This post starts with a discussion between philosophers. That’s not as bad as it might sound to some. One of the philosophers involved is Bernard Williams (who made a cameo appearance in my previous post about psychopaths). The other one – to whom I owe this useful concept – is Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher who thinks and writes about things not many philosophers find worthy of great thought. His bestseller is the book “On Bullshit” which has made him a sought after authority in recent political discourse. But he also has published articles and books about love, not a topic that philosophers naturally gravitate towards.
In my previous Useful Concepts post, I mentioned that Adam Phillips was responsible for two of my favourite useful concepts. The second one is the “transformational object.”
Phillips made me aware of this concept, but he actually quotes Christopher Bollas, a professor of English, psychotherapist, and – according to his Wikipedia profile – “one of the most widely read authors in the field of psychoanalysis.”
As their name suggests, transformational objects are things that change our lives.
There are concepts that I find so useful that I would like them to be circulating more widely.
For two of these useful concepts, I rely on Adam Phillips, the prolific essayist and psychotherapist who is responsible for some of the best book-titles in recent publishing history – On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored; On Flirtation; Going Sane. But he also makes some insightful points about success and failure.
It’s a commonplace of popular psychology to analyse instances of failure as self-sabotage. That is the idea that the person failing is not only complicit in his own failure but somehow orchestrating it, in order to satisfy a psychological need below the surface. In other words, the failing not only need to cope with their failure but also need to come to grips with the fact that they are to blame for it.
(This blog-post became much too long for a blog-post as I was writing it. But as it’s really my writing practice and not written for any particular readership, I didn’t attempt to shorten it. But because I like readers anyway, I put some sub-titles in. If anyone reads this, you can treat the sections as individual blog-posts, as necessary.)
Do Philosophical Questions Ever Get Answered?
Do big philosophical problems ever get solved? I mean, does humanity progress in its understanding of the deepest, most persistent questions about our world and our lives? Or do we just occasionally reformulate the questions and nibble away some crumbs of understanding at the edges of the big problems?
I despair sometimes over the fact that while other disciplines have unleashed energy from splitting atoms, landed people on the moon, found cures for diseases and spun off masses of benefits for everyday human life from their discoveries, philosophers haven’t come much closer in the last two thousand years to reaching agreement on some fundamental and all-important questions, for example, whether we have free will or are fully predetermined in our actions.
One really big challenge in philosophy has been put to bed in recent years though. That is how to deal with the amoralist. The amoralist is the person who – while others discuss what would constitute moral behaviour – asks the question: but why should I act morally at all?
I had this canvas poster made as a present for my son though my wife says it’s more of a present to myself. It would certainly take him a very long time to read all the letters at his current pace, let alone understand it. But it’s definitely a present for him. The quote is from James Rhodes’ book Instrumental.
“I want him to know the secret of happiness. It is so simple that it seems to have eluded many people. The trick is to do whatever you want to do that makes you happy, as long as you’re not hurting those around you. Not to do what you think you should be doing. Nor what you think other people believe you should be doing. But simply to act in a way that brings you immense joy. To be able to say a gentle and kind ‘no’ to things that don’t please you, to walk away from situations that don’t fulfil you, to move towards things that delight you. And there is nothing I will not do to help him achieve that.”
There was a time when I read a lot about the secrets of happiness and the not so secret theories. I don’t know whether it was just the focus of my attention or whether there was an explosion of interest in happiness in the earliest years of this century. My journey at the time took me to each of the following:
The ancient Greek concept of eudaemonia (happiness or flourishing)
“happiness – the human good – is activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Neo-aristotelian virtue ethics
“Alternatively (…) we could stick with what we have – those facts about human nature and the way human life goes that support the claim that the virtues (…) benefit their possessor…” Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics
The happiness trend in economics (e. g. Richard Layard’s Happiness)
“There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier. (…) This devastating fact should be the starting point for all discussion of how to improve our lot.”
“If you find yourself stuck in the parking lot of life, with few and only ephemeral pleasures, with minimal gratifications, and without meaning, there is a road out. This road takes you through the countryside of pleasure and gratification, up into the high country of strength and virtue, and finally to the peaks of lasting fulfilment: meaning and purpose.” Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness
There was also amongst all of this also a book actually called “The Secrets of Happiness” which discusses the history of ideas on happiness in various religions and philosophies.
“If the lives of Epicurus, Seneca and Ghazali, the stories of Buddha and Prince Arjuna, and the mystery of Job tell us anything, they tell us that the seeking of happiness flows into the finding of it, just as the rushing waters of a river pour out effortlessly into the calm ocean depth, and so cease to rush.”
But nothing I read in this “happiness literature” touched and moved me as much as the paragraph from James Rhodes’ book.
Perhaps that’s because it caught me by surprise. His book is an autobiography describing his journey from suffering sexual abuse over years as a young boy through drug addiction and recovery to becoming a professional pianist. Interwoven into this narrative of horrible experiences are snippets of – often bleak – biographies of great composers and descriptions of their work. These illustrate the idea that great art and beauty can come from the miserable, painful circumstances of human life and can help lift us out of it, even if only momentarily.
“In 1770, a child is born into difficult, violent, terrifying circumstances. His family is riddled with alcoholism, domestic violence, abuse and cruelty. (…) Totally deaf, wracked with pain, emotionally [messed up], [Beethoven] composes his thirty-second and final piano sonata in 1822, a few years before his death. (…) it manages, somehow, to transcend the level of human existence we inhabit and take us somewhere higher…”
Apart from not expecting the “Secret” in this context, I think it is also the understated way in which Rhodes launches it that makes it particularly moving. He doesn’t say, “hey, everyone, I’ve discovered the secret of happiness and this is it…” Instead he just presents it as something he wants his son to know. And ultimately, the promise – “there is nothing I will not do to help him achieve that” – is very touchingly generous.
I had to think a few things through before I had the paragraph printed for my son:
First, I wondered whether there was a problem with circularity. “The Secret of Happiness is to do what makes you happy.” Ok, but don’t we need to know the Secret of Happiness in order to know what “happy” means? On further reflection, I didn’t find it that much of a problem. Rhodes isn’t trying to define the term “happiness.” And he is actually giving us quite a lot in terms of unpacking the concept of happiness. For example, he tells us that it’s about doing things that make us happy. In other words it’s not an intellectual exercise to understand happiness and then aim for it. It’s about doing things, taking action and undertaking activities from which happiness emerge. And if it doesn’t, try something else. So his is a very pragmatic secret.
Second, I wondered whether there was a problem with vagueness or lack of definition. Would someone who wasn’t initiated into the Secret of Happiness already be able to judge what makes him or her happy? Couldn’t they just think they’re happy but be mistaken? Particularly in the context of Rhodes’ biography of addiction, for example, couldn’t human beings fall too easily for the idea that it is a drug that makes them happy? Here we can probably trust in the idea that deep down we always know that something that fulfils an immediate desire may not make us happy in the long term. The addict knows that although he thinks he needs the drug, it doesn’t make him happy. He may also know that his behaviours connected with the drug are hurting others.
Rhodes’ Secret of Happiness is one for the long term. It suggest trial and error and a bias to action over a lifetime in pursuit of happiness.
Third, I wondered whether it was foolish of me to give this “Secret” to my four year old son? Won’t it backfire on me? Will he tell me that doing something I want him to do (homework, tidying, …) just doesn’t please him and that he’s moving to do something I don’t want him to so much (play with the iPad, …) as that fills him with delight? This, I’m still worried about. But I will argue with him. I’ll tell him that I don’t always have to be consistent in my views regarding his happiness.
Ultimately – again in the longer term – I think it is better for him to have a Rhodes-like view of happiness – working out what you want to do and who you want to be and not doing what you think others believe you should be doing – than being too obedient or too willing to be defined by others. Even if I am one of these others. And I’d rather feel a bit of pressure to ensure that the things I want him to do are connected to his happiness, not to mine. And it will be a good discipline for me to have to convince him of that.
So maybe my wife is right. The present is a little bit for me.