Book Review

The Pursuit of Happiness: A History from the Greeks to the Present By Darrin McMahon Allen Lane

This is a very bold book indeed, setting out, as it does, to chart the evolution of western thinking on happiness over the last 2,000 years. Freud, nearly a century ago, aware of the complexity of even defining something as elusive and subjective as happiness, not to mind writing a history of the term, glumly counselled all would-be historians of happiness to leave it alone. But Darrin McMahon, a professor at Florida State University and a cultural historian, could not resist, confessing: "Living in the West at the turn of the twenty-first century, I found it impossible to leave the problem at that. For happiness - its promise, its expectation, its allure - was everywhere around me."

In a panoramic sweep of western culture, starting with the Greeks and ending with modern psychology, he raids sources in philosophy, myth, politics, art, architecture, poetry, literature, scripture, theology and music to construct a cultural history of happiness - imperfect to be sure, but daring in its scope, intriguing in its detail, and fascinating in its often intimate pen pictures of historical figures.

This book argues persuasively that no modern conceptions of happiness can be properly understood without consideration of its historical evolution over the last 2,000 years. McMahon's major thesis is that our modern belief in happiness is a relatively recent development, emerging as a radical new force in western thinking during the Age of Enlightenment.

But he starts the story in the ancient world of classical Greece, where the oldest view of happiness was a tragic one. In a world of struggle and uncertainty, human beings were not destined to be happy. Only the gods could be happy and only they could bestow the gift of happiness on man. Happiness, if it comes at all, is what befalls us. This link between happiness and fate has lingered in virtually every Indo- European language. The root of "happiness", for example, being "happ" meaning chance, fortune, what happens in the world, leading to words such as "happenstance", "hapless", "haphazard".

It was democratic Athens, free men living in a prosperous democracy, which first challenged that conception and first expressed that great, seductive goal - that human beings could "become like gods"' and capture happiness for themselves. Socrates was the first to consider in detail the "necessary conditions for happiness", starting an intellectual trend that has spun down the centuries since with unremitting energy. Plato and Aristotle took up the challenge, with Aristotle's formulation of happiness as the ultimate end of existence and "an activity of the soul expressing virtue" continuing to have profound influence.

Although drawing deeply on classical ideas of happiness, the development of Christianity profoundly changed the narrative, introducing the idea that unhappiness was not an aberration, an individual failure but the natural condition of humanity since the Fall, with true happiness to be found not in this world but in the next. Removing the possibility of happiness in this world, Christianity offered instead the prospect of true happiness in the next. All that we could strive for in this life was the hope of happiness and the happiness of hope. As if laying out the foundations of early Christianity and the subtly different contributions of St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas was not enough, McMahon can't resist a long and fascinating aside into the early Christian martyrs, Saints Perpetua and Felicitas. Based on an account by her contemporaries and by St Perpetua herself, he describes the way these young women, went ecstatically to their death, to be mauled by wild beasts in the Roman arena. For Perpetua, the entreaties of her heartbroken family, the danger of leaving her not-yet-weaned baby, the certain and horrible death ahead were as nothing compared to the palpable visions of Paradise awaiting her. Equally eager to die, her heavily pregnant slave, Felicitas, prayed (successfully) for an early delivery (the Romans forbade the execution of pregnant women). These pious young women bore no destructive intent to others, of course, but the account of their longing for martyrdom, not to say the powerful impact it had on the growth of their religion, bears an unsettling resemblance to the contemporary cult of suicide bombers.

Onwards at a breathtaking intellectual pace to the Renaissance, humanism, the Reformation, Luther, Lock and a host of lesser known thinkers who (I summarise, of course) collectively tilted the hitherto heavenwards human gaze earthwards, creating the possibility of some earthly happiness as well. Characteristically, in his encyclopaedic gallop through a few hundred years of history, the author finds time to paint a much more attractive picture of Martin Luther. The unremittingly gloomy, grim figure I remember from secondary school history emerges here as positively playful and even scatological in his old age.

Thankfully, McMahon takes a leisurely pit-stop in the 18th century. An Enlightenment scholar, he lovingly explores the work of Paley, Kant, Voltaire, Bentham, La Mettrie, Rousseau, Samuel Johnson and others, showing how these writers shaped the "radical re-evaluation of the century, the slow transfer of sacrality from the otherworldly God of old to the new god of good feeling, the god of happiness, which was extending its sway on earth" . Thus was born the modern view of happiness, legitimating the pursuit of happiness and pleasure as the right of everybody.

That, believe it or not, only brings us to the first half of the book. In the second half, Spreading the Word, he deals with how the happiness of the future began to emerge as the great legitimating concepts of national governments and individual lives. He documents the collective march towards happiness that animated the Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution, the Bolshevik revolution, the growth of liberalism. Wrestling with the ambiguities and darker sides of this headlong pursuit, he nonetheless treats us to fascinating asides abou Beethoven, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

And then . . . he splutters to a halt. His chapter on the modern psychology of happiness was the most disappointing. Clearly, his heart was not in it. Even his writing style changes, his hitherto graceful and elegant prose becomes clumpy and dull. His understanding of the now quite serious science of happiness is sketchy and he contents himself making heavy-handed fun of the thriving self-help industry - not the same thing, you know.

Nonetheless, this book is a tour de force. It is not for everyone, to be sure. This is a densely annotated book (one chapter has 138 references). It took me an entire month to read it. But for those who want to be reintroduced to the great canon of western thought, who want to trace the evolution of ideas, who want to be reminded, once again, that there really is nothing new under the sun, il vaut le voyage.

Originally published in The Irish Times. 


Posted: 02 September 2006