People constantly say that happiness is just a state of mind. But happiness derived from heinous acts, says you’re psychotic; hence sick. Experiencing love and kindness in Auschwitz amidst all the vile tortuous acts, says you’re hallucinating; hence sick. Living with hope that never comes, says you’re delusional; hence sick. Clearly there’s a line one is not to cross. Is this because of metaphysical constructs regarding reality, or is it rather with the psychological state of the experiencing subject. In the first scenario experiencing happiness with a false perception of the world, or “false” or “questionable evaluations” of events in the world, implies that happiness is not real. The truth is in the pudding: if said individual were suddenly to see things as they really are, this person would experience unhappiness. So if Giosue, Guido Orefice’s son in the film Life is Beautiful, were to see the calamity of humanity, he would experience unhappiness. Indeed, this is precisely why his father went to such lengths to conceal what was truly going on from him. And yet, can we say that Giosue wasn’t actually experiencing happiness, but was, in fact, unhappy? That doesn’t seem to follow. Again the truth is in the pudding: the boy shall carry on being happy until he comes to see things otherwise. But there’s another issue here: what of the psychopath serial killer? He’s not delusional. But his emotional world is deplete. This person does not have the expected emotional reaction to events in the world. In effect, this person should not be experiencing “happiness” but does (it is, of course, debatable in patients suffering from psychosis whether they experience happiness as such, but you get my point. 🙂 ) And in the previous scenario, the son would not experience happiness (if he knew the truth) but does!
And yet, often pride of place is given not to happiness, but to reality. We want to free that woman of false hope, we want to give the delusional drugs to free her from a false depiction of reality, we beseech the self-deluded to see things as they are! The truth may (may!!!!) set you free, but it won’t necessarily make you happy. And yet Plato had a different take on this. Cave-dwellers are hedonic beasts that feed off of the ephemeral objects of desire, and hence are, in effect, addicts whose sustenance is characteristically one of dependence, it is outwardly directed, and speaks to the lowly, instinctive part of humanity. True and enduring happiness (eudaimonia not hedonia) is found when one is emancipated from the cavernous walls (they are not exactly delusional, or entirely false) which impede human development. For Plato this meant to cultivate the distinctively human aspects of self that go beyond the merely hedonic and involve a more inwardly directed movement with the development of reflective (philosophical) thought. The process of reflection would set one on the task of inquiring into questions of reality and truth, to in turn draw out further corollary positions and implications. One such implication concerns happiness.
Such a person would ultimately find herself outside of the cave. This person would no longer confuse the sensible objects of perception with the objects (or reality) themselves. Plato manages to vividly portray the inter-relatedness of the physical/metaphysical, cognitive and moral. A cave-dweller is depicted behind physical walls that are more reminiscent of a prison-cell than anything else. Yet, this is (to some extent) self-inflicted, and commonly considered the natural state of nonhuman creatures. The natural inclination once this phantasmal world is exposed for its illusoriness is to seek emancipation; to look beyond the walls. Interestingly, with this realization comes human suffering. Namely, once she lifts her head to see the walls that surround, and the chains that shackled, she becomes overwhelmed with despair, but not before. Can it be that despair is inextricably entangled in the experience of human happiness? Even Plato’s take on the matter is unclear. After all Socrates is portrayed as that lonely individual who transcends the boundaries of sensory experience entering thereby the Intelligible World of Ideas, and eager to return and enlighten his fellow citizens is treated with disdain and accused of being insane (literally out of touch with reality! Irony??!!!) So what’s the story? Is it their ignorance that commits them to this ephemeral life comprised of shadows?Would knowledge then be the cure? And to what end? Are they not after all happy?
You’d think it would be easy to see the walls of the cavern, right? I mean sight is something that just happens when we open our eyes. And yet, as ancient Greek thinkers have contended since as early as Thales, but quite clearly with Heraclitus and Parmenides, appearances are deceiving. To see beyond what is presented to the senses requires that one begin to question the truth of sensory objects. So in Plato’s paradigm, seeing sensible objects – chairs, tables, humans, etc. – doesn’t give us any sense ( 😉 ) of what chairs, humans and the like are. Problems arise when we begin to make assertions about these items. The chair is solid, brown, and is used to sit on. What of that object that is also brown and solid, and which one could also use to sit on (FYI it’s a table), is it a chair? After all, we’d only be able to properly praise a carpenter for making a good chair, if it exhibited all of the properties of a chair, making it an optimal or perfect chair, therefore. The best of its kind, you might say. Cave-dwellers see chairs, name them often enough with success, but have no concrete understanding of what chairs are. For this reason, a cave-dweller would often employ inconsistent beliefs about the his world (taking tables, sandy beaches and the like for chairs!!!). Identified contradictions of mind are useful in that they force the inquiring subject to flesh out those doxastic culprits responsible for abominations of thought. On this path of inquiry one would be looking to uncover what characteristics are necessary and sufficient: the necessary condition for something to be a chair would be any characteristic short of which no object could ever be a chair. Clearly a necessary condition is that it can be sat on. After all, if a chair has all of the physical properties of a chair, but collapses as soon as anyone tries to sit on it, we might say something like, ‘it looks like a chair, but its not actually a chair’. What then of the sufficient conditions. Well these concern what characteristics are enough to make an object a chair. That an object can be sat on is necessary, as we’ve said, but it isn’t actually sufficient since there are many objects one could sit on that aren’t chairs – like a rock, sandy beach, table, bed, floor, and more. A sufficient condition would require more than just this necessary one. Together with the condition that it is a piece of furniture with a back, we have a set of conditions that together are sufficient for a chair. Notice the process of inquiry takes us further adrift from the concrete physical object with which inquiry began. Seeing what a chair is, involves a mental kind of sight, which is itself constitutive of the very process of its realization. Now you might ask, who the hell cares about tables and chairs??!!!! The carpenter would, as would his mentor, and anyone out shopping for furniture! This postmodern world of design may leave Plato feeling quite at a loss, however! Poor, Plato! 🙂
Though even these kinds of beliefs can incite inquiry of the kind illustrated above, and there are times when such inquires are relevant and fruitful, they are not as directly pertinent to the issue of happiness. This process of inquiry becomes troubling when it comes to making life decisions. These decisions take us beyond the corporeal world to that mysterious world of human understanding.
So far the suggestion has been that knowledge pertains to a mind-independent world out there, which is ascertained when mental processes are properly engaged. You might say that there is a mapping out between sensible objects and mental ideas. In the case of Plato, mental Ideas (if indeed these are mental and not real…there is considerable debate over this issue) cease to resemble shabby instances (copies) of these! For Plato. these mental Ideas are more real (or are really, real, as he liked to say) and hence knowledge must attend upon these objects. So what does all this have to do with happiness? Well let’s reconsider the aforementioned examples. The case of Guido Orefice’s son is fairly straight forward. In a way reminiscent of Plato’s cave, the young lad’s perceptions are being filtered and hence controlled by his “meddling” father. Hence, what he sees only partially mirrors reality. The case of that woman who lives with false hope, is more complex as it is self-inflicted, and not the product of externalities. And yet, one might ask, as the Platonic Socrates might ask, “what is hope?”. Consider the hope that “I shall never die” with the hope that “I shall not die young”. The first is unachievable, whereas the latter is achievable. The first rests in erroneous beliefs with regards to organic life, or at the very least continuity of personal identity. The latter, however, rests in the understanding both that no one actually knows when she will die (hence being hopeful) and yet astute in her belief that we can exercise a degree of control over the longevity of our lives (i.e. by living healthy – nutrition, exercise, non-toxic environments, etc.). Clearly, the first scenario would cultivate decision making practices and life patterns that would endanger one’s life, and compromise one’s ability to live a happy life. The latter scenario contrarily, would be conducive to valid decision making practices, that would promote human happiness (or especially flourishing as it was properly understood by ancient Greek thinkers at the time). The final case is one where Plato would find the serial killer mentally unwell – his soul would be characteristically misaligned! This assessment in part requires an understanding of Plato’s tripartite division of the soul, as well as his understanding of virtue.
Well even Plato worried over the source of these Ideas. Where did they come from, or wherefrom did one ever acquire them? He presents the Theory of Recollection to argue that in a pre-corporeal earthly state of being we were acquainted with the Ideas which upon our birth are forgotten and reside in our minds in a latent state awaiting recovery via experience, rigorous and appropriate questioning/inquiry. Even our ability to properly understand and make sense of sensible objects of experience is parasitic on the pre-existence of these latent Ideas, which are themselves not derivable from experience itself. Knowledge then is shaped by these Ideas. One wonders then, whether this world is merely a construct of human understanding! I doubt Plato would see it this way, given that these Ideas are not structures of the mind, or integral to the mind as such but rather Ideas with which one is born having previously, in a non-corporeal state, acquired them. On this view the relationship between knowledge and virtue is tightly held together, and the corollary happiness follows from there.
Well, in a way it is, isn’t it? Since as early as Descartes (well earlier) the activity of the mind has not been negligible. But with Kant comes the explicit understanding of mis-matching the “real” world and mental life. The mind is actively part of the construction of “reality” as we know it. Kant demonstrated, in response to Hume’s serious threat to human knowledge, that the mind is actively involved in the act of experience; that indeed, the mind organizes sensory data, as is the case with time and and space. The point basically is that time and space cannot actually be experienced as such but are rather innate intuitions of the mind, without which temporal-spatial experience would be impossible. He then went on to also argue that the mind is already equipped with categories of judgment without which the aforementioned would also be impossible. (we can’t derive these from experience itself, and given that we indeed engage in acts of judgment, there must be certain categories innate to the mind that make this possible). Uh oh, the world out there is now off limits; it is beyond human understanding. That world, the world Kant calls the noumenal world, is comprised of the things themselves, and we can’t ever know these. Human knowledge is always and inescapable taken up with the phenomenal world of human experience, and is therefore, constitutive of human understanding. Kant didn’t leave it at that, of course. He did after all write some lengthy, heavy books – The Critique of Pure Reason, The Critique of Judgment, The Critique of Practical Reason – and more.
Heidegger called this way of thinking about the world presence-at-hand and he considered this modality to be at fault for corrupting the possibility of being altogether ( 😉 ….those who know Heidegger will get me!) It is the ready-at-hand that is the most comfortable and common modality of everyday being in the world. It is what I call (Dostoyevsky uses the express as well…damn it!) active inertia. Happiness as it will turn out on a Heideggerian reading will be intense but nothing even close to Plato’s understanding and far, far away from the world of hedonism, but at least brushing shoulders with the concrete co-inhabitants of this world again! (Only just a little hammered – funny how hammers seem to work their way into philosophical discourse…Greetings Nietzsche, Heil Heidegger!)
More to say about this…and how it all hangs together…and falls apart….