Happily-harmonizing geniuses

5:20 am/5:31/8:01, 65/88. Cole Porter’s birthday, Charles Dickens’ deathday (WA). They were geniuses who probably created a great deal more happiness for others than they experienced for themselves. When Porter lost a leg he said he’d become half a man. As a peripatetic I hope I’d not feel that way, if  it ever came to that.

They’re both in my personal happiness gallery, whether they were personally happy themselves or not. In any event they were both really good, “living in accordance with [their] good genius” (see below). Who could ask for anything more…? Oh wait, that’s Ira Gershwin’s line. Porter was the top, the Coliseum, the Louvre museum etc. And Dickens was also, of course, one of the most happily-quotable humans of all time. He taught Scrooge there’s “nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” So how can he not have been happy?

My desk copy of Frederic Lenoir’s Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide arrived. Using it for the first time- I always try to use new texts and approach from a different angle, can’t step in the same river twice etc. – in the Happiness class this Fall. The dust jacket is colorfully ornate, and includes several questions I can walk with. (But Dickens already answered the first one.)

  • Is happiness contagious?
  • Can happiness and suffering coexist?
  • Does our happiness depend on our luck?
  • Is there a connection between individual and collective happiness?
  • Is there a difference between pleasure and happiness?

Yes to all, but that only begins to respond to them. The luck question hints at etymology, as happiness is rooted in happenstance, a matter of incident and accident. But I favor the view Branch Rickey shared with Jackie Robinson, that luck is the residue of design.

Lenoir’s approach is largely historical, which is why I’ve selected his book. I’ll probably also recommend that students look as well at the far more compendious Happiness: A History by Darrin McMahon, and to public domain etexts to fill in gaps from the slighter book. There’s not quite enough Hume or Mill in Lenoir to my taste, for instance, or Russell or James. But he’s good with Schopenhauer (surprised?) and Montaigne and the east (Buddha, Chuang Tzu, Ma Anandamayi).

But whatever they look at, they’ll have to realize that you don’t get happiness from a book. I mean, you can get knowledge about what others have thought and done in its pursuit from books, but you don’t get it for yourself there. We use texts as catalysts, not core content. Or con-tent’. We seek instigation and provocation, not final edification.

Lenoir ends where many students begin, with a definition.

Philosophical knowledge, understood as a spiritual exercise, enables us to liberate the joy buried in our hearts. Like the sun that never stops shining above the clouds, love, joy, and peace are always there in our depths. The Greek word eudaimon (happy) makes this clear: eu (in accordance) daimon (genius, divinity); to be happy, for the Greeks, meant above all living in accordance with our good genius or with the element of the divine within us. I would say: vibrating in harmony with our deepest being.

“Harmony” is a spiritual but not necessarily religious state, just where we’ll want to end our class too. Or I will, anyway, anticipating Spring’s happy return of Atheism & Philosophy.

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