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A look at the bright side

Happiness A History Darrin M. McMahon Atlantic Monthly: 544 pp., $27.50

January 01, 2006|Gordon Marino | Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy and the director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College and editor of "Basic Writings of Existentialism."

"HERE'S wishing you much happiness in 2006," a kind friend recently wrote me in a holiday greeting card. Not to be a grouch, but what does that mean? As Americans, we have a religious devotion to the idea of our own happiness. We believe that we have a sacred right to pursue that strange bird into the forest of our lives and are even prepared to medicate any condition that gets in the way of the hunt.

Even my philosophy students lecture me that life is all about the pursuit of happiness. In return, I badger them with: "Aristotle insisted that in order to hit a target, you have to be able to find it. So how would you define happiness?" Usually, they shrug and use catchphrases about feeling good and doing what you want. Some even meekly suggest that the good life has something to do with being a good person. Truth be told, I am a bit of a depressive who, even at the best and most joyous of times, thinks "this too shall pass." Really, I am in no position to pronounce on happiness, but then there is Darrin M. McMahon's masterful meditation "Happiness: A History."

McMahon's book is a genealogy of the idea of happiness. Book-length studies like this are much in vogue today. Indeed, during the last decade, ancestries of abstractions such as boredom, anxiety and melancholy have been published and have sold exceptionally well -- for example, Jennifer Hecht's "Doubt: A History" and Patricia Spacks' "Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind." The reasonable presumption behind such books is that ideas, no less than frogs, evolve and are subject to the thunderclaps of contingency. Meanings are displaced and abraded in the mill of time. Books like McMahon's are aimed at restoring the sense of a term that may have been muted by seismic cultural shifts.

Deep in antiquity, McMahon argues, happiness was inextricably bound up with notions of luck and good fortune. Although the Greeks understood that virtue was a part of happiness, they also grasped that moral paragons often led miserable lives and, as McMahon puts it, "there is plenty of hap in happiness."

Equally important, in "the understanding of Herodotus and his contemporaries ... happiness is not a feeling, nor any subjective state.... Happiness, rather, is a characterization of an entire life." A popular adage among the Greeks was: "Call no man happy until he is dead." At the time, it was commonly understood that fortune was a carnival wheel and that even the mighty could be brought down as suddenly as a horse slipping on a stone. The ancients also believed that a good life could not end on the rack but must involve a good death.

McMahon explains that with the advent of Christianity, less weight was put on fortune -- happiness, however, was still largely regarded as a state lying beyond the borders of this vale of tears. During the Enlightenment, however, people came to believe that well-being could be achieved on Earth, and in our present age happiness is regarded by many as something between an entitlement and emolument for a job well done. Elsewhere, McMahon notes how the Buddha is often shown smiling even though one of his teachings is that all life is suffering -- not something to smile about!

This is a deeply philosophical book that quietly raises fundamental questions on the scale of: Is life worth living? At the same time, "Happiness: A History" is a scintillating course in the history of ideas that invites us to consider paintings, poetry, even the plaster mask of Beethoven. As he contemplates the changing representations of happiness from the halos of 14th century painter Giotto Biandolini to the smiley faces of the 1970s, McMahon charts perturbations in the concept as it relates to pleasure, pain and melancholy. Apropos of our own age of near-pandemic depression, it was, McMahon maintains, only when happiness began to emerge as a possibility in this life that the medical elite began to think of melancholy as a disease.

McMahon takes many side jaunts on his intellectual safari, but his text is grounded in a series of gracefully written commentaries on a cast of immortal excogitators including Aristotle, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Mill, Marx, Darwin and Freud. Of noteworthy percipience are McMahon's readings of Rousseau, whom the author credits with establishing some of the self-defeating snares of the happiness quest. In the commercial and industrial world of the West, our attempts to satisfy desires inevitably lead us to new forms of desire and, as a result, to fresh frustrations. In the end, McMahon captures Rousseau sighing in his "Reveries of a Solitary Walker":

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