‘Laughing Man’ series, Yue Minjun

In one of his books Schopenhauer cites an old refrain that is fascinating in its simplicity, “He who laughs a lot is happy; he who cries a lot is unhappy.” This may seem superficial but for someone who cares to read into it more closely, it encompasses a world of possibilities. One interpretation is that since happiness is subjective, it is a state of mind or a personal inclination for pleasure. So — if it is indeed a state of mind the question must arise as to who is happy, and it wouldn’t be difficult to find out. It is apt to be a person who accepts events without dramatizing them, who is prudent in his habits without becoming enslaved by them, who seeks neither power nor fame and has a profound respect for life and its laws without being frivolous. Someone who, because he is aware of the transitory nature of existence, seeks to root himself in the present and so fear neither the past nor the future — which are, after all, merely illusions. I’ve noticed that life philosophies such as these are usually embraced by individuals who have had a close encounter with death at some time or another — either during time of war or serious illness or accident — but who in overcoming it have developed a profound respect and love for life. I have not observed that same sense of respect in those who have never had a brush with death. On the contrary, a simple case of wounded love may seem a tragedy to them.

The study of pleasure has four major proponents: Aristippus (fifth century B.C., born in Cirene, later lived in Athens, founder of primitive hedonism); Epicurus (300 B.C., born in Samos, later lived in Athens, founder of epicureanism); Jeremy Bentham (English, 1748–1832, founder of utilitarianism); John Stuart Mill (English, 1806–1873, rebutted Bentham’s utilitarianism by humanizing it).

Aristippus recommends seeking pleasure and running from pain. He doesn’t refer to the quiet pleasure of contemplation or the avoidance of pain, but rather to the search for active pleasure. His is the ethic of the opportunist — and — in light of a contemporary world full of pleasure seekers practising the old hedonism with new resourcefulness, comparatively speaking Aristippus and his contemporaries were babes at the breast.

Epicurus departs from the premise that happiness is subjective. He classifies pleasures into three types. First, the natural and immediately essential needs that can’t be put off till later: breathing, moving, eating, drinking, resting and sleeping. Second, natural needs which are urgent but not absolutely necessary: sexuality and reproduction. Third, unnecessary and artificial things likely to produce great happiness in mortals: wealth, power and glory. Epicurus considers a man happy if he can satisfy his indispensable and vital needs, yield to desires emanating from sexual needs with moderation — and remain aloof from unnecessary and artificially created tormenting desires. He who does not resist them will never have peace within. Epicurus is of the opinion that politicians can never be happy because they are too immersed in the unnecessary (and not necessarily spiritual) things of life, such as wealth, power and glory. He recommends a dispassionate attitude — the quiet happiness resulting from a placidly serene spirit that remains unmoved by any extreme, whether elation or depression. He considers spiritual pleasures superior to those of the flesh. He believes it is fear of the gods and of death that makes man unhappy. As we shall see, the pleasure Epicurus pursued was purely spiritual and bears no relation to his erroneous popular image, that of a licentious cynic.

Epicurus lived a modest life, it seems, sustained by soup and water. Seneca, in one of his essays writes: “When you arrive at Epicurus’ garden the first thing you notice is an inscription that reads, ‘Friend, here you will lead a life of contentment, for our purpose is the pursuit of happiness,’ then right away the gatekeeper offers you a bowl of soup and a glass of water.” This matter of the bowl of soup confirms an idea I’ve long tossed around — there is no remedy more effective for a man in torment than a delicious and tasty bowl of soup. When he is in a state of agitation the soup goes straight to his entrails — and his brain cells, revitalized by the sudden rush of liquid, stop their agitation and relax so that he falls into a state of inertia, very favorable for resolving the great problems of mankind. Some of the greatest geniuses were great fans of soup. Many of us who are not geniuses feel the same.

Jeremy Bentham preaches the same moral principle as Epicurus but he subordinates individual well-being to the common good. The problem with Bentham was that he was a political activist and — like all politicians — he had the demon Power. ‘Utopia for the Masses’ and other fallacies surged through his veins. Bentham speaks of “maximum happiness for the maximum number of people.” He also wrote ‘The Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation.’ In this book he tries to show that every experience can be quantified by means of seven factors which, when tallied up, give us the pleasure factor achieved for that experience. The seven factors are intensity, duration, proximity, certainty, purity (the degree to which the experience is free from pain), reproducibility (the ensuing pleasure) and extension (of the happiness to other people).

John Stuart Mill, like many authors, wrote two major works — one his life’s story and the other a rebuttal of Bentham, although his autobiography has proved to be the more significant of his writings. Mill followed the early precepts of utilitarianism founded by Bentham, but elevated them to an even higher level. To Mill, Bentham’s mania for quantifying pleasures was unacceptable. Instead, Mill establishes that what is truly relevant is not the quantification but the caliber and quality of experience — in other words, man’s happiness or misery cannot be reduced to something expressed in numbers. What matters in the human condition is suffering and enjoyment. In this sense the human condition is closer to suffering than to happiness and Mill uses the examples of Socrates about to drink the hemlock and Christ ready to die on the cross to conclude — “an unsatisfied human being is worth more than a full and satisfied pig; rather an unsuccessful Socrates, than a triumphant fool…”

As I was saying, however — more than his writing or his books — what we find moving about John Stuart Mill is his life. His father, the famous James Mill, decided to make a genius out of his son and while we don’t doubt he succeeded he also made him miserable. He did not allow him a childhood. At the age of three Mill had to begin the study of Greek; at age eight he read Plato’s dialogues in Greek; at fifteen he not only spoke perfect Greek but French and Latin too; his knowledge of philosophy, mathematics and science was unsurpassed by any boy his age. He was a premature genius but emotionally dead, as his father overstimulated his intellect and caused his emotions to atrophy. At the age of twenty he suffered a severe nervous breakdown. Shortly before his death he found salvation in his discovery of the value of the emotional life and the cultivation of an artistic and ethical way of life.

The future prospect for pleasure is not very encouraging. This century, tormented by the demons of haste, technological progress and artificial pleasures is unfamiliar with the tranquility to be found in natural pleasures. Maybe alcohol and drugs will soon be passé and new sources of pleasure, ever more intense and dangerous, will be invented. For years now, we have heard talk of producing pleasurable states by means of electrical stimulation of certain areas of the brain. The biologist Julian Huxley said that even electrical happiness was genuine happiness. Cables and electrodes will be in style and it won’t seem unusual to see a man hugging an electric light pole to receive his charge of pleasure.

What a future!

Psychiatrist & Writer — Writing and meditating at the intersection of psychiatry, philosophy, Buddhism and the arts. More information at www.lidaprypchan.com