The Pursuit of Happiness, by Darrin McMahon

Paradise postponed

Toby Green@greentoby
Wednesday 01 April 2009 16:01

Halfway through this prolix book, Darrin McMahon alights upon a dictum from the spurned mistress of Voltaire, the Marquise du Châtelet. "To be happy", the unhappy Marquise wrote, "one must be susceptible to illusions, for it is to illusions that we owe the majority of our pleasures." Such a saying, uttered in the heady century of the Enlightenment, invites contradiction as much as melancholy. For it was the Enlightenment more than any other age which defined the meaning of existence through the pursuit of happiness. If happiness requires illusion, then it must be impossible to be enlightened and happy.

This is one example of an unexpected facet of McMahon's intellectual history of happiness: the contradictions of happiness. We believe that our happiness lies in satisfying our desires. Yet, as McMahon shows, modern scientific research reveals that we exaggerate the fulfilment we will derive from anticipated pleasures. The Enlightenment believed it to be its duty to promote happiness but many at the time, such as Rousseau, soon questioned whether development did not in fact lead to unhappiness. And the Marxist "scientists" of happiness merely produced misery on a vast scale.

Contradictoriness, and the ability to hold contradictory beliefs, is among the most characteristic human qualities. Yet contradiction is an unannounced character in McMahon's book, and one suspects it is unwelcome. Philosophers are trained to produce systems and analyses which are coherent, and lacking in contradiction. While this sort of training is essential in the rigorous, conceptual vocabulary of any language, it may be less fruitful when it comes to discussing happiness - which is nothing if not human (and contradictory).

Such concerns do not appear to have troubled McMahon. He boldly announces in his introduction that a history of happiness "should be an intellectual history, a history of conceptions of this perennially human end". The human experience of happiness, as opposed to its conceptual forms, is to have little place in this account. Rather in the manner of Georges Perec, who wrote the novel La Disparition without the letter "e", McMahon cuts off a vast range of potential with this one fell swoop. Unlike Perec, however, he is not a brilliant novelist, and one suspects that his desire to write an intellectual history may have not a little to do with his belief that such a history will be easier for him to write.

So McMahon launches into what is an unprecedented history of the philosophy of happiness. While one can have serious concerns about his ground rules, the energy and verve with which he runs through the canon of Western philosophy and its views on this important subject is admirable. He begins with Herodotus and moves right through to Samuel Beckett, appearing equally at home with Beethoven, Freud and Thomas Aquinas. It is a remarkable display of erudition, if not wisdom.

In among such variety, there are some highly readable accounts. The discussion of Schopenhauer is particularly rich in its portrayal of the philosophy of pessimism. The passage on Romanticism is also brilliant in its impressive juxtaposition of 19th-century European literature - Heine, Keats, Schiller, Shelley - with that curious philosophical contradiction: that a mood of melancholy and ennui developed alongside the Enlightenment's promotion of happiness.

One of the important things to emerge from this historical approach is that happiness is a concept heavily dependent on cultural atmosphere. The view of the ancient Greeks was that no person could be declared happy until they were dead, since untold calamities might intervene before their demise. Happiness was then a "characterisation of an entire life that can be reckoned only at death" - a notion which, were it widely held today, would force the entire self-help industry to the wall.

This sort of "happiness" is specific to the Greeks. Likewise, the idea of happiness as related to property and consumption depended on what McMahon calls the central creed of the new "secular religion" that developed at the end of the 19th century: economic growth.

Yet this strength of McMahon's book also reveals its central weakness. For this cultural specificity betrays the flaws in trying to write a general book on happiness without dealing with how it is experienced in different cultures.

The very idea of an intellectual history implies that cultures where ideas are transmitted orally can have little value in the history of happiness. And yet, if ideas of happiness are specific to culture, one suspects that it is precisely in thinking about the vast cultural differences in the idea of happiness, and in its experience, that some of its universal traits may emerge.

Thus one of the recurring themes to emerge is the complex relationship in Western philosophy between the concepts of desire, pleasure and happiness. Innumerable philosophers have written of the connection between the satisfaction of desire and happiness. Once an individual satisfies (say) their desire to write a major work on the history of happiness, they become happy.

Yet this emphasis requires a particular understanding of the relationship of desire and the object of desire which is itself specific. In parts of the world with a more communal mode of raising children, there may be a fundamentally different relationship of subject and object to that experienced in the atomic/neurotic family structures of developed economies.

In fact, as most writers know, the satisfaction of the desire to complete a book rarely leads to happiness; anxiety about sales is a more common emotion. One hopes that, for McMahon, things will be different. Yet if, as he admits, restlessness is essential to human nature, even the satisfaction of the desire for a million-copy bestseller might only spawn a different type of disquiet.

Perhaps, indeed, the very concept of happiness is itself only an illusion, an attempt to define something that can never be grasped intellectually, but only experienced fleetingly. If this is indeed the case, then the attempt to historicise happiness without examining its experience imaginatively is rather like trying to write a history of food without discussing the pleasures of eating. It becomes an exercise lacking in taste, but full of the sort of illusory meaning upon which (perhaps) the happiness of each of us depends.

Toby Green's book on the Inquisition will be published next year by Macmillan

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