THE ETERNAL HAPPINESS SEARCH
to be wished for but almost never attained,happinessis still one of western
civilizationsmost cherished goals. Andformerly one of philosophys prime subjects. NowDarrin McMahon laments, in his seminal book Happiness;A History,
philosophers have gone on to analytic philosophic jargoninstead of this grand pursuit. McMahons 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
Jeffersons immortalLife, Liberty, and
the Pursuit of Happiness; after
serving in bothWorld War II and the
Korean WarI will not go so far as to
proclaimPatrick HenrysGive MeLiberty or Give Me Death.
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 symposiumofPlatowho 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.
note here is Aristotle,who taught a
less demanding course based on human reason, and who was Alexander the Greats mentor.
Alexanders worldwide conquestsspreada somewhat debased
conceptof Athenian Greek
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
Moses, and the Jews under Gods intimate directionface 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 Solomons 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 Isaiahs very prophetic words these Jews were the saving remnant,evidently unassimilated in their pagan surroundings and probably even tithing their incomes to Solomons Judean temple. (Much as Mexican legal and illegal immigrants do today).
centuries later,at the beginning the
Christian era,historian demographers
estimatethe Jewish remnantto 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
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;Gods in His heaven, alls 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 levelshumanitiesinterestbecame 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 dont 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 peoplethenthe 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 theconsumeritis 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.