Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

civil conversation

January 15, 2011

I was impressed by the colloquy between David Brooks and E.J Dionne yesterday on NPR. Usually their job is to squabble, albeit in a slightly tonier way than is typical of most other paired media pundits. Brooks in particular strove this time to hit a higher mark of reflection, in the moment of opportunity for a New Civility in our public discourse he thinks the Tucson aftermath affords:

…the most important thing [is] acknowledging your own weakness. I need E.J. because I don’t have 100 percent of the truth. I may have 60 percent, he may have 40, but, you know… we need each other to balance each other out and we need the conversation. Without that conversation, we really have nothing. And so that’s why we need civility because individually each of us are weak.

Dionne then cited the theologian/philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, from (improbably enough) Wright City, Missouri, just down the road from my own boyhood home. “We must see the error in our own truth and the truth in our opponent’s error.”

Brooks had earlier quoted Niebuhr in his Times column:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. … Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

It’s a fine sentiment, if overstated. (Surely there are many worthwhile things each of us can hope to achieve in our brief time on Earth.) It reminds me of John Dewey’s statement about the continuous human community.

[Interesting, btw, to see Brooks invoking a theologian/philosopher. In the current New Yorker (“Social Animal,” Jan. 17) he writes: “Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.” But maybe his point is that the present generation is lacking in wise theologian/philosophers?]

The very next line from Niebuhr, not quoted by the pundits, deserves equal time. It’s from The Irony of American History, which one of my Intellectual History profs had us Mizzou undergrads read back in the ’70s.

The irony of America’s quest for happiness lies in the fact that she succeeded more obviously than any other nation in making life “comfortable,” only finally to run into larger incongruities of human destiny by the same achievements by which it escaped the smaller ones.

We have a higher destiny on Earth. Niebuhr and Dewey disagreed about whether we have one higher still, but never mind. The point to ponder here is that we’ve got to be kinder and more receptive to one another. We’ve got to have a civil conversation about how to do it.

back to the garden

February 15, 2010

Epicurus, the widely-misapprehended philosopher of simple pleasure and trouble-free living, was the original “Life is Good” spokesperson. Not lavish, not a bed or roses (though quite cultivable, like a garden), and not forever. But good, and not merely “good enough” in the privative Lake Wobegon fashion either.

Simon Critchley has already told us Epicurus is his favorite dead philosopher, and we know he framed the “problem of evil” David Hume found insoluble. Now we get Alain de Botton’s angle, beginning with as un-Epicurean a “Happiness acquisition list” as can be.  Opulent houses, penthouse apartments, personal aircraft, sumptuous comestible delicacies, pointless luxury goods… versus friends, freedom, and thought.

At the heart of Epicureanism is the thought that we are as bad at intuitively answering ‘What will make me happy?’ as ‘What will make me healthy?’ Insatiably-high levels of consumption and interminable acquisition definitely won’t, in either case. Gross appetitive indulgence generally won’t, for most of us. Expensive stuff is mostly a distraction and hollow compensation for the real goods, most of which can’t be bought at any price. Fame, celebrity, and power belong to some of the most notoriously shallow and dissatisfied people we know. Nothing satisfies him who is not satisfied with a little. Better free your mind instead.

Epicurus noted that two things impede man from living happily: fear of God; and fear of the horrors beyond the grave. It was necessary, therefore, to have a physics (metaphysics) in which there would be no further reason for the existence of these fears. The universe, the Epicureans said, is infinite and in the infinity of space worlds are formed and dissolved by the same law. Between one world and another there are empty spaces. In these spaces the gods, made up of atoms, live happily among themselves, unconcerned with the world of men…

The human soul is also formed of atoms which are separated at death. No thought, therefore, of death and of the time which will come after it enters the Epicurean teaching. Similarly, we should have no thought of the time before our birth, for then our soul in its original state was dissolved into atoms… In a world of this kind, where there is no fear of the gods or of the life beyond the grave, man, governed by mechanical laws, must strive to live as best he can.  Radical Academy

A life free of mental anxiety and open to the enjoyment of other pleasures was deemed equal to that of the gods… prayer for the Epicureans consisted not in petitioning favors but rather in a receptivity to this vision… Nor is such pleasure difficult to achieve: it is a mark precisely of those desires that are neither natural nor necessary that they are hard to satisfy. Epicurus was famously content with little, since on such a diet a small delicacy is as good as a feast, in addition to which it is easier then to achieve self-sufficiency, and “the greatest benefit of self-sufficiency is freedom.” SEP

Oinoanda was built on the top of a high mountain in the ancient province of Lycia, which is now modern southwest Turkey.   Toward the end of his life, the second- century AD philosopher Diogenes presented to his city a large inscribed limestone wall conspicuously located in an open area generally referred to as the “Esplanade.”  The inscription proclaimed the wisdom of Epicurus, who had lived five centuries earlier.  This unique text, rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, has attracted many modern readers.

“…we ought to make statues of the gods genial and smiling, so that we may smile back at them rather  than be afraid of them.”

Lucretius: “Mankind is perpetually the victim of a pointless and futile martyrdom, fretting life away in fruitless worries through failure to realize what limit is set to acquisition and to the growth of genuine pleasure.

So… a revised, much more modest (and more reasonable) acquisition list concludes: the obstacles to happiness are not primarily financial. Or material, or supernatural.

What will it take to get us finally re-thinking our relentless national obsessions with economic growth and eternal salvation? The writing is on the wall.

INTRO STUDENTS: CLASS CANCELLED TODAY, the roads are unsafe We’ll double up and do both Epicurus and Seneca on Wednesday.

Job & Ecclesiastes

February 9, 2010

The two great pronouncements of Jewish doubt– or as I prefer, spirit— are the Books of Job (between 600 and 400 BCE) and Ecclesiastes (250-225 BCE). Both exalt an inquisitive and challenging sensibility, a clear-eyed reaching for justice in the face of life’s least tolerable facts that concedes nothing to implacable mystery.

The influence of Epicurus seems to pervade the latter especially, with his most solid practical wisdom transmitted by Ecclesiaastes’ author Koheleth: Love your spouse. Get some work to do… enjoy the simple pleasures. Forget worldly recompense; forget the afterlife; forget being watched or judged by God. And hardest of all, for most of us in this world of vanity: forget being remembered. Oh, and don’t expect life to be fair. Under the sun, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong etc.

Bart Ehrman: “It cannot be overlooked that in the divine response from the whirlwind to Job’s passionate and desperate plea for understanding why he, an innocent man, is suffering so horribly, no answer is given… suffering does not come for known causes or known reasons. Suffering just comes, and we need to deal with it as best we can.” God’s Problem

Ecclesiastes, like Job, before him, ends up surrendering. There is no reason to struggle against the great, and the crazy, and the evil: we ought simply to be glad we are alive.

Why? Why can’t we be glad but also gird our loins and get out there and scrap for justice? As James said, life feels like a fight so let’s go.

That doesn’t mean we refuse to acknowledge our appreciation for life’s treasures. Woody Allen’s answer to Job, in the person of his schoolgirl friend Tracy, deserves to be heard. “You’re God’s answer to Job.You would have ended all argument between them.He’d have said “I do a lot of terrible things but I can also make one of these.” And Job would’ve said “OK, you win.”

But– sorry, Woody– that’s just too Hollywood. This is a bit trivializing too, but I still like it:

At first, Job’s friends counsel passive acceptance of his accumulating scourges– including the deaths of his loved ones– with a centuries-early foreshadowing of Leibnizian theodicyJob must have deserved this punishment, since it was happening, so it must be all for the best. Right.

His faith finally stretched beyond possibility by cruelly-targeted conspiratorial assault, Job quite reasonably explodes: Miserable comforters are ye all… I loathe my life. He begins at last to press an aggressive prosecution… but then crumbles when faced with God’s righteous indignation, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of earth” etc.

God’s defense offers no apologies, no promises of ultimate justice, nothing but the rhetorical equivalent of a smack-down. He is great, Job is puny  and ignorant, so just shut up. Might makes right, as Plato’s Thrasymachus would have it. Not nice.

And Job caves. I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. What?!!?

There’s nothing for Job to apologize for, from any reasonable standpoint. We have an explanation for most of the natural wonders in Job… we feel the opposite of how Job did (small and powerless). OK, we’re still small enough to warrant some humility. But we’ve been places and understood some natural phenomena, we’re not worms. We don’t need to grovel, and He’s got some explaining to do, to have as little sense of justice as the universe exhibits… What kind of God is that? If the main reason for persisting in believing in God is that he made the world and all the creatures in it, it will be hard to argue that he does not have the power to make it a less actively dangerous and chaotic world.

Job may have relented, and accepted his substitute/consolation family, but he did get sort of get the last word: after the Book of Job, God never speaks again.

And btw: how about an explanation of the no-time before time itself began? Yes, we know: that’s hard.

rally caps

December 18, 2009

Kids say the darnedest things (“Nature is a great natural phenomenon,” “Ayn Rand makes a lot of sense”) and I’m up to my neck reading and grading them now.  So the next installment of Richardson’s James bio must wait. But here’s a quick and crucial thought whose time apparently is still not yet, dating from the eve of the great earthquake that confirmed for James his sense of the possibility of a “moral equivalent of war”:

“The wars of the future must  be waged inside of every country, between the destructive and constructive ideals and forces.”

“Destructive” is on a winning streak, but Happy Pragmatists like James and me have our rally caps on.

Back to the pile.

“Que sçais-je?”

November 25, 2009

A student writes, noting that the Thanksgiving holiday officially commences on Wednesday at 5 pm… so naturally he wonders if we’ll be meeting for our regular noon class. (!)

Not a good omen, class attendance-wise. People apparently just can’t wait to start giving thanks for all they’ve been given.

But as their content provider it’s my job to show up and give them some more, so I will. Topics to be covered:

1. Gratitude (naturally!)

2. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), humanist, essayist, earthy philosopher of everything corporeally human… just because he was bumped from the syllabus earlier this semester and I’m grateful for the opportunity to re-instate him just as we arrive at his fifteen seconds of fame in our text. He was “heir to the Skeptics of old,”  the anti-Descartes who knew better than to lodge too much confidence in our ability to know anything for certain. “Que sçais-je?” (“What do I know?”)

And he owned the coolest library/study ever (much moreso than Descartes’ methodologically hypothetical “meditation” zone).

His greatest virtue may have been tolerance. His most refreshing attitude, though, may have been his candor about bodily matters. “For it is indeed reasonable, as they say, that the body should not follow its appetites to the disadvantage of the mind; but why is it not also reasonable that the mind should not pursue its appetites to the disadvantage of the body?” So he philosophized a lot about his own body parts, one member in particular. (NOTE to Plato and other transcendentalists: philosophers who rise too far above our natural state make themselves ridiculous, remote, and irrelevant in their transcendent detachment. Montaigne’s parts were all immanent, and attached, and so are yours and mine. )

“There is a plague on Man, the opinion that he knows something.” Like Socrates, and like science, not presuming to know is what drove Montaigne to study and learn and stay humble. Not a bad example for us all.

And now, scholars study and publish on Montaigne (while non-scholars quote him without attribution). He’d be amused.

Alain de Botton comes by his interest in Montaigne naturally: his late father Gilbert (1935-2000) collected Montaigne-iana. His impressive collection is now an exhibit at Cambridge University Library.

happy skeptic

November 17, 2009

David Hume (1711-1776) was a wit, a good friend (especially to Rousseau, whom he helped escape Swiss and French charges of sedition and impiety), and a happy man. He proposed the “consolation” that one should “expect not too great happiness in life,” but he got his share. Personally, he found consolation in long walks, good beer, and just a bit of gaming and gambling. I’d bet he was happier than these guys:

Borrowing from his friend Adam Smith (and from Balzac), and wishing to reinforce the value of (virtuous) custom and sentiment over narrowly-constructed reason, he declared it not “against reason to prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of my little finger.”  But it is decidedly against humanity, and Hume was among the most human and humane of philosophers.

More consoling, fortifying, entertaining, nourishing bon mots from Le Bon David, as the French affectionately knew him:
*Health and humor all. The rest of little consequence…
*Life is like a game, one may choose the game and passion, by degrees, seizes the object.
*I desire to be rich. Why? That I may possess many fine objects; houses, gardens, equipage, &c. How many fine objects does nature offer to everyone without expense? If  enjoyed, sufficient…
*By habit and study acquire that philosophical temper which both gives force to reflection, and by rendering a great part of your happiness independent, takes off the edge from all disorderly passions, and tranquilizes the mind.
*You will never convince a man, who is not accustomed to Italian music, that a Scotch tune is not preferable. You have not even any single argument, beyond your own taste… If you be wise, each of you will allow, that the other may be in the right.
*The epithet beautiful or deformed, desirable or odious, must depend upon the particular fabric or structure of the mind [of every individual]…
*To be happy, the passion must neither be too violent nor too remiss… must be benign and social, not rough or fierce… must be cheerful and gay, not gloomy and melancholy. A propensity to hope and joy is real riches. One to fear and sorrow, real poverty.
*A passion for learning is preferable, with regard to happiness, to one for riches.
*The happiest disposition of  mind is the virtuous, which leads to action and employment, renders us sensible to the social passions, steels the heart against the assaults of fortune, reduces the affections to a just moderation, makes our own thoughts an entertainment to us, and inclines us rather to the pleasures of society and conversation…
*Even upon the wise and thoughtful, nature has a prodigious influence; nor is it always in a man’s power to correct his temper and attain that virtuous character to which he aspires.
*A serious attention to the sciences and liberal arts softens and humanizes  the temper… the mind is not altogether stubborn and inflexible, but will admit of many alterations…
*Habit is the chief triumph of art and philosophy…
*Cicero’s consolation for deafness [you don’t have to bother learning so many languages] is somewhat curious… I like better the repartee of the Cyreniac when some women were consoling him for his blindness:  Do you think there are no pleasures in the dark?
*”Man is  not a plant, rooted to a certain spot of earth.
*To a very good-natured man, the view of human miseries should add, to his lamentations for his own misfortunes, a deep compassion for those of others.
*Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

thank goodness

November 12, 2009

The Saints agree: “everyone having God is happy” (Augustine), “ultimate felicity consists only in the contemplation of God.” (Aquinas)

We know that Augustine once thought himself happy in his Godless, hedonistic youth; and that he famously begged for more time to sow his oats and adjust to the idea of a more sedate life of “contemplative felicity.”

Since this isn’t yet the Atheism course, I propose now (for the sake of argument, at least) to grant the premise: some God-intoxicated persons are made happy, in a good way, by their faith. More power to them, so long as they don’t attempt to disrupt the happy pursuits of the happily faithless. (In fact, I won’t be inclined to challenge the happiness-making potential of religion in the Atheism course either, just the exclusionist approach of those zealots who’d happily leave us humanists “behind.”)

“Happy in a bad way” would involve the self-righteous, proselytizing, soul-consigning, fire-breathing, “exclusive path of salvation” attitude we saw exemplified in front of our Student Center recently. People who are happy because they’re not going to hell, but to hell with you and me– people who are happy, in other words, that they’re not you and me– don’t get my moral support. But those religionists who recognize, with William James, that it’s not God but more life that motivates most of us (religious or not) to pursue happiness, deserve some reciprocal acknowledgement and acceptance from the Godless. [Loyal Rue, reflecting on gratitude in Religion is not about God, makes a similar point.]

The Augustine quote above seems perfectly compatible with pluralism and the possibility of happy non-belief; but that’s misleading. Elsewhere he insists: “No man can be happy who knows thee not.” Aquinas, in his statement, seems clearly unreceptive to the proposal of peaceful coexistence with those whose happiness is not religiously contemplative. But why suppose that we must pronounce Ultimate Felicity For All? Can’t Aquinas just speak for himself? But maybe that’s not how you get canonized.

I’ve never been accustomed to thinking of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and his “Leviathan”  State as a prescription for happiness. But if you found yourself whisked out of a “war of all against all” and into the protective (if smothering) arms of civilized authority,  I suppose you might be expected to feel an initial flush of felicity. “Flourishing,” though, in the self-directed, potential-reaching sense, might then be harder to come by.

Bishop Butler (1692-1752) is on solid ground: “Happiness or satisfaction consists only in the enjoyment of those objects, which are by nature suited to our several particular appetites, passions, and affections.” And benevolent, neighborly love is so suited. We’re not Hobbesian savages by nature. (But… do we need a Bishop to tell us so?)

Seems like an opportune moment in our course, and (with Thanksgiving bearing down on us) in the season to raise the question: can secular, irreligious, even un-spiritual folk, be happy? (I’m on record, and not just on my own record, as saying yes, indeed. Not only am I now officially outed as a happy pragmatist, I’m a spiritual humanist too.)

Can religious and irreligious people each be happy in their own ways, side by side, without feeling mocked, threatened, ridiculed, villified, insulted, or scorned? Can we live and let live? Can’t we all just get along?

Can these guys concede the possibility that some others– not all, but some– might actually have defensible (though possibly not good) “reasons for believing”? And can the rest of us learn to “thank goodness” for our lives and our happiness? [Dennett text] [Ronald Aronson, “Thank Who Very Much”] [Matthew Chapman]

Celebrate

November 5, 2009

77Just for the record: I called this shot (“Yanks in six“) before the Series began. Move over, Bill James.  Celebrate, pinstripes. (Or as Joe Buck‘s Dad woulda put it, “go crazy, folks, go crazy!”)

Jennifer Hecht would tell me to get out there and whoop and holler. “If you only think about it, watch it on television, or read about it in the paper, it is not enough.” Yeah, well… I was raised by stolid midwesterners, who discouraged that sort of demonstrativeness. I whoop discretely, on the inside.

(I did holler pretty good in ’06, though, when the Cards avenged that ’68 7th game loss to Lolich and the Tigers– the one that scarred my pre-pubescent psyche in ways I can’t begin to guess at. I guess. But I really shouldn’t complain, Cards’ fans have had more than our share of vicarious victory celebrations.)

But for sure, festive public celebration is one of the “few pragmatic routes to happiness.”  It is usually absurd, even when no inter-species suckling or naughty baked goods are involved, but it doesn’t cost very much, it can last a long while, it feels free. “Is there nakedness?” Not in my experience, I must not get invited to the right parties.

I did go to a Star Trek “con” once, not in costume and not quite free of irony. And yes, I do have a nutty “special kind of allegiance” to Monty Python. Hecht’s quite  right: immerse yourself in one of these worlds, and for the duration you can expect to feel “no shadowy worry of meaninglessness.” Isn’t that worth a bit of absurdity?

Hecht concludes with some terrific practical advice: first, free yourself of the conviction that you already know exactly how to be happy. That’s the “myth of knowing.”

“Then, in this less certain state, start sketching out your happiness lists. Start with writing things you actually do; then make additions to each list, noting what you might like to add to your gallery of daily-happiness-type pleasures…”

Never sign off on those lists. Keep ’em open… “do some experiments…. Talk to neighbors… Inspire a young person… When someone says that ‘they’ have now got [happiness] figured out, you may say aloud or in your head, ‘No, they probably don’t.'”

But on the other hand, here are some “activities so good that they need no arguments or fanfare: being loving to your spouse, nurturing your children, tending to your extended family, nurturing friendships, helping local strangers, helping strangers far away, caring for animals, engaging in fine art and the arts of living (poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, music, dance, architecture, cooking, entertaining, gardening, decor), risking both being in the world and keeping apart, doing philosophy, learning the art of traveling and the art of staying home, planning for the future of humanity, and increasing the world’s knowledge.”

And this, again:

Also remember to take time for paradise, too. (Sorry, commissioner, I know a Yankees championship was not your idea of heaven. But it won’t last forever.*)

How many days ’til Spring Training?

==

* “I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.” –A.B.G.

Nietzschean consolation

November 2, 2009

With friends like this… “To those who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities– I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished.”

Thus spake Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), inevitably evoking the oft-repeated cliche that is in fact an accurate rendition of his main conviction: “what doesn’t kill me” etc. Thanks a lot, Fritz. (As a young grad student I considered myself a friend of Nietzsche, for a time, before sobering up from his distinctive brew of “will to power” and discovering better brands.)  It will surprise no one to learn that he had few close friends, during a life that consumed itself in self-serious, self-absorbed,  self-aggrandizing, self-conscious, finally self-parodying intensity. At the end (a dozen years before his death) he was writing things like Ecce Homo, “Why I am so wise, so clever, write such good books” etc., and it’s not clear all or even most of the late vainglory can be blamed on his syphilitically-deranged brain. It pretty clearly cannot be.

If we’re known by the company we keep, it is instructive to notice the company of self-avowed Nietzscheans. (Yes, this borders the ad hominem, but our boy would understand.) It includes a disproportionate number of brilliant but misanthropic types obsessed with their legacy, contemptuous of their contemporaries, certain they’d be appreciated by the ages, neglectful of the domestic side of life. Richard Wagner, H.L. Mencken and  Ayn Rand are names that pop instantly to mind. (It also includes Nazis. They misread him, of course. But if a Nazi were going to misread a philosopher, he’d be the one.) No such thing as a Nietzschean? ‘Fraid so.daily_nietzsche_web

But perhaps he wasn’t dead wrong when he criticized Christians, Kantians, Utilitarians and everyone else he perceived to be in service of ease  instead of the strenuous, difficult life from which he was convinced we gain the most. Fewer couches and beer and remote controls, more mountains to climb. (Doesn’t have quite the ring of “A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal,” but the thought is much the same.)

“If you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you for even an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress… then it is clear that [you harbor in your heart] the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness…” You can’t be happy if you’re not prepared to suffer for it. Another cliche will not be denied here: “no pain, no gain.”

Alain de Botton: according to Nietzsche, “we all become Christians when we profess indifference to what we secretly long for but do not have; when we blithely say that we do not need love or a position in the world, money or success, creativity or health– while the corners of our mouths twitch with bitterness; and we wage silent wars against what we have publicly renounced.” On this scale, then, didn’t Nietzsche (the preacher’s kid) maintain a life-long flirtation with Christianity too?

“How would Nietzsche have preferred us to approach  our setbacks? To continue to believe in what we wish for, even when we do not have it, and may never… Resist the temptation to denigrate and declare evil cerain goods because they have proved hard to secure.” If you just invert the terms “good and evil,” you’re not beyond them.

Here’s the great sadness  and tragedy of this solitary mountain philosopher‘s life: he admired Epicurus , especially the Epicurean idea that happiness involves a life among friends. He really cut himself off, at the end of that trail. He never had the pleasure of a weekend packed with trick-or-treating,  Krispy Kreme-ing and dog-parking with a joyous 10-year old, World Series viewing,  etc. The quotidian did not map onto his “straight line” to the summit.

Too bad for him, even if good for those who are glad he wrote those books. But isn’t it selfish not to wish he’d been capable of  a more conventional happiness?

So if you go to dwell in the upper regions, be sure to keep in touch with your lowland pals.

Money

October 29, 2009

“Everybody knows that money doesn’t buy happiness.”

The Series has begun, please indulge my pet metaphor: Jennifer Hecht’s next pitch rides up and in, crowding “Everybody” with the retort that smart philosophers “really don’t all say this.”

Aristotle, for instance, acknowledged that happiness “requires a degree of comfort.” But only a small degree, “abundance does not correlate with happiness” to anywhere near the degree that poverty correlates with unhappiness.

It’s commonly, winkingly noted that the roots of our material culture in America run from Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” back to John Locke’s “life, liberty, and property (estate).” The insinuation is that Jefferson was importing a crass idea under cover of a pretty, idealized euphemism.

Less often acknowledged, and much more intriguing, is Jefferson’s Epicureanism. He admired its naturalism– he so despised supernaturalism that he snipped those parts out of his Bible— its  secularism, and its happy vision of simple, virtuous pleasure. “Epicurus ran a coed, hedonistic philosopher’s retreat called the Garden,” encouraged serious reflection for its own sake, and valued personal freedom and independence above institutions, congregations, and confederations.

For his part, Jefferson valued his own “garden” at Monticello— a commune-like compound, staffed by slaves who we now know were as good as family, if not quite accorded the status and dignity of friendly equals in the Epicurean sense. But we also now know that money was a problem for him, too. He sold his books to create the library of congress, not only as a public-spirited act of generosity but because he really needed the dough.

Hecht: “There are obvious happiness advantages to having some money,” and not only for those with little. “The difference between a phenomenal wheelchair and one that is just good enough is not trivial.” Nor, during the Series, is the difference between an ordinary TV and a crisp-&-pretty hi-def model.

But let’s not get carried away. The road to hell is paved with obsessive, self-righteous  monomania.