Cafe Philo - What is Happiness?

What is happiness?

The happy are happy in possessing the good, and there’s no need for us to ask why men should want to be happy.

                                    Plato, Symposium, 204e.

He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1101.a.10.

Man wills happiness of necessity, nor can he will not to be happy, or to be unhappy.

                                                St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I. i. qu. 13.a.6

The notion of happiness is so indefinite that although every man wishes to attain it, yet he never can say definitely and consistently what it is that he really wishes and wills.


                                                Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles, trans. Abbott, p. 35.

Both Plato and Aristotle agree that we are compelled to desire happiness, but they insist that it is not a temporary state, and that it can only be achieved by the possession of the good. Yet, if all men are compelled to seek happiness, ought we not to try to define more closely what we mean? Or is Kant right that the notion of happiness is as elusive as the reality appears to be? ‘If you’re happy and you know it’, children sing, but most adults find it easier to know when they are not happy, or when they were.

Beatus vir qui timet Dominum: many are familiar with Monteverdi’s wonderful setting of this psalm and of its translation in the King James Bible as ‘Blessed is the man who fears the Lord.’ Yet the Beatitudes, so-called because each begins, ‘Blessed …’, like the first, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, have been translated in one modern version as ‘How happy are the poor in spirit’. This reflects a profound cultural shift in our understanding of what makes for a good life. The Greek word, eudaimonia, implies a whole life blessed by the gods, as does the Latin beatus or blessed, but the word ‘happy’ (with its roots in chance) seems to mark a shift to a temporary feeling, closer to what Epicurus called ‘pleasure’ than any rational counting of long-term blessings. Both Plato and the psalmist considered happiness as inherently connected with the good life, with a life that was rationally fruitful, conducted within a community and more concerned with others than with the self. By contrast, post-Romantic man is more concerned with feeling happy, while modern man typically searches for individual pleasure and, increasingly, solipsistic enjoyment.

Perhaps it is not surprising that recent attempts to establish a register of happiness have placed giving and connecting with others, or relationships and caring, at the top of the list. As Iris Murdoch says, ‘We cease to be in order to attend to the existence of something else, a natural object, a person in need.’ Empirical (perhaps superficial) surveys have tried to identify the happiest period in recent history (both the 1950s and 1970s have been proposed) or the happiest age (58 and 69 were selected). More worrying is the rise of depression, especially among teenage girls, which surely requires us to take happiness and its sources more, not less, seriously. Were the Greek philosophers and biblical authors right to link happiness firmly with the good life, with possession of the good, and to see it as a fundamental issue?



Gerard Kilroy

August 2016.