Delight Springs

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Happy days are here again!

So happy to be teaching HAP 101 again, as of this afternoon!

Each time's different. (Well, duh! someone's thinking.) But I mean that each time has a different hook, and a mostly-different set of texts. (Only Jennifer Hecht keeps recurring, she's just so smart + funny and multi-thematic that I can't give her up.)

The hook this time is meaning: to what extent, if any, is genuine happiness and flourishing possible in the absence of a correlatively-robust sense of meaning, purpose, telos,  or goal-directedness? If we agree with Aristotle that happiness is the one great intrinsic good in life, are we also committed to his view that happily-meaningful lives must be assessed in toto and post facto?

Can a meaningless life be happy in any meaningful sense? Can a profoundly meaningful life ever be truly unhappy? And were Woody Allen and Bertrand Russell and Douglas Adams right, that the meaning of things is forever so elusive that we should just "hang the sense of it" and get on with finding personally-meaningful "distractions" to divert our attention from the truly terrifying nullity at the base of existence?

We'll think of a great many more questions, related and tangential. Some of us might even answer a few of them, if only to our own provisional and fleeting satisfaction.

I think our Happy Hour Chairman-by-acclamation (let's just call him Dean of Happy Hour) has given us a good taco-inspired slogan: Live mas!

Isn't that precisely what the pursuit of happiness aims to corral? Life, the more the better? I keep coming back (as some of you know all too well) to William James's perspective on all this. He was talking about religion, but more broadly he was speaking of our compulsive human thirst for happiness. "Not God but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is... the end of religion." 

It is in fact its own end, it's as natural for humans as anything, and its pursuit is the fountain of youth. I don't really think of it as "religious" in the familiar Sunday School sense, but like John Dewey I'm prepared to tolerate that word if we agree to recur to its Latin meaning: religare, that which binds us to one another and to nature (and does not waste futile efforts to transcend our natural condition). "The religion of humanity affords a basis for ethics as well as theism does," and for some of us does so far more meaningfully.

That's why I repeatedly bend so far against my own personal sense of life's greatest meanings, which are invariably evolutionary and progressive, to try and accommodate varieties of religious experience I can never share (nor want to). "The pluralist form takes for me a stronger hold on reality..." 

And on happiness, life, the universe... well, everything.

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