The Stone Lyceum presentation on happiness went well.  The two Methodist University faculty members who responded to my talk were both thoughtful in their responses, and the three presentations together generated a good deal of interesting discussion.  Lynda Brey, who was sitting in the front row, took a picture of me giving the talk.  Here it is:



The two responders both were kind enough to send me copies of their remarks, and I’ll post each of them.  The comments below are from Michael Potts, a professor of philosophy.  He does a good job of explaining the dangers of pursuing happiness isolated from any concern about virtue or ethics.  His beginning example is especially powerful.


Response to Robert Ritzema, “Happiness: Let’s Stop Pursuing It”


Although contemporary psychologists are loath to admit it, their subjective view of happiness amounts to the notion that happiness is the same thing as pleasurable states, or at least a life in which pleasurable states outnumber painful ones. Tonight I want to tell you the story of Theodore, a subjectively happy man. He enjoyed a number of pleasurable feelings throughout his life and felt himself to be happy. In high school he was vice-president of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at his local church and was also a boy scout. Later, he was politically active, attending the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach as a supporter of then New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. He eventually attended law school. But these activities ultimately did not provide him the level of subjective satisfaction he desired. Later on, when he changed his life in a way he believed would make him happy, it worked–he became more satisfied with his life, and hoped to continue in the course of life he had chosen.


            One evening Theodore was having a nice, quiet philosophical discussion with a young woman. After arguing that all moral judgments are subjective, and each person has the right to follow his or her own morality, Theodore argued that being free to do what he wanted to do made him happy. He stated that his view implied that human beings have no more rights than those of other animals. He asked the woman:


Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig, a sheep, or a steer? ….Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as “moral” or “good” and others as “immoral” or “bad”? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you.1


Here ends the statement of Theodore Robert Bundy, commonly known as Ted Bundy, just before he killed one of his thirty (perhaps as many as one-hundred) victims. Ted Bundy was a happy serial killer. If he had not been caught and eventually executed, he might be busy pursing happiness today.


            The Ted Bundy example reveals one of two major problems with the phrase, “pursuing happiness.” Not all “happinesses” are equal. Exactly what are we supposed to be pursuing? If “happiness” is only subjective, then it has to be identified with some kind of pleasurable state or series of states. Yet on that conception, Ted Bundy or Joseph Mengele, the brutal Nazi doctor who tortured Jewish concentration camp prisoners in brutal medical experiments, could be considered “happy.” Mengele lived comfortably in Argentina until he died as an old man in a swimming accident. Suppose he did not regret his medical experiments and felt himself to be happy. Suppose one reason he felt happy is that he believed he was doing good with his medical experiments. Could we then praise him for “pursuing happiness”?


            But as Professor Ritzema has wisely noted, there is an alternative conception of “happiness” that was common in the ancient and medieval worlds and most closely associated with Aristotle. Aristotle referred to happiness by the Greek word εύδαιμονία, which is best translated as “enlightened well-being.” He sharply attacks the notion that happiness is pleasure, saying that this view is accepted by “the most vulgar,” and that a life based only on pursuing pleasure is “completely slavish…a life for grazing animals.”2


            Now for those of us who would rather not live like cows or hogs, a higher conception of happiness than pleasure is required: eudaimonia, which Aristotle defines as an activity of the soul in accord with virtue. Virtues are stable character traits which we develop through habituation, such as courage, justice, and in Christian thought, charity. These virtues help us to become truly human, to fulfill our human nature to the highest degree, to be, as the old Army ads used to say, “all that we can be.” Virtues are also oriented toward the good of a human community and not only toward the good of the individual—they encompass both. On this account, happiness must include practical action for the good of those people with whom we interact, including family members, friends, neighbors, and the wider world.


            Happiness is, therefore, not merely a subjective term—it involves much more than our personal pleasure. This does not imply that pleasure cannot be part of happiness—Aristotle believes, for example, that if we are truly virtuous we will enjoy doing the things that are good. He also believes that one cannot be happy if painful external circumstances, such as chronic illness or severe poverty permeate a person’s life. But it does imply that a bad person cannot be truly happy, no matter how much pleasure the person may experience in life and no matter how satisfied the person may feel with life.


            Traditional Christianity goes even further than Aristotle. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn,” “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” and “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake.”3 Unless we are to presume that the early Christians were masochists, we can assume that when they were eaten by lions and burned to death that these were painful experiences. How can they be “blessed,” (a word which can also be translated as “happy”) while suffering? They can be happy, according to Christianity, because happiness, or blessedness, is not a subjective matter, but a matter of following one’s true and ultimate goal, that is, God. A life of following God is a blessed or happy life even if subjectively it contains many more painful experiences than pleasant ones.


            This serves as a corrective of the modern view that happiness consists of subjective pleasurable states. If we strive to live a blessed life that is something that can be accomplished whether or not we have good or bad fortune, or whether or not we feel subjectively happy. If we strive for pleasurable states, that is usually the best way not to have pleasant states—this is the so-called paradox of hedonism. It is usually when we’re not consciously trying to experience pleasure that we actually experience pleasure. So even if happiness is pleasure, we must seek something other than pleasure in order to attain such happiness. But this implies that true happiness is not something that is merely subjective; happiness involves going outside ourselves—whether that is loving your family and friends, or loving God. The important thing is that what you focus on in life be a worthy goal—and then you work to develop the virtues necessary to attain that goal. Not everyone is religious in the same way, so not everyone will agree that loving God is part of a blessed or happy life. But surely all people can agree that a person who has virtues such as charity, integrity, courage, justice, temperance—all virtues that help people get along in a world too often filled with strife—that person is truly happy.



1Statement by Ted Bundy, paraphrased and rewritten by Harry V. Jaffa, Homosexuality and the Natural Law (Claremont, CA: Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, 1990, 3-4), as quoted in Louis J. Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thompson/Wadsworth, 2006), 30.


2Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999), I, 5, 1095b18-21.


3Matthew 5:4, 10, 11. From The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, second edition (National Council of Christian Churches in the United States of America, 1971).

Darrell W. Johnson

Darrell Johnson

In an earlier post,  I discussed the distinction in Aristotle between eudiamonia, a form of happiness or fulfillment that is achieved by a person’s own efforts, and makarios, a happiness that is god-given.  Makarios can be translated “blessed”—that’s how the term is usually rendered into English from the Greek New Testament.  Aristotle thought one can achieve ordinary happiness through being virtuous, but even so the person may not be happy in the most complete sense if one is poor, has no offspring, or has children lacking in virtue. The virtuous person bears up well under such circumstances, but lacks the blessedness or supreme happiness (makarios) that comes only as a result of divine favor.  As I understand it, the Greek culture as a whole valued being blessed by the gods, and took material prosperity and social respectability as signs of such blessing. 


I don’t have any idea whether Jesus knew of Aristotle’s view of makarios, but I assume that, given his frequent references to Gentile beliefs and practices, he knew something of the Greek conception of what the  blessed person is like.  Thus, when he began what we call the Sermon on the Mount by stating that the poor in spirit are blessed, then followed closely with the claim that those who mourn are blessed, he must have known that he was turning on its head the Greek notion of what it means to be blessed.  


I have recently been listening to an MP3 recording of a course on the Sermon on the Mount taught by Darrell Johnson of Regent College, Vancouver, BC.  Johnson believes that modern English usage of the term “happy” both is too pallid to convey the meaning of makarios and puts too much emphasis on personal feeling.  Makarios turns not on how we feel about ourselves and our circumstances, but how God feels.  When Christ called the poor in spirit blessed, then, he was saying that their qualities are in accord with what God values, and so God is pleased with them.  Johnson suggests that finding out that one is approved by God has consequences for the person’s feelings; when one learns of God’s approval, that discovery is likely to produce joy.  Johnson gives other synonyms for makarios, including fortunate, approved, and in alignment or in sync with the kingdom of God.  Of the possible meanings of the term, the one I found most interesting was Carl Barth’s suggestion that makarios be rendered as “you lucky bums.”

So, why did Jesus say that it’s the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, and others like them who are blessed?  One point that Johnson makes is that these qualities come about in the first place only in response to the Holy Spirit.  Thus, they are qualities that indicate that the kingdom of God has broken into one’s life.  The word for “poor” that Jesus uses (ptochos) means “beggar,” i.e. someone with no resources who is totally dependent on another.  That, says Johnson, is who Jesus is talking about; someone who is destitute, knows it, and relies entirely on God.

We may have difficulty seeing such a person as being blessed or having supreme happiness.  Remember that, for Johnson, the makarios statements in the Beatitudes aren’t about a feeling of personal satisfaction but a state of receiving God’s approval.  When Aristotle distinguished being blessed by the gods (makarios) from the happiness or fulfillment of eudiamonia, the blessing of the gods was something added to an already complete and virtuous life.  For Christ, blessedness begins with God taking hold of the person and shaking up his or her life, leading to a recognition of spiritual poverty, entry into mourning, and yearning for righteousness.  Who is blessed?  The person who, spiritually and emotionally bankrupt, has no hope but God. 

I previously discussed Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, the happiness which accompanies the good life and is different from pleasure (hedonia).  A psychologist who has paid considerable attention to the distinction between the two is Alan S. Waterman, who is on the faculty of the College of New Jersey.  I ran across a comment by him in the September, 2007 American Psychologist (pages 612-613).  His comment is in response to an article on the hedonic treadmill, which is the theory that we humans have a set point of happiness to which we revert.  Per the theory, our happiness isn’t permanently enhanced if a winning lottery ticket suddenly makes us rich or the girl (or guy) of our dreams consents to marry us.  Similarly, we don’t experience lasting sadness from having our house burn down or being diagnosed with malaria.  After a blip up or down in our degree of personal satisfaction, we will soon revert to our set point and be no more or less happy than we were to start out.


Waterman thinks that the hedonic treadmill doesn’t apply well to eudaimonia.  He claims that there is a separate eudaimonic treadmill, which can become a eudaimonic staircase, whereas the hedonic treadmill always stays a treadmill.  I’ll explain what he means after I discuss his definition of eudaimonia.


Waterman claims that the good life that eudaimonia accompanies is “excellence in the pursuit of fulfillment of personal potentials in ways that further an individual’s purposes in living.”  That’s not the same as Aristotle’s concept, because the element of virtue is lacking.  Would I experience eudaimonia if I managed to fulfill my potential to dominate and humiliate others whenever I had the chance?   If that was my goal in life and I got really good at it, I’ve met Waterman’s criterion, but I sure haven’t satisfied Aristotle’s.


Despite the problem with his definition, Waterman’s argument about the treadmill is interesting.  He relates the achievements of eudiamonia to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow. Flow occurs when the challenges of an activity are closely matched to one’s level of ability.  Thus, when I started studying Biblical Greek last fall, I found the first set of translation exercises were somewhat beyond my capacity, but after a little practice my ability matched the exercises and I experienced flow.  According to Waterman, at that point I was also experiencing an enhanced sense of eudaimonia.  The state didn’t last, though, because eventually my skill level exceeded the demands made by that set of exercises, and what once was challenging became boring.  That’s the eudaimonic treadmill; I reverted to my previous level of well-being. 


However, I didn’t have to stay in a eudaimonic fixed state.  I could and did increase the level of challenge by going to a harder set of exercises.  I thus restored a sense of flow and again enhanced my sense of eudaimonia.  The process can be ongoing; the person always seeks new challenges and thereby achieves more and more of his or her potential.  This, says Waterman, is the eudaimonic staircase.



Eudiamonic? Hedonic? Or just wooden?

Eudiamonic? Hedonic? Or just wooden?


Though I’m fascinated by the argument, I have some questions.  First, returning to the difference between Waterman and Aristotle, do all forms of flow qualify?  If I continually enhance my personal potential to be a superior auto thief or street fighter, am I just as likely to experience eudaimonia as if I’m enhancing my potential for generosity or compassion?  Some ways of fulfilling my potential don’t seem advisable to pursue, even if they make me happy.  Second, why can’t someone use the same procedure with hedonia as Waterman does with eudaimonia, that is, seek ever greater pleasures and thus turn the hedonic treadmill into a hedonic staircase?  Waterman seems to think that this procedure works only for eudiamonia, but he doesn’t give any reason why it would work in the one case but not in the other.   The article to which he was responding (and which I previously discussed here) actually argues that the hedonic treadmill isn’t universal and there are ways to increase one’s hedonia.  Even if Waterman is wrong and always raising the bar works just as well with hedonia as with eudaimonia, the prospect of living in a society in which everyone is constantly seeking more pleasure doesn’t seem nearly as appealing as does a society in which everyone is seeking eudaimonia via striving for excellence.  Faced with two staircases to happiness, society may be better off if people head up the eudiamonic one.        

Is pleasure the same thing as happiness?   Though quite a few philosophers have considered happiness as the goal of human existence, relatively few thought that maximizing happiness is the same thing as maximizing pleasure.  Epicurus and his followers did try to achieve happiness through pleasure, but, as I’ve discussed earlier, to him pleasure meant not the satisfactions of eating, drinking, and sex, but an absence of pain and disturbance (call it the ‘peace and quiet’ view of happiness).   Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham tried to quantify the amount of pleasure that people experience, and proposed that society seek to bring about the maximum amount of pleasure for all people considered together.  His formulation has been widely criticized for regarding all pleasures as equal.  Even if the respective amounts of pleasure could be shown to be equivalent, does that mean that a weekend spent watching football and eating junk food is just as good as a weekend reading The Brothers Karamazov, serving soup to the homeless, and attending religious services?  (Some, of course, would say it’s better, but still pleasure and goodness aren’t being considered as equals.)

Though psychologists have been writing quite a bit about happiness over the past several years, most of them don’t consider how it relates to pleasure.  One exception is Martin Seligman.  In his book Authentic Happiness, he considers pleasure under the chapter heading “Happiness in the Present.”  He suggests some ways of enhancing pleasurable experiences, but pleasure has only a limited role to play in his program for increasing happiness.  He writes as follows:

“Despite the delights they so reliably bring, however, it is not easy to build your life around the bodily pleasures, for they are all just momentary.  The fade very rapidly once the external stimulus disappears, and we become accustomed to them very readily (“habituation”), often requiring bigger doses to deliver the same kick as originally.  It is only the first taste of French vanilla ice cream, the first wisp of Shalimar, and the first few seconds of warmth form the blazing fire that gives you a buzz.  Unless you space these encounters out abstemiously, these pleasures are enormously diminished.”  pp 103-104.    

Seligman’s perspective seems balanced; pleasure doesn’t make one happy, but it can contribute to happiness.  As he mentions, spacing out pleasures does help us not habituate to them.  Take today, for example.  It snowed in Fayetteville starting sometime early this morning and continuing until early afternoon.  I’ve loved looking out on the fresh powdering of snow and walking outside as the flakes spun around my head.  I even enjoyed driving in it.  Earlier this winter, I spent the better part of a week with family in Michigan.  It had snowed virtually every day in December, and everyone was habituated to it (that is, they were sick to death of it).  Snow is so much better if it only visits just once or twice a year!

Beautiful But Unappreciated Michigan Snow

Beautiful But Unappreciated Michigan Snow


One thing pretty much all of us know about happiness is that the Declaration of Independence regards its pursuit as an inalienable right.  This knowledge is so deeply embedded in the American psyche that we are inclined to take the next step and assume that happiness itself–not just its pursuit—is a right.  What did Thomas Jefferson actually mean when he penned the phrase “the pursuit of happiness”?  In his book Happiness: A History, historian Darrin McMahon situates these words in the context of the intellectual life of late 18th century Western civilization.  He quotes Jefferson’s response when, some years later, he was asked where he had drawn material for the Declaration:

Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.  All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.  (p. 316)

Locke’s influence is perhaps easiest to trace.  He had written of the “pursuit of happiness” in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, considering happiness a natural part of the divinely ordained order.  Specifically, God made humans to seek pleasure and recoil from pain.  Following these natural inclinations would lead to happiness here on earth and, for those humans astute enough to realize that the road to lasting happiness is also the road that leads to heaven, to eternal happiness as well.  This latter point was important; Locke worried that the desire for pleasure would lead humans into pointless pursuits, a danger that could be avoided by the use of reason as a guide directing us to God.  McMahon rejects the view of some that, since Locke considered the acquisition of property a noble and worthwhile thing, what the founding fathers really believed was that the right in question was not the pursuit of happiness but the pursuit of property.  If that were so, asks McMahon, why wouldn’t they have said what they meant?

So Jefferson may have been influenced by Locke’s emphasis on seeking pleasure under the directing influences of reason and Christian teaching (though Jefferson himself took much of the meat out of the latter, leaving a watery gruel).  How about the other three individuals that Jefferson cited?  McMahon indicates that recent historical scholarship has suggested that Aristotle, Cicero, and Algernon Sidney were all representatives of a “classical republican” tradition that emphasized liberty, particularly of the sort that freed people to participate directly in the public square.  In this tradition, happiness was seen as growing out of civic virtue.  Such a connection would seem to belie the hedonism that many associate with the pursuit of happiness:  

“Frequently demanding self-sacrifice, denial, and pain, civic virtue had little to do with pleasure.  In fact, in the classical republican analysis, the happiness of modern societies was gravely threatened by the egotism, luxury, and corruption that turned individuals away from the pursuit of the larger social good.  (p. 324)

Though Jefferson himself may not have viewed the pursuit of happiness as identical to the republican pursuit of the common good, many of those at the Constitutional Convention would have had this view.  Many would have been influenced in this direction by the work of Scottish Enlightenment thinker Francis Hutcheson, who claimed that humans have a moral sense that leads to pleasurable sensations whenever they act rightly.  Thus, virtuous acts cause pleasure, and, when such acts become habitual, happiness. 

McMahon also considers other thinkers that Jefferson and his colleagues would have read, in particular David Hume and Adam Smith.  For Smith in particular, the pursuit of happiness was unlikely to lead to personal satisfaction, but would benefit society as a whole.  McMahon is quite convincing in arguing that, at the least, the understanding of happiness that served as a background for its use in the Declaration was quite complex, containing elements of personal pleasure, religious understanding, civic-mindedness, and virtue.  Certainly we have lost nearly all of this complexity, having reduced the pursuit of happiness to striving for personal enjoyment devoid of faith, virtue, or the common good.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if we once again started pursuing that sort of happiness that Jefferson and his colleagues thought we had the right to pursue?

“Ignorance is bliss,” or so said the eighteenth century English poet Thomas Gray.  In previous blog postings, I’ve mentioned Chad Feldheimer, the clueless gym employee in “Burn After Reading,” who was simple-minded enough to remain happy while everyone around him was miserable.  I also alluded to the famous scene in “Annie Hall” in which Woody Allen asks a couple on the street their secret of happiness.  They answer  that they are shallow and empty-headed, so nothing bothers them.  In the movies, anyway, ignorance has its proponents.

I recently ran across a reference to a story by Voltaire (“The Story of a Good Brahmin”) that makes the complementary point that searching for knowledge leads to misery.  Nonetheless, Voltaire doesn’t seem ready to abandon the search for knowledge in order to embrace the happiness of ignorance.  I found the story online here.



The Brahmin of the story is “a very wise man, full of wit and very learned.”  All his wisdom, however, only made him miserable: “I have been studying for forty years, which is forty years wasted; I teach others, and I know nothing; this situation brings into my soul so much humiliation and disgust that life is unbearable to me.”  The narrator contrasts the despair of the Brahmin to the happiness of an ignorant old woman:

“That same day I saw the old woman who lived in his vicinity: I asked her whether she had ever been distressed not to know how her soul was made. She did not even understand my question: she had never reflected a single moment of her life over a single one of the points that tormented the Brahmin; she believed with all her heart in the metamorphoses of Vishnu, and, provided she could sometimes have some water from the Ganges to wash in, she thought herself the happiest of women.”

The narrator points out to the Brahmin the contrast between him and the woman.  The Brahmin replies, “I have told myself a hundred times that I would be happy if I was as stupid as my neighbors and yet I would want no part of such a happiness.”  Upon reflection, the narrator decides that he, too, “would not want to be happy on the condition of being imbecilic.”  This seems to him contradictory.  Isn’t it more logical to choose happiness over the struggles of reason?  Still, the other philosophers he asks make the same choice.  The story ends with the matter left unresolved:

“But, upon reflection, it appears that to prefer reason to felicity is to be very mad. Then how can this contradiction be explained? Like all the others. There is much to be said about it.”

Voltaire’s question is particularly pertinent for those who maintain that all humans seek happiness as their primary goal in life.  How could that be the case if even a substantial minority would prefer being informed but saddened to being ignorant and blissful?

I recently finished reading Happiness: A History, by Florida State University historian Darrin M. McMahon. 

A History

Happiness: A History

The book is rather daunting–with end notes, over 500 pages detailing ideas of happiness all the way from Herodotus to the 21st century empirical researchers.  McMahon is adept at explaining philosophical concepts and presenting apt literary and artistic examples, though, so the pages turn fairly quickly.  I was impressed with the breadth of his knowledge, especially his familiarity with original sources spanning a period of over 20 centuries.  As I read, I learned the answers to such interesting questions as:

In what way was the early spread of Christianity facilitated by its radically different view of happiness?

What made Luther come to the conclusion that Christians should enjoy this life, not just wait until eternity to experience happiness?

How were la Mettrie’s views on happiness a scandal to his fellow Enlightenment thinkers?

What did Thomas Jefferson mean when he included “the pursuit of happiness” in his draft of the Declaration of Independence?

McMahon’s work gives a good sense of the broad intellectual currents that influenced ideas of happiness throughout Western civilization.  As noted above, he also talks about some of the artists, composers, and the like whose work was influenced by contemporary notions of happiness.  There are dozens of reproductions of artistic works scattered through the text (all in greyscale, unfortunately); these often nicely illustrate McMahon’s argument.

In future posts, I’ll try to describe some of the things I found most interesting in what McMahon has to say.

Salon and Croesus. Gerrit Von Honthorst. Hamburger Kunsthalle

Salon and Croesus. Gerrit Von Honthorst. Hamburger Kunsthalle

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed what the ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle and Epicurus had to say about happiness.  An even earlier Greek who had a definite opinion on the matter was Solon.  According to Herodotus (Book I, 30), Solon, a wise and eminent Athenian, traveled to Lydia, to the court of the wealthy king Croesus.  After Solon was shown all the king’s treasures, Croesus asked him if he had ever seen anyone happier than Croesus himself.  Solon answered that the happiest man was one Tellus, who not only was himself wealthy but had noble sons, each of whom provided him with grandsons, and who died heroically in battle.  After his death, the Athenians paid him great honor.  Croesus, hoping to receive at least the consolation prize, asked Solon who placed next after Tellus.  That would be Cleobis and Biton, Solon answered.  These were two brothers whose mother wanted to go to a local religious festival.  When the yoke of oxen didn’t come to pull her cart, Cleobis and Biton pulled her to the festival themselves.  They were given acclaim by the villagers, and their mother prayed at the temple that they be given “the best boon that man may receive.”  Following their mother’s prayer, Cleobis and Biton ate the feast, lay down to sleep, and died before waking.  

Upset, Croesus asked why Solon ranked his happiness below that of “common men.”  Salon answered:

Now if I am to speak of you, I say that I see you very rich and the king of many men.  But I cannot yet answer your question, before I hear that you have ended your life well.  For he who is very rich is not more blest than he who has but enough for the day, unless fortune so attend him that he ends his life well, having all good things about him.  (Book I, 32)

Croesus decided that Solon was foolish.  “ But after Solon’s departure,” reports Herodotus, “the divine anger fell heavily on Croesus: as I guess, because he supposed himself to be blest beyond all other men.”  Croesus’s son and heir died in an accident, and, misinterpreting a prophecy from the oracle at Delphi, Croesus invaded Persia and was defeated, losing his kingdom and all his wealth. 

Herodotus seems to see Croesus’ downfall as a result of hubris.  To conclude that one is blessed above everyone else is prideful, a lifting of oneself above the common run of humanity.  Once he has exalted himself in this manner, his fall is inevitable. 

The viewpoint that is the most interesting here, though, is not that of Herodotus but that of Solon.  He doesn’t see wealth or power, even in extraordinary portions, as any  guarantee of happiness.  Fortunes can always change, and in fact might be expected to do so.  In the words of the 20th century American philosopher Frank Sinatra, “That’s life, that’s what all the people say./ You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.”  And if fortune is unstable, so, too, is happiness. 

For Solon, it is impossible to even speak of happiness (the Greek uses more than one term, but for him the central feature of happiness seems to be that one is blessed by the gods) until a person’s life is over.  “[W]hoever continues in the possession of most things, and at last makes a gracious end of his life, such a man, O king, I deem worthy of this title.”  Aristotle rejects Solon’s view (Nichomachean Ethics, Book I, 10); given his greater emphasis on the role of virtue in happiness, he thinks it is possible to speak at least of eudiamonic happiness during the course of a person’s life.  Solon’s view represents the opposite extreme from modern psychological concept of happiness that operationalizes it as a response to a happiness questionnaire taken at one point during a person’s life. 

There’s another interesting element in Solon’s account of who is happy.  When asked to grant Cleobis and Biton “the best boon that man may receive,” the gods took their lives.  At first this sounds as if Solon thinks that death is better than life, but I’m not so sure that’s what we should conclude.  Maybe he just favors good endings.  To please their mother, be acclaimed in their community, win the god’s favor, have a great meal, then take a well-deserved rest after hard exertion—it doesn’t get any better than that.  We admire athletes who retire when they’re on top; Solon admires people who expire on top.



I noted in my previous post that Aristotle didn’t see pleasure as the highest good, and didn’t equate it with happiness.  Other philosophers have equated pleasure with both the good and happiness.  Epicurus, an Athenian philosopher who lived from 341 B.C.E. to 270 B.C.E., thought that pleasure is the goal of the happy life.  He said that the good things in life are whatever causes pleasure, and the bad things are whatever causes pain.  His name is the root for the adjective “epicurean,” which can be defined as “given to indulgence in sensual pleasures.”


Actually, though, being epicurean in the sense of pursuing physical pleasures was not what Epicurus had in mind (so no, he wasn’t epicurean as we define the term). Despite equating pleasure with happiness, Epicurus didn’t advocate self-indulgence.  He conceived of pleasure not as sensuality, but as “freedom from bodily pain and mental anguish.”  The goal of life was not to stimulate the senses but to minimize physical and emotional suffering.  Epicurus thought that distress could be reduced if we both jettison false beliefs that cause anxiety and avoid pursuing idle desires.  He counseled prudence and frugality, though many of his followers subsequently abandoned such restraint in preference for satisfying libidinous desires. 


For Epicurus, then, happiness consisted in freedom from physical and mental pain.  He eliminated the connection between virtue and happiness that Aristotle thought was so important, and also eliminated Aristotle’s notion that the blessing of the gods (in the form of giving the person a respectable family, sufficient wealth, a good name, and the like) is necessary for happiness.  He also rejected the precondition that Plato set for happiness, namely the harmony of various aspects of the personality.


Freedom from physical and emotional pain is a pallid sort of happiness.  Can’t we do better than this?  Perhaps so, but Epicurus’ view had its advantages.  The chief of these was that it made happiness available to all. 


In his book Happiness: A History (2006), historian Darrin M. McMahon describes how happiness was progressively brought under human control.  Before the fifth century, humans could hope for happiness, but could do nothing to bring it about, since it was entirely a gift of the gods.  Plato and Aristotle were the first to broach the possibility that humans could do something to increase their likelihood of happiness.  However, for them, the path to happiness was quite arduous—for Aristotle, only a fortunate few could hope to display the requisite virtues, and even those men (no women, children, or slaves need apply) were still dependent on the blessings of the gods.  Epicurus threw the doors open: everyone could learn to think and act so as to free themselves from pain, so everyone could be happy.  It’s not surprising that he attracted a large number of followers, both then and for centuries to come. 

In earlier posts, I talked about the Greek concepts of eudiamonia and makarios as found in Aristotle.  Each refers to a form of happiness, with the first consisting of being fulfilled and virtuous and the second consisting of being fortunate and blessed.  Aristotle also talks about hedonia, or pleasure.  Aristotle took it as a given that humans (and other creatures) pursue pleasure.  After considering the views of other philosophers concerning pleasure, he concluded that it is good and that it serves to complete the activities that it accompanies (thus, for example, the experience of listening to music would be more complete if accompanied by pleasure than it would without pleasure).  However, pleasure can accompany either good or bad activities (with the good activities being those that are proper to man).  Pleasure accompanying good activities is good; pleasure accompanying bad activities is bad.   

As is only fitting for someone who thought virtue resided in the mean, Aristotle had a moderate view of pleasure.  He was favorably disposed to it for the most part.  He did not see it as the highest or only form of good, though, since, for the person lacking in virtue, pleasure often accompanies bad deeds, not good ones. 



In contrast to Aristotle’s moderate beliefs about pleasure, current cultural beliefs regarding pleasure seem rather immoderate.  The dominant view seems to be that pleasure as an unmitigated good to be sought at every opportunity.  This “if it feels good, do it” mentality (one of my college roommates endorsed this phrase as his guiding philosophy of life) has been a driving force in many works of popular culture, though some works exploring the theme make it clear that using pleasure as one’s compass is more likely to result in a shipwreck than a satisfying voyage (I’m thinking here of movies such as “Carnal Knowledge” and “Autofocus”).  A less prevalent element in society is a Puritanism consistent with the characterization of the original Puritans by Thomas B. Macaulay “The puritan hated bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”  In some quarters, there certainly is suspicion of the pleasures that life has to offer.  I’ve probably run into the aversion to pleasure most when working with clients who feel guilty whenever they take time to do something enjoyable.  I certainly don’t encounter this view as much now as I did years ago, though.  I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), a Dutch Calvinist denomination.  Up until at least the sixties, the denomination disapproved strongly of movies, dancing, and card playing.  The idea was that these were mere worldly amusements, not fit to occupy citizens of the kingdom of God.  There certainly was some Puritanism in that stance.  It’s probably been at least twenty years since anyone prominent in the CRC argued seriously against such entertainments, though. 

So, at present the danger for our society seems to be that we overemphasize pleasure and confuse it with happiness.  One question to consider is whether it’s useful to distinguish, like Aristotle did, between the pleasures that accompany good activities and the pleasures that accompany bad activities.  How can we tell which is which?   




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