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The Pursuit of Happiness

‘Philosophers have an infuriating habit of analysing questions rather than answering them’, writes Terry Eagleton, who, in The Meaning of Life asks the most important question any of us ever ask, and attempts to answer it. Terry Eagleton is a Professor of English at the University of Manchester and a Fellow of the British Academy. Below is an excerpt from The Meaning of Life, in which Eagleton talks about happiness.

After reading this excerpt let us know in the comments if you feel that your personal happiness comes from virtue, or from selfish pursuits? How is happiness a driving force in your life?

If the meaning of life lies in the common goal of human beings, then there seems no doubt about what this is. What everyone strives for is happiness. ‘Happiness’, to be sure, is a feeble, holiday-camp sort of word, evocative of manic grins and cavorting about in a terry-eagleton-c.jpgmulticoloured jacket. But as Aristotle recognizes in his Nicomachean Ethics, it operates as a kind of baseline in human life, in the sense that you cannot reasonably ask why we should seek to be happy. It is not a means to something else, as money or power generally are. It is more like wanting to be respected. Desiring it just seems to be part of our nature. Here, then, is a foundational term of sorts. The problem is that it is so desperately indeterminate. The idea of happiness seems both vital and vacuous. What counts as happiness? What if you find it in terrorizing old ladies? Someone who is determined to become an actor may spend fruitless hours auditioning while living on a pittance. For much of the time she is anxious, dispirited, and mildly hungry. She is not what we would usually call happy. Her life is not pleasant or enjoyable. Yet she is, so to speak, prepared to sacrifice her happiness to her happiness.

Happiness is sometimes seen as a state of mind. But this is not how Aristotle regards it. ‘Well-being’, as we usually translate his term for happiness, is what we might call a state of soul, which for him involves not just an interior condition of being, but a disposition to behave in certain ways. As Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked, the best image of the soul is the body. If you want to observe someone’s ‘spirit’, look at what they do. Happiness for Aristotle is attained by virtue, and virtue is above all a social practice rather than an attitude of mind. Happiness is part of a practical way of life, not some private inner contentment. On this theory, you could look at someone’s conduct over a period of time and exclaim ‘He’s happy!’, as you could not on a more dualistic model of human beings. And he would not have to be beaming or cavorting about either.

Julian Baggini, in his discussion of happiness in What’s It All About?, fails fully to register this point. In order to illustrate that happiness is not the be-all and end-all of life, he argues that if you are just about to embark on your quest for happiness and see someone sinking in quicksand, it would surely be better to save them than to pursue your own contentment. The language of ‘embark on your quest for happiness’ is surely telling: for one thing, it makes happiness sound like a private pursuit, and for another thing it makes it sound like a good night out on the town. Indeed, it risks making happiness sound more like pleasure: saving someone from quicksand couldn’t be part of it, since it clearly isn’t pleasant. In fact, Baggini, in common with most moral philosophers, recognizes elsewhere in his book that pleasure is a passing sensation, while happiness at its best is an enduring condition of being. You can experience intense pleasure without being in the least happy; and just as it seems that you can be happy for dubious reasons (such as terrorizing old ladies), you can also relish morally disreputable pleasures, like rejoicing in your enemy’s discomfort.

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Recent Comments

  1. Pamela Benjamin

    Terry Eagleton is my meaning of life.

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