Magazine article The Spectator

Eat, Drink and Be Merry - but Be Virtuous Too If You Want to Be Happy

Magazine article The Spectator

Eat, Drink and Be Merry - but Be Virtuous Too If You Want to Be Happy

Article excerpt

Since Christmas is the season of good cheer but seems to leave millions squabbling, resentful and as miserable as sin, it is an appropriate time to consider what the key to happiness is. The ancients provided two distinct but highly practical theories, easily condensable into the average cracker.

The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) is popularly associated with the philosophy of hedonism (Greek hedone, 'pleasure'), but this is a misunderstanding. For him, happiness was ataraxia, 'freedom from anxiety': it was the absence of physical and mental pain that counted. In other words, pleasure was fine, but only on certain conditions. For example, eternal self-indulgence sounds great, but think of the nasty after-effects; eternal law-breaking too, but it could land you in serious trouble, and even if you were never caught, the fear that you might be would make life a constant misery. The key lay in avoiding a desire for anything that might cause anxiety, especially anything that had no limits, like wealth or status, because these could never be satisfied.

To help the budding Epicurean, Epicurus defined desire in three categories:

1. Natural and necessary (subdivided into necessary for happiness, for freedom from disturbance, and for life), e.g., food, drink, sex and security.

2. Natural and unnecessary, e.g., specific types of food and drink.

3. Unnatural and unnecessary, e.g., fame, power.

The objection to Epicureanism is its negativity. No man of ambition or spirit would choose to live such a drab, risk-free existence. It results in institutions ruled by Health and Safety regulations, Charter Marks for Excellence, League Tables and awards announcing 'We Invest in People' (whatever that means), all hallmarks of a mentality whose purpose is to draw people into a ring-fenced, conforming, anxiety-free world where rules and regulations 'for your own good' drain existence of all initiative, and in so doing deprive you of most of the things that make life worth living.

The alternative route to happiness canvassed by the ancients was the proposition that happiness depended on virtue. Given the modern propensity to associate happiness with fun and virtue with prim puritanism, this seems like a contradiction in terms. But to the ancients, philosophical arete (Greek) and virtus (Latin) meant something much more like doing the right thing for the right reason without having to think about it.

In his famous Apology of 399 BC (Greek apologia, 'speech in self-defence'), Socrates argues that 'virtue does not come about because of money, but money and all other things, both private and public, become good because of virtue'. The important point here is that Socrates does not reject the idea that money and other such things are 'good'. All he is doing is arguing that their goodness somehow depends on their connection with virtue.

But what connection? The answer emerges in another dialogue, Euthydemus. Here Socrates is discussing with a young man, Cleinias, the purpose of philosophy and begins by saying that everyone wants to 'be happy'. But to be happy, people need 'good things', and he goes on to reach agreement with Cleinias as to what they might be - wealth, health, looks, good birth, abilities, honours, prudence, justice, bravery and wisdom. But it cannot end there. Clearly, says Socrates, we must use the good things we have got, since mere possession of them will not ensure our happiness; and if we use them, then we must use them rightly. …

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