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So,  it’s Sunday, but I’ve got a book to finish, so I just spent the last four hours writing Gregor.  Or most of them.

When I was done, I took an hour off and listened to Mozart’s 40th and 41st symphonies, and made a little headway on My Project.

Okay, admittedly, I didn’t have the Project before yesterday, but I do that sometime.  Several years ago, somebody gave me a small volume of literary criticism in which somebody compared–if I’m remembered correctly–Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann,  Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Dickens’s Bleak House.

The only one I’d read was Bleak House, and that was in my sophomore year of college.  So I got the three books together, and read them all, and then read the book, which was called Savage Reprisals.  It was written by Peter Gay, an author I usually like, but at the end of it, my only reaction was that nothing, no matter how wonderful, could make up for being forced through Buddenbrooks. 

Not all my Projects work out well.

The project I have set myself for the moment is this:  a few years ago, a friend gave me for Christmas a copy of a translation of Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. 

Since it has been many years since I’ve read the Aristotle (graduate school, at the latest, and maybe before), I’m reading the Nichomachean Ethics in order to follow it with the Aquinas.  I don’t remember if I’ve read the Aquinas, ever.  Once I get into it, I’ll probably remember it if I have.

At the moment, the Project has me a little on the depressive side.  It astonishes me, sometimes, just how consistant Western culture has been on several very specific points.

The first is the idea that the purpose of government is to construct a society which makes it possible for men (human beings, we’d say now) to be virtuous.

The second is the idea that virtue can be taught, that men and women are what they  have been raised and educated by be.

The second idea is half true at best.

The first is the foundational idea of every act of tyranny that has ever occurred anywhere.

We change our list of virtues–from chastity to acceptance of all sexual orientations, from fortitude to “openness”–but the theme music remains the same.

“Society should make us virtuous” is why censors on one side want to ban Heather Has Two Mommies and censors on the other want to ban Huckleberry Finn.  It’s the reason for public firestorms over people who use the “n” word or who publish scientific studies that show that most children sexually abused as children not only don’t grow up to be abusers but often don’t seem to be negatively affected by the experience at all.

Maybe, if we make Evil Thought literally unspeakable, it will become unthinkable at the same time, and we will be rid of the evil.

Looking at things like this, I’m struck with  how truly remarkable people like John Locke really were, and Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson–the people who, finally, rejected the idea that society could make us virtual at all, who came  up with the idea that society should be constructed to give individuals the broadest possible liberty, because, by doing so, we would get the best society it was possible to have.

You can’t even say they did that because, with the opening of new worlds, the counterintuitive came to the forefront.

Society should be constructed to make people virtuous is the founding idea of Puritan politics, too, and it was the basis of social organization in Colonial New England.

But, as I said, no matter  how depressing that history actually is, there’s something else at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, something I never really thought about before.

There are, in Greek, two words that can be, and have been, at least loosely translated as “happiness.”

One of these is “eudaemonion” or “eudaemonia”–I may have the form wrong, and I wouldn’t trust my attempt to transplant this thing from Greek to Roman alphabet, but if you say it out loud, you get something very close to the way it sounds in modern Greek.

The Aristotle I’m working from is the Loeb, which means I can see the Greek on the left hand page as I read the right, and the word seems to  have existed in a very similar form and with a very similar meaning in fourth century Athens.

This is “happiness” as it is commonly used, and as it  has probably always been commonly used.  It includes everything from being in a really good mood to enjoying success and prosperity. 

It is the sense in which I am happy when I have Mozart and tea and no immediate crisis to solve, it’s the sense in which my students are happy when they get good grades, its the sense in which married couples are happy when they live well together and love each other and everything in their lives is going more or less right.

We all understand this kind of  happiness, and we  understand that different people in different places and circumstances are made happy by different things.

Some people, we are sure, are made happy by truly terrible things:  by committing murder or rape, for instance, or by  being a successful (and therefore powerful) bully.

When these things are particularly awful, we try to explain them away–Aristotle tried to explain them away, and we do.  We call such people “mentally ill” and say they can’t help themselves.  We say they must have been abused as children and that is why they like (and are made happy by) the things they do.

Aristotle would have said that such people were raised and educated wrongly, but it amounts to the very same dodge.

But here’s the thing.

There’s another word in Greek that is sometimes translated “happiness,” and that word is a lot more complicated.

It, too, has pretty much survived since the days of ancient Athens, and if my edition of the Loeb is accurate, Aristotle used it at least some of the time when talking about happiness in the Nichomachean Ethics.

The word is “makarios,” and when it is not translated as “happiness” it is translated as “blessed.”

In fact, in modern Greek,  it is almost always translated as “blessed,” especially when used as a man’s  name, because the word has come to be something very important in Greek Orthodox theology.

“Makarios” is happiness, but it is not the happiness you feel when the dinner you cooked turned out perfectly or even when you can look back on a life of accomplishment and pleasure.

“Makarios” is the happiness of the Gods on Mount Olympus and of the heroes who make it to the Elysian Fields. 

In Greek Christianity,  it is the happiness of the saints in heaven when they can look on the face of God.

In fact, to the extent that this is the kind of happiness Aristotle is talking about, he’s absolutely right to say that it can only be reached by the practice of virtue, and all those other things called “happiness,” produced by vice or sloth or anything else, are not really happiness.

The Fathers of the Greek Church would agree in all of this except one point.  They would say that you are capable of such happiness only through the free gift of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and that practicing virtue is the way in which you must work out  your salvation in fear and trembling.

I was wondering last night if it would be possible to explain an idea like this to ordinary people in the modern world. 

The sense I get is that we have lost the idea that any such thing as possible, that–aside from the platitudes we repeat to ourselves when things go wrong in our lives or when somebody we don’t think deserves it is happier than we are–

The only kind of happiness that exists is that first kind, where we are delighted by the way things have turned out, where we enjoy ourselves doing whatever we naturally find enjoyable.

Certainly, in a post-Christian world, we don’t expect ourselves to be happy because we can see God in the face. 

Lots of us, myself included, don’t even believe in God.

It’s not just that we don’t believe in God, or don’t accept the Christian story, and therefore can’t see why we would be made happier than we have ever been by being able to see Him in the face.

It’s not that we don’t believe in the gods who live on Mount Olympus or the Elysian Fields open only to heroes.

I think it’s that we no longer believe that there is any other kind of happiness but the ordinary kind–that that is all there is, that that is all that can be hoped for or attained, that beyond that there is nothing to want.

I’d go even further than that.

I think even religious people, and certainly most Christians in America, when they talk about being  happy with God i n Heaven, use “happy” in the ordinary and not in the “makarios” sense.

They expect to be happy in Heaven in the same way they’re happy when the weather is perfect and the Cubs are winning.

I think this is one of the reasons why the promise of Heaven is not very compelling to most modern American religious people, and why nbnreligious people, thinking about Heaven as it is presented to them, end up being convinced they’d be miserable being stuck for eternity with all those  harps.

But I think there is something diminishing even for secular people in not having a concept for a larger, deeper, more global sense of “happiness” than the one we use now. 

I think in not  having some such idea, we make our own explanations of why  life is worth  living, or what a secular life and purpose should be, sound thin and more than vaguely trivial.

It may be why all those passionate responses to religious people who ask why you bother to live if you have no purpose and no God to give you one always sound sort of…well,  like gibberish.

I don’t know how many paeans I’ve read to joy! and passions! and love! that sound as if they are nothing but a pack of nonsense syllables.

I’ve certainly never seen one of those that actually answers what religious people are objecting to.  I’ve never seen one that even addressed it.

But then, as I said, I don’t think religious people have an answer to it either, most of the time.  They define “happy” in the ordinary way and then try to hide from themselves the fact that that doesn’t give them what they’re looking for.

Me being me, I  have another Project for the day, and that is to make an absolute boatload of yuvalakia.

It’s complicated, so I’d better get to it.

Written by janeh

August 11th, 2013 at 11:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Makarios'

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  1. A quibble. There is a serious difference between creating a society in which it is possible to be virtuous, and a society which attempts to make it impossible to be anything else. It is the second effort, rather than the first, which thrives on censorship, thought police and laws dictating moral behavior.

    But the first type of society really is necessary, and thrives, you will note, on negative rights–freedom of speech, press and religion so I can be reached by moral ideas, rights of property so prudence and temperance will be rewarded, and the more general liberty which lets me engage in moral behavior. There is, if you will, a minimum level of virtue needed to maintain any society, let alone a free one.

    Note that one of the things which keeps me from being a pure libertarian in this regard is that neither they nor I know the extent to which what we call “legislating morality”–such as penalizing childbirth outside marriage and insisting on monogamy–is necessary to maintain the society in which virtues are encouraged without being made mandatory. It’s no good saying “a perfect society would not legislate X” if societies which don’t legislate X collapse within a generation. The real and workable takes precedence over the theoretical and impracticable.

    As for the religious person’s view of the afterlife–well, as Christians we have been assured of the continuation of our individual personalities and of immortality. The combination is so vast a change that it is not surprising that many people see the happiness of the afterlife in terms of the happiness they know now, just as many tend to see the afterlife as a very long time rather than something without time. We have been given instructions for the journey, not a guidebook for the destination.

    Those gods on Olympus and the heroes in the Elysian Fields? Notice they’re depicted as doing the same things which make people happy in the usual meaning–not because it makes any more sense, but because there are limits to the human imagination. If we’re right, someway we’ll be beyond those limits; but not yet.


    11 Aug 13 at 12:18 pm

  2. Jane writes “The first is the idea that the purpose of government is to construct a society which makes it possible for men (human beings, we’d say now) to be virtuous.”

    that may be Aristotle’s point but I think Hobbes has it right. Without government, “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

    It is difficult to be virtuous if you are starving to death.


    12 Aug 13 at 5:59 pm

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