Blogger Penelope Trunk describes herself as having Asperger’s Syndrome. Her obsessive Aspergian interest seems to be in the nature of her own life – which makes her a dedicated follower of Socrates’s maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living. So while her blog is supposedly about career advice, it often winds up being highly philosophical. Recently, she’s said a fair bit about one of the most enduring philosophical questions: happiness.
Aristotle tells us everyone agrees the purpose of life is eudaimonia. It was once the standard to translate this term as “happiness.” This translation has started to fall out of favour, to be replaced by “flourishing” – and rightly so. For it’s pretty clear that whatever eudaimonia is – and I think Aristotle deliberately makes it hard to pin down – it is not what we usually understand by “happiness.”
Consider: near the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that everyone agrees that eudaimonia is the ultimate purpose of human life; we just don’t agree what constitutes it. But if this eudaimonia were happiness, how would we explain someone like Trunk, who has spent a great deal of time thinking about happiness – only to reject it? “I don’t want to be happy,” she says. “I want idle time to let my mind wander because the unhappy result is so interesting.”
Trunk identifies happiness with contentment, in a move similar to the utilitarians who identified it with pleasure. Now it’s true that many will say pleasure or contentment is not real happiness, that true happiness consists of something larger than that state of mind – but I suspect that they primarily do this because they are wedded to older and mostly extinct uses of “happiness,” ones that survive mostly in translations of Aristotle. Etymologically, “happy” used to mean something like “fortunate” or “blessed.” But outside of a few idioms (“a happy coincidence”), we rarely use the term this way in English anymore. Rather, happiness is about contentment or pleasure, a pleasant, enjoyable, perhaps peaceful state of mind. And for Trunk, that’s not good enough.
Trunk’s rejection of mere happiness is far from a truism. It’s not only the utilitarians (such as Neil Sinhababu) who defend happiness in this sense – a view we could reasonably call hedonism. The ancient Epicureans practised a “sophisticated” hedonism, in which we should find the happiness that comes with freedom from mental disturbance. Such a hedonism is arguably quite Buddhist as well: while the early Buddhist texts are often cagey about what exactly nibbāna implies, what descriptions there are sound a lot like Epicurean ataraxia. Tranquility. Peace. Freedom from disturbance. Above all, an end to suffering. This sounds a lot more like happiness.
But is this really the best goal to pursue? At least, is it the only goal worth pursuing? I am finding myself increasingly persuaded by Trunk’s position. We’ll have plenty of time for freedom from disturbance once we’re dead. Life gives us a shot at something more.
What is that “something more”? Trunk often contrasts the happy life with the interesting life. This point comes out in her posts about New York, which I’ve discussed before: life in rural Wisconsin is happy, but it’s not interesting. Life in New York is interesting, but it isn’t happy. But maybe that’s okay. Martha Nussbaum makes a similar point in “Transcending humanity,” the last chapter of her Love’s Knowledge: when the nymph Calypso offers Odysseus a chance to live with her in immortal bliss, we hope he turns it down, for we would lose the rest of the story. To be sure, a truly interesting life is often something we would only wish on somebody else, especially somebody fictional. One thinks of the apocryphal “Chinese curse”: “May you live in interesting times.” The reason this phrase is popular (and attributed, probably falsely, to the Chinese) is the idea that being interesting may be a curse, even though it’s something we often want. And while it’s true that often, on reflection, things get interesting in a way that on reflection we don’t want, that’s not necessarily the case.
The idea of this “curse” suggests that if we really thought about it, we’d realize that being happy is more important than being interesting. But is that necessarily true? Trunk doesn’t think so, at least for herself. Some of us, at least, would willingly accept a life that’s more exciting in exchange for its being less happy. Imagining myself in my eighties or nineties – knowing my death would come before too long – I would like to be able to look back on a life that’s been full and interesting, not merely happy. (It’s relevant here that for Aristotle, eudaimonia is an activity, as contentment and pleasure are not.)
Beyond Trunk’s post, there’s a point I tried to make to make to Neil Sinhababu: it seems there must be something good about truth in its own right; it’s basically self-contradictory to think otherwise. What follows from the goodness of truth, again, is harder to establish, but it’s another aim that seems like, in some cases at least, it’s worth pursuing at the expense of happiness.
The tougher question is what we do to decide or arbitrate among these competing ends: truth, interest, happiness. I suspect the question can’t really be decided in the general case; one must learn what’s more important in particular cases, and learn that through experience as one learns any other skills. I think this is a very Aristotelian answer, and it’s one reason I begin to see the vagueness in Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia as an asset rather than a flaw.