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Pursuing Both Knowledge and Happiness ~ The Impossible Possibility

I read the paper every morning, which is not necessarily the cleverest thing in the world to do. The other day I was confronted with these headlines:

Keep HIV-positive migrants out of Britain, says Farage
Cuts in funding to the WHO delayed response to outbreak of epidemic
Advances in NHS care ‘going into reverse’
How British agents stoked satanism fears in Troubles
‘I just watch and feel pain’ – Kurds look on helpless as Kobani teeters
Suicide bomber targeting Shia group kill dozens in capital of Yemen
Couple in court over refusal to get children vaccinated
Beijing calls Japan’s robotic cat subversive
Second shooting fuels Ferguson rage
Eurozone is ‘at risk of recession’

That was, of course, just an average day and the headlines can get a lot worse. The first thing I do each day is read about murder, torture, rape massive death, war, disease, injustices, utter nonsense, failures, incompetence, and the potential extinction of all life on planet earth, and yes, that includes us (if you think that last bit is an exaggeration you are not keeping up – think methane for a start).  Why would any reasonable, rational, sane person begin his or her day like that? Would that person expect to be happy? So why do I do it?

At the heart there is a dilemma of pursuits and goals. The dilemma is this: a clash between the pursuit of knowledge (the telos of which is to be informed) and the pursuit of happiness (the telos of which is to be happy). It is a dilemma because both pursuits have prima facie value but do not easily coexist. Put simply, it is difficult to be happy and to be knowledgeable at the same time. As the philosopher Slavoj Žižek said while answering questions on The Guardian website: “If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid.” I myself, referring to a friend who also travelled extensively, wrote in “Swanning Around the World or Passing Through the International Non-Places of Planet Earth” in my book Notes from 39,000 Feet: “I asked him once if he were happy. He said that he wasn’t. That he'd seen too much and knew too much. And like me, he couldn’t forget a damn thing.”

I’m uncomfortable with the words “happy” and “happiness” because of what they now imply. Happiness more than not refers to a rather superficial and temporary emotional state that we long for, if not lust after. Again quoting Žižek: “Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don’t know what we really want.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against happiness even when superficial and temporary. I would rather be happy than sad in this sense. And as an American the "pursuit of happiness" is part of my intellectual and emotional DNA. However, when speaking of the pursuit of happiness I, and Thomas Jefferson, the Committee of Five  and the Committee of the Whole of the Second Continental Congress responsible for the Declaration of Independence , mean/meant something more than fleeting good feelings and sensory delight.

For Aristotle happiness was pursuing a life of just action and virtue. Greek philosophers believed happiness could only be found in community. Simply put, happiness as virtue and justice is realised in community, not in solitude and feelings. The Founding Fathers, heavily influenced by past philosophies and enjoying a rather comfortable life, did not define happiness as an individual sensory experience, but as doing good in public life. After all:

Jefferson declared that the pursuit of happiness was an inalienable right, along with life and liberty. The story goes that Jefferson, on the advice of Benjamin Franklin, substituted the phrase "pursuit of happiness" for the word "property," which was favored by George Mason. Franklin thought that "property" was too narrow a notion. (See The Atlantic

In short (and this is really short!), happiness means one’s sense of well-being and dignity gained through living in and service of the community and to civic life. I would add that happiness also includes that sense of peace that can run deep within us, and while sometimes ephemeral, is nonetheless significant, relevant, and worth pursuing. I suspect this is not the happiness that Žižek was referring to on The Guardian website.

So, if I understand happiness in this way, the question arises: Can I find such happiness without knowledge? The answer is obviously No.

But once again we are confronted with a dilemma: Knowledge is necessary for the virtue of happiness, and yet, knowledge can be, and often is, depressing and the cause of unhappiness. What to do?

First is to distinguish between the two uses of happiness: One an solitary emotional state and two virtue and just action in community. My wide screen internet connected high definition TV makes me happy. A good bottle of wine makes me happy. Sunshine makes me happy. Sex makes me happy. My nice home makes me happy. Coffee in the morning really makes me happy. And fair enough. But none of these things can withstand the onslaught of the morning headlines. However, remembering that that which I truly want – peace, dignity, justice, community – just might.

Interestingly, the word “pursue” does not just mean to follow or to chase after. It also meant, at least in the past, an occupation, or practice, or indeed a vocation. “So ‘the pursuit of happiness’ means something like occupying one’s life with the activities that provide for overall wellbeing. This certainly includes a right to material things, but it goes beyond that to include humanity’s spiritual and moral condition.” (see First Things) The pursuit of happiness is more a vocation grounded in our corporate life, than a nice feeling and/or sensory pleasure.

Now, I’m fully aware that words alone may not make the difference. I still read the paper and it still gets me down. I also know that without shelter, food, health care, and work it is almost impossible to find any kind of happiness. But I guess I’m admitting that the pursuit of knowledge is slightly more important than my happiness. Not everyone would agree with that, but there you go. I don’t agree with Žižek that happiness, no matter how you define it, is unimportant. However, I am saying that there are things more important, one of them being the pursuit of knowledge. Perhaps I can deal with the knowing as long as I pursue virtue and justice in my community.

Copyright © 2014 Dale Rominger

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