Secular Confession, Proposition Two

- In the end you have to do what makes you happy.

Well, yes.  Most people would agree with this tautological statement.  After all, happiness is that condition for which we should willingly sacrifice lesser contentments.  There are, however, two caveats.

The lesser one is:  Be careful what you mean by "have to."   When a schoolboy says, "I have to use the bathroom," he is stating a physiological requirement only a bit removed from, "What goes up what goes down."  Are we actually compelled to do what makes us happy?  Obviously not, otherwise more people would be contented with their lot.

So, in this proposition "have to" is a social or moral obligation, as in, the pregnant teen felt she had to get married.  (Oh, for those far-off days!)  But if happiness is a moral obligation, that obligation must be based on something beyond this mere statement, either a general creed, a philosophical position, or some superior power such as a god.  In the context of this "confession," such an acknowledgment seems inconsistent with the overall position of selfish hedonism, so let us reduce it to something more like, "It makes sense to put your own happiness above other concerns.  After all, it's whatever turns you on, floats your boat, etc."

With that minor point settled, we can turn to the major problem.  What do we mean by happiness?  If we went to a fastfood joint or a bar or an opium den, asking what is happiness, the people we met might say something like, "This!" By which they mean a Big Mac, a Martini, or a pipe dream.  Questioned more closely, they would say happiness is a feeling, "I just can't describe it, but you know what I mean."   This is subjective happiness, which, like the perception of color or the effect of music, is not something it is easy to argue abut. De gustibus non disputandum.

However, happiness is as often used to describe an objective state.  After all, it means the quality of meeting with hap, that is, with a chance or fortune that people would regard as good.  The New Testament likes the word eudaimonia, a state of blessed good fortune.  For ancient philosophers in general, happiness is much less a subjective than an objective condition.  A man who is wasting his family's money and destroying his health on crack, crystal meth, or Rex's cheap beer, cannot be considered happy.

It follows that  it cannot be up to me, as individual, to decide who is happy.  People like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, John Lennon, Keith Richard, might think they were or are happy, because they have fame and sufficient wealth to indulge their appetites, but there are those who would pity them all.  So whatever we mean by happiness will depend on some ethical code--and by ethical I mean a code that has to do with the most effective manner of living.

Herodotus' account of the meeting of Croesus and Solon is one of the most impressive stabs at answering this question.  The wealthy tyrant asks the sage about the happiest people he has met, and the sage names a man who died when his family and city were doing well and then a pair of sons who gave their mother glory.  "What about ME?" whined they tyrant.  A few years later, he was deprived of all he had.  For an ancient Greek, a man could not be considered happy, no matter how much wealth, power, fame he had as an individual, unless the moral community in which he lived--family, friends, fellow-citizens--was thriving.

Of course we know what people mean when they say happiness is everything.  They mean the happiness of the crackhead prostitute.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

16 Responses

  1. Roger McGrath says:

    Tom has brought up a topic that I’ve thought about at least since my teenage years. Western Man seems driven to accomplish things and is never really satisfied. It’s always on to the next thing. People talk about escaping our hard-charging society and living in “paradise,” meaning a tropical island in the Pacific. Most would last a few weeks and feel like they were beginning to rot. The Polynesians inhabiting those islands seem perfectly content and happy to live in slow motion and not accomplish much. They may have it right. However, I learned at a fairly young age it wasn’t for me, although a good part of me wished and still wishes it were. I spent time surfing such spots in paradise and, believe me, ripping across a big, green wall of water, reveling in acceleration and speed and centrifugal and centripetal forces is pure stoke, leaving one joyful and happy. However, at the same time there was always some ineffable force–like some creature gnawing at your insides–telling you, “OK, you’ve had your fun–and that’s good–but now it’s time to get back to accomplishing things.” Long ago I concluded Polynesians, for one group, are happier than we are and that Western Man is relentlessly driven, perhaps to his own detriment and ultimate destruction–and that’s just the way it is.

  2. Ken Rosenberger says:

    Prof. McGrath, your experience sounds familiar. Back during the period when I lived in LA (South Bay), I fell in with a group of Hawaiians. Nice people, relentlessly cheerful, and they could help you fix your car or major household appliances. Most weekends, we’d play 8 hours of tennis, Friday to Sunday, go out for Japanese noodles, Italian food, or we’d grill out. If a new blockbuster was in the theaters, we’d go see it. Everyone did everything together, and you were never alone or unhappy. It was like perpetual adolescence. But then I’d remember the epigraph in Percy’s The Moviegoer, quoting Kierkegaard to the effect that people were most in despair when they were distracted and could not recognize that they were in fact in despair. I would retreat to my books, to the library, to a magazine Dr Fleming used to edit. I’d try to write a little bit, etc. Eventually, I decided I’d never make a proper Southern Californian, and moved back East, from whence I came. As I’ve since found, there are plenty of perpetual adolescents outside of California too!

    Does the adjective Faustian apply to Western Man? I know the alt-righters were throwing this term around a few years ago, in relation to that unquenchable thirst to learn and create. It seems apt, but then I’ve never read Marlow’s play, and only part I of Goethe’s.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Fortunately, we don’t really have to answer Ken’s last question since Alt-Righters don’t read either Marlowe or Goethe.

    I used to know a Lutheran poetess who converted to Rome. She once wrote a nice piece, arguing that for her, Heaven would have to be a place where there was work to be done. That’s a very Western attitude. The servile denizens of Middle Eastern cultures might dream of streets of gold and choirs or angels singing–but who would not get tired even of Bach after a few hours?–or the Playboy club with camels. We’re made different, as Roger points out. I used to hear from animal rights activists that there’s no difference between us and monkeys, therefore we should be kind to them. I used to ask, when I thought it would do any good, why we put monkeys in zoos and cut them up in labs–and not vice versa. Similarly, men of the West have generally defeated everyone else even against the greatest odds. We are also proud even of our brave defeats. Sam francis used to say that our most characteristic events were Thermopylae and Marathon, Rork’s Drift and the Alamo.

    In my teens and early 20’s my family had a house on the beach on Isle of Palms. It was great for a couple of days, just staring at the water, swimming, fishing, hanging out at the pier, having friends over. After a while, though, I had to impose on my lazy self some disciplined reading and writing. I read French novels, Greek tragedies, wrote crazy verse and bad prose.

    Faustian is sort of a cliche used mostly by lazy envious people. What we do have is a tragic sense of life’s finiteness and efforts that exceed our limitations.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    PS Like the archetypal Man of the West that he was and is, Odysseus was not at all attracted to the land of the Lotus-eaters.

  5. Roger McGrath says:

    Looks as if you let your opportunity to be a SoCal flake slip away, Ken. Think of it–you could be in South Bay living on state disability with no worries but the size of the swell. Such is life.

  6. Ken Rosenberger says:

    I gather from what you’ve said about yourself in your essays over the years, that you grew up when SoCal truly was the land of milk and honey. I had friends who talked about growing up in the Palisades, dirt bike riding in the Santa Monica Mountains after school. They all surfed. And Dad could pay for it on a middle class salary, while Mom stayed home and raised the kids. They seemed to all think it started turning bad after the Manson killings. I got there about a decade later, and it was still pretty nice. I recall a speed limit drive up the San Diego Fwy from Rosecrans to Wilshire at 4pm on a Friday, Summer of 1980. It wasn’t like that much longer.

  7. Rex Scott says:

    Everything you need to know about happiness is right here:

    Willy Wonka and the chocolate Factory,

    If you want to view Paradise simply look around and view it,
    want to change the world?
    nothing to it.

    The Last Samurai,

    (The cherry blossoms) “They are all perfect.”

    Groundhog’s day:

    Get over yourself.

    Keystone beer

    15 vessels ( 3 more than 12) of a good tasting light lager
    that goes with anything for 5.99!

    Philippians 4:11-13 King James Version (KJV)
    11 Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.
    12 I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.
    13 I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.

    “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

    Marcus Aurelius

    and learning Latin with Dr. Thomas Fleming…actually most of what he says is Greek to me.

  8. Harry Colin says:

    A fine observation, Mr. Scott. Some amusing and insightful thoughts. I do hope, however, you are not serious about Keystone beer! My beer snobbery is trembling at the thought.

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Rex drinks that chemical swill in my presence. Far from being a beer snob, I share the opinion of my friend the Great Bukoski, that it is sinful for a Middle American to drink “craft beer.” All I ask is that a beer be simple, made out of malted barley, hops (not too much) and decent water. It’s like bread. One might occasionally like some rosemary leaves on top of focaccia or something with mixed grains, but such things are not the staff of life. Beer is drinkable bread. Lately, when I drink beer, I like South Shore Beer from Ashland Wisconsin, but they don’t sell it much even in Southern Wisconsin, and, besides, the bottled stuff while good is nowhere near as good as the stuff on tap.

    Jim Easton went with me year ago to Northern Wisconsin, and we started drinking South Shore at one of the last old-time restaurants in the region–Gruenke’s in Bayfield. We had whitefish livers and fried lake trout, with lots of beer.

  10. Ken Rosenberger says:

    What precisely defines a craft beer? Is it the size of brewery (micro) or what you put in it? I like Sweetwater, Terrapin, and Oskar Blue products, but generally the simpler variants they offer. I support them because they are local or relatively so, and they taste fine to me (for all I know, Rex may have a more refined palate). Also, the price differential between them and Busch family of products is negligible. They might have started out as craft beers but they now all have human scale breweries, employing just under fifty people (gets them under the Obamacare threshold).

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    It is the way it is marketed. I used to buy cases of Eau Claire beer, now defunct. It was an old local brewery that died on the eve of the micro brewery craze. Too bad, because they made beer according to rhe Bavarian beer laws. I don’t buy wine that has groovy bottles and names like however many crimes that Australian brewery markets under or Menage a Trois etc. I dislike companies trying to sell me an attitude, a lifestyle, a philosophy. Beer is not perfume, and breweries that cell grapefruit beer, even if they make decent real beer, deserve my contempt. Leinenkugel used to be a cheap ordinary Wisconsin beer, but now it’s hard to find anything but pretension on tap. I don’t buy beer from the big companies, usually, because I don’t like them and the American products literally stink. I cheerfully buy Stella or some Polish beers, or Nikshicko Pivo–even though it has been bought up by Beer, Inc.–because it is drinkable. When I used to be poorer than I am, I bought a lot of Jim Beam, which I never liked. When they started making Red Stag etc, I never bought it again. Some things have to be discouraged, forcefully, perhaps with a large stick. South Shore is probably smaller than a lot of craft breweries that make what Pal Tony often calls Crap Beer, but it doesn’t have a stupid name like Spotted Cow from New Glarus. A case of Spotted Cow, brought against the comapny’s wishes into DC, inspires reverence, but the beer is simply no good. We go often to New Glarus to eat in a Swiss Restaurant and buy sausages, and every time I ask for a beer, I make a point of saying nothing from the New Glarus company. Their beers are good to sip walking from an antique store to the fudge shop.

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I might have titled the above rant, “Why I drink bad wine in New Glarus, Wisconsin.”

  13. Ken Rosenberger says:

    These are good rules to live by. Honey versions of brand name bourbons are to be avoided as much as Red Stag. The world was never in need of Early Times Honey. And these days the many varieties of flavored vodka (peach, raspberry, lemon-lime) are really pushing the reliable (unflavored) old standard to the margins.

  14. Harry Colin says:

    I agree that too many craft brewers have gone “quichy and brie” and have given some of their beers ridiculous ingredients with even more ridiculous names. Generally, though, I like the truly small breweries that make authentic beer and are living the Chestertonian Distributist life. I drink them when I can. My true favorites are the dark Germans – especially Kulmbacher Dunkel and the like – but also enjoy robust Belgian whites.

    When I was stationed in Fulda, Germany during the Cold War, one of the local Gasthaus owners somehow got Pilsener Urquell on draft trucked across the border. A touch of heaven! This was of course before they were bought out and went corporate.

    I think the term “light beer” is oxymoronic, much like the term “instant classic.” When my good friend’s wife last year asked me for beer recommendations for one of our upcoming gatherings I gave her a few, but told her “when in doubt, observe the brew; if the beer itself approaches the color of my socks, you’re on the right track!”

  15. Robert Reavis says:

    There is a good beer from Minnesota called Grain Belt that friend and expert movie critic Ray Olson is probably familiar and would suit Tom Fleming right down to the ground from his above descriptions. The local farmers up where we pheasant hunt drink quite a bit of it with their bourbon and I usually try to pack some home each year but never enough.

  16. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I have an uneducated palate. Although I was born in Milwaukee, I never developed a taste for beer, not even the one that made Mel Famey walk us.

    I will disagree about honey, not burbon, but Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey, which I drink on occasion. I usually drink bourbon, neat. Four Roses and Makers Mark when I cannot get the Roses. I recently found a bottle of Croizet V.S. cognac in the back of my liquor cabinet. Do not remember buying it. I like it. (I also have a bottle of expensive Tesserron that I have not tried yet.). Made me curious so I am reading Nicholas Faith’s Cognac. I think I could be happy drinking only bourbon and cognac during the time I have left.