The Great Conversation: Happiness

By Matt McKeown

Happiness is one of the most perennial, and contentious, topics of the Great Conversation.

Counter-intuitively, it is far easier to agree that everyone wants happiness than it is to agree on what happiness is. Probably the most successful definition over the course of history has been Aristotle’s: εὐδαιμονία, meaning something like “flourishing,” was linked by him to both internal and external factors. The internal factors were qualities of intellect and character—happiness called for self-discipline, education, and virtue; meanwhile the external factors embraced physical health and prosperity, but with moderate rather than excessive wealth. He makes happiness the purpose of the virtues themselves in the Nicomachean Ethics, thus neatly uniting contentment with character.

This fairly common-sense definition of happiness was embraced by the Medievals (with modifications: man’s eternal happiness with God was placed above temporal happiness, a real but lesser good), and remains popular to this day, but it is not universally accepted. For some people, the intuition that happiness should be possible to every person, regardless of circumstances, seems to rightly override the Aristotelian definition. This often leads to a wholly moral definition of happiness. Socrates’ steadfast assertion that it is better to endure injustice than to do it, and that those who harm others are by definition unhappy, seems to fit into this tradition. In a similar vein, Stoics like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius discussed happiness as something obtained by complete acceptance of all circumstances, which they viewed as divinely ordained, so that a person in destitution or even under torture could, by practicing proper detachment, still be happy. This extreme conclusion, however, has not gained wide acceptance.

Of course, all these discussions presume that happiness is the same thing for everyone, which is hard to prove. People’s differing beliefs and tastes seem to militate against that idea. And yet, just when we are about to accept a subjective definition of happiness, we always seem to run into some case (say a skinhead or a drug addict) where we find a person’s contentment with their own situation so repugnant that, whatever they feel, we can’t conscientiously regard them as happy.

Certainly there is no happinesse within this circle of flesh; nor is it in the Opticks of these eyes to behold felicity; the first day of our Jubilee is death; the Devil hath therefore failed of his desires ...

An alternative, laid down by Kant, is to claim that morality and happiness are simply not related in the way Aristotle and the Medievals claimed. Kant stated that right conduct did not necessarily produce happiness, but was the precondition for deserving happiness. Moreover, he insisted that obedience to the moral law (what he called the “categorical imperative”) had to be disinterested in order to be virtuous in the first place; obeying out of a hope of reward would be mercenary. In his eyes, happiness meant having one’s desires met, and since people have different desires, there can be no universal philosophy of happiness, only a philosophy of duty.

The Kantian view and the Medieval, though opposed in most respects, share one significant quality: both propose that there is something more important than happiness. Of the two, the Medieval is gentler, allowing that happiness is a legitimate human pursuit, but one that must be curbed in favor of sanctity when the two conflict (whereas Kant seems to expect us to simply ignore the desire for happiness). A darker descendant of this can be found in Dorothy L. Sayers’ small volume Creed or Chaos?, where she writes, in a voice like thunder: “the kingdom of heaven can never be attained in this world except by unceasing toil and struggle and vigilance; in fact, we cannot be good and cannot be happy, but there are certain eternal achievements that make even happiness look like trash.”

Suggested reading:
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
St. Augustine, Confessions
Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio
Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera


If you liked this piece, you may like some of our other “Great Conversation” posts as well, like this one on the idea of beauty or this one on immortality. Or take a look at this essay on the connection between Catholic education and the seven liberal arts.

Published on 8th July, 2020.

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