Ode to Joy

Reviewed by Felicia Nimue Ackerman
Sunday, February 19, 2006


A History

By Darrin M. McMahon

Atlantic Monthly. 544 pp. $27.50

Even when the subject is, alluringly, happiness, readers may fear that a 544-page, heavily annotated book will be a dry, abstruse tome. Be not afraid. Erudite and detailed without being pedantic, Happiness is lively, lucid and enjoyable.

Darrin M. McMahon's history of happiness concentrates on the great books of the Western world. From ancient Greek tragedies' portrayal of happiness as a gift of the gods, through Roman celebrations of everyday comforts and pleasures, the medieval Christian focus on eternal bliss, and the modern conviction that earthly happiness is not just a right but practically a duty, McMahon traces the way conceptions of happiness have changed. The author, a professor of history at Florida State University, demonstrates "not only the centrality of the issue of happiness to the Western tradition, but the centrality of that same tradition and legacy to contemporary concerns."

His book abounds with intriguing material. For example, it shows how G.K. Chesterton's aphorism "The world is full of Christian ideas gone mad" applies to happiness: Just as Christianity promises heaven, various secular thinkers came to promise heaven on earth -- earthly happiness -- to those who followed the true path. Conversely, McMahon points out that "the church could scarcely fail to present [its eternal] reward in terms that appealed directly to the senses. Beatitude would satisfy our hunger, quench our thirst, gratify all our longings." In the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, in heaven "the saved will literally be drunk on God." Some Christian mystics even described divine rapture in such "frankly erotic terms" as "the cleaving to the breast of Mary and the taking in of her warm milk." Readers may be tempted to conclude that Christianity is full of worldly ideas gone mad.

Also noteworthy is McMahon's observation that traditionally, "a life of privilege was a life without labor . . . .That men and women should come to believe -- even to expect -- that work . . . should sustain their happiness, serving as a source of satisfaction in its own right, is therefore a recent and quite remarkable development."

McMahon displays his gift for nimble commentary by adding that it is "one of the delicious ironies of history" that "Marx's contention that not only should we enjoy the fruits of our labor, but labor itself should be our fruit, is today a central tenet of the capitalist creed."

Another particularly delightful exhibition of this knack is his reference to the bourgeoisie as "that amorphous group against whom Romantics and revolutionaries alike constantly railed, even as they freely accepted their funds." The book is further enriched by numerous well-chosen illustrations, including an amusing photograph of an adornment of a bakery in Pompeii. The photograph shows the image of a penis, accompanied by the words "Hic Habitat Felicitas" -- here dwells happiness.

McMahon's discussion is generally excellent, sympathetic without being uncritical, but occasionally he falters. When considering Aldous Huxley's Brave New World , he criticizes our own society for resembling Huxley's fictional one in that people are "encouraged wherever possible to eradicate the unpleasant rather 'than learning to put up with it.' " But our society has diverse voices, so many of which discourage hedonism that McMahon's criticism is rather hackneyed. In his account of Romanticism, he calls it "a truth" that "suffering [is] necessary to educate the self, to make us more complete human beings." So it is hardly surprising that he accepts Huxley's supposition that in a society where everything is pleasurable, life is bound to revolve around superficial sensory thrills, mindless entertainment and material consumption. This debatable supposition cries out for the balanced and nuanced treatment McMahon gives most of the ideas he discusses.

The same point applies to McMahon's uncritical endorsement of the outlook of University of Chicago ethicist Leon R. Kass, the former chair of the Bush administration's Council on Bioethics. This endorsement ignores the reasons why Kass's conservative views are objectionable to many. McMahon maintains that "there is a critical difference between aiming to alleviate senseless suffering and striving to overcome [what Freud called] 'ordinary unhappiness.' " Senseless suffering should be assuaged, he argues, but ordinary unhappiness should be accepted as "inherent to being human." Accordingly, he echoes Kass's antipathy to using medical science " 'beyond therapy' -- beyond, that is, 'the usual domain of medicine and the goals of healing' " to overcome ordinary unhappiness. But McMahon's own recognition that "there is, and can be . . . no objective standard of what it is to feel normal, to experience a 'typical' human balance between pleasure and pain" calls the distinction between "senseless suffering" and "ordinary happiness" into question. Furthermore, McMahon's clichéd claim that humans who would manipulate "our genes to enhance our happiness" would "be leaving a piece of their humanity behind" should be assessed in light of a recent suggestion by technology pioneer Ray Kurzweil: The essence of being human lies not in our limitations but in our ability to transcend them. Again, a much more balanced treatment is needed.

Fortunately, the book's strengths far outweigh its flaws. Although McMahon neither promises nor delivers the secret of happiness, his book can bring readers the satisfaction of intellectual adventure. ·

Felicia Nimue Ackerman is a professor of philosophy at Brown University.

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