The Quest for Happiness
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
“Down through the ages, philosophers and poets, politicians and theologians, friends and strangers have argued about the nature of happiness. They haven’t been able to settle on what happiness is exactly, but that hasn’t kept them from chasing it down. In the end, and the beginning, too, happiness may be a lot easier to experience than to define,” says Darrin M. McMahon in “The Quest for Happiness” in the Wilson Quarterly of winter, 2005.
The importance of the role of happiness in our lives has changed through the eras of history.
Hegel believed it was the fate of great men like himself to be denied “what is commonly called happiness.” The periods of happiness in history are blank pages, he concluded.
What is this thing called happiness? Many of us today would likely be quick to describe it as a good feeling or positive mood. But the first taxonomist of the emotions, Aristotle, excluded happiness from his classifications. In the Rhetoric he posited that the list includes anger, love, enmity, fear, pity, indignation, envy and contempt. Happiness is apparently something else, “a certain kind of activity of the soul expressing virtue.” Happiness is nothing so cheap as a fleeting feeling or a passing fancy. It entails “a complete life,” lived according to virtue and measured right up to its end. Until that end, a tragic turn or a cowardly choice might bring shame or misfortune on a life otherwise well spent. The Greek statesman Solon averred, “Call no man happy until he is dead.”
Aristotle’s view of happiness as a universal moral end was widely shared in the ancient world, among both the Greeks and the Romans. Though they granted that pleasure and good feeling might have a place in a happy life, the principal element was thought to be virtue, which frequently demanded discipline, sacrifice and even pain. Cicero thought virtue was so indispensable that, if a man possessed it, he could be happy regardless of the circumstances, even while being tortured. Though this was taking matters to the extreme, it illustrates how ancient thinkers considered happiness a thing apart, not a sentiment or a passion or an emotional state.
Kant conceded that, although everyone wishes to attain happiness, he can never say definitely and consistently what it is he really wishes and wills. Thus it could never be a reliable guide to evaluating moral action. Apparently historians have reasoned along similar lines, concluding that happiness is not a useful category of inquiry. But this is a perilous assumption. “How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness,” William James observed in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure.” His contemporary, Sigmund Freud, maintained that happiness is something “essentially subjective.” “Though all men aim at being happy,” John Locke concluded, they take “various and contrary ways in pursuit of that end, down as many paths as there are palates.”
“But what if one were to consider happiness not as a private emotion or a universal moral end but rather as an idea?” McMahon asks. “Doing so would allow one to treat this mysterious yearning like any other abstract notion–freedom, justice, or truth–evaluating ideas of happiness as they have taken shape and evolved over time, tracing their genealogy, and following their representations in different cultural contexts.” If we acknowledge this concept of happiness, it would not surprise us that Marx and Engels considered happiness an integral part of their system, nothing less than the solution to the riddle of history. Marx observed, “The overcoming of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”
But he never revealed what “real happiness” might entail. What is revealing is his insistence that we can attain it on our own, in the space once occupied by God. A similar emphasis had long occupied the Greeks. Aristotle’s attempt to locate happiness in virtue was part of a broader effort to wrest happiness from forces over which we have little or no control: fate, the gods, the movement of the stars.
But Socrates ran up against the old and very widespread “tragic tradition of happiness,” The belief that happiness is ultimately out of our hands–controlled by fortune, fate or the gods; governed by the movement of the stars, the actions of our ancestors or the whims of occult forces and spirits. This appears to be the common feature of all traditional cultures. For many in the classical world, even those of perfect virtue, happiness was something that could never be entirely controlled. This connection of happiness with fortune, chance or fate persisted into the High Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. Happiness was what happens to us.
By Shakespeare’s time, all discussion of happiness had been shaped by another powerful force: Christianity. An elaborate theology promised unending ecstasy as the reward for earthly privation. Because of our first parents’ original transgression in the Garden of Eden, true happiness was “unattainable in our present life.” Death was the true happiness of the elect. Thomas Aquinas called imperfect happiness a pale imitation of our heavenly reward.
Not until the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries were considerable numbers of men and women exposed to the possibility that they might legitimately hope for happiness everlasting in this life. To construct happiness in a place of our own making was not to defy God’s will but to live as nature intended. This was our earthly purpose, and in a world governed by natural laws liberated from the capricious whims of an angry deity or the chaos of fortune, this purpose was realizable. Thomas Jefferson summarized a century of reflection on the subject in Europe and America by stating that the “pursuit of happiness” was a “self-evident” truth. The “greatest happiness for the greatest number” had become the moral imperative of the century. However he said nothing in the Declaration of Independence about the right to attain happiness; he restricted himself to its pursuit. He was pessimistic that the chase would ever be brought to a satisfying conclusion because of calamities and misfortunes that greatly afflict all of us. The preamble to the French revolutionaries’ “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” in 1789 pledged to work for the “happiness of everyone.” This promise was made a mockery of by Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, but the line was nonetheless indicative of a dramatic shift in the nature of human expectations.
In spite of the skepticism of some observers such as Alexis deTocqueville and Thomas Carlyle, a new god was taking shape. Earthly happiness was emerging as the idol of idols, the locus of meaning in life, the source of human aspiration, the purpose of existence, the why and the wherefore. Yet belief in happiness, like an older belief in God, is a type of faith, an assumption about the meaning and purpose of human existence that is a relatively recent development in human affairs. But we have come to assume that people ought to be happy and that, if they’re not, there’s something wrong. As that assumption collides with the often painful realities of existence, we see clearly what an article of faith it is.
Along with the strides now being made in the scientific understanding of mood and the tendency to pathologize, says McMahon, our post-Enlightenment faith inevitably pushes us in the direction of compensating for nature when nature fails us in the pursuit of our natural end. If happiness is not, as Freud said, “in the plan of ‘Creation,'” there are those ready to alter the handiwork of our maker to put it there. That was the great fear of Aldous Huxley, for whom genetic engineering and psychopharmacology harnessed in the service of happiness constituted two of the most chilling features of the dystopia he created in Brave New World. As pointed out in the report by Leon Kass and the President’s Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, the science of mood enhancement is upon us and is rapidly outpacing our readiness to think through its ethical implications. The council members argue for increased moral reflection to help us understand our situation today and discern what might lie ahead.”
Philosopher Pascal Bruckner has observed, “Happiness is the sole horizon of our contemporary democracies”.
“To bring that vision into better focus,” says McMahon, “we must take up Hegel’s neglected challenge to ‘contemplate history from the point of view of happiness.’ We must conceive the history of all hitherto-existing society as a history of the struggle for happiness.”
The polygamous Kingston family professes that their genealogy line traces back to Jesus Christ, and so they possess holy blood. Therefore, to keep the bloodline “pure,” the Kingstons intermarry–half-brothers and sisters, uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews, and so forth. Consequently, genetic diseases and mutations have inevitably sprouted in many polygamous groups having this belief. Various congenital and genital defects, dwarfism, fused limbs, fingernails lacking, mental illness and mental retardation, spina bifida, and microcephalous are some of the diseases and mutations.
Six brothers of the Kingston group have over 600 children among them, with the champion having sired 120.
Such was some of the material that journalist, researcher, and author Andrea Moore-Emmett presented in June’s meeting. In addition to her book God’s Brothel, her stories about polygamy have appeared in Salt Lake City Weekly. She also was researcher for “Inside Polygamy,” a two-hour documentary that was aired on A&E and BBC.
In her speech was a brief overview of present-day polygamy in America which includes a host of renegade spilt-offs from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as well as a few fundamentalist Christian groups. One of them, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in the border twin cities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, openly practices polygamy with the full awareness of state authorities, yet this community continues to grow. The FLDS Church recently built and populated a large settlement near Eldorado, Texas, and purchased two tracts of land outside Mancos.
Many large FLDS families depend on welfare and food stamps to subsist. Multiple wives present themselves to social workers as single mothers while the patriarchs hide, smugly taking delight in “bleeding the beast,” their term for defrauding the hated government.
Polygamy is perpetuated one generation after the next in Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, California and elsewhere. The number of polygamists in North America, estimated at 50,000 or more, is doubling every decade. Polygamy is often subsidized through federal and state handouts, and many polygamists engage in tax evasion, welfare fraud, and even money laundering. Men are not required to support their families so wives and children survive with welfare benefits, food stamps, WIC, and Medicaid. Scrounging for food in dumpsters and garbage cans is not unusual.
Required by doctrine in many of the fundamentalist groups to bear one child per year, often without proper prenatal care, women live in a state of chronic pregnancy, their lives devoted to caring for husband and children; girls must drop out of school at a young age while boys in some instances may complete high school and college.
Groups that espouse religious freedom, including the American Civil Liberties Union, defend polygamy as an act among consenting adults and a victimless crime. However, Moore-Emmett contends that incest, statutory rape, torture, physical abuse, forced marriages, and trafficking of girls is rampant.
The plight of women and children growing up in a polygamous patriarchal system that Moore-Emmett described defiles intelligent reasoning. Often succumbing to the power of “groupthink” where brainwashing results in total acceptance of the prevailing belief system, women learn to endure physical abuse, poverty, and emotional pain of seeing their husbands have sex with other women. Groupthink is similar to Jim Jones’s brainwashing where his followers drank the poisoned Kool-Aid in 1978.
Rather than polygamy being about religion, Moore-Emmett believes that many polygamous marriages are about sex and power. In her book God’s Brothel is a collection of stories about eighteen women’s journeys away from polygamy into freedom where life is still difficult but it is their own. These are the women of Tapestry Against Polygamy, a grass-roots endeavor whose function is to assist women to leave their lives of oppression and to begin new lives in which they make their own choices. Because of the doctrine of “blood atonement killings” (death for one’s sins), several of these women live in hiding and fear for their lives and the lives of their children.
Her book also exposes some of the ineffectual attempts by the Department of Children’s Services and the District Attorney’s office to protect the children of polygamous marriage from physical and sexual violence. Moore-Emmett states that “The state legislature is consistently 90% Mormon…and several polygamist men serve in local government positions, including as mayors…and councilmen” (p. 31). Asserting that “the attitude between Mormons and Mormon fundamentalist polygamists is that of kissing cousins with more similarities than differences” (p. 30), Moore-Emmett suggests that the heavily Mormon Utah government is unduly tolerant of polygamy and reluctant to acknowledge the abuses of many polygamous families. Although the official stance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is against polygamy, several of the women’s stories reveal that LDS leaders dismiss the deviant sects and blame the women who come to them for help.
It is Moore-Emmett’s belief that the LDS Church who started polygamy in this country should take responsibility and provide financial aid and other resources for those polygamous families who have been abused. For the time being, Tapestry Against Polygamy is the only group that actively helps polygamous women escape their abusive and oppressive lives. TAP has been in such dire straits that director Vicky Prunty has occasionally resorted to selling her own plasma to obtain enough funds to help women escape polygamy.
Through her book, public speaking, and other activities, Moore-Emmett is a voice that is bringing awareness to the public of the plight of many polygamous families and helping the abused see that there is hope outside their imprisoned lives.
~Letter to the Editor~
I just want to express my appreciation for three long-time stalwarts of our chapter. I don’t know where our chapter would be without them.
Flo Wineriter was our president for many years and continues as a board member, Pastoral Counselor, arranger of programs, book reviewer, and face and voice to the public.
Wayne Wilson has been for years our secretary, editor of the Utah Humanist, web master, guardian of the back table, and computer guru. He recently took a new job that keeps him away from meetings but he still helps where he can.
Rolf Kay has also been for years and remains our social chairman, chapter photographer, greeter, guardian of the name tags, handyman, and humorist.
These are only their most obvious contributions to our chapter and we all benefit from them. This is not to take anything away from past and present board members like Richard Layton, who runs the discussion group, and Robert Lane, our cookie-making president, but they would all agree that we owe a special thanks to Flo, Wayne, and Rolf. So, a special thanks to you three.
The Sacred Depths of Nature
The author of The Sacred Depths of Nature, Ursula Goodenough, received the Humanist Pioneer Award at the American Humanist Association 2005 conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has served as president of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science and presents major lectures on science and religion. She is professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis and former associate professor of biology at Harvard.
The Sacred Depths of Nature reconciles scientific understanding with human spiritual yearnings. Her writing style makes it possible for even non-scientists to appreciate the origins of all life and the universe and to respond with a sense of reverence and wonder.
Goodenough is that exceptional intellectual who can capture the reader’s attention as she weaves together the fascinating stories of evolution. When you finish The Sacred Depths of Nature you will agree with her introductory statement: “The point of hearing a story for the first time is not to remember it but to experience it.”
The Sacred Depths Of Nature
Oxford University Press 1998
God and Country
Subtitled Politics in Utah, God and Country is a series of essays by 17 prominent Utahns regarding their experiences and views on how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints directly and indirectly exerts influence on political, cultural, and social life in the Beehive state. Among the distinguished contributors are the late Professor Peter C. Appleby, Governor Calvin L. Rampton, political reporter Rod Decker, Rev. Thomas R. Goldsmith, attorney John J. Flynn, peace activist Edwin B. Firmage, and Salt Lake Tribune publisher emeritus John W. Gallivan.
In the foreword, Harold J. Berman says, “We delight in the Constitutional order in which ecclesiastical and political authorities are required to be entirely separate and where neither may interfere in the legitimate activities of the other.” The various contributors discuss several ways that wall of separation has historically been tested in Utah. Berman continues, “Tensions between religious belief and governmental policy become especially acute when adherents of different religious faiths compete with each other to influence governmental action.” Berman concludes, “…government and religions are dimensions of each other…the two need each other.”
Everyone interested in how church and state, religion and government, interact in Utah will find these essays compelling.
God And Country
Jedffery E. Sells, editor
Publisher: Signature Books, SLC 2005
December 28, 1918 ~ June 10, 2005
Lois Craig, well known among the freethinking community died June 10, 2005, in Denver, Colorado. Ms. Craig was an active member of Humanists of Utah, the Utah Atheists, and the First Unitarian Church.
Humanists of Utah extends our condolences to her family.
Member Recommended Websites
If you are looking for a useful and valuable site that you can check daily to stay up to date on Utah politics, complete with a list of leader and state news sources, Flo Wineriter recommends