Delight Springs

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"On the Happy Life"

De vita beata. Sounds like Iron Butterfly's in the house, but it's just an old Roman pagan and his successors.

Our Bok-led exploration of happiness continues with Seneca (and the anti-Seneca, La Mettrie), Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Descartes, and Pascal. For my money she may as well have stopped with Seneca, who comes closer than the rest to expressing something fundamental about our condition. I'm not crazy, though, about how he finally (at Nero's insistence) expressed his view.

But it's hard to dispute his views that peace and harmony come (or should) to the kind, that beneficence is its own reward, that one should attempt to harmonize with nature, that we should prepare ourselves for whatever fortune and fate may decree, and that we should not let good fortune or material wealth own us.

And, that we should all seek a "reasonable departure" from this earth. He should have been so lucky.

I prefer the example of another old Roman, Cicero. We've been talking a lot in HAP 101 about Experience Machines and irreplaceable daughters. (Skyped with mine last night, as she slurped her Ramen and told tales. I haven't watched her eat so attentively since I held the spoon.) He knew something about that. He was a wise old consul, and an honest Stoic. Sometimes there just is no consolation.
After the loss of his daughter Tullia in childbirth, [Cicero] turned to Stoicism to assuage his grief. But ultimately he could not accept its terms: “It is not within our power to forget or gloss over circumstances which we believe to be evil…They tear at us, buffet us, goad us, scorch us, stifle us — and you tell us to forget about them?”

Now, to a raft of happiness-renunciators, convinced that we must leave earth and corporeal existence to find our bliss. Did they all misread Ecclesiastes?

I'm bound to give Augustine short shrift. His view that happiness cannot be anything "mortal and transitory" strikes me as entirely false, and entirely destructive of our only sure shot at the good life.  He imprisoned himself in a Bad Idea.

Boethius deserves slightly more consideration, given his literal imprisonment. His conversations with Lady Philosophia were fun. Were any of us in his desperate situation, who knows? You and I might also reaffirm "the Augustinian view that although there was little hope for his or anyone's happiness on earth," we might always aspire to heaven. 

Aquinas held out for "perfect happiness." Greed is not good, when it entails the sacrifice of imperfect happiness that's more than good enough. I come back to John Lachs' good question: why isn't good enough good enough?

Descartes told the Bohemian princess that "truths that make one sad" are better than cheerful delusion. Perhaps. But in which category should we place Descartes' "God is no deceiver"? She was right, wasn't she? Happiness is far more complicated than the philosopher thought. Indubitably so.

Pascal is fun to read. But he subscribed to original sin and perpetual punishment. He was preoccupied with suffering in the afterlife, when there's way more than enough on our plates already. No fun.

All geniuses have their limitations. I agree with Voltaire, he was a "sublime misanthrope."

Voltaire was one of those salon wits, a Deist and foe of social injustice who railed against religious intolerance (“Ecrasez l’infame!”) and mercilessly parodied rationalist philosophers (especially Leibniz, aka Dr. Pangloss).
Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses… Candide “There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.” [slides here]

Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…” And Diderot's "Imam" comment, cited by Bok, was positively Hitchens-esque. 

As for La Mettrie? Some of us will agree with his statement that the universe will never be happy as long as it isn’t atheist.” Of course it's not the universe whose happiness is at issue, it's yours and mine. But, too bad he seems to have been a hedonist pig, and would not have considered it an insult to be told so. "Wallow in it... and you shall be happy in their manner." (My emphasis.)

The Playboy Philosophy? We can do better.

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