Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Metaphysics of Happiness

Complementary positions: (1) Jonathan Lear in Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life (Harvard UP, 2000) argues that "happiness" is an "enigmatic signifier" or metaphysical idea, one whose meaning overflows the ability to grasp it and therefore keeps us going in search of something that has no definition. Nothing counts as happiness. By using happiness as a guiding principle, Aristotle "ma[kes] it virtually impossible for humans to fulfill their nature . . . Disruption of the harmonious order [of living things in the classical view of nature] is caused precisely by the introduction of 'happiness' as the purported concept by which we should evaluate our lives . . . In this way, 'happiness' creates its own discontent" (56-57, 60). (This is all related to the thoughts about Santner from August, below.) (2) Adorno (still; again) asserts that deluded as metaphysical principles may be positively, their disapproval of the world "as is" comes from the right place, a place of natural desire. He thinks the mistrust of happiness shows a lack of imagination, and that we should not blame ourselves, or happiness, for not having achieved it: there are more obvious suspects to blame. I'm thinking about one of my favorite passages of Minima Moralia, which goes on:

The nostalgie du dimanche is not a longing for the working week, but for the state of being emancipated from it; Sunday fails to satisfy, not because it is a day off work, but because its own promise is felt directly as unfulfilled; like the English one, every Sunday is too little Sunday. (§113)

Lear's point is that the idea of "happiness" occludes real possibilities for unknown things that, if they are not "happiness," may be better. There are many places in the book, though, where Lear implies that happiness is not so enigmatic. In Aristotle, "what ultimately makes that [contemplative] life the happiest and the best are passing moments within that life . . . a fleeting part of one's life" (50; my italics). Aristotle makes it "virtually impossible" for humans to fulfill themselves. Happiness "by and large" eludes humans (56). Likewise, Socrates becomes a figure not of the impossibility of happiness but of its rarity, and of the daunting lengths (outside society) one might have to go. Again, Lear's motive is to substitute a possibility of transformation that lies within reach for--not now an impossible experience, but an unlikely or brief one; in order to do this, he has to sacrifice what his own language suggests is another real possibility. I can sympathize to an extent with both of the impulses above. But despite Lear's promotion of a life beyond teleology, he subordinates the evanescent to the enduring, and the rare to the common. There is, or should be, a big difference between a signifier that refers to nothing and one that refers to something daunting.

Image: still from the video Auf Wittgensteins Spuren

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