Delight Springs

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Beyond Temperament"

"The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments," said William James in Pragmatism, and (he also said) those come "organically weighted." Dispositionally pre-loaded, set-pointed, & treadmilled. Recent happiness researchers agree.
According to ["Queen of Happiness"] Sonja Lyubomirskyyou have a happiness set point. It’s partly encoded in your genes. If something good happens, your sense of happiness rises; if something bad happens, it falls.
But that doesn't mean we're necessarily or permanently stuck with our factory packaging. For some of us, survival (let alone happiness) requires moving beyond our default temperaments. That was the philosopher's personal experience. (Check the tail-end of my post yesterday, on young James's life-changing encounter with the French philosopher Renouvier.) Mine too, I suspect, though I never had a dark night of the soul when I was quite prepared to "throw the moral business overboard." For what it's worth. 

The possibility of moving our set points and stepping off our treadmills is Sissela Bok's subject in Chapter VI and ours today in HAP 101.

"Sanguine and healthy-minded" types are born, but they can also be made, or recruited from the "depressed and melancholy" ranks and transformed. Neurotics can acquire stable sanity, introverts can become extroverts. (But they'd best check the latest research first, questions have been raised about which you'd really rather be.) 

What do we know for sure? We know that nobody's found the "black bile" that would have explained everything temperamental: sanguine, melancholy, choleric, phlegmatic, splenetic, frenetic, lethargic... 

Was Robert Burton right, in Anatomy of Melancholy, to name cheerfulness the "highest goal in life?" It's high on my list, but at least competing with things like honor and integrity and trustworthiness. I'd like to believe the temperamental virtues converge and overlap, but in case they don't I'm not putting all my marbles in the circle of cheer. Just most of them.

Was Burton really a "laughing philosopher" like Democritus, or a wry and grinning one like Montaigne? He said when he walked alone he'd "sigh" & "grieve," suggesting to me that he was doing it wrong.

Keats' "Ode to Melancholy," with its acknowledgement of Veiled Melancholy smack in the middle of "the very temple of Delight," reminds me of James's "worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight." Party crashing moods can sure ruin an evening, and turn us into "melancholy metaphysicians" until we resume humming our happy tunes. Fortunately, "the music can commence again..." 

James's biographers confirm that he was speaking from firsthand experience, his life outwardly so robust and full of bonhomie but a roller coaster ride on the inside. He kept climbing Mt. Chocorua, Mt. Marcy, et al, but he was really climbing Mt. Happy. Again and again. 

But, Aristotle was wrong to say all men of genius are melancholic. Right? Closer to the mark to say that smart people are emotionally complicated, they think too much, spend too much time breathing stale indoor air, need to get out more.

Kant spoke of sublime melancholy and sanguine sympathy, but I've noted variations of temper that criss-crossed all those relational lines.

Schopenhauer entertained "a lively conviction of the worthlessness of everything" and thought cheerful people superficial. He was also a misogynist and misanthrope, and he died alone. Well, with a poodle. 

Darwin, on the other hand, was a happy family man who also happens to have had the greatest idea ever. Top that, Artur.

Andrew Solomon's recovery of "what it is like to live, to enjoy the day you are in and so long for the next one, to know that you are one of the lucky people" testifies to the real promise of an altered temperament.

But poor Sylvia Plath's inability to control the currents of her life, with "despairing negative" finally getting the better of "joyous positive," shows how lucky Solomon and others really are.

Sir Thomas Browne's "effervescence," if attributed largely to his religious faith, raises the inescapable question: why aren't more Christians (and others who "know" they're on their way to heaven) happier

And why aren't all predestinarians (Calvinists et al) deeply depressed? Or are they?

Teilhard de Chardin's "enthusiast... who without any direct search for happiness, inevitably finds joy as an added bonus in the act of forging ahead" with zest and curiosity, might be a good role model. Maybe we're not all cut out to be explorers, pioneeers, and discoverers, but surely we can all "add one stitch..." and feel part of a meaningful endeavor.

Just don't go overboard, lest you be accused of blind, insensible, quasi-pathological optimism. Pangloss is no role-model.

Philip Zimbardo told TED  and RSA we should "calibrate our outlook on time as a first step to improving our lives." There's more to it than the present, precious though that is.

Thinking about Older Daughter I was struck by Bok's comment on "tolerance for messy surroundings" and "discord and resentment among college room-mates." She's always expressed "full comfort with a less ordered cosmos," maybe I shouldn't have sent her that Times article about messy creativity. (It's been running neck-and-neck with "How to Get a Job With a Philosophy Degree" on the most-emailed list, must be a lot of messy humanities types out there.)

Is Stoic "retirement" from public life a good happiness strategy? Can't blame anyone for trying to keep the world at bay, after days like yesterday. And probably like tomorrow and tomorrow. But there aren't any Gardens remote enough, are there? Even out in the Tennessee sticks?

Petrarch's vita solitaria, his effort to "cheat the winter by basking in the sun..." etc., is in fact one of my favorite personal strategies. Works pretty well.

Tagore's confession of joyous madness "when I saw the clouds..." naturally reminded me of this: 

Harp just sounded, gotta get ready for school. But ask me about Georgia O'Keefe's "unknown of infinity," Winslow Homer's "notice, and thanks," Pater's "ecstasy" (& Arthur 2-sheds Berndtson), the "scope and variety of possible preferences," and whether it's really "possible for individuals to bring about lasting increases in their own levels of happiness." 

Or as a friendly filling station attendant-cum-philosopher once asked: How can you change, if you're yourself? Short answer: by understanding yourself as a locus of change, amidst continuity. It's easier than he thinks. But it may be harder in a small town.


  1. Thanks for posting the article, "How to Get a Job With a Philosophy Degree". I am curious as to what your thoughts are about the relationship between college and "career development".
    On page 4 of the article:
    "Gillespie says; as teachers, she and her peers 'are trying to open their minds, to see complexities and tensions.' The emphasis on translating academics into skills also struck her as problematic. 'They want to know what the calculus is: How will doing an honors thesis translate into my ability to persuade my manager to put me on the management track? How can I sell this? How can I market these things? I fear that the students see the learning as a means to an end and don’t connect as much to the learning that’s taking place.'"
    I side pretty strongly with the views Gillespie expresses here about learning in its own right . . . what do you think, Dr. Oliver?

  2. I agree with Gillespie. Of course I want students to find jobs, but first to find themselves. How else will they discover their proper vocation? So, "retention/graduation/vocation" is a nice mantra but nobody should squander the opportunity to learn, on their way to joining the workforce of the 21st century. As Mark Twain said, never let your schooling interfere with my education.

  3. Your response is comforting to me, Dr. Oliver.
    This is a topic that is very important to me.
    I do no think it is wrong to try to translate our experiences/knowledge from the classroom to the workforce ie. make the information we have learned practical to our own lives. I think that in order for liberal arts programs to survive in the times ahead, that more of those connections will need to be explicitly made, but it is my sincere hope that those will not be made at the expense of the learning experience itself. It is not the practicality of the knowledge which makes it worth having, but I do not think that the knowledge that comes with a liberal arts education is by any means impractical or not applicable in today's work force. If you we have to argue the "practicality" of liberal arts degrees, I think we have ample tools to do so, but it is sad, I think, that we should have to.
    And I love that Mark Twain quote.