Scholars' Association News
Issue 27
August 2013


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About happiness: A discussion with Pascal Bruckner
Photo: Costas Pikadas / Rendering: Leda Bouzali

What is happiness? Is a happy life a good life? Is the pursuit of happiness a worthy human endeavour?

Human happiness was the theme of the discussion that took place between Simon Critchley, Philosophy Professor, and French award-winning writer Pascal Bruckner, as part of the discussion cycle "On truth (and lies) about happiness!" at the New York Public Library on March 12th, 2013, with the support of the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation. Some of the lies told frequently regarding the pursuit of happiness are analyzed in Bruckner's book Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy published by Princeton University Press, as well as in his book Le Paradoxe amoureux (2009).

The discussion began with a historical examination of the concept of happiness and more specifically throughout four time periods: the ancient Greek, the Christian, the modern and the contemporary. According to Pascal Bruckner, in ancient Greek times, the concept of happiness was identified with eudaimonia yet its meaning then was different from the one we assign to the term nowadays. For ancient Greeks, eudaimonia was a certain way to conform to the global order of the universe. So, Greeks invented a concept which we have forgotten today despite the fact that it still devastates us, the concept of 'hybris', the excess. Every time human beings committed excesses, they destroyed the universal order and thus found themselves in total distress and anarchy. The concept of eudaimonia has different aspects in the various ancient Greek and Roman schools of thought. The Greeks however had invented what we now call the "good life". Aristotle used to say that one can have a good life if they follow their 'telos', that is the goal assigned to them.

The Christian religion, according to Bruckner, does not accept the ancient Greek view that one can be happy in this life without the help of God. This is the reason why the French intellectual and scientist Pascal criticizes the Stoics who believe that they are able to cope with the pain and the suffering of life without the help of a Higher Being, and deems them arrogant. Pascal claims that "It is not shameful for a man to die of pain, it is shameful to die in pleasure." This position was affirmed by Pope John Paul II; the Roman-Catholic Church first and then the Protestants have a long tradition in the love for pain, commented Bruckner sarcastically.

Simon Critchley then pointed out that in ancient Greece happiness was about an idea of measure. Indeed, the Epicurean philosophy professed the idea of measure, caution, no excess sexuality, few friends, frugal meals, and proclaimed that philosophy was the health of the soul, which stemmed from the adoption of measure in everyday life. In Christianity, this idea of measure fundamentally changes.

"Indeed" agreed Bruckner, "because the Christians invented the original sin, so everyone is born a sinner. This means that happiness cannot be now, it used to exist in paradise lost, before the original sin was committed, and it will exist again after death, after the resurrection of the bodies." According to Christianity, we are not on earth to be happy – that is futile – we are on earth to save our soul, so we have to conform to the teachings of the Church, perform our duties and avoid the mortal sins. "These traditions are very much alive", observed Bruckner and continued to say that he grew up with such experiences. He also added that there are extreme Protestant groups who teach that we should fear Hell and other such preachings.

"Then the whole thing shifts with Voltaire" points out the moderator of the discussion. "A third idea of happiness is born, a novel conception represented by Voltaire: 'The earthly paradise is where I am. The earth is not a valley of tears, it is a place of possible joy.'"

Pascal Bruckner observed that Christianity prepared the transformation of the concept of happiness. By promising happiness in the beyond, people did not anticipate for happiness here and now. The progress of medicine was the main factor that contributed to this shift. In the past, the priest used to go to the ill and attributed their sickness to God's will, but with the invention of penicillin and laudanum, which soothe the pain, people began to realize they can have a better life. Suddenly, even the most faithful souls saw that this earth is not doomed to be a valley of tears, but a 'garden of roses'. And then Voltaire comes along with Enlightenment to change the course of things professing that "earthly paradise is where I am." This idea was considered a scandal. With Enlightenment we can cultivate our pleasures with no sense of guilt. It is not bad to enjoy good food, carnal pleasures, to love travelling and live in luxury. The 18th century was when pleasure and luxury were invented. It is thus acknowledged that happiness is here and now, and unhappiness is dismissed. In time, during the 20th century, as science made progress and technology improved, people came to think that this old plague of distress was not the only line of humanity, new horizons were opening. In the course of the discussion, Simon Critchley posed the following question to the French thinker: "How do we get from that right to happiness to the 20th century, to the contemporary duty of happiness, as you very beautifully describe it in your book? Happiness has become a duty which makes us unhappy. We have a compulsion to be happy, but we experience boredom, dullness and misery. How did we get to that point?"

"First we will have to make a small journey to the 19th century" responded Pascal Bruckner. "In the context of the conflict between the CEOs and the working class, the most widespread conception of happiness was that it was reserved for the elite, and if the workers were happy, they would start drinking and stop working. This philosophy lasted till World War II, at least in France. There were two major events that took place during the '60s: firstly, capitalism radically shifted direction and economy was no more based on production but on consumption. So now it is in the interest of the economy machine not only to have you work 40-45 hours a week, but to make you consume goods, otherwise the factories would have to stop production. For the first time in history, capitalism stops talking the language of asceticism and starts talking the language of happiness."

"The second shift" Bruckner continued, "was the individualistic revolution which took place only in the US and Europe. And I think that what we are witnessing today in the Arabic world is a slow start for this kind of emancipation of the individual from the collectivity. This trend is founded on the notion that we are all masters of our own life and we can detach ourselves from any kind of collective, such as the Church, the family, the tribe. Up to now, if you were unhappy, it was the fault of the Church, of bourgeoisie, of the capitalist system, or of your parents, and now you are just alone in facing your own happiness; if you can't make it, it's your fault: you have to think about it and reform yourself."

And he continued saying that "This concept of happiness explains the huge disarray of therapies which intend to make us happy: plastic surgeries, medicine, Freudian therapies. Religion is entering the game as one of the therapies, and Protestants are ahead of the Catholics in this respect, without turning a blind eye to Buddhism, Hinduism, mysticism, which have emerged and are supposed to help us reach our fulfilment."

"But we are not fulfilled" remarked Simon Critchley. "In the '60s we become our own masters but we also become our own slaves, and we seem to enjoy that masochist relation we have with ourselves."

"One of the paradoxes of our free society," replied the French writer "is that we have transferred the concept of guilt through new objects. In the quest for happiness, we experience less guilt but more anxiety. With the sexual revolution, taboos vanish. But what was prohibited yesterday has now become compulsory. What has replaced the prohibition of pleasure is the angst of performance. We are now torturing ourselves with a concept which is supposed to give us pleasure. We have assigned ourselves a new goal: to be perpetually happy!"

Then, the discussion revolved around eastern religions and in specific Buddhism, to which many of the western population, and many celebrities, have converted in the past decades, in search of a spirituality beyond the western religions. Bruckner considers that many Hindu gurus very ingeniously took advantage of that established need in order to gain financial benefits from the huge market opening before them. He stated that "real Buddhism has nothing to do with the teaching of Dalai Lama or the 'light' version of what you encounter in California!" It is a very elaborate metaphysical religion with strict hierarchies and a closed social system. Western Buddhism is the result of materialism, that's why one can see so many bankers, brokers, doctors and executives embracing it as a kind of spiritual complement to their harsh life. In day time you try to kill your competitors, you fire and intimidate your employees, and at night you go back home to meditate and reconcile with yourself. Clearly, we have detached ourselves from our religious background and that's why we need Buddhism which provides us with a kind of 'light' spirituality that helps us move in the correct direction when we are overwhelmed with our worries."

In his book, Pascal Bruckner refers to Madame Verdurin from Remembrance of Things Past by Proust, who dips her croissant in her coffee as she reads about the shipwreck of the Lusitania in 1915. She feels genuine sympathy for those people who died in the wreck. This, according to Simon Critchley, is an example that we are never so happy as when in other people's distress. It also reveals the heroine's detachment, who embodies what Bruckner calls "the saving detachment of freedom". In the corresponding chapter of his book, Bruckner concludes that maybe the secret for a good life is not to give a damn about happiness.

Both interlocutors agree that we experience today something similar to Proust's heroine when we watch the news on TV, when we eat our dinner and watch scenes of people suffering all over the world. One of the functions of the news is not only to depress us but to comfort us, allowing us to compare our trivial concerns to the huge problems, the wars and starvation others experience. We all know that when we are totally depressed and we find ourselves amongst happy people who are laughing, we hurt deeply. After all, in the core of tragedy, we often encounter intense moments of happiness and pleasure. Here perhaps lies the difference between happiness and joy.

"Joy, in my opinion, is higher than happiness for it's the acceptance of life as the latter is, with its good and its bad moments" said Pascal Bruckner. "One of the main problems posed by happiness is that it excludes two main notions which we will meet anyway in our life: disease and death We in the West deny the importance of death and we pay a high price for that. We don't know how to deal with death. Societies in the past had special rituals which we have completely erased. The horror movies with zombies and vampires, which are a trend in France as well, are the outcome of this repression. We don't know how to deal with our dead. Similarly, we repress disease."

Then Bruckner continued to say that "Death and disease have become the modern 'pornography' since sexuality has dominated the public sphere. The only obscene word in our modern vocabulary is 'incurable'. Suffering is no more the natural companion of life, it's a scandal, and that's the main difference between the modern West society and traditional societies where happiness is the exception. The bad news, our modern illusion is that we can control happiness..." concluded Pascal Bruckner.

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