How to be happy-according to Cicero

Cicero was a Roman lawyer, philosopher and orator, who was rather Stoic in his thought, and who lived from 106 BC-43 BC. Cicero emphasised the importance of friendship, arguing that ‘friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and dividing of our grief.’ Why must friendship, an inherently social relationship, be a great source of happiness? Because for Cicero ‘happiness would lose all its joy if nobody rejoiced with us.’ This maintains Aristotle’s idea that man is by nature a social animal. If this is the case, then it would follow that happiness is to be found in what is social. For Cicero, ‘life is nothing without friendship.’

The explicitly Stoic part of Cicero’s thoughts about happiness are clear when he wrote ‘a happy consists in tranquillity of mind.’ This is an idea prominent in the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, who both argued that happiness relies on the internal, rather than the external-we ultimately rely on ourselves for happiness, and although there are external aids and necessities that must be fulfilled, the happiest person is ‘the one who depends on himself only’. It is our state of mind, then, which deems whether we are happy or not. So we should strengthen our mind, so that we can become a fulfilled human being. How is this possible? For Seneca, it would be through philosophy. For Cicero, well perhaps one should start by reading books. For as he said, ‘if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.’


What was it like before the Fall?

We can’t be sure. Yet the Fall represents the development of self-consciousness of man-Adam and Eve are aware of themselves, just like we are aware of ourselves. We know that we will die, we don’t know why we live, and we know that this causes us a great deal of anguish. Self-consciousness has led to the creation of music, art and the inventions of a great deal of technologies we use today. Self-consciousness is simultaneously a brilliant and tragic thing. Consciousness brings both anxiety and hope. Thomas Ligotti wrote that ‘most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness.’ Ironically, we manipulate our consciousness so that we can limit our consciousness. Because consciousness brings with it so many troubling questions, such as ‘is death the end? does life have any meaning? who am I? does God exist?’, we have created a multiplicity of distractions so that these questions rarely arise in us. Most of these distractions lie in the realm of technology. Thinking is not easy, and can be painful, and so in many different ways we go to great lengths so as to save us from having to think-believing in God without really questioning his existence (or the opposite), blindly supporting a hopeful yet unrealistic ideology (e.g. communism), spending hours playing video games or browsing social media-the list goes on. We try to limit thought-a state similar to that of Adam and Eve before the Fall. But constantly striving to prevent thought does not lead to much-hedonistic mindlessness works, but only for a short time. After a while it results in depression, anxiety, hopelessness and nihilism. Thought is painful, yes, but life is meant to be painful. That’s what life is. Limiting consciousness, trying to return to the Garden of Eden, is life-negating. Although it may be easier not to think, it may not be better. Non-thinking alone results in destruction, as does thinking. Therefore, a balance between the two must be sought.

It might have been better for consciousness never to have arisen, yet we must not ignore the fact that it has, and we must therefore act on this reality.

How to be happy-according to Santayana

George Santayana (1863-1952) was a Spanish philosopher who, although an atheist, valued Catholicism in terms of its practices, rituals and values. He seems to have been influenced by the ancient materialist philosophers Epicurus and Lucretius, who maintained that the world consists of a finite number of atoms. Santayana said that ‘knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness’, which suggests him being influenced by the Stoic Epictetus, who famously said that ‘some things are within your control. And some things are not.’ There must be some kind of detachment from the world for Santayana, John Gray noted, if we are to be happy. Happiness is the ‘only sanction of life’, and so we must become happy, otherwise ‘existence remains a mad and lamentable experiment.’

But how exactly are we to become happy? The basis of happiness is character, an idea Santayana probably developed from Aristotle. He compares happiness to a flower-it withers when plucked. Therefore, happiness is not a single moment, it is a gradual development that must grow and strengthen over time. Why does Santayana, an atheist, believe in the possibility of happiness? Because happiness becomes a reality ‘if one cultivates intuition and outlives the grosser passions, including optimism.’

How to be happy-according to Plato

Plato is a notorious Greek philosopher, a pupil of Socrates, and wrote extensively on love, wisdom, knowledge and virtue, among other things.

Plato’s idea of happiness was influenced by Socrates, who emphasised the importance of virtue, arguing that knowledge is virtue, and that by truly knowing what is virtuous we will duly become virtuous. Happiness was not the goal for Socrates, however. Instead, it was wisdom and the discussion of ideas. For Plato, perhaps, the ultimate goal is to escape the cave. Anyhow, Plato writes that ‘happiness springs from doing good and helping others.’ Plato believed that acting virtuously would lead to happiness, an idea broadened by Aristotle. Virtue is of primary importance when it comes to happiness, and through virtue comes happiness, yet one’s aim should not be happiness but doing good. Moderation is also something that Plato believes leads to a happy life, yet perhaps moderation of moderation itself is also important (Oscar Wilde said ‘be moderate in all things, including moderation.’)

For Plato, then, happiness is a by-product of virtuous activity, rather than the goal (Aristotle). Act virtuously, and happiness should arise.

How to be happy-according to Arthur Schopenhauer

Although the title may seem paradoxical, Arthur Schopenhauer did indeed think that happiness is some kind of attainable entity or state. Nevertheless, his view of happiness seems somewhat skewed. Firstly, he writes that ‘the two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom’, and also says that ‘life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom’, suggesting that happiness is ultimately out of the question. Yet this is not the case.

Schopenhauer says that ‘the nine-tenths of our happiness depends on health’. To be happy, be healthy. He also emphasises that happiness will never be discovered if we’re constantly consciously searching for it, arguing instead that our happiest moments are when we become completely unaware of our desire for happiness, when we become so engrossed in what we are doing that existential questions disappear and our attention is wholeheartedly focused on what we are doing at a certain time, be it playing music, painting, or writing.

For Schopenhauer, happiness is not something easily obtained, yet it is not by looking for it that can be happy. Rather, it may be in moments where we completely forget the concept of happiness that we feel most satisfied.

How to be happy-according to Seneca the Younger

Seneca was a wealthy Roman philosopher, poet, playwright and teacher (most notably of Nero). He wrote extensively on philosophy and its nature, and his ideas coincide with those of Stoicism, some agreeing, some not.

Seneca was deeply concerned with anxiety and toil. Anxiety was for Seneca one of the greatest troubles of mankind, an idea perhaps developed from Lucretius, and he dealt with it exponentially, writing that we suffer ‘more from imagination than from reality.’ It is our minds that cause us most trouble. A strong mind, therefore, is invaluable. In his letters to Lucilius, he says that if we were physically ill we would take time out to strengthen ourselves so that we are healthy and ready to take on our work once more. Likewise, he says that we should take time to constructing a strong and healthy mind as well as a healthy body, since the man of strong mind is unbreakable. For Seneca, a man with a strong mind, able to free himself from fear, anxiety, and detach himself from his concerns in the world, is like a god. He claims that the only difference between a god and a man who practices philosophy as his main concern is that a god exists for longer: ‘Look at that for an achievement. To have all the frailty of a human being and all the freedom from fear of a god.’ Owning our minds is of the greatest urgency for Seneca, and this is the key to happiness-‘true happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence on the future.’ Seneca’s view of the importance of mindset and of one’s state of mind is emphasised here: ‘A man is as miserable as he thinks he is.’ Happiness is within the mind and a matter of thought, an idea derived, it seems, from Marcus Aurelius (happiness depends on the quality of one’s thoughts). To be happy, then, is to be able to control one’s thoughts and to have such a mind which cannot be broken by circumstance. And what, Seneca asks, should we use to empower ourselves with such indestructability? Philosophy.

Control your judgements and opinions

The Stoics are notorious for their ideas about perspective of mind, as well as their emphasis on the internal and external. According to Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, we do not indeed need much to be ‘happy’. Particularly in today’s society where more is seen as necessary and having very much is seen as equal to happiness-more stuff equals more happiness. The Stoics would resent this deeply. Rather than more, it is in fact less which leads to greater serenity and peace of mind. Seneca wrote about being satisfied with little, as did the poet Tibullus, and it is a Stoic idea to place little value on the external while placing great value on the internal since, according to the Stoics, it is the internal, and only the internal, which can make us happy. The Stoics encourage us to ask ourselves: why do you spend so much time looking for peace of mind outside, in possessions, status, and wealth, when the very thing you are looking out for is in fact inside your own mind?

I will be developing on Stoic ideas in the next post which will discuss further the ideas of Epictetus.

Eudaimonia: Aristotle and happiness

The Greek word eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) is usually translated as ‘flourishing’ or ‘welfare’. This was, to Aristotle, the highest good (summum bonum). But how, especially today, can we reach this highest good?

Aristotle linked eudaimonia with virtue (here meaning ‘excellence’) and reason. For him, eudaimonia entailed virtue and activity, particularly intellectually stimulating activity, since Aristotle believed that reason (logos) is unique to humankind. Of course, however, activity can be mental or physical, since there is practical reason as well as mental reason. Virtue is, for Aristotle, necessary to attain eudaimonia, yet is not enough, since activity of some kind must be involved which attains success by virtuous means. There are, however, other things that appear to be depended on if one desires to achieve eudaimonia. These are goods external to oneself, such as friendship and beauty, and Aristotle would doubt that eudaimonia could truly be achieved without these kinds of external goods, which means that attainment of ‘flourishing’ seems to involve, to some extent, an element of luck.

How can we apply this to our life today? C. D. Ryff defined eudaimonia with six parts:

  1. Self acceptance
  2. Personal growth
  3. Purpose in life
  4. Autonomy
  5. Environmental mastery
  6. Positive relations with others

Not only must be at one with ourselves, we must have good relationships with others. Of course, a definite purpose is necessary, otherwise we will find ourselves wandering around aimlessly as if in a dark room. It is no doubt the case that although we rely on personal circumstances, it is up to us to attain eudaimonia. If we want it, we must concentrate on what we must do to get it, and discover for ourselves what we must implement and what we must remove from our lives.

One path to fulfilment

For true fulfilment, for genuine satisfaction, there is no easy way. Nothing worth having comes easily. We all know this, but this isn’t the point. It’s not that we don’t know it, it’s that we’re too prone to forgetting it. We need constant reminders of what we know and the ideas and beliefs that drive us need to be refreshed often to keep us going. It would help if, every day, we took just a little time to stop and to reaffirm to ourselves why we are doing what we are doing with our one life. We want things to come easily. We are impatient and easily fall down before instant gratification. Deep down, though, we know that in the long run, it just isn’t worth it. Perhaps the only way to keep our path as straight as possible is to remind ourselves why we should continue. If you genuinely want something, if you really want to become a different person or achieve a goal, then you will persevere. There will be times of failure, but we should never ever give up. It may require what feels like extortionate amounts of sacrifice but it will be worth it. Yet first, we must remember that for even a small glimpse of heaven, we must delve deep into hell first.

Happiness: Utilitarianism

Happiness is hard to define. Moreover, there are many different definitions and opinions of what happiness is, and many believe happiness to be a totally subjective state, and that each person’s definition of happiness is different to the next person. Over the next few posts I will be looking at different philosophical views on happiness and pondering on what is, if there is one, the ‘best’ definition of happiness. This post will deal with the philosophy of utilitarianism.

To the utilitarian, happiness is, fundamentally, the maximization of pleasure and the minimisation of pain. Furthermore, the goal is life, says the utilitarian, is happiness, which is reached, as the founder of utilitarian thought Jeremy Bentham put it, by using your means to ‘create all the happiness you are able to create’ and to ‘remove all the misery you are able to remove.’ Pleasure is good, pain is bad. A happy life is full of pleasure, whereas a miserable one is full of pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is called Act Utilitarianism, since each individual act is scrutinised on the basis of pleasure and pain to decide whether the act is right or wrong-the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is what makes an act right. However, this process can lead to disastrous consequences.

John Stuart Mill built upon Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism by creating a Rule Utilitarianism which bases the rules of a society on the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This way, Mill thought, there could be trust present in society. Moreover, Mill. unlike Bentham, distinguished between types of pleasures, arguing that there are higher (exempla gratia-reading) and lower pleasures (e.g. alcohol). Mill has received criticism for this distinction because this difference makes his theory an elitist theory, rather than a universal one. As well as this, Nietzsche attacked Mill by saying that people have different needs to be happy, and called him a ‘blockhead’ for such an ignorant generalisation.

Peter Singer, a notorious contemporary utilitarian, argued in favour of negative  preference utilitarianism, a form of utilitarianism which holds that pleasure is the absence of pain, and that happiness comes from having one’s preferences satisfied. Again, however, his views have been met with controversy and a questioning as to the genuine moral nature of his and all utilitarian thought.

Utilitarianism bases happiness on pleasure and pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is itself generally rejected, yet Mill’s Rule utilitarianism has influenced our society to some extent, and his view that our own happiness stems from seeking the happiness of others is worth keeping in mind, since it may be that if we want to be happy, we must first want the happiness of others to occur. In this way, parts of Mill’s philosophy are selfless and Mill’s ideas of cultivating good human beings is an idea which has influenced different schools of thought and society up to the present. Singer said that ‘my interests cannot, simply because they are my own, count more than the interests of anyone else’ implying that the interests of all those concerned in a situation should be taken into account. It is difficult, however, to always know what the ‘best’ interest is in such situations. Singer has had profound effects on the idea of wealth and poverty and his book ‘Practical Ethics’ is one of the highest selling ethics books of all time. There is, though, another form of utilitarianism, that of G.E. Moore, which is ideal utilitarianism, and this denies that the goal of life is to maximise pleasure. Rather, Moore said that it is friendship and beauty that should be pursued since they are intrinsically good.

The question we must ask ourselves, it seems, is whether our goal is to maximise pleasure and minimize pain, or whether there is something else about life which is worth attaining. Yet, what is it if such a thing exists? And is it a universal goal, or do we each have our own, individual and subjective path to happiness? Is happiness even attainable? These questions will be deliberated upon in further posts.