BySy   Schechtman


       Devoutly to be wished for but almost never attained,happinessis still one of western civilization’smost cherished goals.  Andformerly one of philosophy’s prime subjects.   NowDarrin McMahon laments, in his seminal book Happiness;A History, philosophers have gone on to analytic philosophic jargoninstead of this grand pursuit.  McMahon’s book covers the whole landscape,from Socrates to prozac, and also is eminently readableeven thoughthe cast of historic and mythical charactersis considerable.   For myselfI supposeI still get off at Jefferson’s immortal“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”;  after serving in bothWorld War II and the Korean WarI will not go so far as to proclaimPatrick Henry’s“Give MeLiberty or Give Me Death.”   Jefferson’sformulation is daring enough and opensupineluctable horizonsofpossibility, illusionaryperhaps, but stillloaded with the vital psychic fuel of potentialand aspiration. (Hope springs eternal!!)  In my modernwestern, capitalistframeworkthatprobablyconstitutesall the happinessI aim for,  plus the love and admiration of my wifeand respect of thepeoplethat I admire. (Plus the financial wherewithal to live comfortably   and also the vindicationof  that way of lifethat is subsumed in the Life and Liberty words of Jefferson’sdemocratic manifesto!)

          Happiness, as McMahon details in his book, has haddifferentunderpinnings  throughouthistoryand I think---more so than he--that religious affirmationhas had a profoundinteractionwiththe path we have taken. Butwe start ourhistoric journeyinhis book with the great GreekphilosophersSocrates,Plato, and Aristotle,who had a very bleak emotionallandscape to work with---their frivolous uncaring pantheon of pagan gods.  Thus   they, admirably,constructeda life stylewith slightly varying degrees of nobility, austerity, patriotism, communal good deedsand virtuous love.  They did not deny but tried to deemphasize the hedonistic, sensualaspect of lust and libertinismwith Socrates emphasizingthehigher goals of contemplation and the study of philosophy.  In one famous symposiumofPlato—who was Socrates spokesman--- Socrates is finishinga  discourse on the higher goals of life and happiness  when Alcibiades,and his uninvited band of revelersintrudeandoffer the solemn conclavewine and some very accessible  handmaidensfor their pleasure.  While at first demurringthey soonbegin imbibingand the evening endswith all the guests,exceptSocrates,lying on the floorin a drunkenstupor.  Socrates finisheshis remarks, tucks his hosts in bed andresignedly goes off to the municipal bathsaware that the flesh is stilltooweak.

       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 conquestsspreada somewhat debased conceptof Athenian Greek civilizationcalled Hellenization throughout the ancient world,stressing concepts of architectural beauty and literary Greek masterpieces.  Importantas this was in human historytheultimate ascendance of the loving, caring Deity, and His becoming     the   solesource and solace of human affairs,startedwith the neighboringJews, thenext phase of the happiness quest.   The Jews had been in bondage for centuries to Pharoah, ruler of Egypt, apparently forgotten by God who had originallydirected themthere after asevere famine in Canaan, their homeland.He choses a very reluctant Moses  to lead them out of Egyptand after ten separate confrontations Pharoahrelents,the people are liberatedonly to be pursuedas Pharoahchanges his mind.  The ultimate miracle of his troops drowningin the Sea of Reedsasthe waters part to allow the Jews to cross andthen come togetherto drown the pursuing troopsis what God envisionswill be world wide affirmation of His invincible power and majesty.  And yet as the Jews celebratetheir great victoryGod is shown with tears.“ “Are not the Egyptians mychildren too?”               

     Moses, and the Jews under God’s intimate direction—“face to face”--- wander in the desert for 40 years, establisha small kingdomwhich grows under Kings’ David and Solomon and then  hard times begin and soon civilwar splits the kingdom into two small entities, with somewhat disparategoals.  But only after  the profoundexperienceof the promulgation of the Torahand its commandments and directions for humanliving at Mt.Sinai, the founding of Jerusalem,and the building of Solomon’s temple there.However, by the endof sixth centuryBCEbothkingdomswerealmost all in the diaspora,with only a postage stamp sizepart 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 estimatethe Jewish “remnant”to have grown to between four to six millionpeople,a much larger segment of world population than today.Now the Jewish world population is aboutone quarterof one percent.   So significanta group   were those diaspora Jews at that timethat a translation of the Torah was done into the Koine, aGreek dialectcommon 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 additionwas the testamentof the life of Jesus, a Jewish rabbi who became the Christ, God’sanointed,His only son, who promised eternal lifeand happinessif you would follow his path.   Not in this world, but after.“My kingdomis not of this                                            life, but in the world to come.”   Jesuswent among themany poorandpreached that their presentsuffering and misery would be gone in this afterlife.He performed evident miracles, walking on water, raising Lazarus from the dead, feeding many peoplewith only a few loaves of breadand 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 Beatitudesand the Sermon on the Mount which inspired his small but growing flock.  Also was his promise of a Second Coming, date uncertain,butnot far off,to meet and greet his followers again and judge them all.Three days afterhe was crucified by the ruling Roman regime in Jerusalem, the heavy stone at his tomb was found pushed aside, andhis body was missing.  Proofpositivehis 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 deathpersisted.Some sort of ultimate salvationand redemptionafter 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 conductwould 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 theologya strong afterlife affirmation, even excluding the 70 virgin bit trophy claimed by the ferventjihadists of today.  The enormous Moslem and Christian majority over Jews must certainly mirrorthe eternally human hope for an  afterlife fantasyof 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 ofGod” which both Reform Judiasm and some part of Christianityalso espouse.                  

       With the approach of modernityand Copernicusand Darwinand the growth ofscience in general andother growing secular interests, as the Enlightenment, the pursuit of happiness centered itself more on the individualand his or her individualdesires.    Individual happiness  was not necessarily a collective experience.Salvation and redemption could vary from person to personor be not essentialany more.   The   centrality ofthe godheadreceded;“God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world” became a commonplace not tobe probed too deeply.   And with the success of the industrial revolutionand gradual increase in material wealthabove barepoverty levelshumanities’interestbecame self centered.  Self improvementbecamea fashionable and possibly selfish path.   And as momentumgathered, and communications improvedeven unto television,soon many people including childrenand then even mere infants, mesmerized by the tube,became willing and discriminatingconsumers.The next step, with all the skills and subletyof sophisticatedMadison Avenue wiles, outright leisure items became absolute necessities.    Nobody   buys a standard car any more without air conditioningor withoutpushbutton windows; or a house without bedroom window air conditioners, if not the whole house.   Andlittleand 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 hypedproduct change was artfully introduced.    Ifit was true as Karl Marx cynicallysaid, that “religion was the opiate of the people”thenthe slogan for many yearsby General Electricthat “progress was our most important product” was also, if not a sedative opiate,then a mesmerizing stimulant to add to the“consumeritis” spendingin 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. Andthe sale of prozacand sleeping pillsalso keepsgoingup, as dopersonal 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, whichgave us the Gulag Archipelago,   and Jihadist style Islam which seems to bethe beginningof the introduction to be thenext major confrontation.  BetweenIslam 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.