by Scot McKnight
Standing in the Etruscan village of Bagnoregio in the evening light and peering up the long footbridge toward tiny Civita di Bagnoregio—dimly lit, softly colored, rising gracefully into the blue of the sky—one thinks naturally of the final leg of Dante's or Bunyan's pilgrimage. Perhaps, one mutters, if I make the trek toward Civita, I will discover the village of final felicity. Alas, closer analysis, or even consulting something so common as Rick Steves' Italy 2008, reveals that Civita—once the proud of home St. Bonaventure, who himself traveled the path to beatific union with God—sits atop tufa. The soft rock has crumbled over the centuries, sending most of Civita's homes and their foundations tumbling into the valleys below. Not much remains. Civita under the light of day is a fraction of its old, proud self. Indeed, Bagnoregio has become the town that Civita di Bagnoregio once was. A few 80-year old widows linger in Civita, and if my experience is any guide, they are none too happy—about visitors or about their future.
Like Civita di Bagnoregio, happiness is crumbling before our very eyes. Is it lost? Can it be regained? The story of happiness is Milton's.
Happiness: "O fairest of Creation"
There was a day—indeed, an entire century, the 18th—when happiness sat atop the potential destiny for each of us. Mappers claimed they knew how to get there and could show us. When Jeremy Bentham, in his 1776 Fragment of Government, declared that "it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong," he reduced a century of thinking into a single aphorism. His formula offered happiness as the moral map of mankind and made it what the Declaration of Independence said it was: a right wrapped up with freedom and equality. Unfortunately, the 18th century was also when the genuine quest for happiness ended and the "rodeo got started," to quote the earthy Pacific Northwest essayist William Kittredge.1 Rodeos are leg-slapping fun, but they are hardly what classical philosophers and serious theologians had in mind when they fashioned the human quest under terms like eudaimonia or felicitas or beatitas. "Increasingly," Darrin McMahon's brilliant survey of happiness says of the 18th century, "men and women were coming to think of the world as a place where human beings might legitimately cultivate if not paradise, then at least a garden of earthly delights." Not that all thought of following the opulent, decadent maps created by Julien Offray de la Mettrie or Giacomo Casanova or the Marquis de Sade; a disciplined American example was Benjamin Franklin.
For whatever reasons—McMahon's study points us to new attitudes toward pleasure and sin (let's blame the French and the Enlightenment), to earthly happiness as a sign of grace (Aquinas and the Reformers), and to delight in God's good earth as a good (Locke)—heaven came to earth, or at least it was on the horizon. Church folks wrote books like I Want to be Happy and The School of Happiness and The Theory of Happiness, or the Art of Rendering Oneself So. "Drawing heavily on Newtonian science and Locke's new science of the mind," McMahon says of the unabashed optimists who left their mark on the age, "they placed human beings unstained by original sin, programmed for the pursuit of pleasure, and ready, willing, and able to improve their earthly lot." Thus, the question Westerners have sought to answer ever since is not "How can I be saved?" but "How can I be happy?"
The happiness rodeo shows no sign of letting up. On Amazon.com, a happiness site if there ever was one, I typed in "Happiness" and in an instant I discovered there were 263,716 titles connected to that keyword. Jesus rivals happiness at 259,497. Happiness is an industry; it is also a "fairest of creation" clearly still on the horizon for some: see The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life you Want and Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. Matthieu Ricard and Daniel Goleman think happiness a skill in Happiness: A Guide to Life's Most Important Skill, while Eric Wilson, evidently not so sanguine about the industry, writes Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy. We find Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, wherein Martin Seligman puts the "hap" back in "happiness" by highlighting happy words: "authentic" and "new" and "positive" and "realize" and "potential" and "lasting" and "fulfillment." Urgency carries the day for Robert Holden: Happiness Now! Timeless Wisdom for Feeling Good FAST. Sylvia Boorstein's got the tip: Happiness is an Inside Job. Somehow we know our old friend Freud, who himself wasn't big on joy, would come to the table with The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Help Kids Create and Sustain Lifelong Joy (by Edward M. Hallowell). Happiness experts know our relations with others are part of the mix, so Alexandra Stoddard writes about Happiness for Two and gives us 75 Secrets for Finding Joy Together. I haven't even cracked the spine on any of these books, and perhaps my cynicism about the happiness rodeo is showing through, but I have my doubts. We need to get back to the bigger question, because that is the problem here.