In the first conference session, we had the pleasure of welcoming Plato back from the dead (in the form of Jeff Mason) to deviate from his usual dialogue approach and simply tell us his ideas. In his talk, he reveals how too many of us just don’t understand what happiness is.
What is Happiness?
“The subject today is perhaps one of the most important things that you could think about, namely, what is it to be a human being? What is it to live a good life? What is to be happy? How do you know what happiness is? Is it attainable? What does it mean? What role should it play in your life? Happiness is one of those terms like ‘time’, which you know perfectly well until somebody asks you to define it, and then you find you don’t know what it is. I have to tell you that the so-called real world that you believe you inhabit and in which you make your plans and live your day-to-day life is really nothing but a dream. There is another world which is more real and more true than that so-called ‘real’ world. (See article on the Forms). I want to convince you that this other world is the making of your happiness. As long as you attach yourself to anything that is of this life, or this world, you’re going to be let down, because imperfection is part of the world of becoming, whereas true reality never changes. It’s beyond change, beyond decay, beyond corruption. When you say everything is relative to how you think or how other people think, that’s your problem. The truth is one thing and what we think is often something else. There is a wide gap between belief and knowledge. The whole point about doing philosophy is to take your eyes away from the objects of belief and towards the objects of knowledge.
What you will discover in this investigation of Reality is that true happiness consists in living a good life. It’s about having a good and morally consistent character; respecting people and worthwhile institutions. It’s about living a just life and cultivating the other primary virtues of self-control, courage, and wisdom. Everyone needs to be self-controlled to keep passion and desire within rational bounds. We need courage to have the strength to act on our convictions, even if we run a risk to ourselves and our own immediate interests. We need wisdom to see when it’s the right time to act and what is the right thing to do, and justice in order to live in harmony with our fellow human beings. If we can manage to do all those things, then we will be truly happy.
What this means is that you depend mainly on yourself for your happiness. Happiness is about becoming a fully autonomous human being. You’re not going to look for the satisfaction of your deepest needs and desires in things or other people, but in the contemplation of the Forms during philosophical reflection.
If you look at yourself and ask, “What is it that people think will make them happy?” the candidates are rather few. Some people think that pleasure and happiness are identical. They seek pleasure in their lives and try to avoid pain. This is not good enough because most of our pleasures are rooted in pain. When you’re wedded to pleasure you’re actually wedded to pain. Take drugs, as an example. You may get into it for pleasure, but there’s a pain of withdrawal associated with the pleasure of shooting up or whatever. So the pain and the pleasure go together; and in fact, pleasure is often simply the removal of pain. Socrates showed this when he exclaimed “Oh, god, that feel’s good!” when the guard came to take off his chains for the last day he was to spend in his cell awaiting death by drinking poison. (See my dialogue, The Phaedo, in the Penguin edition of The Last Days of Socrates.)
Another thing that’s wrong with the pleasures most people seek is that they are ephemeral, they come and they go. These pleasures don’t last because they belong essentially to the senses. Sensing is always a process. You’re hungry, you eat, it tastes good, it satisfies your desire. This gives you a brief experience of pleasure. But as you get more and more full, the pleasure decreases until you can’t eat another bite. It’s no longer enjoyable to eat when you’re full. But then you don’t eat for a while, you get hungry again, you eat and there’s the pleasure again. It is the same thing for sex, drink, and a lot of other things. There is just a continual cycle of pleasure and desire. Where does that get you? Not very far.
What do other people say will make them happy? Some people think it’s fame, the recognition of one’s greatness by other people. But there’s been many a wonderful story told about the person who gets fame and finds that it’s all hollow. Recall the story of Dr Faustus (don’t ask me how I know this story), who rose to the pinnacle of academic life. He had a reputation for knowledge beyond anybody else, and his graduate students adored him. The whole world honoured his knowledge. However, in the centre of his knowledge he found the core of his own ignorance. He lost respect for the people who looked up to him, for that showed they were even more ignorant than he, to put their faith in a charlatan. He had lots of fame, but in the end, what does it matter what people see in you? Can that sustain you?
The same thing applies to the people who want glory. “Your legend will be told forever.” But again (not asking how I know), what if you were Wellington, years after Waterloo, when the days of your glory lie in the distant past. When you get that old, what does it matter any more? From that perspective, glory appears hollow. There’s a wonderful poem by Shelly about Ozymandias, who thought he was really great. He made a giant monument of himself in hard stone, but now there’s nothing left but a shattered visage lying in the sand with the inscription “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my works you mighty and despair.” There is nothing left to the glory of Ozymandias. That’s what happens to glory. It vanishes.
What about wealth? Will that make you happy? If your goal is to amass wealth, when do you have enough? You can only drive one car at a time, sleep in one bed at a time, get into one Jacuzzi at a time. You could have a big bank account and make plans to do just what you wanted to do. But does that life sustain us as human beings? The only thing money does is to supply your needs. But if you don’t know what will make you happy, or what your deepest needs are, or what will satisfy you, then what good is it? Wealth just panders to the needs that you have as physical being in the world. And it also panders to your vanities. But if you see what is really good, then your interest in these things will fade away. You just won’t care about them any more. So wealth is not a satisfying goal in life, because once you obtain your millions, you still have to ask, ‘What do I do now?’
Finally, some people think power will make them happy. We can ask the same question of power as we asked of wealth. When does a person have enough power? It’s one of those never ending desires. The only kind of power that really matters is the power you have over yourself, not the power you have over other people, things or resources. The ultimate goal of life is simply that you should know yourself, as a human being who has tried to become excellent in some way. You may never attain total mastery of what you set out to do, but it is better to try than not make the attempt at all. It doesn’t matter if things unravel. The point about ethics is not that you prosper as we understand what it is to prosper in this world. The important thing is that you hold yourself together as a human being with integrity, courage and principles, so that you are the kind of person who cannot be forced to do evil.
The virtues are one. They belong together and are good only in so far as they participate in the Form of the Good itself. The unjust person is never truly courageous. It is wrong to admire a thief or a murderer because he or she is clever or ‘brave’. This is mistake. Only the truly just person is really courageous, wise and self-controlled.
Virtue is knowledge, and therefore, in life, the most important and beneficial thing for you is your education. Your early education is over now, and it has shaped your character in many ways. But at least if you reflect on these different ideas of what the happy life is, you’ll see that from the philosophical point of view at least, none of them is sufficient. The happiest life is the philosophical life.”