The Practical Idealist

The History of Happiness in the Western World

A boy and his dog

From Happ to Happiness: The History of Happiness in the Western World

By Neil C. Olsen.

This last Monday was Labor day. In America, it is a day of suburban picnics, traditional foods shared among friends and family, and no requirement to do anything in particular. In Europe they celebrate work: here we avoid all mention of it. Here is a day of happiness only. While other nations celebrate Labor parties, we labor only to throw a party. We don’t celebrate the noble working man, but the self-made happy one flipping hamburgers on a grill.

Darrin M. McMahon in his mammoth 2005 book Happiness: A History pulls out a verbal blunderbuss and scatter-shoots at all the Happiness he spots in recorded European history, categorizing what he hits like an eighteenth century naturalist hunting dead creatures to botanize. McMahon collected as much as he could in one fat book about the idea of Happiness. Taking McMahon as a guide, you can see the change in the idea of Happiness in Western civilization reflected in plays.

McMahon begins with the ancient Greek view of life expressed in works by Herodotus, Solon, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. Their view may be summed up in the often quoted saying  from Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon,  “Call no man happy until he is dead.” Man does not pursue happiness: instead, the Gods, the Furies, Fate and the Nature-of-Things pursue Man and hunt him down to his destruction. Pursed too far, happiness became a delusion, a kind of emotional over-stuffing that only made you fat enough to be slaughtered by a whimsical god.


McMahon notes that “in virtually every Indo-European language, the modern word for happiness is cognate with luck, fortune, or fate.” Hidden in our language is this pagan influence:  the English word happiness indeed comes from the Old Norse happ, meaning luck or fortune,  It also is the root of mishap, happen, and hapless.

Aristotle, writing a hundred years or so after the previous collection of gloomy poetic Greeks, was a philosopher. He believed that happiness lay in bios theoretikos, the “solitary life of contemplation”, and thus set up a long running debate in Europe, between the  Fatalism of the gloomy Greeks and what might be called to coin a word “Controlism”: the idea that people could pursue Happiness and be in control of their lives. Using the Greek word, eudaimonia [happiness] in his Nicomachean Ethics, he often linked it with arête [virtue]. Aristotle claimed that eudaimonia results from the human good we pursue.  Aristotle himself was not a playwright, but a critic of them, which is indeed an exchange of the messy public expression of happiness in a play for a private one where you alone control the words.

The Romans picked up his idea and marched it to its extreme in the work of the Latin playwright Terence. Two hundred years after Aristotle, he wrote comedies suggesting the problems of two pairs of lovers can be solved by clever intrigue; he would always end his plays with a happy-ever-after marriage. The Girl from Andros’s most famous line, “Charity begins at home”, suits a play where happiness is the start of a new household in marriage, though one where it is only made possible by a stranger showing up instead of by virtuous actions. Pushed too far happiness became meaningless farce.

Terence vatican manuscript

With the rise of Christianity in the next 300 years, the helpless pagan idea of man as a victim of the fates, was replaced by the Biblical and Aristotelian idea of man as a free-agent actor.  Instead of a farce, every person became an actor in a spiritual drama of the individual soul pursuing salvation, and in the greater eschatological drama of world history. Man is not helplessly tossed about by indifferent Fate: with the help of a loving, personal God, and with the guidance of God’s flawed but divinely certified temporal instrument, the Holy Catholic Church, all people can find Happiness in Heaven and perhaps on earth.

397px-Everyman_first_pageIndeed, there are Bibles based that translate the beatitudes not as “Blessed are” but as “Happy are”. It was not a pursuit. Happiness was a spiritual state, achieved by right actions and by God’s grace. While the Gospels incarnate happiness into the temporal realm, the here and now – the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, it is sitting on your head! – much of Christian teaching focused on methods and techniques of guiding you so that by good works you could obtain a future spiritual happiness in Heaven.  In the play Everyman, the hero is deserted by every character representing earthly happiness save Good Deed, who along goes with Everyman to face Death: “Everyman, I will go with thee: and be thy guide, In thy most need to go: by thy side.”

Over the next thousand years, the great Middle Age or Medieval theologians took the early Christian ideas and practices, stirred them up with Latin and Greek philosophy, and then poured the mixture into late Roman Empire government forms. But an irony took over late Medieval thinking: suffering in the present became the way to future happiness. Church fathers discovered the doctrines of Original Sin, Predestination, and Redemption through Suffering. Poets wrote the play Everyman where all the forms of earthly happiness except good deeds abandon the hero to death. These late medieval constructs or doctrines were pushed to even further extremes in in the Counter-Reformation. Pushed too far, Happiness that began as a joy and a blessing, ended as the redemptive suffering. It was a vanity that must be rejected in the here and now, in order to find it hereafter.

Lady Fortune and her wheelWhat historians market as the Renaissance was actually a campaign to promote Greek over Latin in literature, in Reformation Bibles, in Protestant theology, and in the meaning of happiness. Ancient-Greek loving writers presented the image of the World as a Wheel of Fortune turned by Fortuna (Lady Fortune), while helpless foolish men are spun off the dizzying turning world and launched out into the darkness. See Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet, Lear, McBeth, or Henry VIII, where lives are played out in a cycle of fortune, a circle of life to death. Pushed too far, happiness became the documentation of world lit by a brief candle, and life a walking shadow that struts and frets about the stage, and then is heard no more. For Calvinist Protestants, happiness became a sinful delusion of creature man who were predestined to happiness in Heaven or suffering in Hell.

A major shift came one hundred years later in the age historians market as the Enlightenment. It was an age that reasoned from nature. Creatures can be happy, and so people can and should be happy here on earth in life. Happiness is not based on Fate, or Luck, or God’s predestined gift, or a reward for good works, or for suffering, or the spin of a wheel, but attainable by everyone in this life. This must be true because “self-love” is the core motive of creature man. It is a natural law. If the creator made us and the law that way, He must have had a reason.  In plays, prose replaced poetry, and the few plays we re-enact are comedies of middle-class domestic happiness, genteel and sentimental.

In the work of William Wollaston, pursuing happiness became a mathematical religion glorifying heaven and nature: Joy to the World was its hymn. But it required a practical side beyond poetry: In America, organized schooling became the vehicle for pursuing happiness. In the 1750s, the moral philosopher President and Founder of King’s College New York City,  Dr. Samuel Johnson of Connecticut created a new system of morality in the form of a textbook telling students that all learning is a “pursuit of your true happiness”, and so was morality and religion. Johnson,  Dr. Benjamin Franklin and Provost Dr. William Smith who founded the College of Philadelphia – a philosopher, a promoter, and a poet – as a kind of educational Triumvirate, developed a “new-model” style of American college based on “pursuing happiness by the universal practice of virtue”.  They taught Johnson’s new morality to the generation of young men that became the Founding Fathers. It was a short step to apply natural reason and pursuing happiness by virtue  to the public matter of civil governance, and so end up with “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the motto of a new nation.

However, pushed to an extreme, it was possible for those known as Deists to believe in a “reason only” existence. God the creator made the world, but did not interfere in its operations. Like a counterbalance to the American freewill pursuit of happiness philosophy of Johnson, Franklin, and Smith, the English Deists returned humans to a kind of clockwork fatalism. If you were born to greatness, born lucky that is, you might live on a vast estate and find temporal happiness. Heaven was optional. Deism was a sort of English counter-revolution in philosophy to the American revolution of pursuing happiness in learning, religion, and government as proposed by the Triumvirate.

In the nineteenth century, a mere 100 years later, the some thinkers pushed this fatalism even further, into Materialism. They discarded God entirely, eliminated Heaven, and maintained that happiness was a private pleasure in an indifferent world of accidental law and random evolution. There could be no pursuit, only the tick-tock motions of creatures driven by internal programmed necessities and random-seeming external stimuli.  Plays were not only in prose, but dominated by realism, the need to show a “slice-of-live”, usually a sordid and unhappy slice at that, in order to make a social or political point.

MaMahon even claims that in the end the search for happiness is a form of possession “by an alien force that moves through us.” Happiness became mechanical, a way of manipulating the transient behavior of cognating robots. It now merged the Greek idea of implacable Fate with the Medieval lust for redemptive suffering. Pursued too far, Happiness that began as joy, ended as mechanistic fatalism, a possession, like a virus on a computer that must be cleansed.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_032_(The_wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog)At the same time as the gloomy materialists sat on a rock and despaired, Romantic age artists stood on a stony peak and gloried in the storm. Poets as well as social philosophers insisted that Happiness was a natural state, and not only do we have the right to be happy, but we should be happy. It is our due, and the state should be organized to guarantee it. Socialists believed that material goods, sexual pleasure, economic prosperity, and private joy could all be reached in this world if you eliminated the impediments of prejudice, greed, and tradition. If Materialists went overboard and were swept into the waters of gloom, the Romantics dived headfirst into the sea of personal pleasure and swam briskly toward an unseen shore determined to be happy even if it killed them.

If Enlightenment philosophers, pushing too far, ended their quest for natural reason in materialism, the Romantics ended theirs in self-help books and Romance novels – if indeed the Romantic age has ended. Socialists believed the state could and should organize individual lives. Pushed too far, Happiness that began as joy, ended as psychological self-repair, the nanny state, shopping as therapy, with romance if not marriage replacing religion, and the state replacing the church.

There seems to be a historical theme, a historical abstraction that can categorize the change of Happiness in each age: you start with joy and pleasure, push it too far, and end with a gloomy self-knowledge and a surrender to outside control, or a tepid empty feeling that happiness is a transient delusion. There is a cycle or wheel of happiness.

But something put a stick in history’s abstract wheels. In America, we ignored the Materialist and Socialists. We decided we were exceptional. Once stepping foot in America, each tired immigrant yearning to be free or child born in the USA entirely discarded fate and happiness as a delusion, while God, Heaven, and the right to publicly and privately pursue happiness were embraced.  Immigrants took up American public religion and attitude along with citizenship. Happiness it was not only a static virtue but a documented right of pursuit, along with life and liberty. It was a matter of some luck but more pluck. It was a personal and civic imperative. It moved you, and you pursued it.

Pioneers_Crossing_the_Plains_of_Nebraska_by_C.C.A._ChristensenSince hitting the shore or as a native right from birth, Americans have pursued Happiness almost always with religion, and with or without or even despite the state. They have climbed across mountains, forded wide rivers, driven over plains, and journeyed through the western deserts to briefly halt at the Pacific shore, then assaulted oversea empires, and even leaped to the moon to pursue and preserve that right. Granted life, seizing liberty, they pursed happiness with all their heart and soul, and still do. They invented typewriters, hot metal typesetting, phototypesetting, telegraphs, telephones, movies, television, and the internet to communicate it, and wagon trains, steam-train railroads, steamboats, bicycles, motorcycles, automobiles, and airplanes to chase it. They built the internet, and assembled the World Wide Web to virtualize it and make it available to everyone. The “pursuit of Happiness” is not just a right, it is the American brand and a darn good way to view American History as the “land of opportunity” and as the pursuit of the “American Dream” – two more market brands that go along with “the pursuit of Happiness” to define America.

The great playwright Thornton Wilder’s Our Town broke free of the fourth-wall convention and realism of the last 100 years, and even more daringly, chose to present both domestic drama and spiritual concerns on stage.  Playwrights and screenwriters went off every which way but loose, and they took up loose as well.  They and their mass audience pursued happiness anyway which might make a buck, and perhaps educate.

The pursuit of Happiness is how we free ourselves from Happ, the wheel of Luck and Fate. We may suffer a mishap, but it happens that we are not hapless in our pursuit of Happiness, thanks to that one phrase tucked into the Declaration of Independence, our American Scripture. If we flip a hapless burger into the coals, it is not  a tragic flaw of character, the inevitable result of the cruel mechanistic world, or the failure of state government and society to make us better unionized burger flippers. Instead, we try again. There is always another burger.


Note:  The above essay is was adapted from a section cut from Neil Olsen’s Pursing Happiness: the Organizational Culture of the Continental Congress. Olsen is a software engineer, dramatist, and historian, and lives in Milford, Connecticut.

Images: A boy and his dog” by guy Schmidt, April 3, 2007, is available under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. All other images are from works in the public domain.  They include “The “The Murder Of Agamemnon” from an illustration from Stories from the Greek Tragedians by Alfred Church (1897), “A page from a manuscript of Terence, Andria, Act 1, scene 1, an illustration from a medieval manuscript, codex Vaticanus Latinus (c. AD 825), “Frontispiece from the edition of Everyman published by John Sklot” (c. 1530), “Newton by William Blake” (1795), Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818), and “Pioneers Crossing the Plains of Nebraska by C.C.A. Christensen” c. 1900, from Wikipedia Commons. Jean Pichore, Lady Fortune and her Wheel, is from Petrarch’s Les Remèdes de l’une et l’autre fortune (c.1503-1505), Bibliothèque Nationale de France.



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