Can philosophy really offer advice on happiness? Certainly this was one of its traditional aspirations. In the seventeenth-century, it was taken for granted that the philosopher’s job included talking about how to achieve a happy life. When René Descartes was a schoolboy, one of the state-of-the-art textbooks he studied was a massive compendium of philosophy in four parts published in 1609 by the now forgotten scholastic philosopher Eustachius; it discussed logic and metaphysics and physics and psychology, but it also stated that “the final goal of a complete philosophical system is human happiness.” And this was following a long tradition, that stretched back through the middle ages, and indeed right back to classical times. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote a treatise called De Vita Beata, “On the Happy Life”; and much earlier his Greek Stoic predecessors had offered many recommendations on how to live in a calm and balanced and tranquil way, how to achieve a “good flow of life”, as Zeno, the founder of Stoicism put it, in the third century before Christ. And going back just a little earlier, Aristotle, the co-founder of Western philosophy along with Plato, gave lectures on ethics which described the goal of human life as what he called eudaimonia, that is to say, happiness or human fulfilment.
So it’s a project with a long history. And when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. To begin with we are, as Aristotle famously pointed out, animals (albeit animals with a rather special, indeed unique, characteristic, that of rationality). And whether an animal is happy or flourishing isn’t at all a subjective question: you can just see, straight off, that the dog or cat or horse with a glossy coat, well-fed but not overweight, not diseased or exploited or imprisoned, not mangy or nervy or snappish, but enthusiastically engaged in the (canine or feline or equine) activities characteristic of its kind – you can just see that such a specimen is happy, flourishing, thriving, a prime specimen of its species. Common sense here is backed up by science, since there are all sorts of physiological, biochemical and behavioural indicators of well-being, which can be established quite objectively. So by analogy, we might reasonably expect to have no trouble identifying a human being who is happy and flourishing.
But of course in the case of humans it’s not quite that simple. We are certainly biological creatures, so it’s reasonable to think the conditions for our happiness will include elements we share with other creatures. To be happy we need to be well-nourished, healthy, free from external repression or exploitation, and able to develop our human talents and capacities in ways that allow them to flourish. Flourishing is a biological term, which etymologically connotes flowering – that is to say the healthy, vigorous unfolding of the capacities peculiar to each species. For a tomato plant, flourishing is quite simply its production of strong leaves and shoots, and then its coming to maturity and bearing rich and succulent fruits. But what are the fruits of human life?
All the basic biological requirements for human flourishing (food, shelter, security and so on) are important and necessary – you might call them pre-conditions. But there are three more substantive elements I want to focus on – elements which go way beyond any of the purely biological models so far mentioned. These elements have to do, respectively, with human achievement, with human virtue and with human transcendence, or to put it in shorthand form, with the fine, the good and the meaningful. They are concerned in turn with the development of talents, with the perfecting of our nature, and lastly with our slow and painful attempts to come to terms with the significance of human life.
Let me take achievement first, since this is relatively uncontroversial. In the island described in Tennyson’s poem “The Lotus Eaters” (taking its cue from Homer’s Odyssey), the inhabitants seem at first to be very enviable. The place is idyllic, supremely relaxed and comfortable. “In the afternoon” (the poem opens) “we came unto a place/ in which it seemèd always afternoon…” Very pleasant. Rather like the planet described in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, a planet that has stopped rotating on its axis, so that some zones are frozen in perpetual midnight, and others are always roasting in the midday sun, but where the rich and famous live in the pleasant zone where it’s always four o’clock in the afternoon – time for tea and cucumber sandwiches.
The Lotus Eaters are contented enough – but, as it slowly dawns on Odysseus (or Ulysses), there’s something disquieting about them – they never do anything, just loll around eating the lotus (perhaps the ancient Greek equivalent of reaching for the valium). The moral drawn by Homer, and Tennyson, is that the truly happy life must be one where we are stretched. We may not like this fact, we may kick and scream against it, like Odysseus’ companions, whom he had to drag weeping back into the ship, once they had tasted the lotus fruit. But like it or not, we cannot as humans be truly happy if we allow our talents to atrophy. As the parable of the talents (found in the gospel of Matthew) makes clear, talents are for use, not to be to be buried in the ground. Excellence can of course take many forms, musical, artistic, intellectual, athletic; and (as the parable of the talents again makes clear) people have different gifts, and not everyone is expected to achieve the same levels. But some degree of achievement is necessary for everyone, if they are to aspire to human happiness. What is more, achievement does not simply drop into our laps – it must be worked for, striven for. As the Dutch-Jewish philosopher Benedict Spinoza observed, “All fine things are difficult.” This is, again, whether we like it or not, a necessary truth about the human condition.
So happiness requires achievement. But although achievement is necessary for happiness, it is not, I suggest, sufficient – not in itself enough. Something more is needed, and this brings me to my second, and perhaps more controversial, dimension, character development, or (to use a somewhat old-fashioned term) virtue. Consider the case of someone who achieves considerable success, yet who exercises their talents in an utterly vicious way. This, I would argue, cannot constitute human happiness. The Don Giovanni of Mozart’s opera is a complex and interesting character, who exercises his charm and charisma and intelligence in a way that is glamorous and exciting and gratifies his own ego, but at the cost of riding rough-shod over the feelings of others. Can he be happy? Well, someone might object, of course he can: in his triumphant song in Act Three, about wine women and song – viva le femine, viva il buon vino – doesn’t he prove that virtue is one thing, happiness another? You may disapprove of the Don’s life, you may call it vicious, but surely (so runs the objection) that doesn’t show he’s not happy.
We can’t deny that the vicious person may have considerable enjoyment – much of their life may be, to use a notion that Don Giovanni draws on in one of his arias, diverting. But happiness, as Aristotle insisted, has to be assessed not in terms of particular pleasurable episodes, but in more holistic terms, over a life taken as a whole. And many moral philosophers, including the atheist Scottish philosopher David Hume in the eighteenth century, have argued that vice can’t make you happy in the long run.
Is this just because the vicious person is likely eventually to be caught out and get his come-uppance? Even if that were true (and it would be very hard indeed to establish), it does not, I think, get to the heart of the issue. Suppose Giovanni’s crimes had not been discovered, and suppose there is no supernatural justice to drag him down to hell, as eventually happens at the close of the Mozart opera. Even were we to delete this final denouement, it is made brilliantly clear in the music given to Giovanni from the start of the opera that all is not well with his interior life. He may go triumphantly from one conquest to another, he may insist that he knows what he wants, but there is a harshness, an ugliness, a kind of defiant anger in his music that tells us he is not truly at peace. Despite Nietzsche’s later rantings about the will to power, and the need for heroic individuals to “invert eternal values” and be strong enough to suppress the “weak” impulses of compassion and tenderness, the fact remains that we cannot write the script for human fulfilment on our own. We may not like it, we may furiously insist that there must be an alternative, but the moral responses of sympathy, caring and openness to the needs of others are inescapably bound up with the possibility of human happiness. Human happiness is, inevitably, fragmented and damaged when it is pursued in a way that is cut off from the pursuit of the good.
I have so far argued for two necessary conditions for happiness: first, achievement, and second, virtue. I now come to the third and most difficult condition of all, transcendence. The seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal kept a collection of thoughts on the human condition, which, had he lived, he was hoping to turn into a book. One of the thoughts was this: l’homme passe l’homme – man transcends himself. Part of what he meant by this, I think, is that the human being always reaches beyond any given set of circumstances, any given formula for existence: we are never satisfied just with the “given”, but have that mysterious urge to question, to seek for more. That at once puts us in a completely different category from any of the other creatures with whom we share this planet. For an oak tree, or a blackbird, or a horse, if you give them the appropriate environment where all the conditions for their biological welfare are fully met, then they will be happy, or flourish. But humankind, notoriously, is different. However well our biological and social and psychological needs are catered for, we cannot wholly escape that strange restlessness which is our birthright. It is the mark of our unique property of being not just conscious but self-conscious, reflective creatures. We alone know our own finitude, and in that very fact we dimly grasp the infinity we fall short of.
Part of this is that we are aware of our mortality, in a way none of the animals quite are. As the atheist philosopher Anthony Grayling has noted, our total expected ration of life, even if we make it to our eighties, is around a thousand months. And even without dwelling on that sombre thought, we cannot but be aware, more generally, of the fragility that besets human life. We are subject to contingency – the constant interplay of forces that at any moment may interrupt our lives with accident, or disease, or any of what Hamlet called “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” This contingency, this fragility, means that human happiness is intrinsically vulnerable. This obviously affects the first of my elements of happiness, achievement, since achievements are in constant danger of being eroded or undermined by external factors which we cannot control. Nor does my second element, virtue, seem enough to safeguard us against this risk. Even the most devoted and sincere moral projects can come to grief as a result of accident or misfortune: someone may devote their lives to a good cause only to see it go up in smoke.
This illustrates the spectre of futility that seems to undermine that sense of meaning that is so crucial for happiness. For it often seems as if we live in an absurd universe – a universe, certainly, where there are no guarantees that our efforts, however noble or well-intentioned, will succeed. Everything we do seems subject to what the ancients called Fortuna – luck, or fate. Achievement is certainly a hostage to luck, and, as was argued by one of the most influential moral philosophers of modern times, the late Bernard Williams, the domain of morality is not immune either.
Luck gives rise to a sense of arbitrariness – a sense that nothing ultimately makes much sense. And this in turn generates a sense of futility or absurdity – the special theme of the twentieth century French existentialist philosophers, notably Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. In his reflections on the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to the endlessly repeated punishment of pushing a boulder up a hill only to see it roll all the way down again, Camus directly highlights the plight of humankind in the face of a blank and seemingly hostile universe. Camus’s Sisyphus, the “proletarian of the Gods”, stands for all the millions of our fellow human-beings on the planet who are still today condemned to wearisome drudgery without any hope of escape. But Sisyphus is above all a defiant thinker who will not abandon his fierce “lust for life”, who refuses to be docile and accepting of his plight, and who is unflinchingly conscious of the ultimate absurdity of the existence he has to endure. Sisyphus, says Camus, is “the true hero of the absurd.”
In the last sentence of his essay, Camus makes a remarkable claim about Sisyphus’s state of mind, as after each backbreaking effort he watches the bolder roll back downhill again, and turns to trudge down to the valley one more time: il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux, say Camus – “we must imagine Sisyphus as happy”. Well, perhaps. But to take the superhuman heroism of the defiant Sisyphus as our model for the human condition seems to me a profoundly elitist manoeuvre, presupposing the need for a courage so indomitable as to deny realistic prospects for happiness, let alone meaning, to countless numbers of human beings. Most of us, all too conscious of our fragility and vulnerability to fortune, would surely be overwhelmed by the thought that all the cards were as stacked as they were for Sisyphus against the chance of any ultimate success. Yet of course this bleak picture is precisely the one presented by Camus in his book – a book that opens with the chilling pronouncement that “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, namely suicide.” Life for Camus in this mood could only be absurd, futile and meaningless: in a Godless universe, without any of the supporting structures of religion to sustain faith in the power of goodness, all that is left us is “the refusal to hope and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.”
So does my third dimension, the need for meaning, lead us to embrace the consolations of religion? Not if you mean by religion a crude view that everything will somehow be made right in the next world. I don’t think a philosopher, using human reason alone, is in a position to pronounce on that one way or another. But I do think that acknowledging the spiritual dimension of human life will guide us towards a richer conception of human happiness – one that acknowledges our need for transcendence, and so allows for the possibility of meaning, rather than absurdity, in our human existence. It’s not about pie in the sky, or an insistence that “everything will be OK in the end.” On the contrary, if you look at the world’s religions, they put suffering at the very centre of the human condition – this is strikingly true, of course, of Christianity, in its central symbol of the cross.
Religious claims about the “triumph” of goodness are very easy to misunderstand. Goodness, in the course of actual human history, is clearly often defeated. When St Paul encouraged his followers to bear adversity with the cry that “neither death nor life nor … any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38) he cannot have meant his words to be construed as the naive assertion that things always work out for the best. The Jewish scriptures, in which he was so well versed, are packed with stories of terrible trials suffered by the innocent, of heroic goodness often crushed by the forces of tyranny and oppression. So the Pauline thought cannot be a piece of slick optimism, but must involve a more subtle understanding of the power of Goodness.
A rather less well known passage from his letters perhaps expresses it more tellingly: “No trial has come upon you that is outside the boundaries of human experience. And God is faithful, who does not let you be tested beyond your capacity, but with the test provides a way out, the power to endure” (I Corinthians 10:13). The resilience affirmed here is evidently not a magical overcoming of impossible odds, but a certain mindset which will not judge the value of sticking to the side of goodness by reference to its success or failure measured in terms of outcome, but which generates the courage to endure.
Any discussion of happiness and the meaning of life raises questions about suffering and whether it may not somehow be inextricably bound up with the possibility of human happiness and meaning. There are no easy answers here. But I do believe that the traditions of spirituality offer something richer and far more profound, when it comes to coping with human suffering, than anything on offer from the secular atheism of our time. The latter rests its case on scientific rationality – and of course there is nothing whatever wrong with this. Indeed, reason is our greatest human gift, and science perhaps our greatest achievement, with untold power to alleviate distress and improve the conditions for life. But on the religious view, we are here not just to improve the quality of life, important though that is, but to come to terms with that “interior” dimension which spiritual writers have discussed for many centuries. The task, to put it bluntly, is to orient ourselves towards the good, and to grow in knowledge and love of that good. And the disciplines of spirituality, which have traditionally included reading, chanting, mediation, prayer, fasting, and so on, are clearly on a quite different wavelength from rationalistic and scientific solutions.
I am not saying these religious traditions should be immune from critical scrutiny – clearly things can go wrong, institutions can become corrupt, and not all spiritual exercises are equally valid. But at their best, what such forms of life are directed towards is the development of all our human resources, not just for reasoning and rationality, but for ethical sensibility and emotional depth and psychological and moral growth, for tranquillity, integrity, and ultimately perhaps, what has traditionally been called “blessedness”.
The path envisaged by these traditions is not of course an easy one. But we know anyway that human life is not easy – the attempt to solve everything by making it easy is one of the self-defeating idolatries to which humans have always had recourse, and today is no exception. But the very difficulty can have a purifying force, as George Eliot beautifully observed in her novel Adam Bede (1859): “Let us … be thankful that our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathy – the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love … For it is at such periods that the sense of our lives having visible and invisible relations beyond any of which either our present or prospective self is the centre, grows like a muscle that we are obliged to lean on and exert.”
The precise nature of those “invisible relations” (at least on anything like a religious interpretation) was something about which George Eliot herself was agnostic. If, as I would argue, they ultimately connect with the transcendent, a source of goodness and reality beyond the cosmos studied by science, that is something that cannot by definition be established by science, or perhaps even by philosophy, but must remain a matter of faith. Dogmatism is out of place here, and is in my view one of the greatest blemishes that alienate people from true religion.
What I have been arguing is, to begin with, that there are basic biological and other preconditions for happiness that can be objectively determined, and scientifically confirmed. But beyond that, in order to be happy a human life needs, in the first place, to be one of genuine achievement, one that allows for the successful development of our characteristic human talents and capacities. Second, it needs to be oriented towards the good; for a life cut off from moral sensibility cannot reach integrity and fulfilment. And thirdly, happiness requires a sense of meaning, the courage to endure, as inherently weak and dependent creatures, in the face of contingency and apparent futility; and this brings in the need for a spiritual dimension to our lives, as we recognise our finitude and embark on the search for the transcendent. This last dimension takes us beyond the limits of science, into an area where there are no guarantees; but, paradoxically, this very lack of guarantees may perhaps be the key to the humility we need as we set out on the journey.
John Cottingham is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Reading and an honorary fellow of St John’s College, Oxford. His recent books include Why Believe?(Continuum, forthcoming 2009), On the Meaning of Life (Routledge), The Spiritual Dimension (Cambridge) and Cartesian Reflections (Oxford). He is editor of Ratio, the international journal of analytic philosophy.
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