The Truth about Happiness

As an undergraduate I read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the first time. Sitting in the metal desk with its foldable table, my pen ready, my book open, and a fresh page in my spiral notebook, I was prepared to glean wisdom from my professor on this classic of Western thought. However, the instructor started the seminar with a strange question, “What makes you happy?”

After a moment of hesitation, 15 worldly-wise students delivered 15 different answers, among them: family, success, God, dating, movies, food, and working out. The dialogue continued as our living Socrates asked, “If each of you defines happiness differently, how then may Aristotle say that happiness is the end of every person?”

We spent the next hour offering rejoinders to Aristotle and to each other, discovering that happiness must not be circumstantial or subjective. Rather, as the great philosopher asserts, happiness is “something perfect and self-sufficient” as well as “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”

The Greek word for “happiness” is eudaimonia, literally translated as “good soul state.” Happiness is a state of being virtuous; a happy person practices and has habits of virtue. Throughout Western tradition, philosophers and artists have wrestled with this definition in defiance or acquiescence, sometimes adding, adjusting, or improving upon it. Yet, for most 21st century Americans, this millennia-old conversation has been forgotten. When Americans discuss the “pursuit of happiness,” we assume a definition of happiness much like what I and my college classmates initially produced, one that is personal, temporal, and connected to pleasure. Any innate link between happiness and virtue has been severed, not to mention the loss of the idea of a soul.

Picking up Elizabeth S. Amato’s The Pursuit of Happiness and the American Regime: Political Theory in Literature, I was hungry for a reinstallation of the truth about happiness. More than sympathetic to her project, I admired it: We should investigate our greatest stories to uncover clues about the American pursuit of happiness.

Amato, assistant professor of political science at Gardner-Webb University, takes up works by master storytellers—Tom Wolfe, Walker Percy, Edith Wharton, and Nathaniel Hawthorne—and makes the characters in their novels into case studies in the pursuit of happiness. Those who fail have generally chosen the wrong ends—usually the autonomous self—whereas those who succeed have learned the value of community and friendship.

Wolfe, she says, points us toward moral courage as a tool in this endeavor. When we defy cultural expectations and overcome our desire for status, we make incremental moves toward happiness. Analyzing I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), Amato identifies the failings of liberal education to create “politically and morally free beings” who can resist “popular opinion” and overcome the desire to seek status. As Alan Jacobs argues in How to Think (2017), groupthink and the temptation to want to belong to what C.S. Lewis called “the inner ring,” have contributed to our current state of disrespect and factionalism. A return to Wolfe’s novels may remind readers of these dangers.

The book is a literary exercise directed toward diagnosing America’s discontents, and it is unsurprising that she would turn to Percy for guidance. Unfortunately, the author misreads this subtle diagnostician’s intentions. “The goal, for Percy, is that we may become at home with our unhappiness,” Amato writes. But what “unhappiness” really does in Percy’s fiction is initiate the search for happiness. It indicates that all is not right with the world.

For Percy, “unhappiness” is one of our Christ-haunted nation’s last registers of the fallen state of human beings. Since we have deemed “sin” as superstitious or old-fashioned, we misdiagnose our hearts’ restlessness as psychological or physical disorders like depression or ulcers. As a Roman Catholic, Percy believed happiness could be found, but it was a gift granted by grace from a Trinitarian God, and not to be achieved by scientific achievement, material gain, or fulfillment of physical desire. Such a conception of the world or human nature does not fit Amato’s political constructs. Percy’s religion would hinder her argument and cause a pretty steep hurdle. Instead, she reduces his ideas to accord with her thesis regarding the pursuit of happiness and Americans’ isolation from one another. Amato’s reading of Percy reminds me of what Binx Bolling says about films in The Moviegoer (1961): “The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up.” Similarly, Amato comes close to interpreting Percy, but ultimately misses his point.

By Amato’s lights, Edith Wharton, more than Wolfe or Percy, moves beyond the individual’s will to communal guidance in the pursuit of happiness. For Wharton, she writes, “Individual life cannot be meaningful or even lived well apart from social life.” In Wharton’s novels, the need for others is not self-serving (that is, friendship as a means to happiness), but relationships require accountability and responsibility. They also inculcate virtue. We are persons in a body politic, not individuals contractually obligated to living under the dictates of an abstract institution.

Too often, we hear (and say), “I just want them to be happy” as an excuse for not speaking out against licentious behavior. If, in this instance, we assume “happiness” is “pleasure,” then we are likely furthering our friends’ ruin. True happiness often comes at the cost of pleasure, the sacrifice of temporal delights for more lasting contentment, as Amato finds in Newland Archer’s self-denial in The Age of Innocence (1920). Amato calls on the novelist to “expose the pitfalls of this national characteristic to treat the pursuit of happiness as a license for self-gratification and release from social obligation.” We must become more diligent at discerning between happiness and pleasure, and great novels illustrate the difference.

Even more than novels, Amato posits that other human beings are “our greatest resource to help us and guide us toward happiness.” She sees this truth played out in Hawthorne’s fiction, where “the heart’s mystery provides the basis of our moral and political freedom, because the inner self remains incompletely known and partially veiled from others.” Ah but if only this were true—how happy we would all be! Unfortunately, Amato undermines her earlier testaments that we should be standing up against other people, especially in mass, and that too often, we are guilty of leading each other away from true happiness. While she is right in dismantling the American idol of absolute autonomy, social obligations are not the simple antidote, nor is a delight in our heart’s mystery. Such a remedy is too palliative.

While Amato contends that policymakers cannot define happiness because it would infringe on the liberty of individuals, the Western tradition (as far back as Boethius and perhaps earlier) would argue that, if we do not dissuade licentious behavior, then we are advocating slavery of the individual to his or her appetites. One is only free when one acts in accord with reality. This is where a distinction between soul and self becomes handy. In Amato’s book, “soul,” “self,” and “inner life” are used interchangeably. When describing Wolfe’s fiction, she asserts, “True liberty and happiness is found in the care of the soul, because the inner self is the only thing that one has control over.” The former claim is true, whereas the second half of the statement misuses “self” in place of “soul” and erroneously modifies it with the adjective “inner.” The modifier, while sounding redundant, also hints at Cartesian dualism regarding soul and body, instead of perceiving a person as an ensouled creature.

In a recent lecture, the poet and critic James Matthew Wilson differentiated between the soul and self. After contrasting a Romantic painting with one from the Renaissance, Wilson noted how the former casts the self as empty, ready to be designed by the individual, whereas, in the latter, the soul “is not primarily the object of one’s self-discovery.” “The soul grounds the self not chiefly by vouchsafing it as a thing apart,” said Wilson, “but as a reality already participating in an order that precedes it, that places it in relation to the ordered whole of reality, and that subordinates it to the order revealed by the Cross.” Wilson, a Catholic as was Percy, distinguishes between the modern definition of a self and the classical, traditional notion of a soul. In the pursuit of happiness, a self may choose from a variety of means to experience pleasure, and therefore convince itself of happiness, but a soul will only live as happy when conformed to reality. Under the ancients, this conformity meant a life of reason and habits of virtue.

For all the times that Amato begins to define happiness in this book, she never does. Her statements culminate in broad abstractions not rooted in any tradition or even in reality. However, I encourage us to follow her lead, to turn to literature and art as sources of knowledge about what makes human beings happy and how society might encourage, rather than hinder, these pursuits. If we want to come closer to understanding happiness, we should struggle with the stories from the past—as did the Founding Fathers who imitated the rallying cry of Cato from Joseph Addison’s play, or as does the Canadian author Yann Martel, who sends novels to his Prime Minister on a regular basis. Amato acts in this spirit, seeking wisdom about political life from literature. After all, my undergraduate seminar did not stop with reading Aristotle and the other philosophers. We immersed ourselves in the great stories from The Odyssey to Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962), hoping to answer the ultimate questions that Amato raises about the soul, the world, and happiness.

Reader Discussion

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on July 27, 2018 at 10:56:05 am

It's a fortifying alteration when this site publishes, as here, its occasional foray into literature. And Professor Wilson provides a pleasing glimpse of how literature may serve as a wise route in life's pursuit of happiness. Who can argue with Wilson's admonition for us to take that path toward happiness in life, whatever happiness in life is or may become for one?

But I prefer (apparently more than Professor Wilson prefers) to minimize resort to abstractions. Hence, my preference is to describe the more tangible pursuit of happiness in reading rather than the pursuit through reading of the more abstract and subjective happiness in life. And in reading fiction I use a simple definition of happiness. It is my causa sui effort to find meaning in life, beyond my own life, through 1) reading that which addresses curiosity, makes me sad, makes me cry, makes me smile or laugh, makes me think, makes me wonder, holds me in awe, inspires mystery, helps me to understand or to empathize, inspires me to purpose or offers hope or 2) reading that which creates meaning. I forego as intrinsically destructive of happiness in reading (and in life) that which is despairing, nihilistic, cynical or hopeless, gratuitously violent, pornographic, or which abjures personal responsibility and effort for life's outcomes.

But in addition to reading as the path to happiness in life (per Professor Wilson) or the pursuit of happiness in reading (per Pukka) one might contemplate reading as fuel for Edmund Burke's "moral imagination" as refined by Russel Kirk.

Here is Burke in the first literary use of the phrase ''moral imagination" (as stated in his "Reflections") talking about the dire effects on civilization of the French Revolution:

“But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by bland assimilation, incorporated the politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All of the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our own naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

And here is a paragraph from an essay in "First Things" describing how Kirk extends Burke on the "moral imagination." One can see readily how both Burke and Kirk see enhancement of the moral imagination as an intrinsic consequence of reading good fiction:

"(The moral imagination) can be defined as a uniquely human ability to conceive of fellow humanity as moral beings and as persons, not as objects whose value rests in utility or usefulness. It is a process by which a self “creates” metaphor from images recorded by the senses and stored in memory, which are then occupied to find and suppose moral correspondences in experience. An intuitive ability to perceive ethical truths and abiding law in the midst of chaotic experience, the moral imagination should be an aspiration to a proper ordering of the soul and, consequently, of the commonwealth. In this conception, to be a citizen is not to be an autonomous individual; it is a status given by a born existence into a world of relations to others. To be fully human is to embrace the duties and obligations toward a purpose of security and endurance for, first and foremost, the family and the local community. Success is measured by the development of character, not the fleeting emotions of status. Thinking “sacramentally,” (meaning humans are connected with a sacramental order of creation, a configuration of the mind in communion with the divine and beyond the rational) this is a sense that nature was created in such a manner that humans can draw “true analogies,” wisdom inaccessible by scientific method. Lived experiences, registered in memory and conjured through other experiences, can be interpreted through imagination so that memories may become images, analogous to the experience."


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Pukka Luftmensch
on July 27, 2018 at 10:59:58 am

Key is the Greek meaning of "virtue" opposed to our modern concept of virtue as opposed to sin. Sin being often defined as "missing the mark", I recall the ancient Greeks referring to virtue as being in tune with one's nature. However, Aristotle said that fulfilling the desires is equivalent to pouring sand into a bucket having holes in its bottom. It initially is full but slowly drains away and must be refilled time after time to avoid emptiness.

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Edward Melanson
on July 27, 2018 at 11:16:11 am

I would not hold Amato's failure (inability) to define happiness against her. It is doubtful, indeed highly improbable that anyone can provide a definition satisfactory to most readers.

It brings to mind, my first exposure to Plato's Republic. The professor asked of the class, "What is just?"
The responses were as varied and wide ranging as one can imagine; however, not quite so FAR ranging as would be the responses of today's college freshman. We settled on something along the lines of: "That which is appropriate to the thing under consideration."
Not the best, nor most erudite - BUT serviceable.

Over the years, I have come to conclude that "serviceable" may also constitute a foundational support for "happiness." One must know and recognize, indeed appreciate one's own limitations; failure to do so propels one on a fools errand. The current glorification of "individualism" encourages one to disregard those limitations, both in oneself and in others and results in unduly high expectations and inevitable and constant frustration while in pursuit of "that which is NOT appropriate to the thing under consideration."

My dreams of playing Shortstop for the NY Yankees were soon dashed.
We must learn to put away the dreams of our childhood, find something *serviceable*. I believe that virtue entails a recognition of that which is serviceable for oneself and others.

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on July 27, 2018 at 12:27:10 pm

The truth about happiness: whose happiness and when, where, how long. Life, soul, self, civilization, society, virtue, happiness are concrete terms and abstractions of human longings - which may add to and nourish or be indifferent to societal maintenance. How much resonance is there to "for human beings, the unexamined life is not worth living" or "Become who you are by learning who you are." Must "eudaimonia" be a continuous state and if not life's routines must still be attended, personally and temporally (happy or not).

When I was a little child, my grandmother would always say "happiness is a homemade article". Perhaps, despite the films, novels, introspection, et al, her proverb gave the nub - literature, films, narratives, great stories, etc. explicate the point.

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on July 27, 2018 at 14:09:11 pm

I found myself, at different moments, both pleased and frustrated by Jessica Hooten Wilson’s review of Amoto’s “The Pursuit of Happiness and the American Regime.”

Some thoughts: Being community-oriented is not the same as being other-centered.

In relation to the Declaration of Independence, talking about Aristotle without mentioning Cicero is like having a car without an engine. You just can't get started.

Cicero employed Aristotle’s notion of perfection as completed or mature development, with habitual virtue as the perfection of individual human nature. (And Cicero of course followed Aristotle with government as the perfection of collective or societal human nature.) Aristotle referred to justice as the virtue that implied all the others, while Cicero described justice as the mistress and queen of all the virtues. And here is where Cicero departs from Aristotle: Aristotle lacks a notion of universal benevolence, while Cicero makes “love of our fellow-men” a fundamental component of justice, prefiguring the second of Jesus Christ’s two basic commandments.

The Ciceronian natural law tradition informed the jurisprudence of the lawyers among the Founding Fathers, and it informed the moral philosophy studied by every Founder who went to college in one of the colonies. [College seniors routinely took a class in moral philosophy (such as the one taught by John Witherspoon at Princeton], which reinforced the larger society’s Christian morality.)

The Ciceronian tradition was represented by Cumberland (“pursuit of happiness”), who influenced both Benjamin Franklin’s mentor James Logan and the Ciceronian Rev. Francis Hutcheson (“safety and happiness," as well as “unalienable rights” paired with the collective right of revolution); the Genevan jurist Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (governments exist to secure natural rights, with natural right understood in terms of the pursuit of happiness), and Burlamaqui’s Swiss student Emer de Vattel (whose “The Law of Nations,” with its prescription for how to declare independence, was constantly in the hands of the Continental Congress, according to Benjamin Franklin). For Vattel, nations as well as individuals have a moral obligation to love one another.

The Continental Congress actually included a Ciceronian definition of happiness in their independence resolution of May 10 and 15, 1776. I discuss that here: http://startingpointsjournal.com/may-resolution-declaration-of-independence/

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John Schmeeckle
on July 30, 2018 at 01:35:27 am

I don’t recall a bolder title but expected the-subjective-truth and metaphysics, whereas human beings answer to the-objective-truth.

“Those who fail have generally chosen the wrong ends—usually the autonomous self—whereas those who succeed have learned the value of community and friendship.” Like it or not, every human has the individual power, the individual energy, and the individual authority (IPEA) to either develop integrity or not; to offer goodwill or not; to develop fidelity or not.

“. . . a soul will only live as happy when conformed to reality. Under the ancients, this conformity meant a life of reason and habits of virtue.”

I am disappointed that Professor Wilson did not address Flannery O’Connor’s non-fiction in “Mystery and Manners,” especially the statement on Page 81: “The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to . . . intrude upon the timeless, and that is only done by the violence of a single minded respect for the truth.”

As usual with writers, I have no idea what O’Connor, a Catholic, means by the truth. I specify the-objective-truth, which can only be discovered. The-objective-truth does not respond to reason, metaphysics, or violence. A friend suggested that O’Connor used “violence” to reach beyond “passion.” The-objective-truth does not respond to passion, either. Human connections may be changed by passion, but the consequences follow the-objective-truth.

I think classical literature offers an opportunity to explore IPEA in developing integrity and its use to control the lesser authorities: appetites (banality); religion, philosophy and civilization (coercion), government (force), and mutual appreciation (civic collaboration).

However, classical literature can be life-consuming, and at some point during the life, the person may employ IPEA. If to develop integrity, fidelity may follow. If so, happiness may be discovered.

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Phil Beaver
on October 07, 2020 at 04:08:23 am

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