By  Sy   Schechtman


        Devoutly to be wished for but almost never  attained,  happiness  is still one of western civilization’s  most cherished goals.   And  formerly one of philosophy’s prime subjects.    Now  Darrin McMahon laments, in his seminal book Happiness;A History, philosophers have gone on to analytic philosophic jargon  instead of this grand pursuit.   McMahon’s book covers the whole landscape,  from Socrates to prozac, and also is eminently readable  even though  the cast of historic and mythical characters  is considerable.    For myself  I suppose  I still get off at Jefferson’s immortal  “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”;   after serving in both  World War II and the Korean War  I will not go so far as to proclaim  Patrick Henry’s  “Give Me  Liberty or Give Me Death.”    Jefferson’s  formulation is daring enough and opens  up  ineluctable horizons  of  possibility,  illusionary  perhaps, but still  loaded with the vital psychic fuel of potential  and aspiration. (Hope springs eternal!!)   In my modern  western, capitalist  framework  that  probably  constitutes  all the happiness  I aim for,   plus the love and admiration of my wife  and respect of the  people  that I admire.  (Plus the financial wherewithal to live comfortably   and also the vindication  of   that way of life  that is subsumed in the Life and Liberty words of Jefferson’s  democratic manifesto!)

          Happiness, as McMahon details in his book, has had  different  underpinnings   throughout  history  and I think---more so than he--  that religious affirmation  has had a profound  interaction  with  the path we have taken. But  we start our  historic journey  in  his book with the great Greek  philosophers  Socrates,  Plato, and Aristotle,  who had a very bleak emotional  landscape to work with---their frivolous uncaring pantheon of pagan gods.   Thus   they, admirably,  constructed  a life style  with slightly varying degrees of nobility, austerity, patriotism, communal good deeds  and virtuous love.   They did not deny but tried to deemphasize the hedonistic, sensual  aspect of lust and libertinism  with Socrates emphasizing  the   higher goals of contemplation and the study of philosophy.   In one famous symposium  of  Plato—who was Socrates spokesman--- Socrates is finishing  a   discourse on the higher goals of life and happiness   when Alcibiades,  and his uninvited band of revelers  intrude  and  offer the solemn conclave  wine and some very accessible   handmaidens  for their pleasure.   While at first demurring  they soon  begin imbibing  and the evening ends  with all the guests,  except  Socrates,  lying on the floor  in a drunken  stupor.     Socrates finishes  his remarks, tucks his hosts in bed and  resignedly goes off to the municipal baths  aware that the flesh is still  too  weak. 

        Worthy of note here is Aristotle,  who taught a less demanding course based on human reason, and who was Alexander the Great’s mentor. Alexander’s worldwide conquests  spread  a somewhat debased concept  of Athenian Greek civilization  called Hellenization throughout the ancient world,  stressing concepts of architectural beauty and literary Greek masterpieces.   Important  as this was in human history  the  ultimate ascendance of the loving, caring Deity, and His becoming     the   sole  source and solace of human affairs,  started  with the neighboring  Jews, the  next phase of the happiness quest.    The Jews had been in bondage for centuries to Pharoah, ruler of Egypt, apparently forgotten by God who had originally  directed them  there after a  severe famine in Canaan, their homeland.  He choses a very reluctant Moses   to lead them out of Egypt  and after ten separate confrontations Pharoah  relents,  the people are liberated  only to be pursued  as Pharoah  changes his mind.   The ultimate miracle of his troops drowning  in the Sea of Reeds  as  the waters part to allow the Jews to cross and  then come together  to drown the pursuing troops  is what God envisions  will be world wide affirmation of His invincible power and majesty.   And yet as the Jews celebrate  their great victory  God is shown with tears.  “ “Are not the Egyptians my  children too?”                   

       Moses, and the Jews under God’s intimate direction—“face to face”--- wander in the desert for 40 years, establish  a small kingdom  which grows under Kings’ David and Solomon and then   hard times begin and soon civil  war splits the kingdom into two small entities, with somewhat disparate  goals.   But only after   the profound  experience  of the promulgation of the Torah  and its commandments and directions for human  living at Mt.Sinai,  the founding of Jerusalem,  and the building of Solomon’s temple there.   However, by the end  of sixth century  BCE  both  kingdoms  were  almost all in the diaspora,  with only a postage stamp size  part of Judah remaining still with the crucial temple of Solomon. In Isaiah’s very prophetic words these Jews “were the saving remnant”,  evidently unassimilated in their pagan surroundings and probably even tithing their incomes to Solomon’s Judean temple.   (Much as Mexican legal and illegal immigrants do today).

        A few centuries later,  at the beginning the Christian era,  historian demographers estimate  the Jewish “remnant”  to have grown to between four to six million  people,  a much larger segment of world population than today.  Now the Jewish world population is about  one quarter  of one percent.    So significant  a group   were those diaspora  Jews at that time  that a translation of the Torah was done  into the Koine, a  Greek dialect  common then in the middle east and North Africa called the Septuagint supposedly because 70 scholars were involved.   It was the first Bible translation in history;  over the centuries it became a world class best seller, as did its following supplement, a few centuries later.    That new addition  was the testament  of the life of Jesus, a Jewish rabbi who became the Christ, God’s  anointed,  His only son, who promised eternal life  and happiness  if you would follow his path.   Not in this world, but after.  “My kingdom  is not of this                                            life, but in the world to come.”   Jesus  went among the  many poor  and  preached that their present  suffering and misery would be gone in this afterlife.  He performed evident miracles, walking on water, raising Lazarus from the dead, feeding many people  with only a few loaves of bread  and healing some other sick people.    And he also went to the outer court of the temple in Jerusalem   and threw out the moneychangers, an evident symbol of  worldly corruption.   And  he preached many sermons derived from his Torah background,  including the Beatitudes  and the Sermon on the Mount which inspired his small but growing flock.   Also was his promise of a Second Coming, date uncertain,  but  not far off,  to meet and greet his followers again and judge them all.  Three days after  he was crucified by the ruling Roman regime in Jerusalem, the heavy stone at his tomb was found pushed aside, and  his body was missing.   Proof  positive  his followers insisted that he had returned to His Father in heaven.    

        The much anticipated Second Coming gradually faded from present reality but the hope of some form of pleasant existence after mortal death  persisted.  Some sort of ultimate salvation  and redemption  after what for too many at that time was this vale of tears on planet earth.  For the Jews their contract with God provided that their good conduct  would give them good life and happiness only in this mortal life;  not for the tantalizing eternity in the hereafter.    Most Moslems, too, have in their theology  a strong afterlife affirmation, even excluding the 70 virgin bit trophy claimed by the fervent  jihadists of today.   The enormous Moslem and Christian majority over Jews must certainly mirror  the eternally human hope for an   afterlife fantasy  of some sort.    “A happily after life” continuation at least as a legitimate hope. Ultimate salvation and redemption!  Much beyond the rather mundane “soul going back to the bosom of  God” which both Reform Judiasm and some part of Christianity  also espouse.                  

        With the approach of modernity  and Copernicus  and Darwin  and the growth of  science in general and  other growing secular interests, as the Enlightenment,  the pursuit of happiness centered itself more on the individual  and his or her individual  desires.     Individual happiness   was not necessarily a collective experience.  Salvation and redemption could vary from person to person  or be not essential  any more.    The    centrality of  the godhead  receded;  “God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world” became a commonplace not to  be probed too deeply.    And with the success of the industrial revolution  and gradual increase in material wealth  above bare  poverty levels  humanities’  interest  became self centered.   Self improvement  became  a fashionable and possibly selfish path.    And as momentum  gathered, and communications improved  even unto television,  soon many people including children  and then even mere infants, mesmerized by the tube,  became willing and discriminating  consumers.  The next step, with all the skills and sublety  of sophisticated  Madison Avenue wiles, outright leisure items became absolute necessities.    Nobody    buys a standard car any more without air conditioning  or without  pushbutton windows; or a house without bedroom window air conditioners, if not the whole house.    And  little  and very little juniors holler if they don’t have the latest Nintendo or Barbie Doll  product. 

        And all lived happily ever…..until the next new hyped  product change was artfully introduced.     If  it was true as Karl Marx cynically  said, that “religion was the opiate of the people”  then  the slogan for many years  by General Electric  that “progress was our most important product” was also, if not a sedative opiate,  then a mesmerizing stimulant to add to the  “consumeritis” spending  in our country. To possess that latest material object or travel trip that will add to our happiness.  This may be a good thing for job growth and productivity but we do not save very much and as nation our collective individual debt is always very impressive---even more so than its previous impressive highs. And  the sale of prozac  and sleeping pills  also keeps  going  up, as do  personal bankruptcies, foreclosures,  and tax defaults.  

        So…..oh happiness where is thy blessed sting!!  Expectations always end up as being greater than realization.  Or even dangerous precursors of death and destruction.  Enough people seek happiness in utterly misguided fanaticisms such as Naziism, which produced the Holocaust,  Soviet style Communism, which  gave us the Gulag  Archipelago,    and Jihadist style Islam which seems to be  the beginning  of the introduction to be the  next major confrontation.   Between  Islam and the west.   And then the only human happiness will have to be fulfilled with the prayerful hope that our human reason will keep us from destroying each other.