THE ETERNAL HAPPINESS SEARCH
By Sy Schechtman
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.”
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.
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
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).
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
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.