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Happiness is something we all know
something about; or think we do; or should. But also, as we all know, like the
truth happiness is rarely pure and never simple. McMahon, a philosopher by profession,
offers a tour of the history of philosophical inquiry with happiness as its
Over recent times there has been a
number of books that have brought philosophical questions to a wider audience
in a popular, but not necessarily low-brow way. This is another fine example of
how some of the most basic questions that we all face, like "What is
happiness after all?", can be discussed, contextualized and elaborated.
It is an engaging and erudite journey.
McMahon manages to bring in a wealth of learning and knowledge, but it is never
over-bearing and has a lightness of touch that charms as well as informs. He
begins with the Greeks and works his way to the modern day, considering along
the way fundamental shifts not only in the notion of what makes for happiness --
and it is not just the absence of suffering -- but also how it is to be
Is it a product of the virtuous
life, and within our compass? Is it, as Augustine might have it, a completely
vain exercise, forever doomed because of mankind's original sin? Is it when we
are most in touch with our natural selves and instincts or when we furthest
from them? Is it, as the fathers of the American Revolution put it, a pursuit
whose truth is self-evident?
Well, clearly, according to
McMahon, it is not at all self-evident, and therein lies much of the interest
of the book.
The book charts a course that will
intrigue those with general interest and engage those with greater
foreknowledge. It is impressively structured and carefully argued, but retains
that personal touch which McMahon highlights in his preface that, perversely,
an in-depth consideration of happiness, may in fact make him, as an author
struggling with the complexity of the issues and doubting his own skill in
putting it down on paper, extremely unhappy.
The journey on which he takes the
reader has few flaws, but one may be its Western bias or focus. There is little
in the way of discussion of other cultures or other traditions. It is not even
clear whether other traditions have such a preoccupation wwith the subject; and
this is a point worthy of some thought in itself. Perhaps this is a minor
quibble as a line has to be drawn somewhere, but I feel sure that the Buddha,
to take one example, may have a thing or two to say about the subject.
McMahon reflects on the emergence
of significant philosophical traditions as he illuminates the way in which a
dominant conception of happiness seems to both determine and distill a society's
structure and values. Clearly, if happiness is a gift bestowed by God the
happiest of men will also be the most godly (or at least each will think of
themselves in that way). If, as Rousseau and his followers may have it,
happiness is to be found in the natural or authentic self, social mores will
that way inclined. Some of the most thought-provoking passages draw out the
distinction between happiness pursued or attained and an ethical or moral life.
That they are not the same becomes important when McMahon considers the
individualistic and social notions of the good life.
There are some interesting sections
when the book approaches the modern era. The materialist Marx makes an
unsuspected appearance, and McMahon produces a lovely anachronistic quote from The
Great Soviet Encyclopedia in which happiness is seen as a function of the dialectic
and the bourgeois-individualistic notions are condemned for the way in which
they "trample upon the interests of others and morally cripples the human
personality". The language may seem a little rhetorical, but the
sentiments still seem relevant.
The undercurrents to be found in
other forms of writing, particularly fiction, are also sprinkled through the
book, and this becomes especially so in the twentieth century. The books of ideas,
and the focus of literary criticism, that authors like Huxley, Shaw and Beckett
brought to the fore, often struggle with this central notion of what can make
us happy; what is happiness anyway? Is it because we think that if we can
explain or control almost everything else, we should be happy?
Towards the end of the book also,
Freud makes his appearance, and we are moved to consider the inner
psychological rather than the social determinants of happiness. But the
philosophical implications of the pleasure principle and the intra-psychic
model rather than the explanatory psychological aspects are brought to the fore
by McMahon, and the unfolding of the logic that leads to the solipsistic
society do not make happy reading.
As in other sections, McMahon leaves
the reader to pass judgment on how valid or useful such an idea may be, and
herein lies one of the book's great virtues: it is intelligent and informative,
but not didactic. It is entertaining but not facile. It recognizes happiness as
a significant human preoccupation and leaves the reader feeling that sometimes,
be it ever so briefly, happiness can be found in considering happiness.
© 2006 Mark Welch
Welch, Ph.D. Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of
Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta and Co-Director of the PAHO/WHO Collaborating Centre
for Nursing & Mental Health