National Catholic Register


True Happiness in an Unhappy World

BY George Sim Johnston

June 30, 1996 Issue | Posted 6/30/96 at 2:00 PM


Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction, by Deal Hudson (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995, 218 pp., $21.95)

EVER SINCE a visit to Disney World, a question has nipped at the edge of my thoughts. It is one of those questions which, in Eric Voegelin's words, “is not permitted” in an affluent capitalist society. Nonetheless it gets a definitive answer in Dr. Deal Hudson's masterful new book on happiness.

Why (the question goes) am I experiencing a mild depression in the middle of the Magic Kingdom? And why do the people around me, in rapid transit between the log flume ride and Space Mountain, look like they have the same problem?

Hudson supplies the epigrammatic answer in a brilliant chapter dissecting our modern engineers of happiness: “Aim at pleasure directly and you miss it; trust that it will arise out of skillful exertions and it will.” In other words, my friends who spent their vacation climbing Mount Washington in the wind and rain were probably having a better time.

Since the “pursuit of happiness” is an increasingly desperate enterprise in our hedonistic society, Hudson's Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction renders a real service by exploring the true nature of human satisfaction and exposing its counterfeits. It is a lucid and thought-provoking survey of what happiness has meant to the most important thinkers since antiquity.

Philosophers have always agreed that happiness is a legitimate goal of human existence. So, what exactly is happiness? Hudson, a Thomist philosopher who edits Crisis magazine, takes expert inventory of those thinkers who simply, and mistakenly, equate it with pleasure.

These include Freud, for whom happiness is satiated biology, and his intellectual heirs who preside over our therapeutic culture. Their first mistake is to separate happiness from virtue. Their second is to treat it as antithetical to suffering—or, put another way, to treat suffering as something out of which no good can possibly come.

Aristotle was on the right track when he said that a life can be judged happy only as a whole. And life is always going to include suffering. In the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle is purified and deepened by the event on Calvary. Henceforth, true fulfillment cannot be separated from the Cross, although Aquinas, a great realist, also regards goods such as friendship—and indeed pleasure—as legitimate ingredients of human felicity.

Hudson moves deftly between the natural and supernatural spheres on this issue, explaining why the two finally cannot be separated. Human nature, he writes, “requires an infinite object to satisfy its aspirations.” Unlike cats and dogs, we are incomplete creatures who will be totally satisfied only by the beatific vision. Since the Enlightenment, mankind's biggest mistake has been to transfer these absolute yearnings to the temporal order, creating various utopias which turn out to be previews of hell rather than heaven.

Now that the much advertised “end of history” has arrived, the utopian impulse has waned and mankind is going to spend the next several millennia fine-tuning consumer preferences. This makes Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher who reduced happiness to a “continual success in gratifying individual desires,” the final guru of humanity. Except that most people, even very rich people, still seem to find our earthly existence, in St. Teresa of Avila's words, a bad night in a bad inn.

According to Hudson, this is because they are seeking themselves rather than getting out of themselves. Their polar opposite is the saint, the happiest of sublunary creatures. St. Francis, for example, who is rightly accounted a joyful personality, did not experience a moment of good health once he had made his full surrender to God. The same is true of many other saints. They found the seam, as it were, between suffering and the hundredfold promised us by Christ even in this life. It is in its attempt to avoid suffering at all costs that our affluent society reveals its ultimate poverty and immaturity.

Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction is a rich philosophical treatise which deeply probes an inexhaustible subject. What I particularly like about it is its realism. We are not all St. Francis, nor are we meant to be. We would like a few clues about leading richer lives and attaining sanctity in the midst of ordinary circumstances. Hudson's is the best explanation I've read of why such a goal is fundamentally at odds with the bourgeois pig-happiness offered by our secular culture.

George Sim Johnston is based in New York.