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Arts & Letters

Should We Pursue Happiness?

Vincent Kavaloski reviews both Tolstoy’s insights and his oversight.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”
(United States Declaration of Independence, 1776)

Do we all pursue happiness? Should we? And what would it even mean? Is happiness something that can be chased and sometimes captured? What does it mean to pursue happiness? The phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness’ (as featured for example in the U.S. Declaration of Independence) contains at least two major assumptions: (1) that happiness lies outside of us, out there in the world; and (2) it is elusive, requiring intention and effort to capture it. Are those accurate assumptions?

The Paradox of Personal Happiness

The novels of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) explore these assumptions in great and instructive depth. His books are filled with characters in feverish pursuit of happiness in many different ways. Yet few, if any, manage to attain it in any substantial fashion. Indeed his stories often portray seductive yet deceptive pathways that promise happiness but culminate in dead-ends or disasters: soldiers seeking the euphoric glory of battle; young men and women plunging into the rapturous insanity of romantic love; greed addicts pursuing wealth, power, or status. They often experience a temporary bliss, which then fades away, leaving behind emptiness, if not despair. True sustainable happiness, as opposed to transient pleasure, is a state of well-being and the self-disciplined harmony of all aspects of one’s life – especially in relationships. But the more manically Tolstoy’s characters pursue happiness, the more it eludes them. Hence the paradox: the pursuit of happiness seems to result in deep unhappiness.

What goes wrong?

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, and long before him, Plato, explained the paradox in the following way. The single-minded pursuit of one’s own happiness is intrinsically selfish and emotionally chaotic – a reduction of life to a narrow, stifling obsession with the immediate gratification of self. This narcissism destroys our ethical connection with other people and with nature by (1) isolating each person in the lonely prison of the self; and (2) subjecting our reason to vacillating desires and emotions. For example, according to Tolstoy, to pursue happiness through social status opens one to constant anxiety, envy of those above you, contempt for those below, and fear of falling. No inner serenity in sight. Tolstoy’s Ivan Illich realizes this, but only on his death-bed. His obsessive careerism caused him to disastrously neglect his family and his soul. More generally, Tolstoy seems to be saying that directly pursuing happiness is futile because it culminates in narcissism, and narcissism fatally constricts the vast and numinous universe to the narrow bounds of the ego.

Tolstoy’s response to this paradox throughout virtually all his works is that happiness consists in living for others, and that our great error and the source of our misery is assuming that happiness is attained by satisfying our own desires – desires for pleasure, wealth, and status.

In an early story, ‘Family Happiness’ (1859), Tolstoy vividly portrays the euphoria of romantic love, which arouses such powerful emotions of lust, jealousy, and resentment that it quickly degenerates into destructive (including self-destructive) behavior. Romantic love is inherently unstable, and emotionally chaotic. But it need not be so if it evolves beyond its self-obsession into ‘family love’ – that is, love of each other as (potential) co-parents. Apparently millions of people experience something like this, developing from a hyper-passionate love-obsession to a more sober and mature family affection, which brings some stability to society and helps guarantee the safe upbringing of children.

However, in his later life and works Tolstoy grew gradually disillusioned even with family happiness. At the end of War and Peace (1867) we can see the beginning of this corrosive disillusionment. The central families of the book are gathered together in intimate common life in the longed-for peace after the Napoleonic wars; but there are quarrels, conflicts, and jealousies that disrupt harmony. Is Tolstoy suggesting that normal family happiness includes extreme periods of strife and unhappiness? Perhaps he’s expressing Nietzsche’s idea that happiness and unhappiness are sisters who always travel together. Tolstoy’s own family life was itself then beginning a downward arc toward eventual mutual misery. And even the ‘excellent marriage’ of Nikoley and Marya is described this way: “Sometimes, particularly just after their happiest periods, they had a sudden feeling of estrangement and antagonism.” Even at her moment of highest family happiness, Marya is aware of “another happiness unattainable in this life.”

This vision of an unattainable spiritual happiness is pursued in Tolstoy’s next book, Anna Karenina (1877), the story of a compassionate and complex women who follows her grand passion, abandoning a cold marriage and a beloved son for the immediate gratification of enthralling romantic love. Socially ostracized, her passion gradually becomes permeated with jealousy and desolation, leading ultimately to her suicide under the wheels of a steam train.

Leo Tolstoy
Happy Tolstoy
© Woodrow Cowher 2018. Please visit woodrawspictures.com

A Narrow Way

The book has a contrasting story of relatively healthy love and happiness. Kitty and Levin surmount misunderstandings, jealousy, illness, dejection, the death of family members, and go on to attain a beautiful marriage. By the end of the book they have everything they ever wanted. Yet Levin – Tolstoy’s alter ego – is still tormented: “happy in his family life, a healthy man, Levin was so close to suicide.” Like Tolstoy himself in his mid-fifties, ropes and guns had to be hidden away. Why? “Without knowing what I am and why I’m here it is impossible to live.”

Through Levin’s existential anguish, Tolstoy seems to be critiquing even family happiness as a goal: Is it myopic to constrict the good even to the good of one’s own family and friends? Raising children while navigating the complexity of marital love can be all-consuming. But eventually Levin’s torment is transformed into joy – not by a new philosophy, but by a peasant reminding him of “what he already knew: not to live to satisfy his own desires”, but to live for the “life of the soul”.

This ‘life of the soul’ that redeems Levin from suicidal despair can’t be fully disclosed by reason or words, he says; but as a lived principle it rejects greed, warfare, luxury, hypocrisy, hate, and power-mongering – all the things that Tolstoy saw as corrupting human life. Instead it promotes generosity, love, simplicity, peace, and forgiveness. Tolstoy later summarized this thinking thus: “the happiness of life is to be attained, not by the striving of each being toward his own personal happiness, but by a united striving of each creature for the good of all the rest.” This, he thinks, entails the renouncing of a demand for individual happiness, especially our animal desires for physical pleasure: “Love is love only when it is the sacrifice of self.” J.S. Mill summed the situation up thus: “those are only happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.”

To do this is to follow the ‘law of the good’ disclosed by all world religions. This kind of altruism may not bring happiness as such directly; but it can bring moral meaning to one’s existence, demonstrating that life is not empty but rather filled with high purpose; and one side effect of this is ‘soul happiness’ – an abiding gratitude for the gift of life. And current research in positive psychology supports the idea that those who live to do good tend to be happier and healthier than those who simply indulge themselves: see for instance Why Good Things Happen to Good People by Jill Neimark and Stephen Post (2007).

In his later years Tolstoy boldly tried this radical pathway, but admitted constant personal failure, partly due to his own lustful character, and partly due to his being a land-owning Count. As his long-suffering wife Sophie noted: “My beloved husband consists entirely of contradictions.”

In his early eighties Tolstoy made a final attempt to escape his contradictions by abandoning his home and family in the middle of the night and heading for a monastery. But he sickened and died along the railroad line. His last words were said to be: “Keep searching, never stop searching.” This principle he lived without contradiction to the very end.

Tolstoy’s Extremism

In both his life and his writings, Tolstoy explored polar opposites and their interconnections: war and peace; hedonism and renunciation; poverty and wealth; happiness and despair. This is one element of his greatness as a novelist. But in his ethical teachings this dualism frequently results in the fallacy of the false dilemma: either one lives through one’s degrading animal instincts (lust, greed, power), or one renounces them altogether for a monastic austerity. In much of his life he vacillated obsessively between these two extremes. He seems to have overlooked (at least in his later life) the ‘middle way’ taught by Aristotle, Confucius, Buddha, and many other wise teachers. Plato, for example, teaches neither egoism nor altruism but rather the harmonizing of our desires through virtue and reason. In his famous metaphor in the dialogue Protagoras, the self is a chariot pulled by two horses working at cross-purposes. The dark horse representing physical desire pulls against the white horse representing virtue. But both are necessary to pull the chariot; so the charioteer, representing reason, guides them to work together in the direction of the good. This image avoids Tolstoy’s either/or dichotomy by acknowledging the contradictory elements in the human soul and providing a harmonizing guide. It assumes that we will continue to have the powerful opposing drives (or pulls) of the desire for food, sex, etc, and also for social acceptability; but they need not be out-of-control if guided by a practical reason which can look ahead, distinguishing short-term objectives from long-term goals. Tolstoy, on the other hand, seems to lack faith in the guiding power of reason and tortures himself with his vacillation between two strong opposing human forces, sensuality versus spirituality. “I could be happy if I were different from what I am,” he writes. A sad insight.

In conclusion, Tolstoy’s accurate insight is that the single-minded pursuit of one’s own happiness brings narcissism and enslavement to chaotic desires, which in turn brings disharmony, frustration, conflict with others; in a word, unhappiness. On the other hand, pursuing a larger moral meaning, such as peace, kindness, justice, or human betterment, gives us transcendent purpose in life and thus a long-term sense of satisfaction. But Tolstoy’s ultimate oversight is his frequent either/or assumption which overlooks the middle way between the extremes of egoism and altruism, incorporating some element of both. Despite his own lustfulness, Tolstoy gradually begins condemning sex, eating, and other bodily desires as low ‘animal’ activities. This radical mind-body ethical dualism is another example of the false dilemma: either live completely in the soul or completely in the body. Tolstoy’s torment in later life seems to flow from his vacillation between these two extremes, with little or no rest in the middle.

So was Tolstoy finally a victim of his own utopian dualism? Perhaps. But we need not follow him there.

© Vincent Kavaloski 2018

Vincent Kavaloski is Professor of Philosophy and Integrative Studies at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. He also facilitates Socrates Cafés and public discussions on peace, justice and human rights.

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