Call no one happy until after he is dead, goes the old Greek adage. Hall (Classics/King’s Coll., London; Introducing the Ancient Greeks: From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind, 2013, etc.) takes a rosier view, drawing on Aristotelean philosophy to cheer us up in grim times.
By the author’s account, Aristotle was the first philosopher to consider the question of happiness subjectively and, from that consideration, to offer “a sophisticated, humane program for becoming a happy person.” The active quality of that clause should be kept in mind, for the process of happiness is ongoing and involves effort on the part of the person who wishes to be happy, requiring that one work on controlling the baser qualities and highlighting the better ones. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Hall points out in her nontechnical but deeply grounded discussion, Aristotle writes that happiness “comes as the result of a goodness, along with a learning process, and effort.” That a person can “think herself into happiness” works on a principle that is profoundly democratic: Anyone can do it, and after doing so, happiness becomes a matter of “self-conscious habit” and resolution. Hall charts the evolution of the idea of happiness as the exercise of virtue into the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, who was quite deliberate in the use of the term “happiness” as the goal of an inalienable right. What works against happiness? There are several agents, among them weakness of will and “sheer bad luck,” though recognizing that this bad luck is (usually) beyond one’s control is key to creating a better mood. Other aspects of happiness, as Hall’s lucid account demonstrates, include generosity, ongoing education and appreciation of the arts, the study of history and literature (as a vehicle for understanding, or, as she puts it, “a gymnasium for developing our ethical muscles”), and the application of one’s intellect to real-world problems such as landing a job.
Can happiness come from virtue? This lively book makes a good argument in the affirmative.