27 May 2009

The Happiness of Philosophers

Simon Critchley offers a view of happiness very different from that I gave a couple weeks back. He cites as his definition a quote from Rousseau:

    If there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul.
Critchley explains the context of Rousseau's observation:

    Rousseau is describing the experience of floating in a little rowing boat on the Lake of Bienne close to Neuchâtel in his native Switzerland. He particularly loved visiting the Île Saint Pierre. . . . On the way to the island, he would pull in the oars and just let the boat drift where it wished, for hours at a time. Rousseau would lie down in the boat and plunge into a deep reverie. How does one describe the experience of reverie: one is awake, but half asleep, thinking, but not in an instrumental, calculative or ordered way, simply letting the thoughts happen, as they will.
Critchley connects this view of happiness with Aristotle and the Greek philosophers, but to me it seems much more Buddhist than Greek (as several commenters also note).

I myself have never found attractive the eastern view that utterly empty consciousness is the pinnacle of happiness. I don't think of a vegetable as happy. Critchley's description of unordered consciousness is likewise unattractive. That would be animal happiness. We are people.

I do think that freedom from anxiety is a necessary preliminary to happiness, but it is not sufficient. As previously suggested, one also needs loving and altruistic relationships and purposive activities. That holds true even for those of us who love contemplative living and have low social needs. And while individual dispositions vary, I'm not convinced it's a whole lot more complex than that.

That doesn't make happiness easy. But it's not complex.

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