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Hap & Happiness

Stephen Anderson meditates on misfortune and meaning.

“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…”
The US Declaration of Independence, 1776.

Ah, happiness… Where is she to be found? Doesn’t it almost seem, these days, as if the more we have the less happy we are? We are richer, smarter, have more leisure time and more elaborate entertainments than in any period in history on any place on Earth. And though not yet universal, such advantages are more widely distributed than ever before. We’re all doing better… and feeling worse, it seems. Consider when you last went unclothed, unhoused, or without a meal; or how easily you secured medical, dental or psychological services when last you needed them. Put your hand in your pocket, and chances are you find a device capable of communicating anywhere around the world, providing innumerable entertainments and distractions at a moment’s notice, or securing vast quantities of consumer goods to fulfill any desire. And yet, are we modern people actually happier than our forebears of previous ages?

It would seem not. That we are materially better off, circumstantially more blessed, there can be no doubt: but if anything, we are more anxious, more unsatisfied, and more emotionally at-sea than we ever were, are we not?

We’re promised the right to pursue happiness. And yet we might well wonder what sort of perverted trick is this, that the opportunity for bliss is dangled before our eyes, then somehow snatched away by our circumstances! What a betrayal. Somebody needs to answer for that, surely.

But before we declare that the universe is against us and start grinding our teeth at men or at God, perhaps we should take a more thoughtful look at our expectations.

Happiness Stolen By Fate

In our current age, ‘happiness’ is frequently thought of merely as an emotion – a feeling of pleasure resulting from the pleasant alignment of circumstances; and rather than ‘pursuing’ happiness, we are waiting upon it to be delivered like an Amazon package to our front doors.

This is common enough, and we have an excuse for it. ‘Hap’ is an old word meaning ‘chance’ or ‘circumstance’. To have something hap-pen to you is to be the passive experiencer of some external stimulus; and how can a passive experiencer be in any way responsible for the quality of the incoming stimuli? He or she has no control over that. Thus, a person whom fortune favours turns out to be hap-py, we suppose. The circumstances produce the feeling.

But if happiness awaits the arrival of pleasing circumstances, the sad truth is that most of us are doomed mostly to misery, for there are few sets of circumstances so utterly felicitous that we find ourselves swept up in unimpeded joy, even for a few minutes. Life, even at its best, is often arduous and unpleasant, punctuated only occasionally by moments of delight. How then can any of us be truly happy?

Thomas Hardy, the great 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 ‘joy lies slain’ and “unblooms the best hope ever sown.” He wants to blame the Almighty, he says, but finds he cannot. Mere ‘Hap’ – chance personified as the Fates of Greek mythology – not the Christian God, is really responsible for what happens to him, he says. He could have been happy, he feels, but he has not been. He is not. As he looks on his life, it seems a tragic waste, with opportunities for joy ripped from his grasping fingers, not by some malevolent God, but by mere chance, which might just as easily been other than it was. This would be less tragic if Hardy could console himself that it meant something; but even meaning is beyond his imagining. His pain serves nothing, and his pleasure simply drifts away from him on the uncaring tides of time. In this, he cannot even find a reason to see himself as heroic. It’s all just sad.

If happiness is what Hardy thinks it is, or what so many of us think it is today, it’s no wonder that we become bitter. We believe we must have some opportunity for joy, promised us by the sheer fact that we are living, and presented before us in all the fleeting moments of delight we experience as living beings; but this seeming opportunity is held at distance from us by circumstance. We could have been born rich, or tall, or beautiful, or admired; but we were born as we were, and fate has doled us out much less than we might have hoped, and life has proved more often arduous than pleasant. We feel cheated. And always we wonder, “Where is happiness to be found?”

The Pursuit of… What?

Part of the problem, though, is surely in the popular conception of happiness. For most of us, it seems it is just what I indicated above: an emotion, an experience, a feeling – and worse, a feeling that comes primarily in response to situations beyond our control. However, even the mention of ‘happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence should, if we think about it, alert us to a certain incoherence in that conception. For if happiness is a feeling, then how can it be promised us as a right?

“Ah,” you say, “but what’s promised is not happiness, but the pursuit of happiness.” That’s a good rejoinder, until we recognise that it leaves us no better off. For it suggests we now have a right to chase circumstances that will produce the feeling of happiness for us. But isn’t that what we have all been doing already? And how’s that been working out for us? Besides, it leaves a fundamental problem unanswered: which circumstances must we pursue in order to arrive at happiness? We know no more now than we did before.

But let us entertain the thought for a moment that the writers of the Declaration of Independence were not actually modern people – at least, not modern in our way, or to our degree. Today, people who study ethics might suppose that ethics has always been as diverse and conflicted as the field is now. But as Peter Adamson so appropriately noted in this very magazine, “What students may not be told is that for quite a long time all ethical theory in the European tradition was eudaimonist. It was the only game in town” (PN 147). In other words, the founding fathers of the American Revolution were mostly virtue ethicists in their thinking. This means that when they penned the term ‘happiness’ into the founding document, they were writing with a virtue-ethical set of suppositions, following in the tradition of Aristotle. As such, they were channelling a rather different conception of happiness than that with which we are familiar.

How was it different? Well, to find that out we might look back at Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (c.349 BC), which begins with an appeal to the Greek statesman Solon’s dictum, ‘Call no man happy until he is dead’ (p.10). As Aristotle goes on to explain, this does not imply that Solon was particularly fond of corpses. Nor does it indicate a cynicism about life so complete that the grave is to be preferred to life. Not at all. Rather, Solon’s axiom is a hopeful one. His idea is that it is not wise to pass judgment on the value of a person’s life based on a single incident, or even a set of incidents. These may be good or bad, happy or sad, in their own right; but they provide us with no secure ground for assessing what the overall life (of which they are but mere parts) is really like. To pass proper judgment on a person’s life, we really need to know the entire narrative, from beginning to end. We can’t say whether or not his or her life was genuinely good or bad, genuinely valuable or worthless, or even delightful or awful, unless we know the totality. ‘Lives’ are whole things, complete stories, not just collections of incidental features or fleeting circumstances; not even of particular good or bad decisions taken at one time or another. So to say you know what a life was worth, you must know it all. Therefore it must be done, complete, so that you know there are no new chapters to be added. Then, and only then, are we in a position to know what kind of life it really was, says Solon: happy or sad, or something else.

Mistaking Aristotle’s intention here is easy for us, given our own associations with the word ‘happy.’ But the problem is really in our translation, not in the original. As Adamson has already alerted us, the word we translate as ‘happy’ in Solon’s epithet is not at all the concept we now associate with it. Rather, the Greek word, eudaimonia (literally, ‘good spirited’), far from being a word of mere emotion, translates more accurately as ‘blessed’.

‘Blessed’ is not a word we moderns use much or understand well today. Originally, it alluded to the gods: to be ‘blessed’ was to be ‘favoured of the gods’, or ‘approved by the gods’. As such, it was not merely to be advantaged by mere circumstance, far less about gaining a feeling of temporary well-being or delight. Ancient Greek cosmology was different from ours; they conceived of fortuitous happenings as being tied to the actual intervention of divine beings, and thus indicative of divine approbation. Things the gods approve would be more moral, more heroic, more ultimately important than those conceived by human beings in their mundane rounds. And living in such a way would put one ‘in good standing with one’s tutelary deity’ – which is the full, idiomatic implication of eudaimonia.

Note this, though: such a conception is inseparable from a belief that human beings are not here by chance, not living for no reason, and not created without an end in view. Here the final evaluation of the ‘blessedness’ or ‘happiness’ of somebody’s life not only awaits the completion of all the data potentially available to us to judge, but had to await the time when gods might assess the matter, too. So it would only be at the end of a total pattern or course of life that ‘happiness’ would be discernable to anyone, divine or human. Discerning eudaimonia would be retrospective. However, after death, if one were remembered, celebrated, and emulated – as the ancient Greeks did with their heroes – then one could thereby be known as having been ‘blessed.’ One had attained that for which one had been created, and had fulfilled one’s destiny. Whether or not one had enjoyed it on the way wasn’t the point.

Fulfilling Your Purpose

The concept of eudaimonia is pregnant with further implications, especially on Aristotle’s analysis of it. A potentially blessed person must first exhibit excellence (arête) by practicing moral discernment or wisdom in relation to practical action (phronesis). Also, in order to attain true eudaimonia, her whole life pattern, when laid out, must disclose that she has reached the highest possible state of rightful functioning. For Aristotle, each person has a specific potentiality built into the very constitution of their particular being. This implies that no person has an accidental origin, or a haphazard design. Instead, each individual is created with what Aristotle called a telos – a purpose, final end or outcome, somehow coded into the design. Someone who lives consistently with arête is fulfilling her design, attaining all she was created to be, achieving her telos … Then, and only then, can we speak of her having attained true blessedness, true happiness.

Once we realize this, we can make perfect sense of Solon’s aphorism. To be happy in Solon’s sense is not merely to experience a feeling, but to be confident that the life one has lived has, in total, attained to excellence pleasing to the gods and admirable to any virtuous onlooker. One’s life has, as we say, ‘amounted to something’; one has ‘lived up to one’s promise’ and so ‘attained greatness’.

What’s really shocking to us today is that such blessedness can be attained in the complete absence of pleasant circumstances. We might use Shakespeare’s Hamlet to illustrate this. Though beset by personal melancholy, domestic disaster, and political decay, Hamlet would surely qualify for Aristotle’s approval, since with his last act he achieves triumph for his honour, justice for his house, and tranquility for his kingdom, by avenging his father’s murder, though he dies savagely in the process. He has come up to being a true prince, and has fulfilled his known destiny – to ‘set right’ the ‘out of joint times’ in Denmark (Hamlet, I:V:210-211). Such a one is truly blessed and approved by the gods. In death, even his noble enemies praise him (V:II:399-400). His beloved companion Horatio concludes, “Goodnight, sweet prince / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (V:II:302-303).

Hamlet’s is not a set of circumstances most would envy. But his kind of epitaph is one Aristotle thinks we should all crave, and should strive for as we shape our moral decisions. The ultimate goal of virtue is to produce a pattern of life that unimpeded vision cannot help but recognize as great. Written into this, as well, is some conception of afterlife – in Greek culture, perhaps immortality in legend; or in Christian thought, eternal bliss.

Living by virtue produces a life that is complete and worthy of praise. Living such a life is possible in circumstances, provided that the experiencer responds to them with courage and integrity. The circumstances themselves say nothing of the possibility of blessedness; on their own, they cannot inhibit it in any way, for it depends not on hap (which mayhap in any form), but on the principled commitment of the person to considerations such as duty, decency, and destiny. Anyone may be a hero: their response, not the circumstances themselves, determines it.

In such a sense, then, anybody may be ‘happy’ if he or she so chooses – provided their character ultimately proves adequate to the specific challenge of his or her life. The gods may then look with retrospective approval at one’s course, strewn though it be with bitterness and pain. And even in life, one may find it a consolation that one has ‘done well’, so long as one has lived by virtuous principles with noble patience. All of that continuously remains within the control of the individual. We make our own choices, not of our circumstances, but of our responses to them.

Hamlet and Horatio
“Call no man happy until he is dead, Horatio.”
Hamlet and Horatio by Eugene Delacroix 1839

Self-Sabotage By Bad Thinking

Needless to say, this is not an understanding of happiness common in our (post-)modern world. For a start, many no longer think of a God or gods as having anything to do with the conditions of our life. We are, we think, late apes of a sort, thrown into this scene by chance, refined by time and material laws, and ending up wherever we are by forces utterly indifferent to our welfare. Meanwhile, suffering can never be genuinely ‘heroic’, or even ‘tragic’ in the literary sense of that word (as the result of a potentially heroic act that ends badly). Suffering is instead, just an unfortunate byproduct of living in an entropic universe. It has no meaning, no larger context or grand narrative that will allow us to speak of it having a ‘purpose’. It happens. That’s all. And we, being mere playthings of hap, how can we ever find happiness?

So we cannot. Instead we pile up our possessions, extend our abilities, expand our options, and never find it not enough to produce that abiding feeling of pleasure we were expecting. Having no faith that suffering here can mean anything there, we see nothing but loss in our struggles against our lot in life. Like Hardy, we wanted bliss, and got travails. And we always feel we deserve better than to die and turn to dust at the end of our short, sad road of life.

But per haps (there is that word again) we should consider that it is our own expectation, not the Supreme Creator or some polytheistic version thereof, that has let us down. Specifically, it is the chance-driven, hap-hazard world we have framed for ourselves, that has made emotional happiness so elusive. If this worldview is a necessary concession to being realistic, as materialists and their ilk would have us believe, it is no less lamentable for that. It’s cold comfort indeed to think we have no possibility of higher blessedness than to suffer intermittently, sate an indifferent cosmos with our blood, and then to feed the worms well. The Aristotelian account of eudaimonia offers us much more room to breathe.

Perhaps we can begin to believe ourselves more than dying dust if we can bring ourselves to believe in a story bigger than our own. But such a story will also have to be greater than our contingent social ethos (that is, more than just some fashionable cause); and it will have to be one we can believe wholeheartedly, without lingering cynicism. We would need to believe we have a telos again – an objective purpose – and that the often painful struggle to achieve it is worthwhile, with or without the immediate gratification of present pleasures.

Can we still have that? Perhaps we might be better to ask, ‘Can we really live without purpose?’ Can human beings thrive and be fulfilled in the absence of a transcendent order capable of giving an objective foundation to meaning, morals, purpose, and hope? It seems we’re not doing very well at present without it; and the happiness we seek without it seems ever more elusive all the time. Our brief fits of distraction, delirious entertainment, temporary achievement, or chemically-induced pleasure, are apparently nowhere near adequate to offset our sufferings; and an abrupt change of circumstances for the worst is enough to vaporize them all.

Aristotle reminds us that happiness always requires a larger context. In this, he echoes a traditional Christian distinction between ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’ – the latter being an enduring state of well-being, not dependent on circumstance for its continuation, but rather on the sense of having submitted one’s life-plan to eternal values (and in the theistic case, having put oneself into a right relationship with God). It may be that it is the lack of any such larger context that leaves so many of us today, like Jay Gatsby in the final lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), yearning for an ‘orgiastic’ and ‘elusive’ kind of happiness that “year by year recedes before us.”

© Dr Stephen L. Anderson 2023

Stephen Anderson is a retired philosophy teacher in London, Ontario.

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