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Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy
Princeton University Press, 2011
256 pp., 29.95
All human actions, according to Aristotle, are motivated by the desire for happiness—which is perhaps the silliest thing anyone has ever said about the subject. Then again, it may be the wisest thing anybody's come up with. Hard to tell, really. The choice between Aristotle's idiocy and his profundity seems to flip back and forth—like one of those optical-illusion drawings of a white staircase running up and a black staircase running down—depending on how we look at it. Genuine human beings realize, from hard experience, that unhappiness moves the world. And philosophers know, from careful contemplation, that even the most immiserating actions are motivated, finally, by mistaken or insane ideas about what will make us happy.
Anyway, on the topic of happiness, Aristotle caused for all subsequent generations two problems. The first is that, whether silly or wise, his claim proves unhelpful: too big an explanation, too expansive a definition, to be of much use. If happiness prompts everything we do, then it's just another name for, well, everything we do. How does that get us forwarder, when we study the anatomy of our melancholy? How does it comfort our griefs, ease our pains, or raise our spirits? How does it teach us anything?
The second problem is, of course, that Aristotle managed nonetheless to set, down the long years of Western civilization, the fundamental terms for any discussion of happiness. Whether we want or not, we are all Aristotle's children, and every attempt to examine the subject must begin with his utterly false, utterly true, observation that we do all we do because we want, one way or another, to be happy.
Comes now the French essayist Pascal Bruckner to take up the topic anew in Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy. Or, at least, comes now the English translation, for the book was published a decade ago in France, and it shows its age in the datedness of its references to news events and pop culture. Still, the puzzle of happiness ...