What follows is the text of the introductory lecture for a course I have taught at University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, entitled “The Good Life: The Search for Happiness”…
I hope that it is not merely more self-congratulation when I say that the subject of our course is, or perhaps I should say, ought to be, one of paramount importance. The search for happiness has been the principal occupation and telos of human life since the very dawn of civilization. From the moment that humans left the cocoon of animal unconsciousness, they have been aware that what distinguishes them from the beasts is the aspiration not merely to live, but to live well—to live the good and reasoned life.
It might seem odd at first that the phrases “the good life” and “happiness” are juxtaposed in our course title, as they are so often juxtaposed in the texts we are about to read. But the “good life” is, of course, an ancient philosophical expression, and in both philosophy and theology the quest for happiness has always been inextricably bound up with the quest for virtue.
The search for happiness, accordingly, is traditionally a department of ethics, and indeed practically all of the ancient philosophical sects insisted that the achievement and practice of virtue were both the necessary and sufficient conditions for human happiness. To them, virtue, wisdom, and happiness were merely alternative designations of the same blessed state of soul. To be wise and virtuous, that is, is to be happy, regardless of one’s external circumstances; conversely, the wicked and ignorant, though they may be prosperous and successful, are forever debarred from felicity.
“The good life”, as the phrase was used by the ancients, is thus a rather different thing from what the expression popularly means today—with its connotations of six-figure salaries, BMW’s in the driveway, vacation homes around the globe, legions of followers on Facebook or Twitter, and the non-stop partying to which today’s undergraduates seem to aspire.
Understood as a department of ethics, the pursuit of happiness, I’m afraid, is serious business indeed. There is little that is fun or diverting about it.
“Happiness”, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, “is as grave and practical as sorrow, if not more so. We might as well imagine that a man could carve a cardboard chicken or live on imitation loaves of bread, as suppose that any man could get happiness out of things that are merely light or laughable. ”
Though Chesterton wrote in the early twentieth century, his solemn attitude was apparently already a rather retrograde one. Today, we are more or less all enrolled in the Playboy School of Philosophy, and when happiness isn’t being reduced by the beau monde to something as puerile and frivolous as mere personal enjoyment or pleasure, it is being merchandised by the self-help set as “making time for ourselves”, or by the gurus of pop psychology as “following our bliss”, usually in brave defiance of collective norms or conventions.
In the last few decades, it seems, everyone has discovered a recipe for contentment, from Hugh Hefner to Andrew Weil to Madonna to Deepak Chopra, but it doesn’t take much thought to recognize that it is only ideological snake oil that they are trying to sell. Given the popularity of these and other ethical and religious quacks and charlatans, it is often difficult to persuade people, especially young people, that the ancients, the deadest of the dead white males, had something rather valuable to say on the question of how to live rewarding and meaningful lives.
To illustrate a rather too common cultural attitude of late, let me tell you about an e-mail I received from a prospective student in an undergraduate course I used to teach called “The Western Tradition”, in which I included as many as possible of the ancient philosophers and thinkers that we’ll be reading in the coming weeks. The student in question wanted to know if, in tracing the Western Tradition, we were going to study the later westerns, such as those starring Clint Eastwood, or just the classic John Wayne films.
After picking myself off the floor, I started to wonder whether anyone could really have thought that “The Western Tradition” was a course about cowboy movies. I eventually decided that the email in question was, in fact, a rather clever joke sent to me by one of my former students, all of whom have had some experience with my overactive sense of humour. So I replied in what I assumed to be the spirit of the inquiry, that, indeed, we were going to follow the development of the “Western Tradition” all the way from its beginnings in silent film, through the classic John Ford westerns, to the anti-westerns of Mel Brooks and others.
But, as I soon found out, it wasn’t meant to be a joke at all; the student wrote back in deadly earnest that, sorry, she wasn’t going to enroll in my section of the course, because she wasn’t really interested in all that, as she put it, “outmoded ancient stuff”.
I tell you this story not because I think it particularly amusing that anyone could imagine that “The Western Tradition” could be a course about westerns, but because it illustrates an all too prevalent attitude these days: I mean the rather shortsighted historical perspective that imagines that the world only came into existence the day we were born; that conceives, accordingly, of the early twentieth century as belonging to antiquity; all of which goes together with a strangely irrational fear and loathing of the “ancients”. These are, it seems to me, fundamental and soul-destroying misconceptions, precisely the kind that a course such as this one can correct.
What makes the ancients so unpalatable to moderns is that their prescriptions for happiness are so difficult for us to swallow, especially as they contradict practically everything we hold sacred and true, with a certitude bordering on religious fervor.
The first difference that one notices between the ancient and modern attitude is that happiness was never defined—at least not until recently—as a joyful emotion; on the contrary, it has almost always been assumed–until at least the nineteenth century–that strong emotions are snares for the unwary, deceptive and unstable states of mind, the symptoms of irrationality at best and insanity at worst. They demonstrate little more than the sufferer’s dependence upon and vulnerability to external vicissitudes over which he has absolutely no control.
Since the emotion of joy that comes with temporary success or prosperity is based on something wholly external, mutable, and uncontrollable, it could hardly be defined as happiness. True happiness, by contrast, must be entirely self-sufficient, founded upon the possession of something rather more substantial and enduring.
To the ancients, this usually meant goodness, wisdom, or truth, incorporeal possessions which once acquired, could neither fail nor be taken away from their owners. The person who was virtuous and wise owned these treasures absolutely and inalienably: they resided safely within him, in the depths of his soul—constituted the very essence of his humanity, in fact—and they made his happiness independent of, indeed proof against, all of the serial joys and disappointments that come with the acquisition and inevitable loss of merely external goods and pleasures. They made the wise man utterly self-reliant, invulnerable, indeed (as Plato described him) a God among men.
So far from a merely transient emotion was happiness thought to be that the votaries of the two most important schools of philosophy in classical antiquity, Platonism and Stoicism, argued that it could only be attained through a state of apathe, that is, passionless—a condition of absolute indifference to and detachment from all those accidental circumstances—success or failure, health or sickness, wealth or poverty—that make the foolish susceptible to the changeable emotions of joy and sadness.
I mention this in anticipation, as I have said, because it underscores how differently we have come to think and talk about happiness today. It is instructive in this regard to consider how empirical science, the great arbiter of truth and reality in our culture, defines and explains this ancient desideratum.
Most psychiatrists and physicians, as you know, treat depression with drugs designed to regulate certain chemicals in the brain. To the medical and psychiatric community, happiness is apparently merely an epiphenomenon of biology, the byproduct of a properly functioning nervous system. If one is lucky enough to enjoy this blessed state, it is the consequence of the body’s, not the soul’s or the spirit’s, proper regulation; and of course, since unhappiness qua depression is a “disease”, we can hardly be held responsible for it.
Happiness or depression, then, are states that happen to us, whether we like it or not. We have as little control over them as we do over cancer or viral pneumonia.
To modern science, all reality is material reality, a presupposition the ancients rejected utterly, of course. For them, the real and true were by definition the immaterial, since as Socrates’ explained in Plato’s Phaedo, only the incorporeal and invisible are also indestructible and immutable. These are terms that belong to that department of philosophy called ontology, the science of being, so that once again one sees that the search for happiness is traditionally articulated with the highest and gravest questions of metaphysics and theology. But metaphysicians, priests, and theologians have now been replaced by M.D.’s dispensing pills to regulate or elevate our “moods”, as psychiatry refers to them—as though happiness were a matter of how we serially feel about things.
Of course, the ancients cared not at all about such subjective feelings; what concerned them were objective truths. They recognized that the same set of empirical stimuli could make one person euphoric, another miserable, and that the physical senses in general were unreliable witnesses to objective reality and truth. This is one reason why they so distrusted the emotions (the passions, as they called them) and exalted reason above them. They were confident, as modern relativists are apparently not, that all men of intelligence and goodwill could, through the exercise of the universal human faculty of reason, come to agreement on the nature of truth, justice, and so on.
Today, needless to say, reason is in rather bad odour. It is all too easily, and reductively, equated with the sophistical absurdities of logic, and so with a stultifying scholasticism. Reason has become something of a bogey-man of late, and in our Oprah-fied, psychotherapeutic age, we are everywhere taught that it is passion we should cultivate as man’s highest good.
We are encouraged to be passionate about what we do and what we believe: what matters is not so much whether our opinions are founded on rational evidence or demonstrable truth, but that they are “authentic”, which is to say, that they are invested with our whole emotional being. Our psychological sanity, in fact, depends upon our “getting in touch with”, and expressing, our emotions. In modern times, the great psychological sin is therefore repression: denying or holding in our sorrow, our anger, or any other of our precious feelings.
The ancients, once again, would have laughed at such assumptions. For them, it was reason that assimilated man to God, through the transcendent Logos that indwelled in the depths of his soul; it was reason that exalted man, and distinguished him from the beasts, who are pitiable insofar as they are forever slaves to their lusts and rages.
Passion, accordingly, was something that man was called upon to rise above—to restrain and control through the exercise and sovereignty of his rational intellect as his highest faculty–, and eventually to overcome; but hardly to cultivate. The word “passion” itself expresses ancient disapproval: its primary meaning in both the Greek pathos and the Latin passio is “suffering” or “disease”. Indeed, passion, especially of the romantic kind, was included by the physicians of antiquity and the Middle Ages amongst the mental disorders, and was thought to lead, if untreated, to insanity.
Now, whether the ancient or the modern physicians are right, whether the philosophers of old or the contemporary suamis and gurus better understand the nature of and path to contentment, is not the point. What should be clear is that the problem is hardly a new one, and only a rank species of chronological jingoism could persuade us that the ancients need not be consulted, since our solutions are self-evidently superior to theirs.
On the model of science and technology, it is all too easy to subscribe to the modern myth of infinite and inexorable progress. But though tomorrow’s computers will be ineluctably more powerful and efficient than today’s, art, literature, and morality do not necessarily follow such a steady and optimistic trajectory. Our own ideas about beauty, justice, wisdom, and virtue are certainly more sophisticated, but not necessarily more intelligent or convincing, than those of the ancients. Indeed, the fact that so many today take it for granted that our generation is the wisest and best argues all the more for the need to study the ancients, if only as a means of holding the presuppositions and orthodoxies of our own age up to critical scrutiny.