and novelist, meditated thusly in his poem appropriately titled ‘Hap’ (1898). In it he speaks of his circumstances – how ‘crass casuality’ interferes with him, how ‘pleasure lies slain’ and “unblooms the very best hope ever sown.” He needs accountable the Almighty, he says, however finds he can not. Mere ‘Hap’ – likelihood personified because the Fates of Greek mythology – not the Christian God, is admittedly chargeable for what occurs to him, he says. He may have been joyful, he feels, however he has not been. He’s not. As he seems on his life, it appears a tragic waste, with alternatives for pleasure ripped from his greedy fingers, not by some malevolent God, however by mere likelihood, which could simply as simply been apart from it was. This could be much less tragic if Hardy may console himself that it meant one thing; however even which means is past his imagining. His ache serves nothing, and his pleasure merely drifts away from him on the uncaring tides of time. On this, he can not even discover a motive to see himself as heroic. It’s all simply unhappy.
If happiness is what Hardy thinks it’s, or what so many people assume it’s at the moment, it’s no marvel that we turn into bitter. We consider we should have some alternative for pleasure, promised us by the sheer undeniable fact that we live, and introduced earlier than us in all of the fleeting moments of pleasure we expertise as residing beings; however this seeming alternative is held at distance from us by circumstance. We may have been born wealthy, or tall, or stunning, or admired; however we have been born as we have been, and destiny has doled us out a lot lower than we’d have hoped, and life has proved extra usually arduous than nice. We really feel cheated. And at all times we marvel, “The place is happiness to be discovered?”
The Pursuit of… What?
A part of the issue, although, is definitely within the common conception of happiness. For many of us, it appears it’s simply what I indicated above: an emotion, an expertise, a sense – and worse, a sense that comes primarily in response to conditions past our management. Nevertheless, even the point out of ‘happiness’ within the Declaration of Independence ought to, if we give it some thought, alert us to a sure incoherence in that conception. For if happiness is a sense, then how can or not it’s promised us as a proper?
“Ah,” you say, “however what’s promised isn’t happiness, however the pursuit of happiness.” That’s rejoinder, till we recognise that it leaves us no higher off. For it suggests we now have a proper to chase circumstances that can produce the sensation of happiness for us. However isn’t that what now we have all been doing already? And the way’s that been figuring out for us? Moreover, it leaves a basic downside unanswered: which circumstances should we pursue in an effort to arrive at happiness? We all know no extra now than we did earlier than.
However allow us to entertain the thought for a second that the writers of the Declaration of Independence weren’t really fashionable folks – a minimum of, not fashionable in our means, or to our diploma. Right this moment, individuals who research ethics may suppose that ethics has at all times been as various and conflicted as the sector is now. However as Peter Adamson so appropriately famous on this very journal, “What college students might not be informed is that for fairly a very long time all moral idea within the European custom was eudaimonist. It was the one recreation on the town” (PN 147). In different phrases, the founding fathers of the American Revolution have been principally advantage ethicists of their pondering. Which means after they penned the time period ‘happiness’ into the founding doc, they have been writing with a virtue-ethical set of suppositions, following within the custom of Aristotle. As such, they have been channelling a reasonably completely different conception of happiness than that with which we’re acquainted.
How was it completely different? Properly, to search out that out we’d look again at Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (c.349 BC), which begins with an enchantment to the Greek statesman Solon’s dictum, ‘Name no man joyful till he’s lifeless’ (p.10). As Aristotle goes on to elucidate, this doesn’t suggest that Solon was notably keen on corpses. Nor does it point out a cynicism about life so full that the grave is to be most well-liked to life. By no means. Somewhat, Solon’s axiom is a hopeful one. His concept is that it isn’t sensible to cross judgment on the worth of an individual’s life primarily based on a single incident, or perhaps a set of incidents. These could also be good or unhealthy, joyful or unhappy, in their very own proper; however they supply us with no safe floor for assessing what the general life (of which they’re however mere elements) is admittedly like. To cross correct judgment on an individual’s life, we actually must know your entire narrative, from starting to finish. We will’t say whether or not or not his or her life was genuinely good or unhealthy, genuinely helpful or nugatory, and even pleasant or terrible, except we all know the totality. ‘Lives’ are entire issues, full tales, not simply collections of incidental options or fleeting circumstances; not even of specific good or unhealthy selections taken at one time or one other. So to say you already know what a life was value, it’s essential to know all of it. Due to this fact it have to be performed, full, in order that you already know there are not any new chapters to be added. Then, and solely then, are we able to know what sort of life it actually was, says Solon: joyful or unhappy, or one thing else.
Mistaking Aristotle’s intention right here is simple for us, given our personal associations with the phrase ‘joyful.’ However the issue is admittedly in our translation, not within the unique. As Adamson has already alerted us, the phrase we translate as ‘joyful’ in Solon’s epithet is by no means the idea we now affiliate with it. Somewhat, the Greek phrase, eudaimonia (actually, ‘good spirited’), removed from being a phrase of mere emotion, interprets extra precisely as ‘blessed’.
‘Blessed’ isn’t a phrase we moderns use a lot or perceive nicely at the moment. Initially, it alluded to the gods: to be ‘blessed’ was to be ‘favoured of the gods’, or ‘authorised by the gods’. As such, it was not merely to be advantaged by mere circumstance, far much less about gaining a sense of short-term well-being or delight. Historical Greek cosmology was completely different from ours; they conceived of fortuitous happenings as being tied to the precise intervention of divine beings, and thus indicative of divine approbation. Issues the gods approve could be extra ethical, extra heroic, extra in the end necessary than these conceived by human beings of their mundane rounds. And residing in such a means would put one ‘in good standing with one’s tutelary deity’ – which is the total, idiomatic implication of eudaimonia.
Notice this, although: such a conception is inseparable from a perception that human beings usually are not right here by likelihood, not residing for no motive, and never created with out an finish in view. Right here the ultimate analysis of the ‘blessedness’ or ‘happiness’ of someone’s life not solely awaits the completion of all the info doubtlessly obtainable to us to guage, however needed to await the time when gods may assess the matter, too. So it will solely be on the finish of a complete sample or course of life that ‘happiness’ could be discernable to anybody, divine or human. Discerning eudaimonia could be retrospective. Nevertheless, after dying, if one have been remembered, celebrated, and emulated – as the traditional Greeks did with their heroes – then one may thereby be generally known as having been ‘blessed.’ One had attained that for which one had been created, and had fulfilled one’s future. Whether or not or not one had loved it on the best way wasn’t the purpose.
Fulfilling Your Objective
The idea of eudaimonia is pregnant with additional implications, particularly on Aristotle’s evaluation of it. A doubtlessly blessed individual should first exhibit excellence (arête) by training ethical discernment or knowledge in relation to sensible motion (phronesis). Additionally, in an effort to attain true eudaimonia, her entire life sample, when laid out, should disclose that she has reached the very best potential state of rightful functioning. For Aristotle, every individual has a particular potentiality constructed into the very structure of their specific being. This means that no individual has an unintentional origin, or a haphazard design. As a substitute, every particular person is created with what Aristotle referred to as a telos – a function, remaining finish or end result, in some way coded into the design. Somebody who lives persistently with arête is fulfilling her design, attaining all she was created to be, attaining her telos … Then, and solely then, can we communicate of her having attained true blessedness, true happiness.
As soon as we notice this, we are able to make good sense of Solon’s aphorism. To be joyful in Solon’s sense isn’t merely to expertise a sense, however to be assured that the life one has lived has, in complete, attained to excellence pleasing to the gods and admirable to any virtuous onlooker. One’s life has, as we are saying, ‘amounted to one thing’; one has ‘lived as much as one’s promise’ and so ‘attained greatness’.
What’s actually stunning to us at the moment is that such blessedness may be attained within the full absence of nice circumstances. We would use Shakespeare’s Hamlet for instance this. Although beset by private melancholy, home catastrophe, and political decay, Hamlet would certainly qualify for Aristotle’s approval, since together with his final act he achieves triumph for his honour, justice for his home, and tranquility for his kingdom, by avenging his father’s homicide, although he dies savagely within the course of. He has come as much as being a real prince, and has fulfilled his recognized future – to ‘set proper’ the ‘out of joint occasions’ in Denmark (Hamlet, I:V:210-211). Such a one is really blessed and authorised by the gods. In dying, even his noble enemies reward him (V:II:399-400). His beloved companion Horatio concludes, “Goodnight, candy prince / And flights of angels sing thee to thy relaxation” (V:II:302-303).
Hamlet’s isn’t a set of circumstances most would envy. However his type of epitaph is one Aristotle thinks we must always all crave, and will try for as we form our ethical selections. The last word objective of advantage is to supply a sample of life that unimpeded imaginative and prescient can not assist however acknowledge as nice. Written into this, as nicely, is a few conception of afterlife – in Greek tradition, maybe immortality in legend; or in Christian thought, everlasting bliss.
Dwelling by advantage produces a life that’s full and worthy of reward. Dwelling such a life is feasible in circumstances, supplied that the experiencer responds to them with braveness and integrity. The circumstances themselves say nothing of the opportunity of blessedness; on their very own, they can not inhibit it in any means, for it relies upon not on hap (which mayhap in any kind), however on the principled dedication of the individual to issues similar to obligation, decency, and future. Anybody could also be a hero: their response, not the circumstances themselves, determines it.
In such a way, then, anyone could also be ‘joyful’ if she or he so chooses – supplied their character in the end proves satisfactory to the particular problem of his or her life. The gods could then look with retrospective approval at one’s course, strewn although or not it’s with bitterness and ache. And even in life, one could discover it a comfort that one has ‘performed nicely’, as long as one has lived by virtuous rules with noble endurance. All of that constantly stays throughout the management of the person. We make our personal selections, not of our circumstances, however of our responses to them.
“Name no man joyful till he’s lifeless, Horatio.”
Hamlet and Horatio by Eugene Delacroix 1839
Self-Sabotage By Dangerous Considering
For sure, this isn’t an understanding of happiness widespread in our (post-)fashionable world. For a begin, many now not consider a God or gods as having something to do with the situations of our life. We’re, we expect, late apes of a form, thrown into this scene by likelihood, refined by time and materials legal guidelines, and ending up wherever we’re by forces totally detached to our welfare. In the meantime, struggling can by no means be genuinely ‘heroic’, and even ‘tragic’ within the literary sense of that phrase (as the results of a doubtlessly heroic act that ends badly). Struggling is as an alternative, simply an unlucky byproduct of residing in an entropic universe. It has no which means, no bigger context or grand narrative that can permit us to talk of it having a ‘function’. It occurs. That’s all. And we, being mere playthings of hap, how can we ever discover happiness?
So we can not. As a substitute we pile up our possessions, prolong our talents, increase our choices, and by no means discover it not sufficient to supply that abiding feeling of enjoyment we have been anticipating. Having no religion that struggling right here can imply something there, we see nothing however loss in our struggles towards our lot in life. Like Hardy, we wished bliss, and acquired travails. And we at all times really feel we deserve higher than to die and switch to mud on the finish of our quick, unhappy street of life.
However per haps (there may be that phrase once more) we must always think about that it’s our personal expectation, not the Supreme Creator or some polytheistic model thereof, that has allow us to down. Particularly, it’s the chance-driven, hap-hazard world now we have framed for ourselves, that has made emotional happiness so elusive. If this worldview is a obligatory concession to being reasonable, as materialists and their ilk would have us consider, it’s no much less lamentable for that. It’s chilly consolation certainly to assume now we have no chance of upper blessedness than to undergo intermittently, sate an detached cosmos with our blood, after which to feed the worms nicely. The Aristotelian account of eudaimonia provides us way more room to breathe.
Maybe we are able to start to consider ourselves greater than dying mud if we are able to deliver ourselves to consider in a narrative larger than our personal. However such a narrative may even should be higher than our contingent social ethos (that’s, extra than simply some trendy trigger); and it must be one we are able to consider wholeheartedly, with out lingering cynicism. We would want to consider now we have a telos once more – an goal function – and that the usually painful wrestle to realize it’s worthwhile, with or with out the rapid gratification of current pleasures.
Can we nonetheless have that? Maybe we may be higher to ask, ‘Can we actually dwell with out function?’ Can human beings thrive and be fulfilled within the absence of a transcendent order able to giving an goal basis to which means, morals, function, and hope? It appears we’re not doing very nicely at current with out it; and the happiness we search with out it appears ever extra elusive on a regular basis. Our temporary matches of distraction, delirious leisure, short-term achievement, or chemically-induced pleasure, are apparently nowhere close to satisfactory to offset our sufferings; and an abrupt change of circumstances for the worst is sufficient to vaporize all of them.
Aristotle reminds us that happiness at all times requires a bigger context. On this, he echoes a conventional Christian distinction between ‘happiness’ and ‘pleasure’ – the latter being an everlasting state of well-being, not depending on circumstance for its continuation, however reasonably on the sense of getting submitted one’s life-plan to everlasting values (and within the theistic case, having put oneself right into a proper relationship with God). It might be that it’s the lack of any such bigger context that leaves so many people at the moment, like Jay Gatsby within the remaining strains of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Nice Gatsby (1925), craving for an ‘orgiastic’ and ‘elusive’ type of happiness that “yr by yr recedes earlier than us.”
© Dr Stephen L. Anderson 2023
Stephen Anderson is a retired philosophy trainer in London, Ontario.