The Idea of Happiness by V.J. McGill

The Idea of HappinessThe Idea of Happiness by V.J. McGill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book covers the terrain of its philosophical subject, but winds up placing more emphasis on modern social science.

Every sentient being wants to be happy and wants to avoid suffering—so I learned in my training as a Buddhist. But how many of us sentient beings can define happiness? Do we know what it is that we all supposedly want?

This book is one of 5 monographs sponsored by the Institute for Philosophical Research in the 1960s (the others are The Idea Of Freedom, The Idea of Justice, The Idea of Progress, and The Idea of Love), intended as the first part of a project to publish a book on each of the 102 Great Ideas of Western thought as identified in the Britannica Great Books of the Western World series.

That project was not completed, although I hope that it will be one day by some visionary and public-spirited team of philosophers, for the idea of the project is an excellent one. The idea is to examine each of these Great Ideas, not with a view to resolving it or even extending the philosophical discussion of it, but rather to clarify and organize the thinking that has already been done on it in the course of Western history. The Institute’s task was not philosophical but dialectical: to elucidate a controversy without taking sides.

Although that was the original intent for these books, this particular book, by V.J. McGill, departs from that agenda in treating its topic of Happiness in a more conventional, history-of-philosophy way. To me this makes the book less valuable than, say, Otto Bird’s excellent The Idea of Justice, which can serve as a paradigm for how to present such a dialectical analysis. I can only assume that the author here, V.J. McGill, felt that the idea of Happiness has really changed over the centuries, and that therefore he could not present it as, so to speak, a conversation between writers from different centuries who are treated as contemporaries, as though they were all sitting at the same table. There is much of that approach here, but not consistently all the way through.

But the author does break down the idea of Happiness and show its evolution in the literature. The writer who gave it the most careful and complete thought was Aristotle, so his analysis forms the basis of the discussion. In brief, Aristotle thought that happiness consists in virtuous activity. It’s impossible for a human being to be happy who is not expressing his humanity fully, especially in those respects that are uniquely human and not shared with any other creature, and the virtues are among these, relying as they do on people’s powers of free choice and reason. The man who has developed, as habits, the virtues of justice, courage, temperance, and prudence, is as happy as a human being can be, in whatever circumstances he may find himself.

And those circumstances mattered a lot, according to Aristotle, for he thought that no one could be happy if he were undergoing grave illness or great misfortune—although he would be happier than someone who lacked his virtues. The Stoics, on the other hand, disagreed: they held that happiness is the practice of virtue, full stop, and one’s circumstances are irrelevant to this. To the Stoics, in theory, it makes no difference if a man is living in luxury or being broken on the rack; as long as he is virtuous, he is happy.

Another strand in the tradition is represented by Epicurus, who held that happiness is simply pleasure. His school has often been attacked for advocating sensuality and license, but Epicurus was at pains to refute this. He observed that the pleasures of drunkards, gluttons, and libertines were episodic and entailed much pain; he felt that the greatest balance of net pleasure was enjoyed by those who lived modest, contemplative lives in the company of good friends.

This hedonistic thread would be picked up centuries later by Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarians, who advocated an ethics of promoting the greatest pleasure of the greatest number, with no individual’s pleasure counting as more important than anyone else’s. And this egalitarian perspective is a new thing in the literature, for ancient writers like Aristotle would never have supposed that all people’s pleasures were of equal worth. Indeed, Aristotle regarded happiness as an impossibility for slaves and for tradesmen, since they lacked the freedom to be in control of their own lives. For Bentham, it is the duty of each of us to concern ourselves with the pleasure of all, and this responsibility falls most of all on government in the framing of laws.

This idea, however, that government is responsible for the happiness of the people, is not new; for Aristotle also believed it, and indeed he saw this as the very purpose of government and the state. For people come together not just to survive, but to lead a good life, and government is the supreme power entrusted with realizing this aim.

McGill goes on to discuss happiness in connection with the modern disciplines of psychotherapy and social science. While Freud felt that happiness is not possible, and other psychologists have generally avoided the word in favor of terms like “self-actualization”, nonetheless their analyses of the components of good mental health resemble many of the ancients’ components of happiness. McGill gives the impression that he is enthusiastic and optimistic that these psychological insights, coupled with judicious programs of the modern welfare state, are a promising advance on ancient thinking about happiness and may very well bring most of us there.

To me this seemed unduly sanguine, possibly reflecting the optimism of the time in which the author was writing. There was a dark underside to the prosperity and pleasures of the consumer culture, and that underside is more visible every day as the world shows the stresses of overcrowding and overconsumption. Even if we believe that material pleasures can indeed provide happiness, we need to take a page out of Epicurus’s book and practice restraint—not just for the sake of the world, but for our own sake.

The actual writing here is clear, calm, sober, and unexciting; and the historical approach is not as powerful and illuminating as the fully dialectical method used in the other books of this series. But it provides an excellent overview of this all-important topic, and therefore is of great service to any rational being who wants to pick it up.

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