Stephen Hero by James Joyce

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was the first book I read by Joyce and I loved it! I’m currently 9 chapters into Ulysses. (A group of fellow Joyce lovers and I read the book aloud for 1 1/2 hours every other week followed by an informal discussion.) I’ve also read his book of poetry, Chamber Music, several times. I know I’m not supposed to read Stephen Hero because it doesn’t properly represent Joyce’s “esthetic”, but I loved it, too!

Stephen Hero is an unpublished manuscript written by James Joyce between 1904 and 1906. It is the earlier version of what became Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I wrote two previous posts on Stephen Hero: Joyce Hero and Stephen Hero, an Introduction. This post is simply highlights from the text that I think might be important for future reference. (They are all about Stephen Daedalus or by him.)

Beginning of the manuscript:

  • He became a poet with malice afterthought.
  • People seemed to him strangely ignorant of the value of the words they used so glibly.
  • Words, he said, have a certain value in the literary tradition and a certain value in the market-place – a debased value.
  • The monster in Stephen had lately taken to misbehaving himself and on the least provocation was ready for bloodshed.
  • But the episode of religious fervor which was fast becoming a memory had resulted in a certain outward self-control which was now found to be useful.

Chapter XVI:

  • He was not convinced of the truth of saying “The poet is born, not made” but he was quite sure of the truth of this at least, “The poem is made not born.”
  • He was an enigmatic figure in the midst of his shivering society where he enjoyed a reputation. His comrades hardly knew how far to venture with him and professors pretended to think his seriousness a sufficient warrant against any practical disobedience. On his side of chastity, having been found a great inconvenience, had been quietly abandoned and the youth amused himself in the company of certain of his fellow-students among whom (the fame went) wild living was not unknown.
  • Stephen, after certain hesitations, showed Maurice the first-fruits of his verse and Maurice asked who the woman was. Stephen looked a little vaguely before him before answering and in the end had to answer that he didn’t know who she was. [Was this a reference to Chamber Music?]
  • “It is so! It is so! Life is such as I conceive it.”
  • Stephen may be said to have occupied the position of notable-extraordinary: very few had ever heard of the writers he was reported to read and those who had knew them to be mad fellows.
  • …the monster in him, now grown to a reasonably heroic stage…
  • …the spirit of Henrik Ibsen. He understood that spirit instantaneously.
  • …the minds of the old Norse poet [Ibsen] and of the perturbed young Celt [Stephen] met in a moment of radiant simultaneity.
  • Ibsen was the first among the dramatists of the world.
  • It was the very spirit of Ibsen himself that was discerned moving behind the impersonal manner of the artist: [Ibsen with his profound self-approval, Ibsen with his haughty, disillusioned courage, Ibsen with his minute and willful energy.] a mind of sincere and boy like bravery, of minute and willful energy… Here and not in Shakespeare or Goethe was the successor to the first poet of the Europeans, here as only to such purpose in Dante, a human personality had been found united with an artistic manner which was itself almost a natural phenomenon: and the spirit of the time united one more reading with the Norwegian than the Florentine.

Chapter XVII:

  • Only twelve months ago he had been clamoring for forgiveness and promising endless penance. He could hardly believe that it was no other than he who had clung so fiercely to the sole means of salvation which the Chuch vouchsafed to her guilty children.
  • A very stout black-bearded citizen who always wore a wideawake hat and a long bright green muffler was a constant figure at these meetings. [Refers to Michael Cusack, the “Citizen” of Ulysses, and founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association]

Chapter XVIII:

  • He recognized at once the martial mind of the Irish Church in the style of this ecclesiastical barracks. [Stephen is visiting his former college with Wells who is now a seminarian. He is thinking about the seminarian life he turned down. Love “martial mind”!]

Chapter XIX:

  • On the other hand he was persuaded that no-one served the generation into which he had been born so well as he who offered it, whether in his art or in his life, the gift of certitude.
  • His Esthetic was in the main applied Aquinas, and he set it forth plainly with a naïf air of discovering novelties… He proclaimed at the outset that art was the human disposition of intelligible or sensible matter for an esthetic end, and he announced further that all such human dispositions must fall into the division of three distinct kinds, lyrical, epical and dramatic. Lyrical art, he said, is the art whereby the artist sets forth his image in immediate relation to himself; epical art is the art whereby the artist sets forth his image in mediate relation to himself and to others; and dramatic art is the art whereby the artist sets forth his image in immediate relations to others… Having by this simple process established the literary form of art as the most excellent he proceeded to examine it in favour of his theory, or, as he rendered it, to establish the relations which must subsist between the literary image, the work of art itself, and that energy which had imagined and fashioned it, that center of conscious, re-acting, particular life, the artist.
  • The artist, he imagined, standing in the position of mediator between the world of his experience and the world of his dreams – a mediator, consequently gifted with twin faculties, a selective faculty and a reproductive faculty. To equate these faculties was the secret of artistic success: the artist who could disentangle the subtle soul of the image from its mesh of defining circumstances most exactly and re-embody it in artistic circumstances chosen as the most exact for it in its new office, he was the supreme artist. This perfect coincidence of the two artistic faculties Stephen called poetry and he imagined the domain of an art to be cone shaped.
  • A classical style, he said, is the syllogism of art, the only legitimate process from one world to another. Classicism is not the manner of any fixed age or of any fixed country; it is a constant state of the artistic mind. It is a temper of security and satisfaction and patience.
  • …the classical school fighting the materialism that must attend it, the romantic school struggling to preserve coherence…
  • Chief among these profanities Stephen set the antique principle that the end of art is to instruct, to elevate, and to amuse. “I am unable to find even a trace of this Puritanical conception of the esthetic purpose in the definition which Aquinas has given of beauty” he wrote “or in anything which he has written concerning the beautiful…”
  • In fine the truth is not that the artist requires a document of license from householders entitling him to proceed in this or that fashion but that every age must look for its sanction to its poets and philosophers. The poet is the intense center of the life of his age to which he stands in a relation than which none can be more vital. He alone is capable of absorbing in himself the life that surrounds him and flinging it abroad again amid planetary music.
  • Art is not an escape from life. It’s just the very opposite. Art, on the contrary, is the very central expression of life. An artist is not a fellow who dangles a mechanical heaven before the public. The priest does that. The artist affirms out of the fullness of his own life, he creates…
  • It is all a question of temper – one’s attitude towards society whether one is poet or critic…. Ibsen has the temper of an archangel.
  • My entire esteem is for the classical temper in art. …the Greek drama is heroic, monstrous. Eschylus is not a classical writer!… By “classical” I mean the slow elaborating patience of the art of satisfaction. The heroic, the fabulous, I call romantic…

Chapter XX:

  • If we must have a Jesus, let us have a legitimate Jesus.

Chapter XXI:

  • Don’t mention him [Jesus]. I have made it a common noun. They didn’t believe in him; they don’t observe his precepts. In any case let us leave Jesus aside. My sight will only carry me as far as his lieutenant in Rome. It is quite useless: I will not be frightened into paying tribute in money or thought.
  • I have never believed in his [Jesus] chastity – that is since I began to think about him. I am sure he was no eunuch priest. His interest in loose women is too persistently humane. All the women associated with him are of dubious character.
  • But what is the Church? It is not Jesus, the magnificent solitary with his inimitable abstinences. The Church is made by me and my like – her services, legends, practices, paintings, music, traditions. These her artists gave her. They made her what she is. They accepted Aquinas’ commentary on Aristotle as the Word of God and made her what she is.

Chapter XXII:

  • These wanderings filled him with deep-seated anger and whenever he encountered a burly black-vested priest taking a stroll of pleasant inspection through these warrens full of swarming and cringing believers he cursed the face of Irish Catholicism: an island whereof the inhabitants of which entrust their wills and minds to others that they may ensure for themselves a life of spiritual paralysis, and island in which all the power and riches are in the keeping of those whose kingdom is not of this world, an island in which Caesar confesses Christ and Christ confesses Caesar that together they may wax fat upon a starveling rabblement which is hidden ironically to take to itself this consolation in hardship “The Kingdom of God is within you.”
  • Even the value of his own life came into doubt with him. He laid a finger upon every falsehood it contained; an egoism which proceeded bravely before men to be frighted by the least challenge of conscience, freedom which would dress the world anew in the vestments and usages begotten of enslavement, mastery of an art understood by few which owed its very delicacy to a physical decrepitude, itself the brand and sign of vulgar ardors. Cemeteries revealed their ineffectual records to him, records of the lives of all those who with good grace or bad grace had accepted on obvious divinity. The vision of all those failures, and the vision, far more pitiful, of congenital lives, shuffling onwards amid yawn and howl, beset him with evil; and evil, in the similitude of a distorted ritual, called to his soul to commit fornication with her. [His mother then comes to him in a panic about something coming out of dying Isabel’s “hole”.]

Chapter XXIII:

  • Aquinas had defined the good as that towards the possession of which an appetite tended, the desirable.
  • For Stephen art was neither a copy nor an imitation of nature: the artistic process was a natural process.
  • The life of an errant seemed to him far less ignoble than the life of one who had accepted the tyranny of the mediocre because the cost of being exceptional was too high.
  • The Church differentiates between the good which this man seeks and the good which I seek. There is a bonum simpliciter. The men you mention seek a good of that kind because they are impelled by passions which are direct even if they are menial: lust, ambition, gluttony. I seek bonum arduum.

Chapter XXIV:

  • There is no reason why life should lose all grace and nobility even though Columbus discovered America. I will live a free and noble life.
  • The toy of life which the Jesuits permit these docile men to live is what I call a stationary march. The marionette life which the Jesuit himself lives as a dispenser of illumination and rectitude is another variety of the stationary march. And yet both these classes of puppets think that Aristotle has apologized before the eyes of the world. Kindly remember the monstrous legend upon which all their life is regulated – how Aristotlean it is! Kindly remember the minute bylaws they have for estimating the exact amount of salvation in any good work – what an Aristotlean invention!
  • The woman in the black straw hat has never heard of the name of Buddha but Buddha’s character seems to have been superior to that of Jesus with respect to unaffected sanctity.
  • The spectacle of the world in thrall filled him with the fire of courage. He, at least, though living at the farthest remove from the center of European culture, marooned on an island in the ocean, though inheriting a will broken by doubt and a soul the steadfastness of whose hate became as weak as water in siren arms, would live his own life according to what he recognized as the voice of a new humanity, active, unafraid, unashamed.

Chapter XXV:

  • He could not accept whole-heartedly the offers of Protestant belief; he knew that the liberty it boasted of was often only the liberty to be slovenly in thought and amorphous in ritual. No-one, not the most rabid enemy of the Church, could cause it of being slovenly in thought; the subtlety of its disquisitions had become a byword with demagogues. No-one again could accuse the Church of being amorphous in ritual. The Puritan, the Calvinist, the Lutheran were inimical to art and to exuberant beauty: the Catholic was the friend of him who professed to interpret or divulge the beautiful. Could he assert that his own aristocratic intelligence and passion for a supremely satisfying order in all the fervor’s of artistic creation were not purely Catholic qualities? The ambassadors did not labour this point.
  • He toyed also with a theory of dualism which would symbolize the twin eternities of spirit and nature in the twin eternities of male and female and even thought of explaining the audacities of his verse as symbolical allusions.
  • [Upon overhearing a conversation between a young lady and gentleman]. This triviality made him think of collecting many such moments together in a book of epiphanies. By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate an evanescence’s of moments.
  • You know what Aquinas says,: The three things requisite for beauty are, integrity, a wholeness, symmetry and radiance. Someday I will expand that sentence into a treatise. Consider the performance of your own mind when confronted with any object, hypothetically beautiful. Your mind to apprehend that object divides the entire universe into two parts, the object, and the void which is not the object. To apprehend it you must lift it away from everything else: and then you perceive that it is one integral thing, that is a thing. You recognize its integrity…That is the first quality of beauty: it is declared in a simple sudden synthesis of the faculty which apprehend. What then? Analysis then. The mind considers the object in whole and in part, in relation to itself and other objects, examines the balance of its parts, contemplates the form of the object, traverses every cranky of the structure. So the mind receives the impression of the symmetry of the object. The mind recognizes that the object is in the strict sense of the word, a thing, a definitely constituted entity… Now for the third quality. For a long time I couldn’t make out what Aquinas meant. He uses a figurative word (a very unusual thing for him) but I have solved it. Claritas is quidditas. After the analysis which discovers the second quality the mind makes the only logical possible synthesis and discovers the third quality. This is the moment which I call epiphany. First we recognize that the object is one integral thing, then we recognize that it is an organized composite structure, a thing in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognize that it is that thing which it is. Its soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.

Chapter XXVI:

  • Satan offers a monstrous life. It is monstrous because the seat of the spiritual principle of a man is not transferable to a material object. A ma only pretends to think his hate more important than his head. That view of life, I consider, is abnormal.
  • I found a day-school full of terrorized boys, banded together in complicity of diffidence. They have eyes only for their future jobs: to secure their future jobs they will write themselves in and out of convictions, toil and labor to insinuate themselves into the good graces of the Jesuits.

Will to Power (Nietzsche): Lectures 1-11

These lectures from Solomon & Higgins were primarily review, but quite interesting. I jotted down a few notes… 

  • Nietzsche very often makes references to images Luther used.
  • I thought this was very cool: Nietzsche thought Christianity had served an important historical function for people. In the passage about the madman, it’s not people who believe in God who the madman assaults. The madman assaults those who think they can eliminate the need God once filled in society. By simply focusing on science they can ignore the needs of humanity for something like myth. Nietzsche thinks this is ungrateful. The way to show gratitude is to think beyond the historical function.
  • Nietzsche says we shouldn’t throw out our desires. What we should throw out is the idea that we can reach perfect contentment and that the attainment of perfect satisfaction is even desirable.
  • Nietzsche is far more optimistic that Schopenhauer. Life involves the negative components, but we can become something that takes joy in.
  • The meaning of life is not in reason, rationalism, or theology. It’s to be found in the passions.
  • Camel stage – treats tradition with reverence. Says “yes” to it. Lion stage – evaluates tradition and asserts individuality by challenging what has been handed down. Say “no” to tradition. We have to fully make our way through the camel stage before the lion stage makes sense. The Child stage is a new affirmation of life. It is boundless energy for what is new. Experimentation. Creative energy – full creative response and full vitality.
  • The Ubermensch is an idea. It is a way of being that involves risk taking. This is contrasted with the Last Man which seeks nothing but comfort – the ultimate couch potato.

Rationality, Romanticism, Consciousness

  • Rationality has several meanings: 1) thinking ability, to reflect; 2) mathematics; 3) instrumental reasoning, to think; 4) having the right goals (Aristotle); 5) reason is the royal road to truth (modern understanding/Enlightenment)
  • Nietzsche, like Aristotle, thinks reason involves having the right goals. He says that reason becomes a tyrant when it is thought of as the royal road to truth (contra-Kant).
  • Kant preached a faith in reason and even brought religion into the realm of reason. Nietzsche felt this idea that reason is universal was a pretension. While France and Britain were moving toward the age of reason, Germany was involved in Romanaticism which puts its faith in the passions and not in reason. Nietzsche saw much wrong with Romanticism, too. He said it was a pretense of passions.
  • Nietzsche says we are animals motivated by drives and instincts. We are natural, biological beings. The meaning of life is to be found in life itself. Not in the upper realms of reason. Like Freud, Nietzsche understood that what drives us are very often things we are not conscious of.
  • Nietzsche asked where does consciousness come from? And he comes up with a theory: It developed because of the need for communication. Consciousness was created in our interactions with others (rather than the traditional view that consciousness was somehow already in the mind). If you live alone, consciousness becomes superfluous. We have cultured, sophisticated, individual instincts.
  • Thinking, for Nietzsche, can be a sort of disease. It can be dangerous because it blinds us to our creativity and uniqueness. Therefore consciousness is dangerous. BUT!! It’s an important stage in our evolution. When a faculty is new (like the advent of language/consciousness), it is always dangerous at first. But as it matures, we learn to make better use of it.
  • Nietzsche was very interested in how language (the new faculty which gave rise to consciousness) expresses the truth.
  • Nietzsche was very critical of the romantics of his time. He said they pretended passion. He said that romanticism is a mask; an act. The reality is that passion contains a quantum of reason and reason contains quantum of passion. Both reason and passion contain an amount of both the Apollonian (reason) and the Dionysian (passion).
  • Nietzsche uses aphorisms because he doesn’t want followers. He knows the reader won’t understand the whole picture by reading a single aphorism so it will take some work to understand. An active readership achieved through a sort of companionship with Nietzsche.
  • Most of philosophy is centered on formal deductive reasoning. Not Nietzsche. Some would say he doesn’t do philosophy at all. He uses a sequence of fallacies; aphorisms, rhetoric, literature and ad hominem arguments. He wants to stimulate our emotional experience.
  • Sophistry is an appeal to emotions and understands argument as an art form because the use of strict rational argument convinces no one. Philosophy is a sort of rhetoric. Socrates was a great rhetoritician. This is what made him so powerful even though his arguments would be readily dismissed in institutions today. So it is no dis-service to say that Nietzsche is doing rhetoric rather than logic.


  • Nietzsche says there is no truth, there is only interpretation. But he praises truthfulness. This idea is not antagonistic toward science. Science is experimental and Nietzsche is willing to allow any hypothesis which says “let’s try it”. Experimenting with ideas and philosophical view points is kindred with science. Nietzsche says it isn’t good enough to say God created it this way.
  • Science is non-dogmatic. Most beliefs people have held turn out to be false eventually. So why think current theories are the truth? Theories are always tentative. Philosophy should be undogmatic like science. But Niezsche also sometimes opposes science. This opposition is based on the aesthetic perspective. The aesthetic view has ways of seeing that are non-scientific. If science and aesthetics are opposed, Nietzsche says that aesthetics always get the upper hand. If it doesn’t, science easily becomes dogmatic. And when it does, it loses it’s virtue.
  • Nietzsche asks “Why is truth important? Why must we have truth at any cost?” Individual lives are ruined. People have been excommunicated for the truth. The truth has upset entire civilizations (Freud). Why are we willing to pay the cost?
  • Nietzsche comes up with several reasons. Truth isn’t necessarily pursued for itself. It is very often pursued for other goals. The main motivation for searching for truth is sometimes status. Status is the primary objective, not truth. Truth is a means to an end, not the end in itself. “The truth shall set you free.” Truth as a means to an end is based on the idea that truth is rock hard and immovable. If you get the truth, you gain power because claiming to have the truth puts you in a privileged position.
  • But Nietzsche says there is no way of getting to the bottom of things. All we have is our experience which is an interpretation based on other interpretations. It’s all experience and experience is always an interpretation of something else.
  • Appearances depend on being some thing of which there are appearances. There is a gap between the experience and appearances on the one hand and what they are experiences and appearances of on the other hand. There is no way of getting around or behind the appearances and experiences to see reality itself. This is something Nietzsche struggles with. Traditional philosophy, since ancient times, makes a distinction between reality on the one hand and appearances on the other. Nietzsche thinks this is a bogus distinction. There is only the world of our experience and it doesn’t make sense to talk about anything else.
  • But what do we say about our experience? Kant talked about “world in itself” which is the world as God might see it. Kant admitted that we can’t have a conception of “the world in itself”. But Nietzsche says there is no such thing as “a world in itself”. There is no God’s eye view. Even if there were a God, this God would have to see it from a god’s perspective which remains a perspective.
  • What is truth from once perspective is not the truth from another perspective. But this doesn’t mean that one truth need exclude the other.
  • Nietzsche holds what is now called “perspectivism”. There are lots of different viewpoints we can take on things. This does not rule out argument, debate or pursuit itself – just the understanding that it must always be perceptualized. Science, for instance, is a difinitive perspective.
  • Perspectivism is not the same as relativism which says that every view is as good as any other. But it is always a matter of not taking one position and digging in. Philosophy is about shifting perspectives.
  • Where is the truth? It doesn’t lie behind appearances. Philosophical truth is getting a sense of how all the perspectives tie together. You have to be able to entertain different truths at the same time.
  • Nietzsche was a quasi follower of Darwin. The Darwinian notion of fitness as a pragmatic theory of truth fits with Nietzsche’s theories. Imagine a species of creatures who have built into their brains that the future will be unlike the past. If you see lightening strike a tall tree, you rush under the tree during the next storm expecting that lightening won’t strike in the same place twice twice (or having struck this tree it will strike elsewhere next time). It’s easy to see how such a species would be short lived. A species that developed an inductive mind and learns by experience is much more likely to survive and flourish.
  • What are our truths? They are the indispensible errors of mankind. They are the truths without which we as a species would not survive. To ask if these truths exist apart from reality is nonsensical.

Dark Feelings, Grim Thoughts – The Fall

I read The Fall at the beginning of January, before I had bothered to open Solomon’s Dark Feelings, Grim Thoughts. Based on the chapter title in Solomon’s book, I thought that perhaps I had gotten Clamence all wrong. But after re-reading what I wrote and having read Solomon’s chapter on The Fall, I don’t think I was that far off.

We’re stuck in the Christian mindset that pride is a bad thing. But both Aristotle and Nietzsche said that pride is a virtue, not a vice. It makes sense that Christians would claim that pride is a vice – give up your sense of worth and turn yourself over to the church! That is the only place where true worth resides. So who is actually being narcissitic – the human being who feels himself worthy? Or the church that claims that humanity is unworthy except through it. I still maintain most of Christianity is narcissism.

Both Nietzsche and Aristotle would say that pride can be misplaced if it is based on a false description. Solomon says that perhaps because we are all so steeped in Christian Culture, we find Aristotle’s megalopsychosos (the “great-souled man”) obnoxious. The megalopsychosos presents pride as a virtue and primary ingredient in happiness. This is how Solomon says we should view Clamence in his Parisian incarnation – not as an example of false price, but as a striking example of megalopsychos – a virtuous, self-confident and rightfully proud man.

What is it that makes this man begin to reflect upon his pride? It’s the judgment of others – those who are bitter about his self-satisfaction – the resentment of others. Calmence’s fallen pride is not the fact that he is proud, it’s the realization that others do not view him in the same way he views himself. There are those that resent his life. And it is this that brings him down because he buys into their views about him.

If you are going to be brought down, how else better than to gain superiority over others? Through self-condemnation! (Christian humility!!!!)

Solomon says The Fall is not a condemnation of pride, self-condemnation or superiority, but a condemnation of resentful pride and superiority, false self-confidence and pride that refuse to recognize themselves as such. The fall is not due to a tragic flaw, but to a conniving and self-deception.

It is only by accepting the Christian worldview that one is compelled to conclude that nothing about us is worthy of pride. When Clamence took great pride in his virtues, for instance, he likewise was attentive to the aid of others. When he quit taking pride in his virtues, his whole role was to bring others down with him.

Solomon writes: “If we tighten our worldview to what Nietzsche called a “this-worldly” perspective, an essentially human perspective, then human virtues and accomplishments are to be judged on their own merits, not in comparison and contrast with God Almighty or the supposedly perfect example of Jesus… Within our human framework, we know perfectly well what is worthy of pride and what is not. Genuine accomplishment and virtuous deeds are worthy of pride, and the life that Clamence has led in Paris warrants and justifies pride if anyone’s life does.”

Solomon goes on to give an example of the problem of “kitsch” (as coined by Milan Kundera). Kundera says: “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.”

Reflection on how one is enjoying himself may not only enhance the enjoyment but also transforms it into something quite different: self satisfaction. But this reflection can also undermine it – compromising pleasure or even turning it into pain. The cynic, that Camus sometimes seems to play, suggests that there is something kitsch-like about our enjoyment of our lives, and that reflection on the meaning of life and “the Absurd” reduces all such enjoyment to self-deception.

Solomon goes on to say that, “The true opposite of “pride” is not the mere monkish virtue of humility, it is the bitterness with life and all of its blessings that Nietzsche so strongly if not “bitterly” criticizes as the weapon of the weak and those who are sick of life. It is this that Clamence represents.”

Clamence demands that he is happy. But we know what “happy” characters look like in Camus’ novels. Camus did not believe that there was any happiness with death – only loss. Solomon says it is the mania of a hysteric – “the final burst of desperation and unhappiness trying to express itself in the language of fulfillment.: This, Solomon says, is the ultimate pathology of pride – “that it prefers even death to humiliation. If one fails at happiness at life, then happiness unto death would seem to be the last desperate hope, the final gasp of a bitter resentment.”

Robert Solomon on Happiness

From an Interview on Philosophy Talk Radio:

Happiness is typically presumed to be an emotion. Philosophers think there are two parts to emotions: the feeling and the thought.  If I’m frightened there will be a feeling of fright and there will be a thought that my boss is going to fire me. If we had the feeling without the thought, it would be free-floating anxiety.

There is transitory happiness and the state of being happy. Usually we think in terms of what makes us happy – it’s more of a feeling than a thought, but Solomon says that happiness is not a feeling.  Nor is it a feeling plus a thought, an emotion, or pleasure.  It’s far more complex.

Most people list things, or doing things, when asked what makes them happy. They don’t talk about experience, pleasure, the good life or thoughts about the good life. It comes down to “this is what makes me happy”. Philosophers get it wrong. Happiness is not an emotion. Aristotle was right that the only sense of happiness that really means anything is the long term view of your life.

Americans in particular live in a culture where you are supposed to be happy all of the time. If you ask an American if they are happy, they will say “yes” and manufacture reasons for why they are happy right away. Self-deception is ripe in this area. It is common for people who are clearly very unhappy to say that they are happy.

The idea of enjoying the doing is very different than simply experiencing pleasure. If you think of pleasure as the experience you have while you are doing something you enjoy, you break up the experience in an unintelligible way. Enjoying doing something may or may not give you pleasure as such, but pleasure is not a distinctive experience.

You can think you are happy when you are unhappy, and you can think you are unhappy when you are happy. Nietzsche had a very romantic artistic view of life. The life of an artist is almost by definition filled with dissatisfaction – always wanting more, etc.  An artist like Van Gogh, for instance, could have a perfectly flourishing life – deeply engaged – and think himself deeply unhappy.  But is he unhappy?

Thought experiement: There is a contraption that you put yourself in, electrodes are attached to your head. You are given waves of pleasure. It’s completely voluntary, but the fact is that nobody ever gets out of the box. Would you be willing to do this if you knew that you would likely never get out of the box?  People overwhelmingly say “no”.

Second thought experiement: Another contraption gives you waves of pleasure, and it makes you think that all of your desires are satisfied.  In your thoughts, they are all satisfied, even though in reality they are not. Would you get into this box? Most people still say “no”.

The happy life has to be one of activity and actually doing things.

Suppose you have a kid that just wants to be a successful oil man in the worst way but doesn’t have the talent to do it. But you, as a wealthy father, set up the world so that he believes he is a successful oil man. Is he happy if this happiness is purchased at the price of delusion?

The idea that there is an objective component to happiness does not mean that there is a single set of norms. You can allow for lots of cultural variability. There can be a lot of disagreement about what happiness is, but there is always an objective component. It doesn’t just depend on what is going on in your own mind. It isn’t just internal, it is larger than that. A whole society or culture could be in self-deception about how happy they are.

Happiness as contentment doesn’t follow. You could be deeply engaged in your life and constantly frustrated, but still happy about what you are creating. Happiness is not contentment.

A study of recent lottery winners and paraplegics shows that both will go back to their normal levels of happiness after 6 months to a year. It won’t affect their happiness. However, people working with the Dalai Lama are showing that through meditation and practice, etc. you can reset the level.

Do we have the freedom to be happy? Solomon says he is torn.  There is the objective component.  There has been much psychological research that shows even infants are born with a specific propensity toward happiness. The level is set early. On the other hand, he had a friend whose son suffered a terrible diving accident that left him paralyzed. For months upon months, the son was terribly unhappy and would have committed suicide if he knew how. His friends finally told him. “Look, this is how you are. You might as well figure out how to be happy as you are.” That sounds harsh, but it’s the only advise that really makes sense.”

Are some kinds of happiness superior to other kinds of happiness?

The word happiness is kind of hopeless. It always sounds as if it is a single, all embracing, “the good in life” which it really isn’t. We think about the emotions in a simplistic way. Breaking them down to thoughts and feelings is a great improvement over thinking of emotions as just feelings, but it’s still too simple minded. The polarity of “good” and “bad” is far too simple. The notion of happiness is prey to that same sort of polarization – to think that either you are happy or you are not happy is far too simple minded.

Aristotle’s word for “happiness” is usually translated as “flourishing”, or “doing well”. This builds in the objective component and makes it very clear it is not a feeling. The only kind of happiness that is worth taking serious is something like doing well. The transitory experience doesn’t measure up (like taking prozac, drinking, having a pleasurable moment, etc.)

Happiness is ambiguous. There is an objective/subjective divide that comes up with lots of philosophical topics and it definitely comes up with happiness. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are all fuzzy concepts and far more complicated than they at first seem. Concepts can be useful by leading us into philosophy where we can understand them better. But perhaps happiness is a useless concept?

The radio hosts summarized the talk in this way: Happiness is the centerpiece of Aristotle’s philosophy [although it isn’t necessarily translated as happiness], the thing to which all people aspire, and that it is a pretty useful, multi-faceted and ambiguous concept.