Lesson of Economic Crisis: Don’t Worry, Be Happy?
While Rome burned, Nero fiddled. With modern-day Europe in financial turmoil, why is French President Nicolas Sarkozy humming the lyrics of Bobby McFerrin's '80s hit?
May 27, 2010 - 12:03 am
The antidote to such drivel may be found in the ancient texts and ideas of the great classical thinkers of the Western tradition, in Plato’s notion of “metriopathy” (discretion, proportion, decorum), in Aristotle’s to meson or “golden mean,” in Zeno the Stoic’s admonition to seek happiness through knowledge and mastery of the passions, in Epicurus’ teaching the art of rational living consistent with the joys of intelligence, moderation, friendship and fair conduct, and even in Rabelais’ notion of “Pantagruelism,” which he defines in his rollicking anti-monastic satire Gargantua and Pantagruel as “drinking to your heart’s desire and reading of the fearsome exploits of Pantagruel.” At least one reads while imbibing.
“Life,” says the English Renaissance author Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, is a “glucupicron,” that is, “a bitter-sweet passion, honey and gall mixed together, we are all miserable and discontent, who can deny it?” A modicum of happiness, we are instructed, nests in “music and merry company”; after all, even “grave Socrates would be merry by fits, sing, dance, and take his liquor too.” But more importantly, if one would be happy in this vale of tears, one must consider the virtue of modesty: “Admire not thyself. Be not proud or popular. … Go not to law without great cause. … Keep good company. … Seem not greater than thou art.” And, naturally, search out wisdom in “Isocrates, Seneca, Plutarch, Epictetus, etc.”
These old coots have a good argument. They furnish a significant corrective to the modern tendency to legislate happiness de haut en bas, concentrating instead on the intrinsic character of the individual who may persist in unhappiness, rancor, envy, and dissatisfaction regardless of all that may be done for him by an overarching power. They would not be impressed by a shorter work week, extended vacations, fiscal entitlements, early retirement, and socialized leisure, for by their lights the secret of happiness lies within the educated and intelligible self and not within the clamoring voracities of the parasitical ego. Would that the governing elites of France, Greece, Spain, England, and even America, leading their countries into collectivized bankruptcy under the aegis of budgetary debauch and forced equality, and so amplifying the unhappiness quotient, had been sufficiently educated to absorb the oeuvre of these savants.
For I suspect that our ancestral mentors are right. Their insights offer more to the individual soul than all the fatuous assumptions and shallow recommendations of the Sarkozys of this world. They remind us of our personal responsibility in the quest, if not for unadulterated happiness, then for the benefits of quiet contentment in the slow perfecting of our own flawed and covetous natures. The seventeenth century Spaniard Baltasar Graciàn Morales says it simply in his treatise The Art of Worldly Wisdom (which, when it appeared in English translation in 1992, remained for almost five months on the Washington Post’s best seller list, a good sign): “It is material weight that gives value to gold and moral weight that gives value to man.”
Is the French president listening? He should be, since he is presently constructing the theoretical scaffold for a ruinous agenda. But more likely, he remains shut up in a Sarkophagus of dead ideas. No doubt his busy schedule prevents him from wrestling with the complex texts of antiquity. Still, in the last analysis, nothing can replace the great, patrician minds of our literature, who have no “best before” date and whose counsels of excellence remain always fresh. “Only those works that are themselves timeless are significant,” writes Dutch essayist Rob Rieman in a lovely little book called Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal, for these are the works that help to create the “cultivated person,” whom Rieman defines as the antithesis of “utilitarians, materialists, ideologues.”
The “cultivated person” does not expect to be “happy” or coddled or subsidized but to be whole and independent of mind. He or she seeks to live in a condition of alertness or attentiveness, what Antonio Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens calls simply “wakefulness,” that is, when “the brain and mind are ‘on.’” Abraham Maslow describes this condition as “the cognition of being,” which is what “Plato and Socrates were talking about” and which ensues in “courage” and “humor.” Happiness — the feeling of equilibrium, self-assurance, geniality, peace of mind, clarity, well-being—is a by-product.
In any event, as we probably all know deep down, genuine happiness — so much of it as is possible in our uncommutable state of being — cannot come from the “outside” alone. Jonathan Haidt, a positive psychologist whose The Happiness Hypothesis, it must be admitted, is a cut above the staple pablum dispensary, sensibly claims that “happiness comes from between” the inner and the outer. But, to put it unfashionably, a determination of the spirit, a modification of the will, is essential. Such prescriptions are by no means as grim as they may sound to us. As Burton and Maslow point out, high seriousness does not preclude humor, and as Rabelais says in his Introduction to Gargantua and Pantagruel, “laughter makes men human” — but also, he continues, “courageous.”
The real issue is that happiness is not something that can be delivered artificially, whether by the fiats of the state or, as indicated above, by the boilerplates of Positive Psychology or by the stimulation of targeted neurotransmitters, which are chemical carriers, not fundamental originators. The very risk and uncertainty which Sarkozy and his ilk wish to escape or anesthetize are intrinsic to human life and are met chiefly by resilience and responsibility, not by pseudo-psychological recipes and strategies for behavior or by post-genomic or post-national remappings of the nature of our existence.
François Rabelais and Robert Burton together afford an ideal and complementary tandem for anyone curious about the mysterious subject of human happiness and willing to learn from the masters. Burton especially, for all his textual density and innate pessimism, proffers a tonic for the beleaguered sensibility. The “sovereign remedy,” as he puts it, resides in “a man’s courage and discreet carriage of himself.” And, I might add, in reading Burton’s Anatomy while drinking to our heart’s desire.