By McMahon, Darrin M.
The Wilson Quarterly , Vol. 29, No. 1
German philosophers are not noted for their lightheartedness. Consider Hegel, who believed that it was the fate of great men like himself to be denied "what is commonly called happiness." Hegel conceded that "one may contemplate history from the point of view of happiness," but he saw the task as essentially futile. "History is not the soil in which happiness grows," he concluded. "The periods of happiness in it are blank pages."
But what exactly is this thing that Hegel denied himself and so many others? An emotion, perhaps? Many of us today would probably be quick to describe happiness in that way--as a good feeling or positive mood. Yet the very first taxonomist of the emotions, Aristotle, excluded happiness from his classifications. The list of emotions he provides in the Rhetoric, the most complete of several such accounts, includes anger, love, enmity, fear, pity, indignation, envy, and contempt. But "happiness" (eudaimonia), is apparently something else. A "certain kind of activity of the soul expressing virtue" is how Aristotle defines the term in the Nichomachean Ethics. Encompassing a full and flourishing life, happiness is nothing so cheap as a fleeting feeling or a passing fancy. For in the same way that "one swallow does not make a summer," one day "does not make a man happy." Happiness entails "a complete life," a life lived according to virtue and measured right up to its end. Until that end, a tragic turn or a cowardly choice might bring shame or misfortune on a life otherwise well spent. Hence the celebrated adage attributed to the Greek statesman Solon, "Call no man happy until he is dead."
Aristotle's view of happiness as a universal moral end--the telos of humankind, synonymous with the good life--was widely shared in the ancient world, first among the Greeks and then among the Romans. And though many, including Aristotle himself, were prepared to grant that pleasure and good feeling might have their place in a happy life, the principal element was thought to be virtue, which frequently demanded discipline, sacrifice, and even pain. For Stoic philosophers such as the Roman statesman Cicero, virtue was so indispensable to happiness that if a man possessed it, he could be happy regardless of the circumstances--even, Cicero claimed, while being tortured. That was taking matters to the extreme. But it illustrates nicely how happiness, for these thinkers of the ancient world, was invariably considered a thing apart, neither a sentiment nor a passion nor an emotional state.
But if happiness is not, strictly speaking, an emotion--or, at least, has not always been thought of as one--then what is it? The fact is that it's difficult, if not impossible, to say. As Hegel's predecessor Immanuel Kant rightly observed in trying to establish his own hold on the question, "The concept of happiness is such an indeterminate one that even though everyone wishes to attain happiness, yet he can never say definitely and consistently what it is that he really wishes and wills."
That is a disconcerting realization for any human being. In Kant's case, the slipperiness of happiness meant that it could never be a reliable guide to evaluating moral action. Historians have apparently reasoned along similar lines, concluding that happiness is simply not a useful category of inquiry. But they ignore this great human pursuit at their peril. "How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness," William James observed in The Varieties of Religious Experience, "is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure." The contention that the motive was secret, or at least closely guarded, would help account for the intimate nature of the yearning, its deeply personal bent. And that, in turn, would help account for the conclusion of James's contemporary, Sigmund Freud, who maintained that happiness is "something essentially subjective."
Agreeing with James that the desire for happiness is a universal impulse, Freud stressed that this impulse is nonetheless so idiosyncratic and opaque as to be hidden in most cases from the outside observer. …