What is happiness? Is it "contemplation of truth" as Thomas Aquinas suggested? Is it the perfect innocence of childhood, as alluded to in Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality": "Heaven lies about us in our infancy"? Is it never having to say (as the French gourmand La Mettrie might aver) "Where's the chocolate"? Is it to be found in the sweat of one's brow, as Marx seemed to imply, and in the politically motivated removal of sweat from the brows of others? Did Freud have it right when he advised killing off the instincts and defending oneself against "the dreaded external world"? Or is it just a warm gun, as John Lennon so eloquently put it?
Darrin M. McMahon is a student of the French Enlightenment and an admitted Occidentalist, who has charted in carefully annotated and generally readable detail the Western history of happiness. He postulates that it was in fact the timeframe of the French and American revolutions that marked the beginning of a trend towards the possibility of general happiness after centuries of plague, feudalism and the iron-fisted domination of monolithic religion.
One might even say that it has taken us until the early days of the 21st century to have the leisure to examine the subject thoroughly, hence Mr. McMahon's book.
This reader will find a palely drawn link between democracy and happiness, beginning with the Greeks. It was in "democratic Athens that individuals first put forth that great, seductive goal, daring to dream that they might pursue --- and capture --- happiness for themselves." Thomas Jefferson and the framers of the Declaration of Independence, of course, reached this same conclusion, that freedom from oppression allows for freedom from other forms of worry and woe.
Individuals united, one observes, have greater courage to pursue happiness or to talk about the possibility of that pursuit. After all, a man with his wine and fig tree and an obedient wife and children, Old Testament-style, could have asserted his success in achieving happiness, but he wouldn't have had the weight of culture backing him. It seems that when everyone in society agrees that happiness is a realizable goal, it becomes permissible to go for it. This is why McMahon's timeframe is significant. Something happened in Europe and America that made happiness not only pursuable but catchable.
Bringing us up to the present moment, McMahon poses questions about the happiness available from chemical alteration, the promise of the Prozac generation, and genetic manipulation to guarantee what the Declaration of Independence proffered as our birthright. Our children and children's children may yet bestride the world not as mere humans enjoying their birthright but as literal gods.
Don't expect to find out how to get personally happy from reading this book. It's no self-help catalog. It's erudite and thickly facted. But this reviewer was, if one may put it this way, lacking in happiness to see the Eastern view of earthly enjoyments totally disregarded. The Dalai Lama's THE ART OF HAPPINESS: A Handbook for Living is waved away by the facile assertion on McMahon's part that the Buddhist worldview requires the belief that all life is suffering. Tsk, tsk.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott. BBS writes a book review column for the Greensboro, NC, News and Record. on January 22, 2011