Delight Springs

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Lenoir's Happiness

In Happiness today we begin Frederic Lenoir's Happiness: A Philosopher's Guide. In case there's any doubt, our author is quite French.

Many professional thinking persons are, unsurprisingly, convinced that a deep curiosity about the world and an unsettled awareness of our peculiar place in it are both prerequisite to living happily and well, and would agree that "it is essential to be aware of our happiness to be happy."

Or, if they're not convinced, they're nonetheless vocationally committed to pursuing inquiry as if they were. As James says so well in Varieties of Religious Experience, "philosophy lives in words" - and it's in words that philosophers must express and transact their curiosity and awareness - "but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation."

So, what's an honest philosopher to do with the realization that happiness may be visited upon us in moments of silence, meditation, and mute appreciation?

Well, he could admit perhaps that sometimes the pleasures of thinking about nothing (if not "NOTHING") and doing nothing may far exceed an intellectual's preconceptions as to the conditions of happiness. As in religion, sometimes a philosopher of happiness must defend experience against philosophy. That's one of my secular acts.

It's hard to dispute Montaigne's suggestion that happiness is amplified when we know and appreciate that we're happy. Clap your hands. Again, though, E.B. White poses the Thinking Man's perennial dilemma: savor the moment, or save the world? ("I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.")

I vote "both," but don't ask me how. Knowing what you want is not the same as knowing how to get it. But we do know, don't we, that moments unsavored are lost? And that no one of us alone can be the Savior? (Who would ever take seriously a presidential candidate, for instance, who said only he could fix things? Deplorable!)

So my unsolicited advice is, guard and enjoy every moment you can. Saving the world is a longer-term project. When planning your day, be sure to leave room for some savoring moments. But also, as we mostly agreed last time (didn't we?): don't be an asshole in the pursuit of happiness. A little Buddhist self-abnegating cherry-picking might be a useful corrective here.

Again, I highly recommend Robert Wright's new book. "Don’t feel like you’re committing a felony-level violation of Buddhist dogma just because you think of yourself as being a self,” but also don't take yourself so seriously that you become indifferent to others' happiness as well as your own. “Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.” So, awareness is a step on the path to potential enlightenment.

The Pleasure Principle may sound like Freudian flap-doodle to some, but if pleasure had no adaptive value it surely would have gone by the boards long ago. "The vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply," let us hope.

Aristotle, on Lenoir's reading, endorses a life balancing "the maximum of pleasure with the maximum of reason." I'm uneasy about "maximum," but for rational animals such as we aspire to be, those surely must be the right constituent parts. The ratio of the mix might vary, animal to animal and person to person. Not all virtues are equally salient for each of us, some strike a more courageous or magnanimous or gentle note (etc.) - but do take note, there are many virtues available for our respective pursuits of excellence. With all due respect to the student who posted his view that the only real virtues involve deference to God and love for our neighbors, that's needlessly self-limiting.

I'm not familiar with Lenoir's "peasant-philosopher" Pierre Rahbi, but "happy sobriety" sounds Epicurean enough. "Necessary things are easy to attain," by comparison. Food and drink and shelter, once procured, ought to make fine cooking, beautiful clothes, a fancy home (etc.) less urgent, and power and honors entirely gratuitous. If pleasure really is the key to happiness, we ought to give more thought to what pleasures most conduce to lasting happiness, and ought to be prepared to agree with Epicurus that the best things in life are practically free.

Of course, Epicurus presumably never experienced the finest craft beer.

I'm definitely prepared to agree with sourpuss Schopenhauer that 90% of happiness depends on health. I'm surprised he said that. "Keep your health, your splendid health. It's better than all the truths in the firmament."

Meaning, again. Viktor Frankl and Sigmund Freud might agree that most of us are "truly happy only when our lives are pleasant and also have meaning." But is meaning an afterthought, or is it in fact the culmination of human-order pleasure?

Some questions: Do you ever wish you were less susceptible to living the examined life, a little less curious and aware and a bit more like Forrest Gump or Winnie the Pooh? Is there a danger of shrinking or crushing our happinesss, in the very process of observing and savoring ("amplifying") it? Is it generally true, as Darwin asserted, that in our world "the vigorous, healthy, and happy survive and multiply"? Do philosophers overrate the importance of reason and reflection in the pursuit of happiness? Do you espouse "mens sana in corpore sano"? Can you imagine surviving an ordeal like the holocaust or the Vietnam War (check out Ken Burns' new film) with your capacity for happiness intact?
Today is the birthday of essayist Roger Angell (books by this author), born in New York in 1920... His stepfather was E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web... "It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut […] is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. […] It no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift."

Angell roots for the Mets, and doesn't get too discouraged when they lose. He thinks that rooting for a team that wins all the time is overrated, because you take it for granted and there's less drama in watching the game. He said, "Almost winning is almost the best. But you've got to win once in a while."

Angell wrote an essay about getting older in 2014 called "This Old Man," which he included in a book of essays of the same title. He writes about his own experience of changing physically and losing friends, and how society treats elderly people as if they're irrelevant. He describes a conversation where "There's a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they've just left it. What? Hello? Didn't I just say something? Have I left the room? […] When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we're invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You've had your turn, Pops; now it's ours."

His wife, Carol, passed away shortly before he wrote the essay. She had told him, "If you haven't found someone else by a year after I'm gone, I'll come back and haunt you." Angell writes about how we look down on older people when they start dating again, as if we expect them to settle into the background of life and certainly not try anything new that's romantic or sexual. He writes: "But to hell with them and with all that, O.K.? Here's to you, old dears. You got this right, every one of you. Hook, line, and sinker; never mind the why or wherefore; somewhere in the night; love me forever, or at least until next week." WA

1 comment:

  1. I think happiness is what each individual makes of it. What makes me happy doesn't make others happy,perhaps. I also agree with the statement that man has an innate need to resolve the questions of the natural world