Through The Glass Darkly

Stoicism and the fact of unhappiness

'Seneca argued that in so far as we can ever attain happiness, it is by learning not to aggravate already negative situations'

'Seneca argued that in so far as we can ever attain happiness, it is by learning not to aggravate already negative situations'

That happiness - what it is, where is it found, and how to hold onto and maximise it - is big business these days is obvious to anyone browsing the ever-expanding New Age section of book shops, large and small. Titles like The Seven Steps to Happiness or How to be Happy 365 Days a Year and dozens of others all promise to show how happiness can be achieved easily, painlessly, and permanently.

In The Secrets of Happiness, a book which would appear at first glance to be yet another contribution to the burgeoning happiness industry, philosopher Richard Schoch in fact challenges its basic premise:

"Unhappy is the story of happiness. More than two thousand years ago, when the ancient Greeks first thought about what constitutes 'the good life', happiness was a civic virtue that demanded a lifetime's cultivation. Now, it's everybody's birthright: swallow a pill, get happy; do yoga, find your bliss; hire a life coach, regain your self-esteem. We have lost contact with the old and rich traditions of happiness, and we have lost the ability to understand their essentially moral nature. Deaf to the wisdom of the ages, we deny ourselves the chance of finding a happiness that is meaningful. We settled, nowadays, for a much weaker, much thinner, happiness: mere enjoyment of pleasure, mere avoidance of pain and suffering ... Somewhere between Plato and Prozac, happiness stopped being a lofty achievement and became an entitlement."

In the eight chapters of Schoch's excellent and eminently readable book, he examines attitudes towards happiness that can be found in the great religious and philosophical traditions. What becomes evident as he unfolds his argument is that the conception of happiness as understood in our modern consumer culture - happiness as entitlement, happiness on demand, happiness as - is about as far removed from what philosophers and religious teachers have said as can be imagined.

In fact, the Greek philosopher Epicurus, the Hindu Upanishads, the Buddha, the author of the book of Job, Jesus, and the Roman emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius all share a concern not with outlining the primrose path to bliss, but with getting us to accept unhappiness with grace and wisdom.

In presenting the reader with succinct essays on each of these traditions, Schoch aims at something far more valuable than do the glib purveyors of happiness as entitlement. Steeped in the thought of those wise individuals who provide the backbone of his counterblast, his approach to happiness is twofold. He wants to help us confront the hard truth that most of life is woven with threads of disappointment, frustration, and unexpected disaster, and that we best endure those frustrations and disappointments - and even those unheralded disasters that seem to drop out of the sky - we've prepared ourselves for and can, in some way, understand - for to understand something is to be, at least to some extent, master of it.

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, argues that in so far as we can ever attain happiness, it is by learning not to aggravate already negative situations through our own responses, through blind rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, and self-righteousness. We must, he says, reconcile ourselves to the necessary imperfectability of human existence.

The other side of Schoch's approach is also drawn from the great traditions of the past and, once stated, is obvious. Very simply, happiness is a by-product of other activities, not a goal in itself, and certainly not a possession. The great literature of the world is full of novels, plays, and poems dramatising the folly of chasing after happiness as if it were something we could get and hold onto instead of a grace bestowed or a blessing unsought. If learning to live is to accept that frustration, disappointment, and disaster are part and parcel of human existence, then the counterpoint of this is that true wisdom is learning to recognise and cherish those moments - fleeting though they may be - of genuine happiness that enrich our lives.

And these, once we ditch the futile quest for a consumer-oriented happiness, we will discover are everywhere and abundant: when we share moments with those we love, enjoy the company of our friends, play with our children, act kindly, listen to music, read a book, go for a walk, accomplish a difficult task - once you begin to think of them, the list grows ever longer.

Much of what is presented in books and in the media as the essence of happiness is little more than a shallow philosophy of instant gratification - happiness on the cheap. William Blake, one of the great poets and visionaries of English literature, points to the essence of happiness with the simplicity of the truly wise:

"Joy & woe are woven fine,

A clothing for the soul divine,

And when this we rightly know,

Through the world we safely go."


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